The Turn to Democratic
Documents of the 1968 IS
As ever I am most grateful to John Rudge for locating and editing these documents.
For a navigable PDF version (with some illustrations) see
John Rudge Issued Version 4th October 2018
1. Introduction 4
2. The Times They Are A-Changin’ 4
3. The IS Leadership Argues for Change 5
Document 1 – “France: The Struggle Goes On”. International Socialism
Pamphlet. Tony Cliff & Ian Birchall. August 1968. 80pp. 5
Document 2 – “Notes on Democratic Centralism”. Tony Cliff.
June 1968. 2pp. 7
Document 3 – “Perspectives for IS”. Political Committee
12th September 1968. 4pp. 10
Document 4 – “Some Introductory Remarks”. Political Committee
21st October 1968. 8pp. 11
4. The IS Membership Debates 13
i) The Micro-Faction
Document 5 – “International Socialism: Alternative Views”. Nigel Coward et al.
September 1968. 28pp. 13
Document 6 – “Towards a Fighting Theory”. Nigel Coward et al.
Undated – but November 1968. 18pp. 14
ii) Sean Dunne, Ken Lowe, Helen Lowe, Judy Roberts
Document 7 – “The Dunne – Lowe – Roberts” document. Undated
(but before September Conference). 10pp. 16
iii) Solidarity Group
Document 8 -“The Struggle for Self-Management: An Open Letter
to IS Comrades”. Anon. 27th September 1968. 8pp. 18
iv) Bob Looker
Document 9 – “Some Comments on IS Theory, Perspectives
and Organisation”. 16th October 1968. 12pp. 20
v) Democratic Centralist Faction
Document 10 – “Towards a Revolutionary Party”. Dave Graham et al.
Undated (after 16th October). 10pp. 23
vi) 4th Tendency
Document 11 – “Platform 4 (A Document of the 4th Tendency)”. Colin Barker
et al. Undated (but after September Conference). 30pp. 26
vii) Mike Kidron and Hull IS
Document 12 – “Where are we running to? Some comments and some proposals”.
Michael Kidron. 4th July 1968. 2pp. 30
Document 13 -“Once Again Where To? A Comment on Perspectives
for IS”. Michael Kidron. September 1968. 2pp. 31
Document 14 -“We are not peasants: a note and proposals on
IS organisation”. Hull IS. 10th October 1968. 2pp. 32
Document 15 -“Neither Lenin nor Luxemburg, but in reference
to the environment in which we work”. Hull IS. 31st October 1968. 3pp. 34
viii) Libertarian Marxist Faction
Document 16 –“Democratic Centralism Versus Bureaucratic Centralism:
A Reply to Comrade Cliff and a Foreword to Libertarian Marxism”.
Ray Challinor. November 1968. 3pp. 35
Document 17 –“On the Proposal to Form a Libertarian Marxist Faction
Inside International Socialism”. Ray Parry et al. November 1968. 8pp. 37
ix) Some Others
Document 18 – “IS Organisational Structure”. Barry Slater et al. Undated. 2pp. 40
Document 19 – “IS Organisational Structure”. Teeside IS. Undated. 2pp. 40
Document 20 – “The Revolutionary Party by George Lukacs”. Anon.
Undated. 10pp. 40
Document 21 – “Some Proposals on the Industrial Perspective and
Organisation of IS”. Roger Cox & Steve Jefferys. Undated
(but before September Conference). 4pp. 41
Document 22 – “Why We Joined IS”. Trotskyist Tendency. November 1968. 4pp. 42
5. What Happened Next? 45
6. Lessons for Today 47
7. Notes 51
8. Acknowledgements 51
Literature Cited 52
We have celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution of 1917. This year we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the revolutionary events of 1968. Those two years were very different but, for the SWP, a common lesson was drawn from them both – the need for a revolutionary “Leninist” party organised on democratic centralist lines. We have, therefore, another anniversary this year – the 50th anniversary of the SWP’s turn to democratic centralism.
Prior to 1968 the International Socialists (IS) had been primarily a propaganda group with a federal structure and fairly-lax organisation. The mass upheavals of that year and the substantial increase in IS membership were the catalysts for a complete reappraisal.
There is, however, a mythology on the left that cites 1968 as the year that IS became a Leninist organisation and adopted democratic centralism as if it was some sort of monolithic and automatic decision made by robots. The reality could not be further from the truth – arguments were long and heated. Debates were fierce, documents abounded, factions were formed, and the IS Conference of 28th-29th September 1968 had to be adjourned and recalled two months later.
It can be argued that it is a poor reflection on the recent history of the SWP that the political method introduced in 1968 has not been subject to regular and rigorous appraisal as the times have changed. Others might say that it was only the “Leninist” type of its organisation that has enabled the, always small, SWP to have some successes in the fields of anti-racism, anti-fascism and anti-imperialism in the last 50 years, so there is no issue.
I would contend that there is a continual need to re-evaluate the Leninist party and democratic centralism for the requirements of the day. A 50th anniversary seems, therefore, like an appropriate juncture to try and capture the issues at the heart of the 1968 debates in IS and to learn their lessons anew. I have attempted to achieve this through the medium of some of the key documents produced at the time.
In the interests of time and space, most documents are not reproduced in full as many of them are of considerable length. For these I have attempted to explain their context and summarise their messages. Documents 12, 13, 14 and 16 are reproduced in full.
2. The Times They Are A-Changin’
IS began 1968 with 447 members but much was going to change in what Ian Birchall has described as the “Year of Wonders” (Birchall, 2011).
The year started with the Tet Offensive by the Vietnamese National Liberation Front. The burgeoning Vietnam Solidarity Campaign in this country mobilised demonstrations in London of 20,000 in March and 100,000 in October.
April brought forth the spectre of racism in the form of the infamous “rivers of blood” anti-immigrant speech by the Tory politician Enoch Powell. Worse still, some London dockers and meat-porters struck in support of Powell.
In May France erupted in a wave of student protests, followed by a series of factory occupations and a general strike of 10 million workers. Student unrest was mirrored in this country, a process following-on from the London School of Economics (LSE) occupation that had occurred in 1967.
Truly there was something in the air and in May IS strove to fill what it perceived as “the vacuum on the left” by calling for the establishment of a united organisation of the radical left. The immediate catalyst for this was the Enoch Powell speech and its impact, the absence of a response from Labour and the CP and the perceived threat of fascism. The call was based on a four-point programme of opposition to imperialism; opposition to racism; opposition to state control of trade unions and for workers control of society and industry. The following groups were written to by IS – the International Marxist Group (The Week), May Day Manifesto, Socialist Current, Solidarity, the Geoff Richman Group, Workers’ Fight, Independent Labour Party, Socialist Labour League and Communist Party. Initially favourable responses came from May Day Manifesto and the Richman Group and negotiations were held with the IMG, but to no avail. The initiative failed in its overarching objective, although the tiny orthodox Trotskyist group Workers’ Fight did join IS [this was done in something approaching a “private deal” between Tony Cliff and their leading member Sean Matgamna] and they became known internally as the “Trotskyist Tendency”. The unity call did however, show IS in a non-sectarian light, particularly vis-à-vis the other large Trotskyist group in Britain, the Socialist Labour League (1).
With August came the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia and crisis in a number of European Communist Parties. Moving alongside all of this was the growing Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland.
In response to the pace of events and the changing political situation, the IS newspaper changed its name from Labour Worker to Socialist Worker in June and in September the paper moved from monthly to weekly production. IS was recruiting very substantial numbers of new members, the majority of them students, and by the end of 1968 membership was more than 1,000, with a large periphery of activists who supported the kind of anti-capitalist politics that IS was promoting.
Ian Birchall (pers. comms.) makes an important point about the events and the whole context for the debates in IS when he says:
“I think it is important to stress just how urgent things seemed. The Powell strikes were very frightening – although of course “fascism” wasn’t on the agenda, things did seem very alarming. And then the French strike, totally unexpected, again totally transformed our sense of what was possible. I think it is important to grasp this sense of urgency, which meant that all the participants in the debate realised what was at stake. David Widgery’s book, “The Left in Britain 1956-1968” (Widgery, 1976), is very good on both the frenetic and the frightening aspects of 1968”.
There is a 1968 timeline of events published in International Socialism Journal No. 118 (Spring 2008) available here:
It was in this heady atmosphere that the IS leadership, and Tony Cliff in particular, started to put the position that IS needed to become a different type of organisation – “a revolutionary combat organisation” – with a “democratic centralist structure” to match.
The April 1968 IS Conference passed relatively uneventfully and it was in June that Cliff published his document “Notes on Democratic Centralism”. This was to kick off five months of intense and often fiery debate in the organisation.
In the next section of this article I will look at the key documents of this debate as put forward by the leadership of IS.
3. The IS Leadership Argues for Change
Prior to the proposed changes IS was organised on a federal structure whereby all branches of ten members or more had a member on the IS Executive Committee (ISEC) (slightly different arrangements pertained in London). The ISEC met quarterly and each year it elected a smaller Political Committee (PC) to provide general political guidance and supervise the editorial policy of the group’s publications. An Administrative Committee (AC) ran the day-to-day affairs of the group between EC’s. Bi-Annual Meetings (Conferences) were held to decide the overall policy of the group with delegates elected on the basis of one delegate per five, or majority of five branch members. What was required for one to be a member of IS was loosely defined and the Constitution made no reference to factions [NB: the “small print” of the IS Constitution changed from time to time in the light of Conference decisions].
Document 1 – “France: The Struggle Goes On”. International Socialism Pamphlet. Tony Cliff & Ian Birchall. August 1968. 80pp.
This pamphlet is reproduced in the book Tony Cliff, International Struggle and the Marxist Tradition, Selected Writings Vol.1, Bookmarks, London, 2001. 334pp. and is also online here:
The pamphlet is placed first of the documents in this article because it is the events described that occurred in the months of May and June rather than the date it was published that is important. The pamphlet – its contents, the background to the events, which author wrote what and its political purpose are covered in some detail by Ian Birchall in his biography of Tony Cliff (Birchall, 2011). I do not intend to repeat the full details here.
The key thing to understand is the extent to which the events in France influenced Tony Cliff’s thinking and how he used this pamphlet as a central weapon in his argument for change in IS. As Ian writes:
“Cliff’s main aim in “France: The Struggle Goes On” [was] to argue for an immediate strategy of building a revolutionary party, [and] a sharp shift in the orientation of the organisation”. Ian describes the pamphlet as “Cliff’s main contribution to the understanding of 1968 and the reorientation of the organisation.” (Birchall, 2011).
In the pamphlet Cliff has this to say on the reasons for a party based on democratic centralist principles:
“Facing the strictly centralised and disciplined power of the capitalists there must be no less centralised and disciplined a combat organisation of the proletariat. Both centralism and democracy are essential:
Centralism – because it is imperative to assure unity in action of all sections of the proletariat and the simultaneity of demonstrations under a single common slogan: this can be achieved only if there is a genuine concentration of leadership in the hands of responsible central and local bodies, stable in their composition and in their attitude to their political line.
Democracy – because these leading central and local bodies, which under certain conditions may be very small, must be elected by all party members, controlled by them and accountable to them”.
These definitions of “Centralism” and “Democracy” are taken from a letter sent from the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI) to the Seine Federation of the French Communist Party drafted by Trotsky in 1922. In some ways, it is a pity that Cliff did not follow Trotsky’s lead more closely when making his own argument. Trotsky’s letter on behalf of the ECCI follows up these two quotes by explaining in strong political terms why those who oppose centralised leadership are wrong – something Cliff did not do in his own “Notes on Democratic Centralism” document below.
The final section of the pamphlet is titled “Lessons for British Revolutionaries”. Even giving due allowance for Cliff wanting to end the pamphlet on a rousing note his words were to strike some as a foreshortening of likely events, particularly in the light of how things in France had moved by the time the pamphlet was published. Cliff wrote:
“France today, Britain tomorrow! We cannot be sure of the rhythm of events, but there can be no doubt that there will be an acceleration. One thing has been made abundantly clear by the French crisis: a theme that was the kernel of Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky’s make-up – the immediacy of revolution – immediacy, of course, in the scale of history. We cannot gauge the timing, duration and sweep of the coming revolutionary crisis in British capitalism, but it is not far off”.
Peter Sedgwick, a very long-time member of the organisation from the libertarian tradition reviewed the pamphlet for the IS journal International Socialism and made clear his position in the organisation debate. He wrote:
“the formation of a democratic workers’ party can proceed in step only with the formation of democratic workers; and when it comes it is most unlikely to imitate the centralism-and-democracy mix prescribed by Trotsky. The “responsible central and local bodies, stable in their composition” (i.e. the same people get elected) “and in their attitude to their political line” (i.e. they pretend not to change their minds) belong to the traditions of a religious order (the Comintern) breathing the stench of an era of defeat and recession within the international proletariat. That era is not ours.” (Sedgwick, 1969).
Document 2 – “Notes on Democratic Centralism”. Tony Cliff. June 1968. 2pp.
This document is reproduced in the book Neither Washington nor Moscow, Bookmarks 1982 and is also online here:
This internal document produced by Cliff was the opening salvo in the move to change the nature of IS. It began with the following words:
“our group has for a long time been a purely propaganda organisation – publishing books, theoretical journals, holding schools, etc. The structure fitting this situation was a loose federative one; all branches were like beads on a string. Over the last year or two we have moved towards agitation. This demands a different kind of organisational structure. A revolutionary combat organisation – especially if it becomes a party – needs a democratic centralist structure.”
By way of primary political justification Cliff, for reasons known only to him, cites an argument between the anarchists and Marx over representation on the General Council of the First International. The relevance of Marx being the “Russian Representative” on the Council even though he was not Russian is as lost on me as it no doubt was on everyone else. Fortunately, Cliff does not pursue this line of reasoning beyond two short paragraphs.
Turning to more practical arguments Cliff contends that the federal principle of an Executive made up of one delegate per branch is untenable because:
“(a) It is undemocratic.
If a branch has 50 members who divide on a central issue 26 to 24, what is democratic about one person casting the votes of 50?
If a minority of the whole organisation – let us say 20 per cent – has one set of policies separating it from the majority – it will not be represented at all – or at most by a derisory number of people on the Executive.
(b) The inner-organisation struggle of ideas that is so vital, will be directed from issues to organisational frustrations and combinationalism.
(c) The Organisation cannot grow beyond a certain size: with 1,000 members and let’s say 100 branches, no Executive could work.
(d) It is incompatible with the cell structure: the latter should be small and tight (it will probably replace the branch as the unit of work and education).
(e) It is incompatible with specialisation and division of labour. As Marx and Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were too busy to be able to be involved in local branch activities they could never have been eligible for election to the Executives of any revolutionary organisation.
(f) In conclusion: the federal structure is unstable and inefficient.
(In our own terms, with the expansion of the Group and the transition to a cell structure, half the Political Committee, including the editor of our agitational weekly, would not be able to be on the Executive, as they might be inactive locally in a branch. A revolutionary organisation whose two top Committees – the Executive and the Political Committee – are elected on opposite principles, could not work effectively.)”
Cliff then tells the members that a democratic centralist organisation is based on the following:
“a) A Delegates Conference – meeting once or twice a year – decides the policies – the principles and strategy of the organisation.
b) An Executive, Political Committee, etc., are elected by the Conference as individuals, or on a list of candidates where there are factional groupings: each group of delegates is entitled to elect the number of people to the Committees in proportion to their share at the Conference.
c) All decisions of Conferences and between Conferences of the Executive are binding on all members of the organisation.
d) A revolutionary combat organisation faces the need for tactical decisions – daily and hourly – hence the need for great centralisation.
The most important decision for a revolutionary party – the decision to take State power – was taken by the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party; in a revolutionary situation one cannot afford to waste a day (not to say a month – the time necessary to organise a Conference). The decision on War or Peace – the Brest-Litovsk discussion – was again taken by the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party. Or again the historical statements of the First International on the Paris Commune were written by Marx and agreed by a handful of people who turned up to the meetings of the General Council – without reference to the national sections of the International, not to speak of their mass rank and file.
e) If a minority of the branches – let us say 20 per cent – find it necessary to call an Emergency Conference – the Executive is bound to carry this out. New decisions and new elections can ensue.”
Cliff accepts that:
“in practice because of the size and uneven nature of IS, we have to have a transitory structure: from federalism to democratic centralism”.
He also says that:
“any arrangement the September Conference decides should not run for more than a few months, as the IS – 800 or so at present – is bound, we hope, to grow considerably.”
Cliff’s final argument says:
“two-way communication is vital: up to now there is much more information going from the EC and Administrative Committee to branches, than in the opposite direction. Criticism and self-criticism is absolutely vital. Above all, more politics, more theory, are necessary, hence the need for more centralism. (The worst “economism” and organisational frustrations have come about in many local activities that were completely autonomous).”
One must assume that when Cliff had his document published he believed it was of sufficient strength and clarity to convince the membership that the changes he was proposing were the changes that were required. The expression “pigs might fly” springs to mind.
Writing very much later in his autobiography he admits that the document:
“was not perhaps very well argued, but I myself was panicked by the situation” (Cliff, 2000).
Jim Higgins, a former National Secretary of IS, is much harsher and has this to say:
“it is difficult to imagine how such a short document could contain so many non-sequiturs, misstatements of fact, half thoughts, truisms and flashes of sense” (Higgins, 1997).
“…this is a slipshod piece of work, more like a stream of consciousness than an internal bulletin….this pathetic two sides of quarto paper produced a storm of controversy…” (Higgins, 2000).
Of course, at the time of writing these pieces Higgins was no friend of Cliff, but Ian Birchall also cites issues with the “Notes on Democratic Centralism” document. Ian writes:
“he [Cliff] operated on instinct and often took a long time to find out why he was doing what he was doing. Some of the more longstanding members – a relative term at this time – felt that though Cliff had quickly understood what was happening, he had simply made up his mind without bothering to explain why and was not taking the membership seriously….Cliff had a justifiable faith in his own ability to convince the organisation, but he underestimated the difficulties” (Birchall, 2011).
All these comments do not just represent the views of comrades being wise after the event. The response to Cliff’s document was instant – one of the first being an unsigned document in the IS Bulletin 1968 No. 1 (undated but late June or early July) titled “Centralism or “Democratic Centralism”? – On Cliff’s Document”. This document starts with:
“Cliff’s document appears to offer the alternative of anarchistic “federal” organisation or his variety of “democratic centralism” as part of a real debate within IS at present. What is at issue however, is not whether centralised organisation is needed for IS but what kind of centralisation is required”.
In a later section the document continues:
“the organisational proposals of Cliff’s have certain theoretical assumptions which we do not share. Cliff implies that the increase in group numbers and the change with IS not being merely a propaganda organisation is sufficient for a Bolshevik democratic centralist organisation to appear. We would dispute this. Further, the lack of manual workers in the group means that we are not in the position of being able to become a revolutionary combat organisation in the immediate future. This is our aim, but we must struggle to get there first, not announce our arrival. The debate must be about how to build the revolutionary organisation within the revolutionary class, not just to arrange its structure.”
Mike Kidron, Cliff’s brother-in law and one of his erstwhile closest collaborators, was also early into the debate with his document “Where are we rushing to? Some comments and some proposals” which is dated 4th July.
Kidron’s document opens with:
“it’s difficult to make the transition from a propaganda-and-protest organisation to a political one, but that’s obviously what we’re doing and should do, except that we should do it better.”
