1989: LETTER RE HIGGINS AND CLIFF
The following letter was written to my friend Edward Crawford in 1989. It was recently quoted on the International Socialist Network website by one Chris Ford, in a piece entitled “International Socialist Tradition at the Crossroads” http://internationalsocialistnetwork.org/index.php/is-history/197-chris-ford-international-socialist-tradition-at-the-crossroads-documents-of-the-i-s-opposition-1974-75 Comrade Ford did not seek my permission to publish an extract from a private letter and did not respond to an e-mail I sent him about it. The letter was written at a time of considerable personal distress, when I was briefly outside the SWP, and I should have preferred it not to be quoted; however, I think the full letter is a fairer representation of my position than two sentences quoted out of context. My considered view of Cliff, the 1973-75 dispute and the IS/SWP tradition are set out in my biography of Tony Cliff, and those who are seriously interested in debating the topics would do better to read that rather than dredging brief passages out of my private correspondence.
Thank-you for your letter and various enclosures which were most interesting. I am beyond being shocked by Moreno; did you know, by the way, that in late 1979 the Morenoites approached the SWP with a view to joint sponsorship of an international conference on the grounds that we had the same analysis of Nicaragua! They were very rapidly told to go away.
But it was Higgins