His document is important and focuses on the need for the organisation to define policies that can guide action and measure achievement at all levels (e.g. industry, plant, union, locality, students etc.). He highlights that local policy failure is magnified nationally with much discussion of our immediate prospects at the Centre having been alarmist and unhelpful. He calls upon the Political Committee of IS to:
“have as its first priority the elaboration of a general short-term prospectus, and as its second – guiding the fragmentary policies into some sort of agreement with their own”.
Kidron ends with:
“we can make the transition from propaganda to politics, from interpretation to implementation. But to do so we need policies rather than impressions, guidance rather than regimentation”.
The full text is reproduced herein as document number 12.
Mike Kidron was to make an important contribution during the 1968 debates (2) – see documents 12 – 15 below.
Of course, it would be wrong to suggest that all the written responses were negative. In the next IS Bulletin (unnumbered and undated – but July 1968) Ilford IS have a short contribution stating they:
“are in full accord with Cliff’s statement” on the basis that “in our limited experience with the organisation of IS, we, Ilford IS, have met with a not so limited degree of inefficiency and delay”.
Document 3 – “Perspectives for IS”. Political Committee 12th September 1968. 4pp.
The document from the Political Committee (PC) consists of nine sections: “General Perspectives for Capitalism”; “Perspectives in Britain”; “Youth and Students”; “General Role of IS”; “Role of Revolutionary Organisation”; “Sectarianism”; “Medium-Term Programme”; “Structure of IS” and “International”. This perspectives document doubled as the basis of the agenda for the September IS Conference. What is worth noting is that the date on the document – 12th September – is barely two weeks before the start of the Conference. It is unlikely that many branches will have had much, if any, opportunity to consider the document and its ramifications.
The “General Perspectives for Capitalism” states that:
“the economic stability and steady expansion which the industrial economies have experienced since the war are beginning to falter. This does not mean that we are faced with economic collapse. In the immediate future, we can expect an unevenness in the rate of economic growth, an intermittent expansion”.
The document, however, sees this faltering as important as the previous ruling class strategy of allowing some level of trade union organisation to exist and an element of “wage drift” to occur could only work in an expanding economy. It states:
“The economic faltering means that many of these tolerant attitudes will have to go. In the process, the reactions of the ruling class, even to marginal challenges, may be unexpected, brutal and seemingly irrational”.
The cause of the change within IS from propaganda towards agitation over the past two or three years is identified as being due to three reasons i) the new instability of capitalism ii) the advent of the Labour Government and the virtual disintegration of social democracy iii) the accelerating collapse of the militancy, activism and self-confidence of the Communist Party. In a phrase that will be very familiar to anyone in the SWP over numerous years the PC says:
“again and again, in situation after situation, either IS takes a lead or no lead is taken”.
In the “Medium-Term Programme” the PC takes on board the need for developing individual programmes to fill the gap between existing levels of consciousness and long-term goals.
Regarding the “Structure of IS” the PC advise that:
“the structure of our organisation must enable us to intervene rapidly and cohesively in a changing situation. This means a centralisation of decision-making, both at national and local levels”.
Five specific points are put forward:
- “Leading bodies should stop dealing with trivialities. These should be hived off onto an autonomous administrative structure.
- Election to these bodies should be based on political, not personal criteria. Political hardness should not be confused with personal nastiness.
- Members of the EC and political committee should be obliged to travel round branches explaining their decisions (or, in the event of disagreement, to debate these in front of branches or aggregates). Every branch should have an EC speaker once a month.
- Branches must accept directives from the centre, unless they fundamentally disagree with them, in which case they should try to accord with them while demanding an open debate on the matter.
- There should be more political debate and education in the group. In the branches this should be related to current activities and perspectives. The organisation of schools, local aggregates for political discussion and so on should from now on be regarded as a top priority. This is particularly important if new members are to understand the basis for policy decisions and perspectives. A list of pamphlets and books for new members should be circulated and the reading and discussion of these should be regarded as an integral part of members’ activity.”
Ian Birchall (1981) describes these as “some fairly modest organisational proposals” and the key point (iv) as being put “in surprisingly moderate terms”. Ian, however, goes on to explain that the proposed turn to democratic centralism:
“caused the greatest upheaval IS had ever had. Internal documents proliferated and at least five factions came into existence. It took two stormy conferences before a new, democratic centralist constitution could be agreed”.
Document 4 –“Some Introductory Remarks”. Political Committee 21st October 1968. 8pp.
This document was produced by the IS Political Committee for the recalled Conference in November. It is an attempt to more fully explain their organisational proposals and address some of the concerns raised by sections of the membership. Writing in 2000 Jim Higgins advises that he wrote both this and the preceding document.
This is the nub of the Political Committee argument:
“There can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the existing organisation is not living up to the tasks that we must impose on it. Any new proposals that we make must be designed to improve membership, participation, dissemination of information, Group education, proper accountability and responsibility. They should also be designed to point our discussions and arguments to the making of decisions and the carrying out of those decisions. Such a constitution cannot of course define functions so rigidly that there is no room for wide local variations of emphasis and no place for differing levels of ability and experience. The PC proposals are an attempt to organise the structure within this framework of requirements.
Our proposals do derive from politics, from a rejection of the notion that the class has passed beyond the need for a revolutionary party. They are indeed an affirmation of the need for such an organisation, albeit there is no claim that IS is that party or should even pretend to be one. They are an indication of our belief that the working class is not, and cannot be, the repository of all the socialist and working-class experience of the past, or, that, as a class it is capable of producing a comprehensive analysis and programme to fight and defeat capitalism.
Working class people, engaged in a particular struggle who reject politics and political groups, may, in a very few cases, be reacting to the sterility of years of Trotskyism, but in the majority of cases they will be showing their incapacity spontaneously to make the connection between their particular fight and the general fight against capitalism. To adapt ones politics to this attitude by making the necessary generalisation in a non-sectarian way is one thing but to mistake exclusive apoliticism for heightened consciousness is not only to deny the need for revolutionary organisation but to deny the need for politics.
Whatever final conclusion individual comrades come to in this debate, they are, unless they reject organisation completely, left with the problem of how best to organise their work to give effect to their political ideas and in doing this, they will be offering leadership of one sort or another. The point of revolutionary organisation is to make that leadership as effective and persuasive as possible.…..
…..It is possible, indeed, necessary, to make a clear distinction between the revolutionary organisation and the class and it is from the interaction between these two elements that the revolutionary mass movement is created. To see the immense achievements of the working class and to discern, in this achievement, their limitless capabilities should not blind us to the disparities in consciousness between different workers and even groups of workers…..
……We are not trying to pretend that the IS group is the latter-day representation of Bolshevism or even the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland (would that it were either of these things), but we are saying that the group is moving in to a situation where the left is acquiring a greater following and influence and IS is playing a greater role in this process. Whether the IS group will, by simple arithmetic progression, grow in to a revolutionary party or whether a party will derive from as yet unformed organisations is not important to us. What is important is that the particular liberation marxism, which flows not from the “Incomes Policy” pamphlet but from 20 years of application of the groups’ basic theory shall be an important part of the new organisation”.
Having set the broad political context, the PC move on to the more basic organisational matters at hand:
“In all this, we must make it abundantly clear that our political position is not put forward to justify an erosion of democracy but in fact to increase democracy. What we need is an organisation that will:
- Make possible effective membership participation
- Give clear lines of communication to and from the branches
- Provide us with a vastly improved scheme for political education
- Lay down areas of responsibility and accountability
- Provide the group with a consistent political line
A brief examination of this list will convince most comrades that our present structure falls far short of these few modest aims. It is really quite astonishing that with our present amateurish and careless attitude that we have achieved as much as we have”.
The PC recognises that discussion on the organisational question:
“seems to have resolved itself in to two opposed positions. On the one hand those who call for, what has been described as a federal structure (we might with some justice and less offence call this a delegate structure) and on the other hand the PC’s proposals for six monthly election on a political basis, which takes account of political differences and ensures their representation”.
They then go on to answer the claim that the delegate structure is more democratic than their own by posing and then answering 8 questions.
Interestingly, at one point the PC proposes that the term “Democratic Centralism” be dropped due to its “unfortunate associations”.
John Palmer, who was a key member of the Political Committee in 1968, has this to say (pers. comms.):
“It is important to remember that in many ways the position taken by the leadership (notably Jim Higgins and Duncan Hallas) lay somewhere in between the rather facile sectarian reading of democratic centralism initiated by Sean Matgamna but taken up by a number of other IS branches (Manchester comes to mind) and, at the other end of the spectrum, the position of the (so-called) libertarian faction – including Mike Kidron and Peter Sedgwick. Kidron’s polemical paper, “We are not peasants” [Document 13] rewards re-reading today.
The Higgins/Hallas emphasis was very much on the democratic dimension of DCism while insisting that when a decision in IS was taken on policy it should be official IS policy. But no one at that stage suggested that critical or opposition factions formed to pursue future policy change within the organisation should only be restricted to a brief period before conference”.
Likewise, Richard Kuper (pers. comms.) lays stress on the modesty of the proposals as they were viewed by the Executive Committee. Richard says:
“I don’t think there was any serious division on the Executive about changing the organisation to a democratic centralist one. But I would stress the modesty of the ambition. These were heady times and we wanted to do more. But no-one on the Exec was calling for us to set up a party. It was just a call for us to be more oriented to intervening effectively in a changing situation, to become one of the currents that in time would fuse together with a massive working-class influx to become in some distant future the hoped-for revolutionary party. So, when it came to the conference we were attacked for being Bolshevik from one side and not nearly Bolshevik enough from another. The Exec itself was of one mind on the issue – for a tighter organisation than we currently had, but against any dogmatic applications of Leninist lessons. It was shown by no member of the Exec being involved in any of the various groupings or factions that emerged in the lead-up to the first conference”.
The next section of my note goes on to look at some of the documents put forward by IS members or groups of members.
4. The IS Membership Debates
It is first worth mentioning that the name “Micro-faction” was not self-chosen by this group of IS members who were based mainly at the LSE. The name comes from a group within the Cuban Communist Party led by Anibal Escalante and was given to the IS comrades by Peter Sedgwick. The faction took the name in relatively good grace by writing, “for the sake of convenience we have accepted the term “Micro-faction”, though certainly not its historical connotation. But we trust that comrades will understand that nothing is to be gained by sticking – whether out of ignorance, a misplaced sense of humour, or a desire to caricature and thus put beyond the pale – false labels on our door”.
Document 5 – “International Socialism: Alternative Views”. Nigel Coward et al. September 1968. 28pp.
The full list of signatories to this document along with their IS branch is as follows: Nigel Coward (Stoke Newington), Laurie Flynn (Tottenham), Leni Geller (Stoke Newington), Phil Hall (Tottenham), Steve Jefferys (Glasgow), Mike McKenna (Dalston) and Joan Smith (Edinburgh).
Some of the factions formed in 1968 understood their marketing theory and found a suitable quote to adorn the front of their document by way of a “unique selling point”. The USP of the Micro-Faction was Marx’s “Third Thesis on Feuerbach”:
“The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstance and upbringing, and that therefore changed men are products of other circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator himself must be educated.”
In the introduction to their document the contributors outline its purpose as follows:
“the document is presented here as part of a fundamental debate on the theoretical positions inside IS. It contains two main sections; “An Alternative Political View” and “An Alternative Organisational View”. We believe it is impossible to separate the Groups’ policies from the way in which the Group is organised to put these policies into effect. This is why we present a discussion of these two questions in one document”.
The first section of the document is centred within a thorough examination of class consciousness – its development, the prevailing theoretical view of it within IS and how that theory translates into IS practice. Put under a particular spotlight is the “stages model” of the development of consciousness and a perceived trend in IS of using “a specific version of the one-sided “particular-to-general stage model” (e.g. we will work with tenants over a specific issue such as a rent rise – but the broader politics of the matter comes later). The document states that:
“we are not arguing here that we should abandon the “particular”. What we are arguing is that IS should explicitly attempt to politicise it”.
An identified related IS theory is also addressed by the faction as follows:
“IS theory contains another model of the development of class consciousness as well as the stage model theory, to which it is related as a kind of stop-gap. It is the theory of the upsurge in which several stages can be skipped at once. Basically it suggests that what might have remained an isolated incident spreads in a snowballing process, skipping several stages at once. This theory is best exemplified by examining the IS theoreticians’ view of the French events”.
As regards this theory the document argues that:
“the upsurge model is inadequate because it is firmly wedded to its companion the stage model. Both do grave injustices to the creativity of the proletariat. Instead of helping the development of revolutionary consciousness in the proletariat the upsurge model of IS seems to imply that we should simply be there in the fragments. We carry on with the day to day struggle and wait for the upsurge and when it comes – there we are, united, in the best position for leadership”.
All that I have summarised above represents only a snippet of what is a serious and useful study.
The first section of the document closes by addressing the subject of socialist democracy and democratic centralism thus forming a bridge into section two. Section one closes as follows:
“At present there is much talk of democratic centralism within IS. Yet whenever measures of greater democracy are proposed – socialist democracy i.e. control – they are opposed by cries of “strengthen the centre”. There seems to be some automatic assumption that democracy and centralism are incompatible and in proposing the one you are attacking the other. In this case we might as well pack in the business of revolutionary socialism right now.
This is not our position. Nothing is more compatible than democracy and centralism. Nothing is more necessary for a revolutionary organisation than the working of the two – socialist democracy is control at the working unit, without this there can be no meaningful centralism. Bourgeois democracy ballots people as individuals, socialist democracy demands a decision from a collectivity – individuals in their working unit deciding together. For any socialist organisation therefore the working unit whether it is the branch as with most of IS at present – or the cell, which it might be in the future – is the basic educative unit and the basic active unit. It builds the analysis because it is active, because it controls the organisation, because without its control and analysis the organisation is not relevant. It also builds the analysis because it is the only possible educative unit in the group – no lists of lectures sent from the centre can compete with self-education”.
The “Alternative Organisational View” section of the document opens by explaining the two sorts of solutions that are being put forward to address the current problems in IS:
“One sees the solution in terms of strengthening the centre. This is necessary it is argued because of the increasing need for a speedy response to faster moving events; that is, as a “combat” organisation we require greater urgency and efficiency. The second kind of solution is that advocated by this document and the proposals which conclude this section. It is, broadly, a solution in terms of strengthening the rank and file and building a responsive and responsible centre on this rank and file. This we view as a more intractable and long term (and given recruitment) continual problem. There is no stimulation for the rank and file to debate decisions and thus build the theoretical framework in which better responses can be made to faster moving events, unless it controls the decisions of the group – and the decision-making process”.
The faction document goes on to cover the “five main arguments used by the proposers of the one-sided (and thus distorted) “Strong Centre” solution to the Group’s present problems. They are – COMMUNICATIONS. EFFICIENCY. URGENCY. TRUST and SIZE”.
Each argument is explained, and an alternative argument put forward.
The document ends with the faction’s own proposed draft of a new IS Constitution which they see as:
“an attempt to create an organisation on the basis of the groups current situation and the following three principles:
- Elections and major decisions to be based on the working unit
- Recall at all levels
- Clear areas of political responsibility”.
Document 6 – “Towards a Fighting Theory”. Nigel Coward et al. Undated – but November 1968. 18pp.
The full list of signatories to this second “Micro-faction” document is those listed in the previous document plus Andrew Hornung (Lambeth) and Sabby Sagall (Havering). This document was produced for the recalled IS Conference held at the end of November 1968.
They may this time have forgotten that the best strap-lines are short and to the point. The front cover quote of the document is a long one from Rosa Luxemburg’s “Leninism or Marxism?”:
“…it became evident that the term “centralism” does not completely cover the question of organisation for Russian Social Democracy. Once again we have learned that no rigid formula can furnish the solution of any problem in the socialist movement….The fact is that Social Democracy is not joined to the organisation of the proletariat. It is itself the proletariat. And because of this, Social Democratic centralism is essentially different from Blanquist centralism. It can only be the concentrated will of the individuals and groups representative of the most class-conscious, militant, advanced sections of the working-class. It is, so to speak, the “self-centralism” of the advanced sectors of the proletariat. It is the rule of the majority within its own party….The indispensable conditions for the realization of Social Democratic centralism are: (1) the existence of a large contingent of workers educated in the political struggle, (2) the possibility for the workers to develop their own political activity through direct influence on public life in a party press and public congress etc. These conditions are not yet fully formed in Russia (in Britain?). The first – a proletarian vanguard, conscious of its class interests and capable of self-direction in political activity – is only now emerging in Russia. All efforts of socialist agitation and organisation should aim to hasten the formation of such a vanguard. The second condition can be had only under a regime of political liberty.”
The document again takes up the analysis of class-consciousness with considerable gusto. The authors state that the document:
“is not about organisation. Neither is it a “factional document”, it represents simply the first focus of certain general ideas represented as a critique of the Group’s activities and notions”. It is “an attempt to provoke an awareness of the limitations of IS analysis in its inattention to the ideological (consciousness) dimension. We have attempted to develop through a sketch of formalism an understanding of the contrast between concrete and formal analysis. In order to do this we have attempted to seduce the patient reader into the IS rose-garden where both blooms and thorns are plentiful. We take him through the various aspects of formalism encountered in Trotskyism, Trotsky himself, the “Incomes Policy”, the French pamphlet, the images of “the vacuum on the left” and “the threat of fascism” and our general industrial policies as well as making continual digs about organisation on the way. We end up with some organisational and constitutional proposals. That our “alternatives” come at the end of this document and are preceded by the “arguments” does not mean that we see them, as we have already made clear, as an optional appendage. They come last because they need to be firmly located in the political not just the technical and managerial”.
The aims for this document are very explicitly stated in a detailed 8-point (a-h) outline starting from:
- “To extend the concept of class struggle, asserting specifically that the fight for revolutionary theory which gives rise to and sustains a principled revolutionary practice is a form of class struggle”.
h) “To put forward the outline of organisational and constitutional alternatives more appropriate and more conducive to our powerful development; to locate these alternatives in a guiding theory and strategy; to impress upon comrades in this connection that we cannot subordinate theory and strategy to tactics and technicalities”.
Continued stress is made to the necessity that, whatever is the outcome of the proposals for organisational change at the Recall Conference, it must not be the end of the argument.
Higgins (1997) describes “the IS Micros” as libertarians and derides parts of their document as sounding “like a philosophy graduate telling you that a lot of people learn from experience”. I do not fully agree with Higgins on either count and to be fair he does concede other parts of the document are better. What I would say is that it is probably just as well that the vast majority of the new recruits to IS during 1968 were students. My suspicion is that most new worker members would have wondered what they had let themselves in for!
Looking back Ian Birchall now has some considerable regard for the Micro-faction and tells me (pers. comms.):
“Whatever the failings of the Micro-faction, I think they deserve considerable credit. Firstly, as you note, they made the question of class-consciousness central, whereas other currents got immersed in the minutiae of organisational forms. And they had some very talented people. While you and Higgins mock their rather academic style, it must be remembered that Laurie Flynn became one of the finest SW journalists in the 1970s – he thought deeply about communication and class-consciousness which was how he became a successful journalist. Jefferys was a central figure in the 1970s till he fell out with Cliff. Phil Hall became a successful writer – the man who forced the Queen to pay income tax. Mike McKenna (who had organised a CND group in the RAF and who was later a colleague of mine at Middlesex Poly) was an enormously influential figure in the IS group at LSE, the main base of the Micro-faction. He was a brilliant expounder of Marx and Hegel, (though he had difficulties in drawing practical conclusions. He talked constantly of “moving from the abstract to the concrete” but he never seemed to reach the concrete). Sadly he wrote very little. In short, the Micro-faction had some very talented people and in retrospect I think they were the most serious of the factional groupings.”
ii) Sean Dunne, Ken Lowe, Helen Lowe, Judy Roberts
This group of comrades was very actively involved in the campaign against Greater London Council (GLC) rent rises. This was a large tenant struggle in which a number of IS members had a high level of involvement. Their document is undated, but it was produced in time for the September 1968 IS Conference. The document is also untitled and was therefore generally referred to as “The Dunne-Lowe-Roberts” document after its authors.
Document 7 – “The Dunne – Lowe – Roberts” document. Undated (but before September Conference). 10pp.
The document was written by Sean Dunne, Ken Lowe, Helen Lowe and Judy Roberts. This document has two front cover USP’s, one from “The Communist Manifesto” and this one from Rosa Luxemburg’s “Social Reform or Revolution”:
“It is not true that socialism will arise automatically from the daily struggle of the working class. Socialism will be the consequence of (1), the growing contradictions of capitalist economy and (2), of the comprehension by the working class of the unavoidability of the suppression of these contradictions through a social transformation.”
The first page tells us that:
“this document has not merely been produced for discussion at the biannual [Conference], but we hope rather that it will initiate a calm and reasoned discussion throughout the Group on the extremely important points which have been raised”.
“by and large accepts the Political Committee’s general analysis of capitalism. But it does not accept its proposals for the role of IS as following logically from the analysis. These [the PC’s] proposals are not based on a clear idea of the relationship between the working class and the Group. As such, the organisational proposals are wrong and the proposals for activity will be weakened by the incorrect form of organisation. The points we are raising come out of our experience in a mass struggle – the GLC rents campaign. We feel that these experiences, however, have a general validity”.
The document is split into three main sections on 1) “The Working Class” 2) “The Role of the Revolutionary Organisation” and 3) “The Form of IS”.
In the first section is a very brief explanation of what it is like and why IS should be involved in a campaign such as the GLC Rents campaign (and indeed every campaign or struggle available). Under the heading of “Apathy, Consciousness, Racialism” it states:
“it is irrelevant what the working class “thinks”; it is even more irrelevant what individual workers think; what, ultimately, will determine the outcome of the class struggle is what the working class is forced to do, and what it decides to do…..When people are forced into taking action, when they see their own strength in action, “apathy” will become a thing of the past. Mainly, it is a confidence barrier and can only be overcome when others are seen to overcome it in a situation where it is necessary to do so”.
For the authors of the document, what is important about the tenant’s fight is how the tenants have formed their own organisations to take forward the struggle and formed their own networks. The thesis presented is that for the activists in the campaign the old ideology:
“needed a force, both outside and within the class, to unite, lead, organise, lay down policy, etc. This is no longer the case. The new ideology, which is being accepted not only by the leading militants but also by the large mass of tenants, and is also reflected in the organisational forms, lays down that the self-activity of the working class is controlled and led by the working class”.
In their discussion on racialism they write:
“in spite of the hysteria a few months back, the fact that a minute section of the working class marched for Powell is practically irrelevant. The fact is that race plays a very real part in the daily lives of the working class, black and white, and has done so for many years. Black workers, very often shop stewards, come up against racialism every day….the tragedy is that nothing has ever been done about it. To wait for Powell, then hysterically rush around the factories, docks, etc., with leaflets screaming fascism, is worse than useless”. Their point being that “there is absolutely no reason why we cannot become a part of those black struggles which arise, playing the same role as we ought to be playing in tenants work – that of a revolutionary organisation in a struggle outside production”.
In their section on “The Role of the Revolutionary Organisation” they say that:
“it is irrelevant to discuss now the exact nature and role of such an organisation in a revolutionary situation….the organisation(s) which the working class uses to overthrow capitalism will grow out of the struggles of the working class; if we want a society which is controlled by the working class, we must allow that class to decide the nature of the organisation it will use to smash capitalism”.
In terms of the GLC campaign we are told that the people “want nothing to do with any kind of vanguard organisation”. They want to make the decisions and carry them out themselves and say, “if any organisation wants to support us, we welcome them; but they will have to march behind us”. It follows that, for the authors, the role of IS in the rent struggle was providing the facilities, initiating the Action Committee, providing the impetus to get local estate organisation off the ground, doing the secretarial work and compiling the monthly news-sheet. By using their political experience, they could also ensure the mistakes of the past were avoided and they could put the rents struggle in a wider political context.
In the final section of their document “The Form of IS” it is no surprise that they:
“see the forms of democratic centralism proposed by the PC as incompatible with our continuing and deepening relationship with the working class”. From their perspective, “we must strive to make IS an organisation in which active members feel they have the support of the Group in their activities. The Group should be a flexible organisation, which adapts itself to different working-class struggles; it should give members access to a thorough Marxist education, and should be constantly educating itself through participation in working class struggles; we can be thoroughly democratic – i.e., each member can participate in the running and policies of the Group. While it is easy to say that a centre must be able to make quick decisions, without waiting for consultation with the membership, it is just as true to say that individual members must be able to make quick decisions on their own initiative without waiting for a lead from the Central Committee. The important thing is that all decisions, by the members or the centre, should be taken within a political framework laid down by the Group as a whole. In this way we can’t go far wrong”.
I do not intend to comment personally on this document as the authors of other documents I have included in this note discuss it. It is, however, worth noting that there were two undated documents produced earlier in 1968 (one circa June and an updated version circa August) both with the title “The GLC Campaign and IS Involvement”. These documents were produced by Ian Macdonald, Judy Roberts, Ken Lowe and Helen Lowe. As Ian Macdonald was arguably the leading light in this group it is unclear why his name does not appear on the document presented for conference. Anyway, some of the themes that were to appear in the conference document got their first airing in these earlier ones.
Ian Birchall (pers. comms.) comments thus:
“Why the name of Ian Macdonald does not appear on the conference document I do not know. Macdonald had been one of Cliff’s favourites – in about 1966 Cliff could scarcely speak a sentence without commending Macdonald’s work in the Islington branch (tenants and CARD), but he had now fallen from favour. This group was closely associated with C.L.R. James – this was known at the time and was confirmed to me when I interviewed Macdonald a few years ago. Certainly the view of spontaneity and anti-vanguardism developed here owes a great deal to James. Their argument on the inevitability of socialism also reveals the “Jamesism” of D-L-R.”
iii) Solidarity Group
The libertarian socialist organisation Solidarity and its leading light Chris Pallis had enjoyed relatively good relations with IS throughout much of the 1960’s. Back in 1960/1961 Pallis (using the pseudonym Martin Grainger) had served on the Editorial Board of the International Socialism journal in the days before it became solely the theoretical organ of IS. Pallis visited France in 1968 during the May events and wrote a marvellous pamphlet “Paris May 1968” under his pseudonym of Maurice Brinton. Pallis and Tony Cliff sometimes shared a speaking platform during 1968 and there was other co-operation in the industrial field. I have a pamphlet in my archive jointly published in 1968 by IS and Solidarity in support of a lockout at the Injection Moulders factory in north London.
Two leading members of Solidarity, Tom Hillier and John Sullivan, joined IS in 1968.
Document 8 -“The Struggle for Self-Management: An Open Letter to IS Comrades”. Anon. 27th September 1968. 8pp.
This document is online here:
The Solidarity document is, of course, relatively unusual in being an external input into the IS debate. In their document they outline why they consider the structure of socialist organisations to be so important; they make specific criticism of the PC’s document of 12th September; they have significant issues with the Cliff/Birchall pamphlet; and they set out Solidarity politics “as we see it”.
To take the last point first and therefore to give some context to their document they write:
“we do not see ourselves as yet another leadership, but merely as an instrument of working class action. The function of Solidarity is to help all those who are in conflict with the present authoritarian social structure, both in industry and in society at large, to generalize their experience, to make a total critique of their condition and of its causes, and to develop the mass revolutionary consciousness necessary if society is to be totally transformed”.
In terms of why they consider the structure of socialist organisation to be critical, it is because:
“it is remarkable how few socialists seem to recognise the connection between the structure of their organization and the type of “socialist” society it might help bring about.
If the revolutionary organization is seen as the means and socialist society as the end, one might expect people with an elementary understanding of dialectics to recognize the relation between the two. Means and ends are mutually dependent. They constantly influence each other. The means are, in fact, a partial implementation of the end, whereas the end becomes modified by the means adopted.
One could almost say “tell me your views concerning the structure and function of the revolutionary organization and I’ll tell you what the society you will help create will be like”. Or conversely “give me your definition of socialism and I’ll tell you what your views on the revolutionary organization are likely to be”.
We see socialism as a society based on self-management in every branch of social life. Its basis would be workers’ management of production exercised through Workers Councils. Accordingly we conceive of the revolutionary organisation as one which incorporates self-management in its structure and abolishes within its own ranks the separation between the functions of decision-making and execution. The revolutionary organization should propagate these principles in every area of social life.
Others may have different conceptions of socialism. They may have different views on the aims and structure of revolutionary organization. They must state what these are clearly, openly and unambiguously. They owe it not only to the workers and students but to themselves”.
This all leads into some concrete criticisms of the IS Political Committee and the Cliff/Birchall pamphlet as follows:
“An example of haziness in the definition of socialism (and of its repercussions concerning revolutionary organization) is to be found in the material published by the central bodies of International Socialism (IS) in preparation for the Bi-annual Conference of September 1968.
In the duplicated “Statement of Basic Principles” (IS Constitution) we find that IS struggles for “workers’ control”. But we also find that “planning, under workers’ control, demands nationalization”. These are the only references, in the document, to the structure of the socialist society towards whose creation all of IS activity is directed.
How precisely, does IS conceive of working class “control”? What does “nationalization” mean? How does IS relate it to “workers’ control”? Does the working class implement its “control” through the mediation of a political party? Or of trade union officials? Or of a technocracy? Or through workers councils?
Are those who formulated the IS Constitution aware that “nationalization” means precisely regulating authority of decision-making on industrial policy to a group of state officials? Don’t they realise that the struggle of the French students and workers for “auto-gestion” (self-management) renders “nationalization” irrelevant? Apparently they do not. In the analysis of the French events (“The Struggle Continues”) written by T. Cliff and I. Birchall (and produced as an official IS publication) the relation between self-management and nationalization is not discussed at all….
In political terms the question can be posed thus: does IS stand for the policy of “all power to the Workers Councils”? Or does it stand for the policy of “all power to the Revolutionary Party”?…..
The “leading” (i.e. decision-making) bodies in IS are very careful not to state explicitly that, like Lenin, they believe that the Party must take power on behalf of the class. This principle however runs through the entire Cliff-Birchall analysis of the French events. Their analysis is, in fact, tailored to fit this purpose.
We say to these comrades: if you believe that the working class itself cannot “seize power” (but that the Revolutionary Party must do it on behalf of the class), please say so openly and defend your views….”
Chris Harman wrote his important article “Party and Class” on these very subjects. He does, in fact, mention this Solidarity document in this work – so it must have had some resonance – even if his reference is to say that the Solidarity view is the opposite to his own.
In my eyes it is unfortunate that “Party and Class” was published immediately after the 1968 IS Conferences (in the Winter 1968/1969 issue of International Socialism) – publication a few weeks earlier might just have saved some pain.
In any event it must have had an impact after the events. Here is what John Molyneux had to say in 2010 when reviewing the volume Chris Harman: Selected Writings published after his untimely death:
“Over the years Harman developed the habit of producing exactly the theoretical article required by a particular political conjuncture. This would then acquire a special status in the minds of those of us who read it as the article that clarified that moment. This selection contains…. “Party and Class”. I will comment on [it]….
The great struggles of 1968 produced an international wave of rather confused, semi-anarchist, semi-socialist libertarianism, and also brought the International Socialists (IS) our first serious growth (we reached about 1,000 members). At the same time, these struggles posed very clearly the need for a revolutionary party. Cliff responded to this situation by issuing a call for IS – up to then a loose federal organisation – to adopt democratic centralism and the goal of building a Leninist party. This generated a heated, many-sided debate in the IS group. Chris’s “Party and Class” article used his extensive reading of Lenin and his already developed knowledge of Gramsci to both raise the whole theoretical level of the debate and win it decisively. The article retains its relevance 40 years later.” (Molyneux, 2010).
For those who want to understand the Solidarity critique of the Cliff/Birchall pamphlet more fully they did a separate review of it which is available online here:
iv) Bob Looker
Bob Looker lectured in politics at the University of York and was on the International Socialism Editorial Board during the period 1967-1969. He was a contemporary of Peter Sedgwick in York IS. His document is interesting as he not only offers his own views but also critiques the documents of “Dunne – Lowe – Roberts” and the “Micro-Faction” in some detail. His article “Out of the Darkness – Into the Light?” in International Socialism No. 35 (Winter 1968/1969) is a slightly later version of his internal document (no. 9 here) with the names of the factions/groups deleted, his own organisational proposals deleted, and the text substantially reworked. The IS article is available here:
Document 9 – “Some Comments on IS Theory, Perspectives and Organisation”. 16th October 1968. 12pp.
This document has a useful “Introduction” that sets out Bob Looker’s thoughts on how the debate on perspectives and organisation has gone to date. It also states clearly what the author sets out to achieve with his document. It is worth repeating these sections in full and they go as follows:
“Many comrades must have welcomed the two-months postponement of the decision on IS perspectives and organisation, if only in the hope that the interval might be used by the participants to produce a clarity and coherence in the discussion which has all too frequently been missing from the contributions to date. Even discounting the more vituperative and hysterical statements, much of the rest consisted of polemics where idea followed idea more in the fashion of a stream of consciousness novel than that usually considered appropriate to rational debate, and where terms like “leadership”, “centralism”, etc. served as rallying calls to the faithful rather than as concepts in need of definition. Even the best contributions – on both sides – have often seemed to be arguing at cross-purposes. Certainly, no intelligent decision could possibly have been reached on the basis of the debate in Beaver Hall.
This document seeks to achieve two ends:
- To review the existing contributions in order to pinpoint the issues in dispute, and equally important, to locate the level of analysis at which these disagreements exist: are they about:
- fundamental interpretations of Marxist theory?
- the historically determinate expression of that theory in the analysis of contemporary capitalism and the perspectives for action derived from it?
- the organisational structure best suited to the programme of action?
- To demonstrate that the problems facing IS require the adoption of that organisational structure variously characterised by its opponents as “federalist”, “ultra democratic”, “permanent referendum”, and most recently “social democrat-stalinist-proudhonist”.
Looker goes on to ask the question, “Is there a real division on Marxist theory?” He says that:
“the question arises because two of the printed contributions have attacked the Political Committee position as one based on an inadequate or erroneous understanding of Marxist theory in general and working-class self activity in particular. Clearly, if there is such a fundamental division in IS, then it necessarily follows that there will be divisions at every other level of analysis. Does such a disagreement really exist?”
Both the “Dunne-Lowe-Roberts” and the “Micro-faction” documents are reviewed, and I give lengthy extracts of his “take” on them below. He writes:
“a) The “Dunne-Lowe-Roberts” Document: The problem here is that while they seek to challenge the PC’s case at a theoretical level, their own position is extremely confusing and often rests on the simultaneous assertion of a number of unreconciled dichotomies e.g. determinism-voluntarism (p.2), consciousness-activity (p.4) etc. Insofar as this document has a consistent position, it appears to be a species of economism: the objective structure of capitalism compels the working class into a series of struggles the result of which is to produce a socialist consciousness which reflects the objective character of class relations in capitalism and in turn leads to the emergence of working class organisations whose aim is the overthrow of the system.
The apparent implications of this theory for socialist activity in a non-revolutionary period are very curious – it suggests that consciously socialist agitation has no part to play in working class struggles because it would be:
- anachronistic in that it needlessly anticipated the inevitable development of class consciousness which can only emerge as a reflection of the struggle
- unnecessary in that the struggle is objectively political in any case
- irrelevant in that the struggle doesn’t require a consciously socialist perspective to achieve success and might be disrupted if such a perspective were raised
- elitist in that it seeks to impose “outside” views on the class.
The result is an injunction to “servicing” the struggle, which is in reality a classic example of the process of becoming lost in the fragments. It is hardly necessary to point out that this theory is not simply wrong but self-emasculating for socialist practice. What it does indicate, however is a basic misconception of Marxist theory which itself reflects one of the basic problems facing IS…….
- The “Micro-faction” document: This is an altogether more serious attempt to open up a long overdue discussion on Marxist analysis and perspectives and in particular to re-examine the somewhat ambivalent legacy of Lenin and Trotsky which has hitherto been an unquestioned orthodoxy in IS. Insofar as this is no idle “theory construction” a la NLR but implies a fundamental re-examination of the rationale of our own practice, such a debate is essential if IS is to avoid what is perhaps its greatest single danger, the drift towards mindless activism. However, as a contribution to the current debate, it reveals a two-fold weakness:
- It exhibits an over-sensitivity to terminological rather than conceptual differences (“levels”, “stages” etc. are metaphors, and it is always dangerous to read too much into them e.g. the uses and misuses of Marx’s “base” and “superstructure”), and therefore postulates an implicit and erroneous theory of consciousness to an analysis of the PC which is more plausibly to be charged with being a piece of empiricist pragmatism thinly veiled in the language of Marxist praxis…..
- By focusing almost entirely on issues of basic theory, the documents critique of the PC’s analysis remains abstract and implicit when it needs to be rendered concrete and explicit by confronting that position at the level at which the PC formulate it….”.
This section of the document closes with a schematic and brief statement of some of the aspects of Marx’s treatment of consciousness which are said to be in dispute in IS.
The second main section of the document addresses what Looker takes:
“to be the central issue in the current debate, namely the one-sided character of the PC’s analysis of contemporary capitalism (at least as it is formulated in their “Perspectives” document of 12th September), and their consequentially inadequate proposals for activity and organisation.”
The PC analysis is subjected to review under the following headings; “Shop-Floor Bargaining”; “Coercion and Confrontation”; “Class Consciousness in Contemporary Britain”; “Confrontation and the Vacuum on the Left” and “IS Perspectives for Activity”.
The final section of the document is under the heading of “The Organisational Structure of IS” which takes on the PC’s proposals in some detail and concludes with Looker’s own “Organisational Proposals”.
Very helpfully the author provides a “Summary of Conclusions” of his document which I reproduce in full:
“This document has dealt with three levels of analysis – theory, perspectives and organisation – which have arisen in the course of the current debate, and has sought to bring out the connections, if any, which exist between them.
Its specific conclusions are:
- Theory: With the possible exception of one document, the current debate in IS has not so far revealed any general or clearly articulated divisions at the level of Marxist theory. What it has demonstrated is a degree of confusion and ambiguity in the employment of Marxist concepts which suggests that a fundamental self-examination by IS of its basic assumptions is urgently needed
- Analysis and Perspectives for Contemporary Capitalism: The PC’s analysis of contemporary capitalism and the perspectives which derive from it are vitiated by a one-sided emphasis on a confrontation perspective which neglects both the structural character of the trends it describes, and also depends upon an historically crude analysis of the English working class which leads it to mislocate its analysis of how best to make the point of relevant connection with the class. The practical consequence of this one-sided analysis is that it serves to direct attention away from the real need which is for a critical re-evaluation of our existing practice, given the assumption that the present situation is likely to continue for a period of years
- Organisation: Even if the PC’s confrontation perspective were correct, its organisational proposals would be inadequate because they seek to solve one of the internal problems of IS, namely its weak centre, to the neglect of, and even at the expense of, the equally crucial problem of the increasing unevenness of the consciousness of the membership in an expanding organisation. (Ironically, if the confrontation perspective were vindicated, a solution to the problem of consciousness would acquire even greater urgency!). Any organisational solution must tackle both these problems and see them as integrally connected. For this reason, the solution advocated here is the combination of a strong Political Committee with a delegate EC, not as a compromise but as necessarily complementary elements, the functioning of one depending for its success on the functioning of the other”.
Ian Birchall has this to say (pers. comms.):
“In relation to the D-L-R document review the argument about “servicing the struggle” is interesting. The “Jamesite” version is a curious one – the working class can take state power spontaneously, but it needs our help producing a tenant’s newsletter. But it was an exaggerated extension of what had been the IS position up to 1968. It was a reaction against the SLL ultra-Leninist position of intervening in struggles by presenting itself as “the leadership”. Obviously, the correct way of intervening in struggle and building united fronts is somewhere between the two, though I don’t think there is any correct formula, in the Comintern documents or anywhere else. In later years the SWP position often drifted dangerously close to what had been the SLL position.”
v) Democratic Centralist Faction
The Democratic Centralist Faction became a permanent faction within IS as it did not disband after the 1968 conferences. It seems to have continued at least throughout much of 1969 and during its existence it produced several documents and a pamphlet on industrial work. Ian Birchall was a member of this faction and has mentioned it, but never in any detail, in his writings over the years. In his autobiography of Tony Cliff, Ian very briefly touches upon the factions extant at the 1968 IS Conferences and has this to say:
“the Democratic Centralist Faction argued that it was necessary to develop a consistently democratic form of organisation and that the IS leadership was “combining a formally correct theory with a purely empirical practice.” (Birchall, 2011).
In fact, this quote from the faction comes from a document they produced for the April 1969 IS Conference, but the political point is also appropriate for 1968.
Document 10 – “Towards a Revolutionary Party”. Dave Graham et al. Undated (after 16th October). 10pp.
This document was submitted by Dave Graham, Constance Lever, Fred Lindop, Stephen Marks, Roger Rosewell and Noel Tracy. It is not dated but, interestingly, from the contents it is clear it was written after the September IS Conference and as a part of the debate for the November conference.
Helpfully the document starts with a statement of its contents and the reasons for its production that reads as follows:
“Statement of contents:
The development of our critique falls into three parts, a brief restatement of Marxist theory on the Party, secondly a critical examination of the development of the Group’s traditions and how they relate to the present, thirdly a statement of some of the conclusions that relate to the organisational proposals.
We have produced this statement because:
1) We consider that the Centre has not presented the basic theory of the class and the Party to the membership in a satisfactory way (if at all in the past)
2) Following from this we consider that the Political Committee has not in its statement to the Group made clear the concrete political nature of the crisis we are facing. It has failed to show in a satisfactory way the link between the external and internal factors in the crisis or to explain the latter in more than technical terms (the efficiency of SW does not prove the case for Democratic Centralism)”.
The main document consists of three parts (there is a “Postscript” that has some comments on Bob Looker’s document dated 16th October (see document 9 in this note).
Part 1 commences with a short discussion of spontaneity and class consciousness but soon moves on to show that the authors have a perspective at the cataclysmic end of the range of current IS views. They write:
“We are now entering a decisively new historical period. The cracks and disintegrations in the social democratic and Stalinist organisations are developments of epochal significance. This process has of course been in progress for some years, but the current reappearance of capitalist crisis and contradictions has both accelerated the process and by placing politics once more on the working-class agenda has made this disintegration function as a vacuum, particularly for those militants who are at once the most disillusioned and those with the most conscious need for politics.
The developing vacuum on the left is not only a fact of the present time – it is the most important fact. We are entering a period of great dangers (fascism is possible though clearly not immediately on the cards) and the illusion that all vacuums are creative is belied by the experience of the American working class. But this is the first real chance for the creation of Leninist parties in forty years and for this reason (coupled with the crisis of capitalism – which has appeared several times over the same period), we may say we are entering a revolutionary period, one in which revolution is on the cards and not predoomed to fail….The task before us (who else?) is to start consciously creating such a revolutionary party…..Such an organisation must be exclusive and tightly knit, self-disciplined, and answerable only to itself collectively”.
There is quite a lot more in this section of the document, including an examination of Cliff’s formulation of IS needing to be a “combat group”. The section closes with a head-on approach to factions as follows:
“The mode of operation most appropriate to a Leninist party is democratic centralism with a developed (but fraternal) factional network. This is in part because of the need for efficiency, but mainly as a necessary, but not adequate, precondition for the creation of cadres and their relationship to the organisation…..Our Group suffers from too much consensus politics (what Lenin called the swamp) and political differences between leading members of the Group have never involved most members in discussions and decisions. To overcome this we need deliberately to foster and encourage a factional approach – for without it democratic centralism may become the undemocratic and inefficient choice of and then submission to personalities”.
In Part 2 of the document the faction tells IS members that:
“what we feel is needed is a totally changed attitude to theory in the group; theory as something more than abstract economic generalisations, or poste facte justifications of actions arrived at for totally pragmatic reasons”.
“the group’s present weaknesses are a function of its past strengths”. By this they mean that the work of the organisation in its earlier times, though unmatched by any other group, was “one-sided”.
“There was much consideration of the nature of revolutionary practice in a non-revolutionary period, but little of the fate of theory. There was much written and said, at a most sophisticated level about changes in the nature of capitalism and in the structure of the class and of its struggles, but very little at a parallel level of originality and creativeness on the question of organisational agency; the party. What there was, was mainly negative; as in Cliff’s book on Luxemburg, rehabilitating her from misrepresentation and underestimation (while at the same time being rather uncritical of some of her mistakes), and as in his article on substitutionism explaining quite well what the party is not but failing concretely to specify what it is, and most important of all, what we do about it”.
The faction is happy to agree that for a discussion and propaganda group in the 1950’s to concentrate on the development of theory rather than on the building of a “party” was correct and the only possible position – but they pose the question, “what happens when the outsiders want to join?”
“it may be possible to develop theory in a non-revolutionary period without the pretence of building a party; but is it possible without emphasising the need for such a party? What effect does silence or ambiguity on such a question have on the nature of the group as it grows over time?….When the rate of growth of the group exceeded a certain speed a crisis of education and of theory was inevitable”.
In the eyes of the Democratic Centralist Faction the leadership was unable to avoid the consequences because:
“we still await a development of the Marxist theory of the party to match Kidron’s work on the law of value and the permanent arms economy, or Cliff’s on the nature of Russia”. In the circumstances the IS leadership “were simply taken aback by the sudden growth in numbers and had no idea what to do with it”.
Part 3 is much shorter and as well as criticising the Political Committee for its “ultra pragmatic approach that substitutes for political perspectives” touches upon education, factions and the development of mid-term perspectives for different areas of Group work.
The major issue addressed is membership and they pose the questions of two-tier and candidate membership with a novel analogy. They make their argument thus:
“If we are trying to build a party of conscious revolutionaries – each a leader in his or her sphere of activity, each participating actively in the life of the Group – in a situation of “a vacuum on the left”, then we must give very serious consideration to the questions of membership selection and the nature of membership. If there is “a vacuum on the left” – IS is in many ways the vacuum cleaner, and we are likely to suck up all kinds of people with relatively little experience and very diverse ideas. Most decent vacuum cleaners have some sort of brush mechanism to act as a filter and stop all sorts of rubbish from cocking up the works. We need to clarify and stiffen our recruiting procedure, not shrinking if necessary from the institution of a two-tier membership, with the status of candidate member for those new to the group”.
Constance Lever-Tracy has, for a long time, resided in Australia and is a member of the Australian Greens focusing on climate change issues, campaigns for divestment from fossil fuels etc. In talking about the Democratic Centralist Faction, Constance tells me (pers. comms.) that:
“We were formed primarily to push for a transparent structure where the membership would have a major policy say. As IS was then growing rapidly and hoping for a mass membership, we felt the centre was developing some mistrust of them. We wanted a more committed and so necessarily smaller membership with good understanding of issues, which did not have to be manipulated or presented with faits accomplis, already decided behind closed doors. Cliff called on us to dissolve. There were machinations and hostilities and I left (in part because of unconnected family problems)”.
Jim Higgins (1997) is at his most dismissive when he wrote of the faction:
“the ideas, such as they were, seem to have been supplied by Constance Lever, and, as usual, the bombast by Roger Rosewell. Laurie Flynn dubbed them “Toy Bolsheviks”.”
Cliff, in his autobiography (Cliff, 2000 p. 100), also uses the “toy bolshevism” jibe. John Palmer (pers. comms.) says:
“I certainly shared Jim’s view of the “Toy Bolsheviks” – shared also by Duncan Hallas and many others. What was more serious is that the “Toy Bolshevik” reading of Democratic Centralism became a Cliff orthodoxy in later years. But in 1968-1969 Cliff was fiercely opposed to the DCs!”
Judging from a story related by Ian Birchall it seems that Tony Cliff was willing to use informal (his “salami tactic” – see below) as well as formal means to be rid of the faction (Birchall, 2011 footnote on p. 325).
As I mentioned earlier Ian Birchall was a member of the Democratic Centralist faction, but he has never put his detailed thoughts on the experience in writing. It is therefore a privilege to record here what he has to say:
“The reason I have not previously gone into any detail of my membership of this faction is obvious – I’m not particularly proud of it. I am now quite clear that I was wrong, and Cliff was right.
I did not, in fact, join the DC faction until 1969 and when I reread some of the documents I shudder to think I was identified with it. It was also profoundlyundemocratic – I remember discovering that the faction was calling for independent revolutionary candidates in theforthcoming general election, although I had never been consulted on the question. (An interesting manifestation of the logic of permanent factions. The position on elections did not flow logically from the basis on which the faction had been founded. It was simply a position adopted by the individuals who had come to constitute the leadership of the faction. In other words, the faction had become a party within a party).
Again, as with the Micro-faction, the personnel of the DC faction was very unstable. By the time I joined Rosewell and Marks had both left – to become very close allies of Cliff over the next few years. Cliff very successfully applied the salami tactic to factions, picking out the people he thought could be useful, and vilifying the rest. (He tried to “salami” me but failed). The faction was then joined by Tom Hillier, formerly of the Solidarity group, and by some of the people who were later part of the Yaffe group. But the key figures were Constance Lever and Fred Lindop.
It was Constance Lever’s position that “we need deliberately to foster and encourage a factional approach” – effectively to replace what had been geographical federalism up to 1968 with a form of factional federalism – the party would be a federation of factions of parties-within-parties. After my experience in 1969 I have always been opposed to permanent factions and remain so. I think the extreme instability of the factions in 1968-69 confirms that factions are an obstruction to the fluid debate which should (though in the SWP generally did not) take place.
What now seems to me as one of the central weaknesses of the DC faction is their belief that a minute organisation like the SRG/IS could or should in its early years have matched its work on theory with work on the party. The faction’s argument that “there was much written and said, at a most sophisticated level about changes in the nature of capitalism and in the structure of the class and of its struggles, but very little at a parallel level of originality and creativeness on the question of organisational agency; the party” is flawed. Yes, it would have been good if IS had given a bit more thought to organisational questions before 1968, but to put theorising about the party on a level with analyses of the world outside seems to me absurd – Cliff quite rightly compared it to looking at oneself in the mirror.
The faction’s argument for probationary membership (in which I once believed) – “we need to clarify and stiffen our recruiting procedure, not shrinking if necessary from the institution of a two-tier membership, with the status of candidate member for those new to the group” – was knocked on the head by Peter Sedgwick in one sentence. He wrote “We don’t put the working class on probation; we are on probation to the working class.”
As for the contention that the revolutionary party “must be exclusive and tightly knit, self-disciplined, and answerable only to itself collectively”, God help us!
It was Fred Lindop who argued for the winding up of the faction at the end of 1969. This was an act of some courage, for some faction members saw this as near treachery, but he was absolutely right.”
vi) 4th Tendency
This short-lived faction was based in Manchester and according to Jim Higgins (1997) it was probably influenced by the Trotskyist Tendency, as six of the ten signatories subsequently joined them.
Document 11 – “Platform 4 (A Document of the 4th Tendency)”. Colin Barker et al. Undated (but after September Conference). 30pp.
The full list of signatories to this document is Colin Barker, Dave Fisher, Sara Henry, Geoff Hodgson, Richard Mapstone, Dave Mullen, Dave Purdy, Jack Sutton, Ruth Sutton and Ewa Widowson.
The introduction to the document commences by saying:
“in connection with the debate on organisation at the September aggregate, several groups of comrades produced documents setting out their views on organisation and on the nature of revolutionary politics. In our view, too much of the discussion has focussed on technical, constitutional questions, and not enough on the various views of Marxist politics that underlie the different sets of organisational proposals. Our critiques of the documents have, therefore, been directed mainly against their political analyses and the various concepts they employ”.
In connection with the “Dunne-Lowe-Roberts” document the 4th Tendency state that:
“we find ourselves in such complete disagreement that it is difficult to know where to begin”.
Begin they do and they provide almost seven pages of detailed critique. For these authors, the conception of the inevitability of socialism permeates the whole “D-L-R” argument whereas:
“the way in which the working-class acts depends, not on what capitalism “forces” it to do, but on the way that workers see their problems. This is as true of tenants’ struggles as it is of revolutions. The question is one of politics. From the “Communist Manifesto” onwards, the Marxists have posed the future of humanity in terms of a choice – socialism or barbarism. Neither alternative is assured in advance. The victory of socialism is dependent on socialist politics, and therefore on the bearer of those politics, revolutionary socialists”.
The 4th Tendency identify the “new ideology” supposedly now being accepted by the tenants and seemingly approved of by “D-L-R” as not new at all, but as syndicalism. The 4th Tendency says:
“In arguing that we should resist syndicalist ideas, ideas that it is possible to create a revolutionary politics without a revolutionary organisation, we are not arguing that we should “ignore any struggle of the working class to defend its rights” or that tenants’ struggles are somehow “irrelevant”. We are arguing that revolutionary socialists are both foolish and inconsistent to bow down to the existing level of consciousness. If we think the tenants are wrong, we should say so. Whether they accept our point of view is irrelevant both to our duty to state it and to the support we give them…….
IS is certainly an organisation which aspires to the leadership of workers, whether in tenants’ associations, trade unions or anywhere else. Otherwise, why have an IS organisation at all? If we don’t offer leadership, what do we offer? Sympathy? Philanthropy? If we fail to offer leadership, then we oppose, however unintentionally, the more backward sections of the tenants to the more advanced.
Moreover, from the comrades’ own account of their actions in initiating the Action Committees, providing the impetus for setting the organisation in motion, collecting the experience of previous strikes to avoid the mistakes of the past, etc., it is clear that they have been practising what, apparently, they do not preach. They gave a lead!”
This section of the document closes with:
“the [“D-L-R”] comrades state that “we cannot presume to announce that we are the embryo of the party”. No comrades! We must presume to announce it, in everything we say and do. Otherwise, why exist?”
Before moving on to address the arguments of the “Micro-faction” the 4th Tendency deal with one of the key arguments put forward by Solidarity in their “Open Letter to IS Members” (Document 8). It is dealt with as follows:
“…on page one of Solidarity’s “Open Letter” it is proclaimed that as there is a dialectical relationship between means and ends, (that is, the end achieved bears the stamp of the means used to achieve it), a revolutionary organisation must reflect the essential features of the society it seeks to create. On analysis this proposition collapses into either substitutionism or syndicalism according to whether the revolutionary organisation is considered to be co-extensive with the working class, the agent of future socialist society. It is clear that past the hors d’oeuvres Solidarity’s pamphlet has lost all its dialectical flavour. After a judicious selection of quotations from recent IS publications designed to show how the budding IS bureaucracy is out to turn the members into “things”, we are asked, are you all for “All power to the worker’s councils” or “All power to the revolutionary party”?” To this we reply, if the revolutionary party does not have power, the worker’s councils will be defeated and will lose all power (cf. “The Struggle Continues”). On the other hand, if the worker’s councils have no power and the revolutionary party has all power, then the establishment of socialism is impossible (cf. “Russia – A Marxist Analysis”). The revolutionary socialist party is a weapon which is indispensable to the working class in the fight to overthrow capitalism and institute workers’ power – nothing else. A truly dialectical viewpoint would recognise that the revolutionary party derives its role and organizational character from the oppressive nature of existing capitalist society with its high degree of centralization, its police and armed forces and its propaganda machine. Thus police suppression requires organizational discipline and secrecy, military resistance on behalf of the capitalists necessitates military offensive on behalf of the workers, distortion in the mass media must be countered with theoretical clarity and efficient communications, and so on. How much easier life would be if the revolutionary road were not so exciting! Unhappily we must recognise that we are still anchored firmly in the realms of necessity. Such recognition is an elementary precondition of ever setting foot at all on the road to the realm of freedom”.
The next section is titled “Revolutionary Leadership – What is It? A Critique of the Micro-Faction’s Faction”. This is a critique of the first section of the Micro-faction’s document, “An Alternative Political View” and it runs to ten pages. It is not necessary to go into all the details but the 4th Tendency:
“fully agree with the [Micro-faction] comrades’ method of deriving the principles of organization explicitly from a general Marxist view of class politics. We also endorse many of the criticisms of what they call the “stage model of class consciousness”. We argue here, however, that the case for democratic centralism, as we interpret that term, does not stand or fall with the stages model, and that the comrades misinterpret the principle of democratic centralism and the role of a revolutionary party which it presupposes”.
The critique takes in class-consciousness, the French events in general and the Cliff/Birchall pamphlet in particular, the Micro-faction’s perceived tendency to treat the working class as a homogeneous entity and the political vacuum on the left.
As regards the second part of the Micro-faction’s document, “An Alternative Organisational View”, their critique runs to four pages and they find themselves “in agreement with many of the points made” by the Micro-faction. However, they state that two extremes need to be avoided:
“On the one hand, there is the lop-sided “strong centre” view that the Micro-faction comrades rightly castigate. If the leadership were constitutionally entrenched and saw its role as that of policy salesmen then advertising techniques would become more important than scientific socialist policies. This would be a perversion of democratic centralism into a single downward flow of information and directives. The dangers of such a perversion must be transparent to anyone with the vaguest notion of socialist history. But we must recognise that it is a perversion with recognisable causes, and not allow an obsession with it to colour our assessment of organisational proposals that seek to take account of previous organisational experience…..
On the other hand, there is the opposite extreme of forcing the leadership to reflect the party’s lowest common denominator and forgetting the stimulatory role of leadership which is essential to set in motion the state of tension mentioned above. Having correctly seen the dangers of the first extreme, the Micro-faction comrades seem less keenly aware of the equally disastrous consequences of the second”.
The 4th Tendency document continues with a section titled, “Where Do We Come From?” It opens with:
“This is not the first time that events in working class history have revealed the inadequacy of revolutionary theory and set off a process of refinement and clarification. Marxism itself was born in such a process. The heat of the class struggle evaporates incorrect conceptions, whereas at lower temperatures the various liquids may have been successfully mixed together. Thus the events of 1968 caused many aspects of IS theory to reach boiling point. In our view, the violent process of theory change of state was followed by the evaporation of much of their correctness into thin air. This process must go on, until we are left with the makings of a Marxist theory impregnated with recent experience yet derived from the historical traditions of working-class struggle.
In its near twenty years of existence, IS has developed a healthy body of theory – in particular the theories of state capitalism and of the permanent arms economy. These ideas will, we feel, be of extreme relevance and utility in the years to come. But only if we first deal with the open wound that has been left untended for so long. That is the question of the building of a revolutionary party. It is this question, left unanswered, that has seriously infected IS activity and politics. The coming struggle will decide whether the wound is fatal to the organisation.
It is not that organisational questions have not been raised. Comrade Cliff and others have always emphasised the need for a revolutionary party. In our scraps with the SLL, questions of organisation have come to the fore in the debate. Where IS’s position was wrong was in relegating the process of building a revolutionary party to the distant future. As a consequence, the nature of the revolutionary party and its relation to the class was rarely debated concretely”.
The final section of the document is “Education and Organisation”. The views of the Political Committee are seen to be wanting on both aspects:
“The Political Committee’s version of “democratic centralism”, as they have argued it in their documents to date, seems to be a very narrow, technical and “constitutional” view of this form of political organisation. The case for democratic centralism, as they have developed it, seems to be little more than a part of the case against federalism, and a case that is largely argued in terms of the need for greater effectiveness.”
“The educational level of the group is low, as most comrades will agree. And IS is not as effective an organisation as it might be, given the size of its present membership. Both faults must be remedied. It is our belief that the remedies to the two problems cannot be separated but are aspects of our failure to consider the organisation question sufficiently seriously in the past.
Just as the PC’s ideas for organisation represent largely a semi-technical “constitutional” set of recommendations, so too the proposals for education develop little more than a case for “more of the same” – more lectures, more reading, more schools, etc. We don’t deny the need for this “more”, but we question whether by itself it will solve the problem. The notion of education through critical evaluation of comrades’ daily practice is not considered in the PC’s framework – though we suggest that it is a centrally important component in the education of Marxists.”
Amongst the 4th Tendency proposals are a “guru” system with:
“more experienced comrades taking political responsibility for the work and education of the less experienced, in a systematicway” and “the introduction of a qualification for membership.”
The document ends with a call to develop a more formal “fourth tendency” within the Group around adherence to the following four conditions:
- Full, loyal, active membership of IS
- Support for the idea of democratic centralism at all levels and work in line with its principles
- A degree of rejection of IS’s past organisational practice
- Support for the idea of a conference-elected National Committee at the November aggregate
Colin Barker (pers. comms.) has this to say on the 4th Tendency and the Platform 4 document:
“It was the product of the period of semi-insanity around and between the two conferences, when the IS far too quickly made a ‘turn to democratic centralism’ under Cliff’s urging. All of a sudden, we were ‘Leninists’ which was a little like being bears with very little brain. Not that this was “general” insanity: we were very involved in the brilliant autumn march in London against the Vietnam War, for example.
Higgins is wrong that it was influenced by the ‘Trotskyist Tendency’. The influence came from a couple of Lutte Ouvriere people who were visiting Manchester when we wrote it.
The reason it was called ‘Platform Four’ was that there were already three platforms in existence, nothing more. The title was an amusement.
Platform Four did not last beyond the conference at which a few of us were elected – under the constitution at the time, which gave ‘factional rights’ to supporters of different platforms – to the National Committee of the time. In Manchester, we were rapidly faced with a serious faction fight with the ‘Trotskyist Tendency’, which we initially lost heavily since we had absolutely zero experience of faction-fighting. To save what we could, we split the branch, which had become uninhabitable – a number of workers we had recruited left. At the start we only had a small and weak minority. We then slowly rebuilt, with some help from Chris Harman, Roger Rosewell, Andreas Nagliatti and Stephen Marks. The ‘TT’ proved unable to build much on their own; we even won some of their members back.
I’m not sure what ‘lessons’ can be drawn from all this. I think the ‘TT’ experience led, after their expulsion, to the production of a new constitution (drafted by Duncan Hallas?) which was later revised in the 2000s when I was on the NC. It turned out to contain a flaw that was not foreseen at the time, in the rigidity of its rules about factions.
Not the best period in the history of the internal life of the IS. It is remarkable we survived and even grew.”
vii) Mike Kidron and Hull IS
Mike Kidron (1930-2003) was born in South Africa and arrived in Britain via Palestine in 1953 whereupon he became a core member of the Socialist Review Group. He was the younger brother of Chanie Rosenberg and was thus the brother-in-law of Tony Cliff. From the outset he played a key role in the organisation’s publication Socialist Review. Kidron was the editor of the theoretical journal International Socialism for its first twenty issues (1960-1965), a golden period during which it made a real mark on the radical left. His major theoretical contribution to IS was the theory of the “Permanent Arms Economy” which explained how and why the major economies in the West had stabilised after the Second World War. This was critically important for IS as, unlike the orthodox Trotskyist organisations, it inoculated the organisation from the perspective of pre-ordained continuous or imminent capitalist crises.
Kidron moved to Hull to teach at the University in the latter part of the 1960’s and subsequently also became involved in the building of the publisher Pluto Press. From this period onwards, he was far less centrally involved in IS and had effectively severed activity by the mid-1970’s. He published major books such as Western Capitalism Since the War (1968) and Capitalism and Theory (1974).
Document 12 – “Where are we rushing to? Some comments and some proposals”. Michael Kidron. 4th July 1968. 2pp.
Kidron’s early riposte to Cliff is an important document. It is reproduced in full.
“It’s difficult to make the transition from a propaganda-and-protest organisation to a political one, but that’s obviously what we’re doing and should do, except that we should do it better.
Most of our work is and will continue to be on a local or sectional level, where particular problems and particular strengths and weaknesses loom very large, and where “trade-union consciousness” is often as far as workers will go in the first instance. We recognise this “fragmentation” and the unevenness in militancy that goes with it in general terms, yet we don’t have too clear a view of what we intend to do in the fragments – we don’t have policies which explain the balance of forces in an industry, or plant, or union, or locality; which focus on the demands and methods that might increase workers’ involvement; and which pinpoint the issues that might act as conductors to politics.
We need such formal, written policies. Wherever we have a couple of people in an identifiable sector, they should be required to produce one – to guide their own activities, to attract others to these activities and to IS. Such policy documents would serve as an interpretive screen for Socialist Worker’s editorial board and so save the weekly from both volatility and strike-chronicling. Properly elaborated, they could provide the sort of empirical-operational articles IS, the journal, could well do with.
Lack of policy at this level runs through most of our activities. It has been most noticeable recently in the student movement. A number of comrades have thrown themselves into intense organisational activity, very nearly committing us all, without having thought about the causes of the student protest, and so without being able to judge whether the current guerrilla phase is likely to continue or give way to a national movement, without having worked out a program to offer the 25-50,000 students (5-10%) likely – on present showing – to pass through this phase of intense self-mobilisaton, and without suggestions as to how to politicise the 10 per cent or so of such militants that might respond to our appeal.
Our failure here is particularly galling because we are in a position to offer national leadership in this sector, which is valuable in itself and as a source of recruitment. Our student comrades should tell us where they are going, why and how.
It’s not asking a great deal to want a stated policy as a framework for activity and a measure of achievement. It has been done to some extent in tenant work (see IS 31), in work amongst electricians (Berwick’s articles in SW) and Post Office engineers. It was very well done at one time in ENV. It is still done in an unorganised way whenever a group of comrades gather in one spot. All we need to do is organise, formalise and generalise it. Nor should comrades retire, each man to his Wold, to write. After a certain size and degree of involvement, writing and the sense of direction that comes with it is a necessary ingredient in activity, not a replacement for it.
This policy failure is magnified nationally. Discussion of our immediate prospects at the Centre has been alarmist and unhelpful. General strikes on the French pattern and the “seizure of state power” compete with calls to stop the rightward drift to fascism. Perhaps one or other is right. Perhaps both. But nobody can act on any of it unless reasons are given and the consequences for activity spelled out.
We might well conclude that the system is entering a period of gradually growing instability; that there will, as a result, be more unemployment and insecurity; and, in reaction to them, more – and more active – racialism, more and sharpening industrial disputes; that the Government will lay about even more with club and Castle, and so widen the road for political organisation in industry. But what should be the key political demands in our industrial work, or if that is premature, what are the broadest and most potentially-political “economist” demands? Do we ditch the Labour Party finally and utterly at an election (as we nearly did, without actually deciding to, at Sheffield, Brightside), or leave that decision to local circumstances? How and on what program do we approach black organisations?
Or are we facing a French development? In which case other questions arise and need to be answered.
We have a theory and a tradition of sorts. We have an organisation of sorts. In order to tie them together we need policy – national policy and fragmentary policies. Since we have an Admin. Committee, its first priority should be to shake out of our members policy statements for job, union, locality, whatever. The Political Committee should have as its first priority the elaboration of a general short-term prospectus, and as its second – guiding the fragmentary policies into some sort of agreement with their own. The EC should be a truly representative body concerned above all with accepting, rejecting and altering such policies as a basis for IS activity.
A final point. It’s not heresy, disloyalty or amateurism to ask for clarity and a sense of direction. It’s not outrageous to ask of people who are doing so much to inform their activities with coherence (and ultimately do less as more come to recognise the logic rather than simply receive instructions). We can make the transition from propaganda to politics, from interpretation to implementation. But to do so we need policies rather than impressions, guidance rather than regimentation.”
In his document Kidron acknowledges the need for change, but the very title of the piece shows him to be championing reasoned and planned change over the rush to action. It also shows him supporting bottom-up as well as top-down developments. This document is memorable not only for its astute political analysis but also for a statement that says so much about Kidron and his approach to his own work. Writing can never be an end in itself, only a means to an end—except Mike puts it so much more elegantly: “Nor should comrades retire, each man to his Wold, to write. After a certain size and degree of involvement, writing and the sense of direction that comes with it is a necessary ingredient in activity, not a replacement for it.”
Document 13 -“Once Again Where To? A Comment on Perspectives for IS”. Michael Kidron. September 1968. 2pp.
Once again Kidron takes issue with the IS Political Committee for its lack of proper political perspectives on which to base activity as well as organisational changes. As this is a short document it is also reproduced in full below.
“True enough: world capitalism is beginning to show signs of instability; British capitalism is under exceptional strain; head-on industrial collision has been avoided here because both classes still see alternatives; students are becoming politically active; IS is not yet very efficient as a political organization but is increasingly responsible for politics on the left.
It is also true, if exaggerated, that “we have to overcome our own past” and very, very true that “we can no longer afford any bifurcation between our….maximum program and….everyday struggles!
But whoever wrote “Perspectives for IS” should take their exhortations to heart. They have – in fine IS tradition – provided a static, cross-sectional analysis of current capitalism with special reference to those bits of it that we find most relevant. They have not tried to identify the likely course of events beyond saying that world trade will probably slow down and so have neither identified the key political questions that might face us in the near future nor fixed their organisational proposals in any real framework.
They have – and this, unfortunately, is on its way to becoming another fine old IS tradition – rejigged the evidence to accord with these organizational proposals (since when have we been “based upon a single, narrow….interpretation of the situation”? Programmatic agreement has always been the key to membership). They have blown up their quite unexceptional proposals into a matter of principle – another tradition? And they have shown their “realism” by asking for “debate and education….related to current activities and perspectives”, without providing perspectives of their own, or for that matter listing any books (bar one and a half dealing with Eastern Europe) written this decade.
We are still waiting for those vanishing perspectives, for some attempt at formulating the likely changes in our socio-political environment over the next year or so and at showing how we should react to, and influence them. Without it we can’t pretend to be anything of a political organization.
For example. There are going to be three-quarters of a million or so unemployed this winter (not allowing for the effect of GEC-AEI type closures, or mining rundowns and so on). Unemployment is a clear issue in its own right, and because of its relevance to racism, wages policy, and the rule of capital in general. Are we going to mount a campaign around it? If we are, how and for what demands?
Take another example, a little further in the distance. It looks as if the current British export boom will have affected investments sufficiently for employment to pick up fairly strongly next spring, that exports and employment will receive an additional fillip next year from the French economic revival and the DM’s likely revaluation (after the German election next autumn), and that the economic slowdown expected from the US might be postponed as arms expenditure goes up a notch or two following Russia’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. Wilson will be able to initiate a classic pre-election boom; and we – apart from being tempted to claim, wrongly, a victory for our winter campaign, if we have one, will be faced with important questions of evaluation and strategy;
- will the Labour Party’s rot have bitten so deep that the economic Spring will not affect workers’ readiness for politics? Probably not, but there are arguments the other way
- by constituting ourselves, formally as a political party – hinted at but glossed over in the “Perspectives” – will we be able to slow down, or even stop, the temporary depoliticization implied in (a)? And if we think we might, is it worth the damage such a move would cause to left unity, and to our attractiveness as a non-traditional-political-party and relatively non-self-centred organization?
And so on. In other words, could we have something more than a rationalization for organisational rationalization; something that could be used for, not only waved at, the discussion at the six-monthly (not biennial) aggregate; that could rightly be called a document on perspectives?”
It is quite clear from the above that Kidron saw the need, particularly in the circumstances of the day, for political thinking and political planning to a level of sophistication well above anything the Political Committee had so far entertained.
Document 14 -“We are not peasants: a note and proposals on IS organisation”. Hull IS. 10th October 1968. 2pp.
This document in the name of Hull IS is known to have been written by Mike Kidron. It was issued after the September IS Conference and is a plea for “operational political analysis” – “a view of the world in the here and now which links our activities to our basic assumptions”. It contains specific organizational proposals for the November Conference. The full text of the document is reproduced below:
“If our half yearly delegate meeting showed anything at all, it is that we are not yet a political organisation. The “Centre” appealed to our sense of good, truth and beauty, but did not reveal which aspects of the capitalist system they thought most vulnerable to attack at the moment, how we are to mobilize for it and how approach our potential allies. They failed to do for IS as a whole what Roger Cox and Steve Jefferys [NB: see Document 21] were doing so well for our engineering workers.
There are real problems in doing so. The world is not an open book. False consciousness abounds. In addition, and this is probably the most important factor for us, we have been growing so fast that many of our members have not had time or opportunity to assimilate IS experience and IS theory, or to get to know what different groups and individuals amongst us are doing.
As a consequence, the more experienced members feel it necessary to colonize within the group for tradition and to repeat and then repeat again the fundamentals of socialist theory. They find themselves neglecting the necessary processes of monitoring the world with a view to affecting it, and of keeping their eyes and ears open to what new members are doing and thinking.
On the other hand, many new members plunge into activity without understanding its broader meaning or being shown the relevance of the socialist political tradition to whatever they are doing.
The result is often a confused dialogue of the deaf, with the older comrades on the Political Committee trying to ram unargued proposals down our throats and some of the throats reacting at full blast but without proposals.
It would be tragic to allow the issues to be confused in this sort of dialogue: we need operational political analysis; that is, a view of the world in the here and now which links our activities to our basic assumptions. And we need constant internal justification of that analysis and its assumptions. Only the Political Committee can do the job, and only a Political Committee which concentrates as much of our political experience in one place – that is, one elected nationally. Such a political committee must be allowed every facility to do its work: full control over the political content of our press, the right to appoint editors and spokesmen, the right to disengage from administrative detail.
At the same time, we need to have a very clear idea of our own strengths and weaknesses in a rapidly changing situation, or else our political prescriptions will never find practical expression. A body like the Political Committee which reflects neither our unevenness in experience nor our dispersal in function and space has not got, and cannot have, this clear view. (So much, at least, we have learned from the way they presented – and then withdrew – their organisational proposals). To have such a view, to be able to decide on the practicability of the Political Committee’s proposals, on what is possible for IS as a whole to undertake, the body must be more representative of the branches as they exist – a delegate EC.
Since such a body should always be trying to adopt a national view and so overcome the unevenness and parochialism which make it necessary at this moment, its members should be elected by the branches for the period spanning the half yearly delegate conferences (subject always to recall). To help it in its day to day operations, it should select a secretariat or Administrative Committee (not necessarily from its own number).
The result would be a clear division of functions between the political and educational centre of IS (the Political Committee) and the decision taking and organizational centre (the EC). It is a division of functions that would prevent “the Centre,” to use the Political Committee’s current phrase, from throwing out organizational instructions when we want political advice, or fundamentalist iconography when we want organizational guidance. They would know what they were supposed to be doing, so would we. And they would soon find themselves appealing to reason, not loyalty or faith.
We therefore propose:
- A Political Committee elected by the half yearly delegate conference of about 12 members to formulate and publish IS perspectives, goals, policies and activities; to exercise control over the political content of our press; to promote our internal educational programme; to appoint editors and spokesmen; and to promote and harmonize in conjunction with the EC sectional and regional policy making in terms of our general goals and policies.
- A delegate EC elected by the branches between half-yearly conferences to decide IS’s activities in the light of the Political Committee’s recommendations, such an EC to appoint an Administrative Committee to help in its day to day administration. Branch delegates to reflect the “structure” of opinions in the branch.”
Document 15 -“Neither Lenin nor Luxemburg, but in reference to the environment in which we work”. Hull IS. 31st October 1968. 3pp.
This document is a response to the PC’s document of 21st October (Document 4). Of course, it will not have been lost on any experienced IS members what Mike Kidron meant and who he was aiming at in the title of this contribution.
It starts with a quote from Tony Cliff’s book Rosa Luxemburg as follows:
“It is only by juxtaposing Luxemburg’s and Lenin’s conceptions [of organisation] that one can attempt to assess the historical limitations of each which were, inevitably, fashioned by the special environment in which each worked.”
Picking up this theme Hull IS continued:
“If Lenin stressed party organization in the early years of the century it was to compensate for the absence of independent working-class organizations and for the weakness of a Russian socialist tradition. If Luxemburg stressed spontaneity ten or so years later it was to compensate for the fossilized, centralized bureaucratic tradition of German social-democracy.
We don’t have their reasons to overcompensate in either direction; there are independent working-class formations in the country and vestiges of a socialist tradition which we want to influence; at the same time there is no single institution spanning the entire labour movement, so we have to provide the organizational apparatus ourselves.
What sort should this apparatus be? As we suggested in our document “We are not peasants; a note and proposals on IS organization” (dated 10th October), it must be such as to enable us to concentrate “as much of our political experience as possible in one place in order to exert our influence most effectively”. At the same time it must enable us to translate our politics into activity realistically, that is with regard to our own strengths and weaknesses, and our position in the wider movement. In practice, our organization should allow for a nationally elected Political Committee and a delegate Executive Committee.”
The document goes on to identify and explain the eight reasons why the present Political Committee does not like the idea of a delegate EC and to answer each reason. That section of the document concludes by saying:
“We propose, once again, that there be a functional distinction between central policy-making by a nationally elected PC with control over our publications, editors and spokesmen, and central policy-decision by a delegate EC and its Administrative Committee.”
The document ends with a long list of amendments to the PC’s Constitutional Proposals.
Jim Higgins (1997) commented thus about these last two (14 & 15) documents from Hull IS:
“From the Hull branch came two brief but apposite documents that bore all the hallmarks of being written by one of that branches’ members, Michael Kidron. The first and most significant was called “We are not peasants”. Arguing forcefully for the retention of the branch delegate EC, he claimed that because there had been a large growth in membership, those new members had not had the time or the opportunity to assimilate IS theory or experience. This then resulted in the leadership attempting to find answers to the problems from the revolutionary tradition and neglecting their most important task of monitoring the world about us, so that they could direct the membership in meaningful activity. Not only should they be exercising political leadership but also, “keeping their eyes and ears open to what the new members are saying and doing.” The necessary interchange between the PC and the members could best be ensured by retaining the branch delegate structure for the EC. Paradoxically, and despite its opposition to the “Leninist” forms, this was the most Leninist of the contributions to the debate, it started from an appreciation of the importance of looking outward, it assessed the forces available to us, their strengths and weaknesses, and then formulated a plan to get the best from everyone. It was serious politics and it was totally unsuccessful, because nobody was really paying attention.”
I feel duty bound to mention it, because Higgins does not – Jim Higgins was himself a key member of the IS Political Committee at this time. I take it that he is also criticising his own inadequate attention span?
viii) Libertarian Marxist Faction
There had been a Libertarian Marxist tradition in the organisation for just about as long as the organisation had existed. Prominent members of the tradition from the 1950’s had included Raymond Challinor, Seymour and Donna Papert, James D. Young and Peter Sedgwick. In a piece of political analysis many will find surprising (and may disagree with) Paul Foot applies the label directly to Tony Cliff. Writing in his obituary of Tony Cliff, Paul wrote:
“this achievement [building the largest and most confident organisation to the left of the Labour Party] was due largely to Cliff’s most striking qualities; his immense intellectual power and his ability to explain his libertarian Marxism in simple language.” (Foot, 2000).
The tradition was very much still alive in IS in 1968.
Document 16 –“Democratic Centralism Versus Bureaucratic Centralism: A Reply to Comrade Cliff and a Foreword to Libertarian Marxism”. Ray Challinor. November 1968. 3pp.
“Raymond Challinor (1929-2011) was an ILP member before joining the RCP in 1947.In June 1948 he wrote an article “State Capitalism-A New Order” to describe the Soviet Union and on the back of his beliefs it was natural that he would later join with Cliff and his State Capitalist faction. He was a lynchpin of the early Socialist Review newspaper and stayed politically close to the SWP throughout his life. An outstanding Marxist historian of the working-class movement he left behind an impressive body of written work.” (Rudge, 2015).
This document is written with the authority of someone who was a founding member of the organisation. It strikes me as important in that it challenges Tony Cliff head-on, with no holds barred. No other document in this debate tackles the issues in quite this manner. For this reason and notwithstanding its length, the document is reproduced in full below:
“In an attempt to confuse comrades, Cliff has deliberately indulged in distortion. He has accused people like myself of adopting a federalist position. The putting up of straw arguments, which can easily be knocked down has so far absolved him from even considering the position of many of his opponents.
Unlike Cliff, I believe in Democratic Centralism – that is to say, I want to see the formation in Britain of a revolutionary party that combines the maximum strength with the fullest freedom for its members. In a party based on proletarian principles, the role of the rank and file is paramount. Vitality and energy, the creative force of the entire party comes from the membership; the leadership is subordinate to its commands. On the other hand, in the capitalist form of democracy the rights of the rank and file are formal, restrictive and, whatever the wording of the constitution, the party machine manipulates the membership in the way the leadership wants.
For the past sixty years, revolutionary socialists have suffered in a number of different organisations – Social Democratic, Stalinist and Trotskyist – which, while purporting to be democratic, have been more concerned to control the rank and file than to provide it with opportunity for expression. Any constitution that the IS group formulates that fails to take cognisance of this fact merely turns its back on the tragedies of the past. It also puts an immense obstacle between itself and many of the best militants, comrades who are well aware, from their personal experience, of the dangers of vesting power in a hierarchical superstructure and will only join an organisation where the membership have the maximum rights and guarantees written into the constitution.
I would like to challenge Cliff to answer a question: where does he disagree with the organisational form of the RCP in the ‘forties and the Trotskyist movement in the ‘fifties? In what way does he want to foist on us something different to the bureaucratic arrangements of Messrs. Haston and Healy?
I would remind him, as a fellow foundation member of the group, that the Socialist Review group owes its very existence to the denial of the democratic rights within the Trotskyist movement. Yet, he today wishes us to adopt a constitution which, in essence, is the same as that to which we fell victim in the Autumn of 1950.
Of course, some comrades argue, like Stephen Marks at the last aggregate, that the organisational structure of the Trotskyist movement is excellent, but the application in practice has been defective. There might be some justice in this position – the blame could be put on accidental factors such as the personality of leading figures, like Healy, had not the same development been repeated time and again, in every Trotskyist organisation in every country. When this occurs, it becomes not an accidental occurrence, but an inherent trend.
When Cliff puts forward his views on organisation, he puts them forward as if they were THE views, the epitome of Leninist rectitude that everybody must automatically accept or place themselves in outer darkness. He quotes from Lenin’s “What is To Be Done” as if it is the last word on the subject; indeed for him it certainly is. But for other comrades, whose minds were not ossified way back in 1902, then the experience of the last sixty years necessarily causes us to make some modifications.
In doing so, it is we – not Cliff – who adopt Marx’s methodology. For Marx’s views on organisation underwent a number of changes, and he advocated a number of different organisational forms. These were:
- The International League of Communists (1847-52), a small international organisation of communist cadres
- The “Party” without an organisation, a position he adopted in the 1850’s and early ‘60’s during the ebb in working class activity
- The First International, (1864-72) a broad federation of labour organisations holding many diverse views
- Mass national Marxist parties, like German Social Democracy from the 1870’s to the 1890’s
- In countries where political consciousness was not so highly developed, such as Britain and the United States, he adopted the formation of national labour parties even if they had no socialist commitment.
I think it is obvious from the foregoing, that Marx’s views on organisation cannot be encapsulated by Cliff’s little anecdote about Marx representing Russia in the First International, without knowing a word of Russian. Marx’s views of organisation were dialectical, not static. It is highly doubtful whether he would hold up a hundred years later, the conduct that took place within an International where there were many opportunists and Union bureaucrats, as a shining socialist example. At the time, his conduct was determined by the exigencies of the situation, factional battles within the International where others were resorting to the methods of manipulation.
Cliff would be ill advised to suggest that what Marx did under extreme and provocative circumstances – and which was never to be repeated by leading socialists – should now become standard practice. Many militants today are all too familiar with having leaders who speak a different language to themselves.
When Cliff turns to Lenin, attempting to justify his position with reference to Lenin’s 1902 line on the vanguard party, he again forgets that it was another instance of ideas being modified by subsequent events. In 1917, when the Russian masses, with no prompting from the Bolsheviks, set up Soviets, Lenin acknowledged that the rank and file were a thousand times more revolutionary than the party leadership. Indeed, his struggle, starting with the April theses, to persuade the central committee to accept the need for a socialist revolution, shows that advances in ideas do not necessarily go along with advances in practice.
What I am arguing is that, while there is a need for a revolutionary party – a highly organised and active body, capable of playing a crucial role in the essential job of smashing the capitalist state – it is wrong to regard this as a vanguard party. My reasons for saying this are:
- That it is historically untrue. On many occasions, of which the formation of Soviets is one example, the masses have been ahead of the party
- It is undialectical, since it presupposes a fixed, immutable relationship between the party and the class
- And, third, it fails to recognise the mutual interaction of the practice of the class struggle, and the theory that emanates from it. Instead the idea reflects the divisions within society, the boss-worker relationship where one group tells another what it should do.
In fact, both the class and the revolutionary party are like two feet: in the march to socialism, one foot is in front of the other only to be overtaken by the other. Their activity is mutually necessary.
Yet Cliff turns his back on the experiences, the ghastly errors, of vanguard parties over the past half century. Like a Bourbon Monarch, he has learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. His mind is fixed at the concepts and conditions of Russia in 1902, and the needs for ultra-centralism that were required during Tsarist illegality. He fails to acknowledge that subsequently Lenin revised his views and opposed centralisation, both within the Russian Communist Party and the Third International.
In his arguments with Stalin, Trotsky frequently made this point:
“In this question, Lenin played the role of moderator to the end of his days. On more than one occasion, he warned against centralist predilections on the part of the leadership, fearing that, if the political preconditions were lacking, centralism would degenerate into bureaucratism. The development of the political and ideological maturity of communist parties has its own internal rhythm, based on their own experience. The existence of the Comintern and the decisive role played in it by the CPSU can accelerate this rhythm. But this acceleration can be conceived only within certain limits. When they are overstepped by attempts to substitute strictly administrative measures for independent activity, for self-criticism, for the capacity of self-orientation, directly opposite results may be attained, and in a whole series of cases, such directly opposite results have been achieved” (Trotsky: Third International After Lenin p. 238).
When Cliff strives to impose Centralisation, disregarding the widely differing stages of development reached in various parts of the country, he is not acting in the tradition of Lenin and Trotsky. Instead, he places himself with some very strange bedfellows. And, if he were to succeed in his plan, then the result would be bureaucratic centralism – not democratic centralism.”
That this document has been lost and forgotten in the mists of time is something of a tragedy. It is a real pleasure to resurface it here and show one of the organisation’s most respected members arguing in such a cogent style against the leadership of the day.
This Challinor document acts as an introduction to the following document (number 17).
Document 17 –“On the Proposal to Form a Libertarian Marxist Faction Inside International Socialism”. Ray Parry et al. November 1968. 8pp.
This is a document with a difference on at least two counts. Firstly, it is authored by a group of comrades in Manchester, some of whom are current members of IS and some of whom are not. Secondly, it is presented in advance of the November Conference but with the aim of forming a Libertarian Marxist Faction inside IS after that conference.
The current IS members putting their names to the document are Ray Parry, Chris Murphy, Rick Sumner, Ken Green, Dave Clark, Chris Sumner, Joni Jones, Alan Hill, Jack Gately, Pete Cockroft, Nick Belford and Kevin Green. The non-IS comrades listed are Dave Peters, Ben Horwood, Pat Troop and Dave Edgar.
As a contribution to far-left trivia, and little else, it is worth saying that I presume “Dave Edgar” to be the playwright David Edgar who was a leading light in the Manchester University Socialist Society at this time.
The “Preamble” to the document runs as follows:
“If the PC’s organisational and political proposals did anything to IS, they served the very useful function of making us all aware of how theoretically unprepared we were to deal with capitalism and the transition to socialism. They made us sit up and think and take activity seriously instead of bumbling along and hoping that it would all turn out for the best if we just left it to “them”.
It has become clearer to us how a revolutionary group will attract to itself many different sorts of theories and political standpoints, and that these may in many cases have completely [different] views of how the system of technological capitalism may be changed into a system of libertarian socialism.
This leaflet does not represent a fully developed set of theories: it is more an acknowledgement of the fact that the PC’s proposals caught us unawares and unprepared. We would have preferred a six-month period between the two conferences so that we might see a lot more debate and discussion in the group than there has been. Inevitably the established ideas of the “Centralists” stood a far better chance of acceptance in the group than the newer and untried ideas of those who found themselves united in their opposition to centralism now, rather than being able to fight back with a fully developed and cohesive set of arguments to hand. Among those who are in opposition to the PC’s proposals are both those who are opposed to the whole idea of Centralism, and also those who want the idea but don’t think that the group is yet ready for it.
We are a group of comrades in Manchester who are opposed to the ideas of democratic centralism. Most of us are already in International Socialism but would have to consider our role in the group very carefully if we do not have factional representation and the chance to fight for our ideas to be adopted by the group as a whole. Some of us are not in IS but would join if we could have the factional guarantees that we enumerate here. We feel that there are many more revolutionary socialists who we know would come into the group if it kept open a libertarian wing.
This leaflet, then, is to be regarded as an attempt to unite all those in the group, and close to the group but not in it. We want to see a libertarian socialist society and believe that the means we adopt to get it will be one of the most important determining factors in deciding its nature.
We invite all our comrades who agree generally with what we say in this leaflet to get in touch with us at the conference and form a libertarian Marxist faction inside IS.”
The document consists of six main sections. The title and some of the key sentences from each appears below:
“a) The Changing Nature of the Working Class
The working class of today is qualitatively a completely different species than the Russian working class of 1917. If we want models of what the coming working class (determined in terms of sale of Labour Power) would look like in the coming period, then we look not at backward colonial Russia but at California 1968. The demands of technological capitalism are such as to produce a more sophisticated, politically more adept, and infinitely more affluent working class than the models that the Political Committee’s ideas suppose.
Struggles today take place not on basic “economism” crude and simple, but far more in terms of “status” distinctions, job control and the good life obtainable from advanced technology. These are not the old demands of nationalisation or health insurance or indeed any other range of the old rallying cries……
…….Politically, the working class has always rejected any form of “other imposed” ideology forced on it by authoritarian groups. It has learned from its own hard experience who it can trust and how it can trust them…..To have any significance, a working-class organisation has to come from the class, and be part of the class: it also has to be under the full control of the class.
b) The Idea of the State
The state is the embodiment of the power of the ruling class. Under technological capitalism, it serves the function not so much of coercing the workers as seducing them. Appeals are not made in terms of brute force and starvation levels, but of “National Interest”, “the National Cake” and all that crap…..
The state cannot be pinned down as an entity at any one stage. It is not Whitehall, or Number Ten, or the Police Force or the Army. These are really only the open expression of a set of economic relationships. In a very real sense, he who controls the means of production controls the state. What is meant, then, by the capture of state power, the “political revolution”? It is not our party in power rather than theirs. Adherence to an overtly revolutionary ideology is no guarantee of revolutionary integrity once this form of State Power has been achieved. No, we have before us the prospect of the construction of an entirely new form of self-organisation…..
- The Idea of the Party
The Party is necessary. We have no doubt in our minds about this.
But, we differ on what a revolutionary party is. We agree that it represents the collective experience of Marxist activity over previous periods. We also see that there are differing levels of consciousness among the working class, and that the function of the party is to link the vanguard elements in the struggle against capitalism. It shares their experience, discusses their activity, co-ordinates their actions.
But a party is also many other things….A party should attempt to show the way, given the knowledge of its cadres, but its task is not to lead from outside….it cannot be a leadership. The masses themselves are the leadership, with their own leading cadres responsible to, and elected by the masses….The function of the Party cadres in struggle is to generalise from the particular experience of the class, to suggest ways forward and so on, but always at and just above the level of consciousness being generated in that struggle. It is not a case of a central committee issuing the lead. It is a case of the cadres at grass roots level generalising the struggle of the workers in terms of their own perceptions……
- The Shape of the Future Society
……We look for a society based on workers control and international socialism. We look for a society where the readily identifiable concentration of coercive and mystifying power has disappeared, and instead there is in its place a myriad of indigenous organisations, associations, publications and institutions based on class power and mutual aid. At every level in the new society there will be checks and balances on the power of man over man. There will be built-in rights of recall at every level; where the basis of power – the means of production – will not become concentrated in the hands of the few but will constantly remain under the control of the collective…..
- Some Organisational Disagreements
We are against the ideas of the Political Committee for the following general reasons:
- We feel that the reason for the degeneration of the Russian Revolution came about because 1) it failed internationally, but 2) because of the whole organisational concept of the Bolshevik party. It is true that Stalinism as a sociological (rather than economic) phenomenon had its roots in Leninism. Any party that allows itself to become dominated by its Central Committee, and even one man, is doomed from the start…..
- We fear that the PC’s proposals will kill off the creative power of self-activity, and substitute for it the dead hand of bureaucracy
- We feel that the PC’s proposals will successfully isolate them from most of the activity that is being carried on at grass-roots level in the group. They will have little or no feedback from the focus of the group – the local units…….”.
The final section contains some organisational proposals that the authors of the document would like to see. They are described as:
“transitional between the stage the group is now at, and the federalist structure which we would like to see”.
The areas of organisation covered are the Bi-Annual Aggregate, Political Committee, Executive Committee, Group Officers, Administrative Committee, a definition of membership and membership subscriptions.
ix) Some Others
Document 18 – “IS Organisation Structure”. Barry Slater, Terry Barrett et al. Undated. 2pp.
The full list of signatories to this document is Barry Slater, Terry Barrett, Dave Rugg, Jean Rugg, Tony Reid, Tony Gordon, Dave Verguson and Sabby Sagall.
This document recognises the need for a centre that can act quickly. It goes on, however, to say that:
“we cannot afford to sacrifice centralism for a democratic/referendum fetish, but nor can we afford to do away with the real democracy in the group to establish a purely centralist structure. Whatever constitutional changes we adopt, we must satisfy 3 principles arising from our own theory: (1) An effective centre to the group, with full executive powers (2) A centre responsible to the membership via the right of recall (3) The maximum participation of the membership in the making of group decisions.”
The document then proceeds to outline proposals to meet these principles.
I did have to admire the farsightedness of one section of this document in foretelling with 100% accuracy the future impact of the PC’s plans on conferences and the election of the Central Committee. Any past or present member of the SWP will recognise this as an accurate description of what has, in fact, happened:
“….the group conference will become a less and less adequate form of imposing the group’s will on the centre. Elections, for instance, will be increasingly predictable, as the comrades who may not be the most suitable, but more importantly, will be the best known, i.e. those already involved at the centre, will be elected in preference to others of whom, whatever their qualities, little will be known. This will be particularly so if nominations and recommendations are to come from the previous centre (anyone with previous experience of the CP will know quite well how that system operates). Delegates will find themselves in a situation where, not knowing other delegates, they will be inclined to vote for those already at the centre, or those recommended by the existing centre. Election will give way to selection, and there will be an inevitable tendency for the centre to perpetuate itself”.
Can I borrow their crystal ball please?
Document 19 – “IS Organisation Structure”. Teeside IS branch. Undated. 2pp.
This is the same document as above, with a little more than a few typographical and grammatical changes.
Document 20 – “The Revolutionary Party by George Lukacs”. Anon. Undated. 10pp.
This “document” is anonymous and consists entirely of the chapter “The Vanguard Party of the Proletariat” from the book by George Lukacs, Lenin: A Study on the Unity of his Thought.
If one were looking for clues as to who was responsible for this item there are two available. Firstly, the front cover has this quote from Lukacs in capital letters:
“DOGMATISM ON THE LEVEL OF THEORY AND RIGIDITY ON THE LEVEL OF ORGANISATION ARE FATAL TO THE PARTY”.
This statement is also on the cover:
“This document, of great relevance to the present debate in IS, is an extract from Lukacs’ book on Lenin, first published in 1924. It is a brilliant and lucid dialectical account of Leninist organisation, which reads in parts like an indictment of the vulgar and mechanical presentations, for and against, current in certain tendencies of the revolutionary left today”.
My initial thought from the wording of the second quote was that the document may have been circulated from outside of IS. Ian Birchall, however, has another theory and he says (pers. comms.):
“my recollection is that the person who translated Lukács’s Lenin was Jairus Banaji – from the French, not the original German. He translated the whole book by 1969, but then there were problems with copyright and New Left Books published a translation in 1970. So, I think the document may have been circulated by Banaji”.
Document 21 – “Some Proposals on the Industrial Perspective and Organisation of IS”. Undated (but before September Conference). Roger Cox & Steve Jefferys. 4pp.
Roger Cox joined the Socialist Review Group in the late 1950’s as an engineering apprentice and in 1968 he was employed at the CAV factory in Acton, London. Steve Jefferys left the LSE in 1968 and started work at the same factory. Both were members of the engineering trade union the AEF. They are intent on defining a way forward for IS on the industrial front in general and the engineering industry in particular.
In looking at this document I must admit to having thought “at last!”. Cliff may have been having grandiose illusions of a “revolutionary combat organisation” but the reality is that recruiting 500 (or 5000 or even 50000) students does not make that happen. You cannot have such an organisation without worker members in the workplace! Here Cox and Jefferys start from what Mike Kidron suggested back on 4th July, namely defining policies to guide activities, which in turn will attract others to these activities and to IS.
The document opens as follows:
“Both immediate and long-term problems face the Group as regards its initiatives on the industrial front.
For those working in the engineering and associated industries the National Strike on October 21st constitutes the most immediate problem: how do we, as IS members, both support what will be a partial struggle conducted along lines laid down by others and put over our political position at the same time. Additionally, what is our political position?
The fact that we have not yet clearly articulated our industrial political perspectives and strategy, is the more long-term problem. Neither the leafleting of factories, nor the small groups of IS members in the major industries are working in co-ordination towards any specific set of objectives. Obviously, if IS is to expand its industrial working-class base, they should be. But how should we set about developing a strategy, and when?
The aggregate session on industry is primarily concerned with this second long-term problem. We propose to put forward two ways of treating the subject. Firstly, from a broad view of the whole industrial strategy of the Group; and secondly, from a narrower view – that of IS engineers. Finally, we propose to raise a few suggestions on the very particular, but nonetheless important question, of the Engineers’ Strike and the Group’s approach to it.”
Cox and Jefferys suggest the methodology to follow to articulate and develop an overall IS industrial strategy. This entails i) agreeing some broad-brush areas at Conference ii) drawing up a draft industrial document between the Political Committee and some industrial members iii) holding a weekend school for those involved in industrial work iv) finalising the document and circulating it to all branches v) EC agreeing to the final document. All of these steps have dates attached to them in the document with a view to completing the process in two months.
Regarding the upcoming debate at the September IS Conference the following areas of discussion are identified:
- “An analysis of the major economic developments (e.g. redundancy, mergers, productivity deals etc.) and the way in which the working class is reacting to them. A discussion of class-consciousness and the way in which IS can enter the wider arena of this consciousness (e.g. propaganda and/or transitional programmes etc.)
- A critical discussion of the old IS emphasis on the role of the shop-steward and merely industrial link-ups between the “fragments”, and our old analysis of the fragments itself. A review of IS interventions in industry to date
- An analysis of the other political groupings in industry and a consideration of what we can learn from their mistakes and achievements. Establishment of a perspective for IS recruitment among the industrial working class: which industries to “attack”, which age groups, and which militants with what kind of political attachments? etc.
- Specification of a transitional programme or reformist programme that is particular to IS – with a justification in theoretical terms of why this is a necessary step. The establishment of guidelines for our members in industry in their activities inside the unions, and guidelines for other members active in industry on politicisation and the “servicing” of struggles, leaflets etc. Political guidelines on factory discussion groups, IS industrial branches etc.”
In terms of the engineering industry Cox and Jefferys believe that there is already a sufficient basis for the establishment of an IS Engineers Group which can itself serve as a recruiting agent to socialist ideas.
The process they recommend formalising for this is i) the production of a draft document on the engineering industry (already in preparation) ii) circulation of the document and iii) a meeting of all IS engineers and those who work with engineers. Practical outcomes are seen as formally establishing an IS Engineers Group and the initiation of a bulletin or journal. Again, this is all timetabled, this time over a maximum of three months.
As regards the initial draft document on the engineering industry it is to consider:
- “The history of the engineers – the main reasons why militants find themselves today in the situations they do
- The main problems facing the working-class today – on both economic and political levels
- The main problems being experienced by industrial militants – “isolation” and their reformist position leading them to lose sight of the socialist potential of the working-class as a whole; the position of shop stewards
- Various solutions to these individual and collective problems provided by the CP, reformist and right-wing groupings – criticisms of these non-solutions
- IS position on these problems; necessity for creating a socialist/class labour movement based on socialist opposition to capitalism as being the only real solution.”
The benefit of the approach outlined is explained thus:
“On the basis of a specific IS group in engineering and a regular bulletin, we could achieve the necessary kind of particular identification within the industry (neither SW nor R&F does that), provided our politics as opposed to our militancy, came to the fore. The bulletin could bind us together as a working faction in the industry as opposed to other groups and could also be a forum for debate and passing of information on contemporary and specific industrial developments. It could also pass information on to all engineers in the Group as to which factories are being leafleted, on what subjects, with what results, and where contacts are being won.”
The whole document concludes with a series of practical proposals for work around the forthcoming national strike in engineering.
Without a single mention of “democratic centralism”, organisational structure, methods of election or lines of communication Cox and Jefferys seem to me to be showing in this document what should be done and in what order. I have always thought that the politics drive the type of organisation rather than the organisation driving the politics. I am not alone in this. Mike Kidron was equally impressed when he wrote (in Document 14):
“They [the IS Political Committee] failed to do for IS as a whole what Roger Cox and Steve Jefferys were doing so well for our engineering workers.”
Document 22 – “Why We Joined IS”. Trotskyist Tendency. November 1968. 4pp.
It has already been recorded how it was that the only organisation to answer the IS unity proposals of May in the affirmative was the tiny (about 10 strong!) Workers’ Fight group. Within IS they took on the name of the Trotskyist Tendency (TT).
As they only joined after the November 1968 conference they did not have, in a formal sense, any documents at the 1968 conferences. They are, however, of some importance to the whole story of the Leninist party, democratic centralism, factions and tendencies – as well as demonstrating conclusively how IS should not progress left unity negotiations (see Higgins, 1971).
This document is included in this collection as it was the first one produced within IS by the Trotskyist Tendency and was published the day before the November conference. The document sets out the stall of the TT in its relationship with IS very clearly:
“……We [i.e. Workers’ Fight] are faced with a situation of the increasing ossification of the ‘Trotskyist’ groups on the one hand; and on the other, the growth of IS as a left centrist current and the important changes taking place in it. At the same time an unprecedentedly sharp period of the possible class struggle demands the utmost of revolutionaries.
This situation faced us with a vitaI question: should we preserve a separate existence as a tiny group, widely spread geographically and incapable of engaging in much effective mass work? A group our size, attempting to re-lay the foundations of some sort of Trotskyist movement, is necessarily faced with being first and foremost a propaganda group educating basic cadres and appealing to revolutionaries and socialists. This would mean little possibility of any serious participation in big struggles.
In many conditions there would be no principled alternative but to hold to this course. However, the development of a left centrist group seriously trying to come to grips with the job that needs to be done (though often in a manner we disagree with), which allows internal freedom of discussion and factions – the existence of this group offers another road: “fusion” with IS allows us to make propaganda internally and at the same time to participate in meaningful class action. Given freedom of discussion and propaganda within IS, together with a general identity of views on a wide range of activity (in fact, extensive previous practical joint work), not to join and take the opportunity of participating both in IS’s internal clarification and its mass work would be absolutely sectarian.
……We see the future for IS as needing clarification politically, shedding much of the past, and allowing a serious possibility of the emergence at the end of perhaps a 2-3-year process of growth (we hope) and clarification, of an organisation holding to the fundamentals of Trotskyism free from its recent derangements. In this event (the most favourable perspective) the Trotskyist Tendency would simply merge and dissolve in the transformed group. On the other hand, it must be said clearly that there is also a possibility in the current transformation and further transformations, of sharp struggles developing which could lead to splits in IS and the generation of new sects.
We cannot foresee. But we see our role as that of a loyal faction, functioning as part of the group in activity and in the process of discussion.
We think IS, to play the role which is vacant, must be utterly transformed in approaches and methods. We think a return to the fundamental positions and traditions of Trotskyism, spurned by the leadership of IS in the past and in practice mocked and caricatured by the British ‘Trotskyists’, is the necessary transformation. And not only a ‘return’, but a fusion of the revolutionary socialists with the class struggle in Britain. We must build up the group seriously and honestly on the basis of Leninist politics – which does not merely consist in methods of organisation! We must fight sectarianism without being opportunist in seeing sectarianism as a concern for clarity and principles. Revolutionary socialist unity in action – dialogue where there are differences.
Loyalty to decisions arrived at by the collective majority, and seriousness in action must be the precondition for IS – ours also. However, it would be less than honest if we pretend to have any political confidence in the leadership of IS. We don’t. Their past practice precludes it; serious differences of principle which we have with them preclude it, and the obvious empiricism with which they react to the current situation precludes it.
We call now for a RETURN TO TROTSKYISM, for the regroupment of the healthy forces in the revolutionary left in Britain, and we believe that in the absence of an external force for cohesion and unity (such as the Russian Revolution was in the early 1920s), the only way out of the present impasse is by the development of a serious Leninist group free from the defects of the sects. We think IS, or a large section of it, could achieve this. This is why we have joined IS.”
The document then proceeds to list the four conditions for membership of the Trotskyist Tendency. Number 3 is, of course, of particular relevance here:
“1) Loyal activity in the organisation.
2) Agreement on the basic Programme of Trotskyism – the documents of the first four Congresses of the Communist International and the Founding Conference of the Fourth International.
3) We work to construct a Leninist Party, democratic centralist in the real sense, not the centralised centrism proposed by the Political Committee (although, because we feel that even that is preferable to the ineffective looseness of IS’s present, we support it now without illusions). To us democratic centralism is the organisational expression of the conscious Leninist conception of working class politics (a method which is utterly different from the IS leadership’s past actions and attitudes and also from its current ‘conversion’ to the bare forms of democratic centralism). Democratic centralism relies on political clarity, a minimum level of development of members and a minimum level of activity: without these, democracy is a farce, and without democracy effective centralism is impossible.
4) We stand for a defencist attitude towards all colonial struggles against imperialism, and towards the Stalinist states against imperialism: this, in its original Trotskyist definition, does not mean support for the bureaucracies and their foreign policies, nor can it ever go against the interests of the world revolution or working class of the Stalinist states. It is defence against reactionary parasitic imperialism.”
It seems incredible that Workers’ Fight, a group publicly avowing that IS was not a revolutionary organisation but a centrist one, should have been invited in. Indeed, it was incredible and a bad mistake that Duncan Hallas was quite prepared to admit to (Hallas, 1971).
This 1971 document by Hallas, written as part of the process of removing the TT from IS, is useful in that it has a short section on factions and the 1968 debates that reads as follows:
“A faction is a more or less temporary grouping of members formed to fight for (or against) some specific policy proposal or proposals, the ‘Trotskyist Tendency’ has never been a faction in the real sense. This is very clearly indicated by the extraordinary fact that it maintained a system of probationary membership. The only test for membership of a real faction is agreement with its stated platform. Probationary membership is the mark of a separate and exclusive organisation. That is what the ‘Trotskyist Tendency’ has been and that is what the Platform [of the TT] indicates it is intended to continue.
Discussion with some of our members has shown that the point needs elaboration. Evidently one of the negative effects of the presence of the ‘Trotskyist Tendency’ has been to confuse some members about the nature and purpose of platform factions. In 1968–69 we had a number of real factions, for example the ‘Democratic Centralists’, the ‘Micro-faction’ and ‘Platform Four’. They were groupings of comrades who wished, at that time, to push the organisation in particular directions and to change its organisational structure accordingly. They held open meetings to discuss and expound their views and to solicit votes.
The factional struggle was quite sharp and in the heat of the conflict a good many uncomradely things were said. Finally, Conference decisions were made on the disputed questions. The factions more or less rapidly dissolved. No-one ordered them to dissolve. They dissolved because new issues were arising and new alignments of comrades on those issues. They dissolved precisely because they were genuine factions. Today there are former members of each of these factions on the National Committee. They do not vote according to the former factional line up. They vote according to their individual estimates of the merits of current proposals. Tomorrow there may be new factions, and no one can predict with any accuracy what the line up will be. It is very unlikely to be similar to the earlier factional alignment.
A permanent faction means, sooner or later, a split.”
5. What Happened Next?
Mention has already been made of the fact that the “Perspectives for IS” document (number 3) written by the Political Committee was only distributed to branches days before the IS Conference of 28-29th September. In addition, motions on the conference agenda include the following phrases:
“that in view of the inadequate time for discussion on the organisational question, the late appearance of important documents and the lack of thorough discussion in the organisation…” (from the Political Committee itself!)
“…no decision should be taken on the organisation question at this totally inadequately prepared conference…” (East London branch).
These issues, combined with the ludicrously inadequate document (number 2) put forward by Cliff by way of justification for the turn to democratic centralism and the myriad of other points of view expressed by members, meant that the September conference was a train crash waiting to happen.
Cliff (2000) describes the conference as “stormy” and the debates as “heated” with the libertarians at one pole and “toy Bolsheviks” at the other. Cliff continues:
“I did not speak at all on the factional issues because the moment I spoke it would only serve to unite all the factions in their anger and disappointment at the leadership not delivering the goods as quickly as the comrades, in their inexperience, had expected. The need was to consolidate the group. Therefore, the question of democratic centralism (rather than everyone for themselves doing their own thing) was very important. Democracy that does not lead to common action results in bureaucratic anarchy, where the person with the loudest voice predominates or there is action which pulls in many directions and cancels itself out.
The most impressive intervention at the conference was by Duncan Hallas. The comrades there did not know who he was, as he had left the organisation in 1954 and had now reappeared. The comrades who argued against Leninist democratic centralism on the grounds that Leninism leads to Stalinism were all very young and inexperienced. Therefore, when Duncan, who was in his forties, spoke with real authority, it was extremely impressive. What he said was short and sharp and included the question, ‘If Leninism led to Stalinism, why did Stalin kill all the Leninists?’ His speech was absolutely riveting. Still he was heckled by some delegates.”
These remarks of Cliff do seem to rather avoid many of the valid arguments made in the documents I have provided in this article. Clearly, also, it is a grave disservice to comrades of the longevity and calibre of Raymond Challinor to seek to, in effect, equate opposition to Cliff as just the work of the very young and inexperienced.
Cliff concludes with:
“the atmosphere of the conference led me to propose an adjournment of the conference for a couple of months”.
Cliff’s point that he himself proposed an adjournment of the conference does make him sound the real statesman. His point does, however, conveniently ignore the fact that the Conference Agenda contained two amendments (from Lambeth and East London branches) to a Political Committee motion saying that conference decisions on the organisational matters be deferred to a recall conference in two months time. This is what indeed happened.
The snappily named “Special Conference on Organization” was arranged for 2.00pm-8.00pm on Saturday 30th November at the Beaver Hall, London, EC4. Richard Kuper was selected by the Political Committee to chair the Conference (as he had the September conference). Ian Birchall suggested to me (pers. comms.) that:
“My impression is that Richard was chosen as Chair because, as well as being competent at the job, he was on Cliff’s side but with reservations, so he was seen as someone acceptable to all sides”.
Richard Kuper himself commented thus (pers. comms.):
“Why was I chosen to chair? Here, without being too modest about it, I think I was the obvious choice, having just successfully chaired the massive (and highly factionalised and cranky!) RSSF two-day conference at LSE at the end of the summer term. Jim Higgins could of course have done it, but I think I was seen as having credibility amongst the massive influx of students into IS in this period and was generally regarded as a safe pair of hands.
But I guess what Ian says also has some truth too. I remember Cliff saying to me that when he came up with a new idea he could rely on me to follow him – in the end. As I did on democratic centralism having been hesitant at first. I guess he was right. Until he wasn’t…”.
As, unlike September, this conference was only to discuss one subject the agenda consisted solely of the new IS Constitution proposed by the Political Committee together with amendments to it proposed by various branches.
This conference seems to have been less rumbustious than the earlier one and the Political Committee and Cliff achieved what they set out to do. Cliff (2000) reports simply that:
“so it was that the issue of leadership and democratic centralism was not finally settled until what was in effect the third conference of the year (again in Beaver Hall), where we carried the argument without any splits.”
John Palmer (pers. comms.) tells me that:
“as far as the 1968 decisions are concerned, the “libertarians” accepted the changes without great difficulty and continued to play an active role in the IS”.
Higgins (1997) describes it thus:
“At the next conference, the PC’s plan was carried. IS now had a National Committee of 40, elected at the conference. Factions would be represented on the NC according to the number of conference delegates they commanded. Branches sent delegations to conference on the basis of one delegate per six members, later raised to 15. The NC elected an Executive Committee of ten to arrange the day-to-day political and administrative organisation of the group. Another part of the package was the introduction of the panel system which allowed the NC to make nominations for its own election.”
From the conference paperwork I cannot confirm that Higgins is entirely correct in every detail that he reports here, however, the main point is clear – the previous federal/delegate structure had gone in favour of a centralised one. It is also the case that whilst Cliff is correct to say there were no “splits” there were some losses in membership. As Ian Birchall (2011) reports:
“Ian Macdonald and his friends left the IS in 1968, partly because they were unhappy with the turn to democratic centralism.”
Some aspects of the argument rumbled on into 1969 with, in particular, the question of factions and how they should be defined and represented on committees and at conferences requiring attention. Indeed, the April 1969 Conference spent considerable time discussing four systems of voting to ensure appropriate representation of factions – i) the “York” proposal ii) the “Higgins” System iii) the “Marks” System iv) the Democratic Centralist “Lever, Lindop” System. The two permanent factions within IS, the “Trotskyist Tendency” and the “Democratic Centralist Faction” both had representation on the National Committee.
Birchall (1981) states that:
“the vast majority of those who voted against democratic centralism in 1968 were won over to the position in the course of the following 12 months.”
I think this is partly because the leading members of the organisation only engaged with the debate at an appropriate level after it was over. Certainly, Chris Harman’s article “Party and Class” (published after the conferences) was very important in this respect. It raised the debate on some of the key issues to new levels.
Also, in early 1969 Cliff published his article “On Perspectives”. Birchall (2011) describes it as:
“one of his [Cliff’s] most thoughtful and perceptive articles….” in which “he attempted to assess the situation after the monumental events of 1968, and to set out the tasks for the organisation in the coming years”.
Cliff discusses class-consciousness, economic perspectives, the fragmentation of resistance, the bankruptcy of the traditional left and suggests a way forward for revolutionaries – a way forward rooted in activity. From my viewpoint Cliff’s “perspective” does not automatically confirm the correctness of his organisational proposals but it is certainly the case that this document is way in advance of anything he wrote during the organisational debates.
In a slightly strange twist, whilst Ian contends that most who opposed democratic centralism were won over within one year, within much less than ten years numbers of the highest profile who pushed for it had moved against. These included Richard Kuper who chaired the two 1968 IS Conferences, John Palmer who led off the debates for the Political Committee and Jim Higgins who played a key part in putting the proposals together. Richard Kuper debated with Chris Harman on the subject in the pages of Socialist Review (Kuper, 1978) and (Harman, 1978). As if to prove that the SWP’s democracy was perhaps less than perfect, during the 2012-2014 crisis the Central Committee distributed Harman’s 1978 reply to Kuper to the membership – but without distributing the Kuper side of the debate!
6. Lessons for Today
Before turning to the documents themselves I have been forced to think more carefully about the role of Tony Cliff in the IS of the time. I cannot and will not dispute that he was an immense figure and one who inspired many to a lifetime of revolutionary commitment. For an analysis of all the good things that Cliff did in 1968 see Ian Birchall’s discussion of the subject (Birchall, 2008). It would be remiss, however, not to point out what appears to me to be serious shortcomings in his leadership at the time.
Much is made of Cliff’s famous “intuitive nose” for sensing change – not that it took a political genius to recognise that change was afoot in 1968. The importance of a nose, however, is that it is connected to the brain to interpret the messages received, and in turn to the mouth to effectively communicate and to the ears to listen to others. In these two latter respects it does seem to me that Cliff fell short. He could surely have communicated in a better, fuller and on more politically-based grounds the changes he believed in. Equally, he could have more effectively listened to those close to the leadership who were less than 100% convinced and, more particularly, to the grassroots. Higgins (2000) describes Cliff’s role as:
“having sown the dragon’s teeth and reaped the whirlwind, Cliff restricted his intervention to long telephone calls, leaving the rest of the leadership to carry on the argument, despite the fact that we had not been privy to his plans.”
Cliff himself says he was “panicked” by the situation – hardly a trait one wants to see in a revolutionary leader at a time of upheaval – but that is the very time when one needs to talk and listen to others.
It has been said that Cliff knew that the constitution of the organisation was the least important thing and that the important task was building the organisation (Birchall, 2008). That is, I am sure how Cliff viewed it, but my own working life has been full of people who eschewed the hard graft of logical persuasion in favour of “the boss knows best”. The trait seldom brings the best outcomes and in terms of the SWP’s style and method of organisation it could be argued that since the late 1960’s for every person who has been attracted by it many, many more have been put off. In short, the question is of some importance.
Cliff’s semi-secret negotiations, or “discussion in Cliff’s front room” (Higgins, 1971), to bring Workers’ Fight into IS during 1968 also proved to be something of a disaster. The organisation paid a heavy price up to December 1971 when a Special Conference had to be called to achieve their removal. In fact, I believe the damage has lasted right through till today due to the impact the Workers’ Fight/Trotskyist Tendency experience had on the whole concept of factional rights within the organisation. Cliff admitted a separate organisation into IS and it operated as a separate organisation (not afaction). IS/SWP has nonetheless consistently seen the bad 1968-1971 experience as proving that factions are a menace to the organisation and never to be encouraged. Consequently, the rights for minorities within the organisation are very limited and the possibilities for the membership to develop alternative policies or strategies to the leadership are virtually nil.
It is quite possible that the astute reader is at this point saying, “hang on! The period after the 1968 IS Conferences through to the early years of the 1970’s was the most successful ever for the organisation – before or since”. This is indeed true, and Cliff and the rest of the Political Committee of 1968 deserve enormous credit. They recognised the urgent need to accelerate the already started process of transforming IS from a propaganda group into an action-orientated, interventionist one. In truth, in this respect they were pushing at an open door – the membership was receptive and the objective factors for building the party existed – but the leadership did make it happen.
As Ian Birchall (pers. comms.) says:
“I think that for Cliff the important thing was not democratic centralism as such but turning IS into a “revolutionary combat organisation”, although I prefer your terminology, “transforming IS from a propaganda group into an action-orientated, interventionist one”. Whatever exaggerated perspectives we may have had, the seven years following 1968 saw the Italian hot autumn, the Portuguese revolution, the only time a British government has been brought down by industrial action, and on the other hand, the Chilean coup and internment (concentration camps) in Northern Ireland. We needed an interventionist organisation and we got a reasonably successful one. I think that if any criticisms of Cliff and the IS leadership in general are made (and some are quite legitimate) they have to be put in this context.”
For me, whether the change to democratic centralism helped or whether the success of the following years happened despite it remains an open question. Would an organisation structure of the type suggested by Kidron in document number 14 have produced even better results? We will never know – although I did, in fact, ask Richard Kuper that as a straight question. This is how Richard replied (pers. comms.):
“Kidron’s piece is very good! Yes, it could have made a difference had it been adopted. But given who we were it couldn’t be adopted. As Jim Higgins says, “it was totally unsuccessful, because nobody was really paying attention”. The magnetic attraction of a simplified and simplistic view of Bolshevism, its successful revolution, and the failure of all the others because they were “not Bolshevik enough” was too powerful.
It reminds me of what Peter Sedgwick said in his review of “France: The Struggle Goes On”:
“How “a centralised and disciplined combat organisation of the proletariat” (Cliff and Birchall p.77) is to be built under the conditions of this massive ideological distortion of worker-consciousness is most unclear. The era of the groupscules is more likely to continue for some while yet, that miniature multiparty system of Socialism which seems to have worked remarkably well in the actual course of the French cataclysm. The formation of a democratic workers’ party can proceed in step only with the formation of democratic workers; and when it comes it is most unlikely to imitate the centralism-and-democracy mix prescribed by Trotsky. The ‘responsible central and local bodies, stable in their composition’ (i.e., the same people get elected) ‘and in their attitude to their political line’ (i.e., they pretend not to change their minds) belong to the traditions of a religious order (the Comintern) breathing the stench of an era of defeat and recession within the international proletariat. That era is not ours.”
Alas, too many of us came to believe it was our era. Kidron certainly had some perception of what was needed. And, alas again, I certainly didn’t! Higgins (later) was generous in his evaluation of Kidron’s argument. But at the time, an interpretation of the Bolshevik tradition, in its narrower sense, “weighed like a nightmare on the brains of the living” and “the cadre”, as we now had become, were far too influenced by it. Jim too I’m afraid. I was just drawn along in the wake”.
It’s an interesting reply and one that rings true. Cliff and the IS leadership were rabbits in the headlights of a revolutionary history they were not capable of seeing beyond.
So, what about the documents themselves?
Several the documents I have cited in this paper prophesised some of the dangers that could accompany a turn to democratic centralism. In a whole number of cases the dangers did turn to reality – the self-perpetuating leadership, the triumph of the centralism over the democracy, the policy-making being the prerogative of the leadership and not the membership, to name just a few.
One thing, however, has particularly struck me through the study of these documents and their lessons – and I must admit that it has come as a surprise. It is the centrality of factions (and this does not have to mean permanent factions) for the proper functioning of democratic centralism. Full factional rights at all levels were originally envisaged to be a protection against an over-mighty centre. These rights were lost over time and so were its protections. Any SWP Central Committee is, by definition, a faction that has all the rights whereas those who might have different views on a subject have become “hog-tied”. It seems to me that you can have effective socialist organisation without democratic centralism, but you cannot have democratic centralism without effective faction organisation rights.
Today? Without meaningful opportunities for effective faction organisation (12 weeks duration from a standing start is an insurmountable barrier to the success of any faction); without regular internal bulletins; without meaningful reports of the debates, voting and decisions of the Central Committee; without a mechanism for members to input upwards and receive reports downwards throughout the year; without a mechanism for cross-membership debate for a full 12 months of the year; with an Annual Conference that does not debate and decide but issues anodyne “Commission Reports”, it is difficult to see how you can have a democracy worthy of its name. In fact, it is not just democracy that suffers. This lack, in my view, also goes to the heart of the reason why the SWP has not developed new theory to match new political times over a whole number of decades.
There is clearly a debate to be had – is this about democracy alone – or is the debate somewhat wider? Ian Birchall wrote this in another piece of my research:
“While I think the right of faction must exist, it should be a last resort. Factions tend to polarise arguments and actually prevent a free flow of debate. And factional representation on leading bodies poses real problems (as Peter Sedgwick pointed out, what happens when someone changes their mind?). I don’t think the limitation of factional rights was a major factor in the decline of democracy in the IS/SWP. I think rather it is a question of the decline and absence of a democratic culture. Now I know that if one is an oppositionist under attack, one needs constitutional guarantees not “culture”. Nonetheless I think there was a long-term decline in inner-party democracy and that the limitation of factional rights was only a very small element in that.” (Ian Birchall, quoted in Rudge, 2018).
What Ian says is perfectly justifiable, but would a more “democratic culture” cure the problems that have arisen in the SWP? Before I started this research I would definitely have said “yes”. However, I now see effective faction rights as so central to the workings of democratic centralism (in any revolutionary socialist organisation) that you cannot have one without the other, whatever the “culture”.
A democratic centralist organisation like the SWP is a collectivist organisation. We recognise that together we are stronger than alone; the whole is stronger than the parts. When we agree, we rightly agree to collective action. But that also makes it imperative that those decisions are truly collective and can be owned by all the membership – including those on the other side of a debate. It is hard to “own” a decision on a critical or controversial matter when you perceive you have not had a fair crack of the whip in its making – the more so when at times of political crisis a decision could involve a member of a revolutionary organisation in physical or other danger. A democratic centralist organisation that has all the centralism, but an incomplete democracy is like a car with a powerful engine but no steering wheel.
None of this is about turning an organisation into a debating society. We know that centralism and democracy are both important for a party – they flow from the job to be done and the nature of the class struggle. But the best, most successful organisations are those that are flexible and that can adapt to changes. Even in our wildest dreams we cannot successfully argue that today’s SWP is a “revolutionary combat organisation”.
There is a hackneyed phrase that has been turned out ad nauseam – “our” democratic centralism allows the SWP to “punch above our weight”. Fine, but to continue that boxing analogy one must remember that as a boxer’s weight changes so also does the need to change the way one boxes. You would not put a featherweight into the same ring as a heavyweight! It is however an unfortunate fact that, to all intents and purposes, the SWP’s organisation structure remains stuck in a time warp of a 1968 vintage whilst the world continues to change and evolve around it.
Is the point made in my introduction that “it was only the “Leninist” type of organisation that has enabled the, always small, SWP to have some successes in the fields of anti-racism, anti-fascism and anti-imperialism in the last 50 years”, credible? Yes, it is credible. Do I believe it is correct? No, I do not.
The SWP has, of course, had successes, not the least of them in the areas quoted with, for example, the Anti-Nazi League, Rock Against Racism and Stop the War. Building these organisations were the correct political decisions at the right times – and would always have been the correct political decisions whatever the organisational form. To my mind, it is at least arguable that those same initiatives could have been even better, more successful and more long-lasting if the SWP had a different, more democratic, more inclusive, more open structure that gave more ownership and control to its members. It is not just, however, that these elements can give better results because, in the short term, sometimes they might not. It is also that the organisation belongs to all its members, and not just the leadership.
Organisation should, of course, be the servant of the politics and not the master and it is for this very reason that the organisation debate should be had on a regular basis (3). John Palmer (pers. comms.) puts it like this:
“We are now over 40 years on from the 1975 split in IS and 100 years on from the Bolshevik October. A very great deal has changed – not least the dramatic decline in class consciousness (“a class for itself, not just a class in itself”). It would be very odd indeed if the assumptions which underpinned the (often very different) versions of Democratic Centralism – and even its various “Leninist” versions – did not need to be tested today to see whether they correspond to reality any more. In the late 60s and early 70s Cliff himself used to say, “if we fail to build the revolutionary party in this way, we will have to begin again from scratch”. But as the years passed Cliff never accepted that the time for a rethink had come.”
In a somewhat similar vein Ian Birchall (pers. comms.) summed up to me as follows:
“While I disagree with you quite sharply on factions, I have some sympathy with your view that “the SWP’s organisation structure remains stuck in a time warp of a 1968 vintage”. The organisational forms chosen in 1968, whatever their strengths and weaknesses, aimed to fit the period of a very high level of struggle which we were entering. The appeal to tradition used by party loyalists in recent years was profoundly conservative and profoundly un-Leninist. At one of the book launches I did for the Cliff book in 2011 I was asked by Jean Tait’s son [Jean Tait was a founding member of the Socialist Review Group in 1950] if, when the SWP recognised the “downturn” in 1979, it should have reverted to the looser organisational form it had had before 1968. I of course gave him the standard orthodox rebuttal. Now I think he was right. But I don’t have any proposals for how the party should be organised, and in a sense, it isn’t my problem any more. I think a new wave of struggles will throw up new organisational forms – but probably not in my lifetime.”
All that said, and whether the outcomes of the 1968 debate were right or wrong one of the important lessons is that the debate took place at all.
Birchall (1981) wrote in connection with the 1968 IS Conferences and the turn to democratic centralism that:
“the faction fight was on balance a positive experience. IS members, old and new alike, were forced to think and argue through the whole question of the revolutionary party.”
This is most certainly true.
Having myself joined IS some six years after the 1968 conferences I have only ever known democratic centralism. I have to say that despite the occasional reservation on how it has been practised within the organisation (see Rudge, 2013) I have taken it as “a given”. Since reading the 1968 documents for this project and pondering the question at length during the 2012-2014 “SWP crisis”, I am now far more open-minded. In truth, I am less convinced than ever that it is the appropriate organisational form for today.
I can do no better than to leave the last word to Raymond Challinor from Document 16 of this paper:
“I want to see the formation in Britain of a revolutionary party that combines the maximum strength with the fullest freedom for its members. In a party based on proletarian principles, the role of the rank and file is paramount. Vitality and energy, the creative force of the entire party comes from the membership; the leadership is subordinate to its commands.”
1. For instance, the SLL famously refused to participate in the October Vietnam solidarity demonstration (see Widgery, 1976 page 349).
2. An edited extract of this document, particularly as it relates to Mike Kidron appears as “Michael Kidron and 1968” in “Capitalism and Theory: Selected Works of Michael Kidron” (Kuper, Ed., 2018).
3. There was a debate, of sorts, about the “Leninist Party” during the 2012-2014 crisis in the SWP. Externally to the party it brought forth some excellent contributions. Internally, it generated as much heat as light. To my mind this was because a certain section of the Party was attempting to “muddy waters” by diverting attention from the issue at the heart of the crisis (which I will not revisit) into the question of democratic centralism as a means of closing-down debate. I am happy to admit to my personal involvement and I still stand by what I wrote at the time:
“Nobody can seriously say that the only appropriate model of democratic centralism has to be the one we formulated over 40 years ago and still use today. The political landscape has changed enormously over the last 40 years, the class struggle ebbs and flows, ideas gain and lose ground as does how we communicate and interact, both individually and as groups. The question therefore becomes how do we organise ourselves in any given period, and, more particularly, how do we need to organise today?” (Rudge, 2013).
Ian Birchall has been, as always, a source of enormous assistance and encouragement. John Palmer and Richard Kuper both provided some extremely useful information and insights from within the Political Committee of the time. I also thank Colin Barker and Constance Lever-Tracy for both providing information and their own perspective on events in which they were involved. Joseph Choonara kindly assisted with advice.
Birchall, Ian. 1981. “The Smallest Mass Party in the World”. Building the Socialist Workers Party 1951-1979. Socialists Unlimited, London, 31pp.
Birchall, Ian. 2008. Seizing the Time: Tony Cliff and 1968. International Socialism Journal Number 118 (Spring 2008) pp. 95-112.
Birchall, Ian. 2011. Tony Cliff: A Marxist for his Time. Bookmarks Publications, 664pp.
Cliff, Tony. 2000. A World to Win. Life of a Revolutionary. Bookmarks Publications, 247pp.
Foot, Paul. 2000. Obituary: Tony Cliff. Guardian newspaper 11th April 2000. Available online:
Hallas, Duncan. 1971. IS and the “Trotskyist Tendency”. IS Bulletin “Discussion Material for the 4th December Conference”, 7pp.
Harman, Chris. 1978. For Democratic Centralism. Socialist Review July/August 1978 pp. 37-39.
Higgins, Jim. 1971. Sectarianism, Centrism and the IS Group. IS Bulletin “Discussion Material for the 4th December Conference”, 5pp.
Higgins, Jim. 1997. More Years for the Locust: The Origins of the SWP. IS Group, London, 177pp.
Higgins, Jim. 2000. Review of Tony Cliff’s autobiography “A World to Win: Life of a Revolutionary”. Revolutionary History Volume 7 Number 4, pp. 212 – 220.
Kuper, Richard. 1978. Organisation and Participation. Socialist Review July/August 1978 pp. 35-37.
Kuper, Richard. Ed. 2018. Capitalism and Theory: Selected Works of Michael Kidron. Haymarket Books, Chicago, USA, 261pp.
Molyneux, John. 2010. Review of “Chris Harman: Selected Writings”. Socialist Review No. 349 July/August 2010 p. 24.
Rudge, John. 2013. Is Leninism Finished? No, But Which Leninism Do We Mean? SWP Pre-Conference Bulletin March 2013 pp. 67-69.
Rudge, John. 2015. The Founding Members of the Socialist Review Group, 7pp. Available online:
Rudge, J. 2018. Sam Farber and IS: The 1973 Visit and Beyond. Available online:
Sedgwick, Peter. 1969. The French May. International Socialism Journal Number 36 April/May 1969 pp. 39-40.
Widgery, David. 1976. The Left in Britain 1956-1968. Penguin Books Ltd, Middlesex, England 549pp.
One of the more endearing features of IS in its early days was its self-deprecating humour. If you have managed to read this article you probably now need a break and what better than a sing-along.
The events and outcome of the IS 1968 Conferences were “celebrated” at the time in the song “The International Socialists” that appeared in the “Socialist Sectarian Songbook”. The songbook was available to purchase from experienced Glasgow IS member Ian Mooney. John Palmer (pers. comms.) reflects:
“Ian Mooney was a leading figure in the remarkable generation of working-class youth which flooded into the Young Socialists (and through to the IS) during the sixties. He was a giant of a man. He worked as a roof tiler – unlike most of his comrades who came from the shipyards, building sites and engineering factories. He also proudly described himself as a “Menshevik Internationalist” (a la Leon Trotsky before he joined the Bolsheviks). In other times and places he might have been close to the Cardan (Chaulieu) tendency (Solidarity) led by the remarkable world-renowned brain surgeon Martin Grainger (Christoph Pallis).
Most of Ian’s satirical socialist songs came from the American YPSL (Young People’s Socialist League) part of the “Third Camp” revolutionary socialists led in the late 1930s and 1940s by Max Shachtman, Hal Draper etc. Others were very much his own creation.”
The song appears below and features a good cross-section of the people who appear in this article. It is not, it has to be said, to the standards that Lennon-McCartney were producing at the time – but enjoy nonetheless.
“THE INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISTS”
(Sung to the tune of Johnstone’s motor car)
Get away you Social Democrat get away you measly Trot,
You may be a Centralist, I’ll tell you that I’m not.
At the Conference in the Beaver Hall the D.C. vote was passed
You can stick your Leninist Leadership right up your fucking arse.
1. Fred Lindop is our leader now that Cliff has been expelled
For in Bolshevik constitutionalists the I.S. group excelled.
State Caps they are not wanted because their line implies
that the degenerated Worker’s States are all a pack of lies.
2. The faction fights have started and the battle lines are drawn
It’s your attitude to China which shows which side you’re on.
Stephen Marks and Sean Matgamna to defend the Socialist gains
OR against the bosses East and West! Now which should be our aims?
3. But they are strong they can’t be wrong their future is quite clear.
They’ll have a million members in their Party by next year,
For they’ve got big Mao Barker and they’ve got Platform Four,
And the Libertarian Marxists they’ll tolerate no more.
4. Duncan Hallas is a member of the new N.C.,
He brought his views on leadership out of the R.C.P.
He’s for I.S. sponsored candidates right up to the T.U.C.
and if we can we should get our man sitting on the P.I.B.
5. Of Grandpa in the cupboard yes comrades we’re afraid
For we thought the ghost of Stalin was well and truly laid;
Connie Lever is mistaken if she thinks that we’ll forget
Just how the left-wing get ensnared in a bureaucratic net.
6. Ian Birchall has a problem with the branch he’s in,
For Tottenham is full of Anarchists the likes of Laurie Flynn;
But in France they have a Party it’s called Voix Ouvriere,
Though a thousand francs an hour won’t get them anywhere.
7. The Editor of I.S. Chris Harman has a dream
in which he is a Bolshevik in nineteen seventeen;
the realities of history we’re afraid just don’t get through.
Why should the working masses rise just to follow you?
8. A face who has been missing a man who like his say
John Palmer was in hospital on that fateful day,
For travelling round the country some Centralist had to pay
But for his quick recovery then comrades let us pray.
9. The problem’s one of Leadership it is not of consciousness,
For they need the Vanguard Party to get them out the mess.
To hell with your Workers’ Councils and to hell with your Workers’ Power
For we will know when to strike the blow at the decisive hour.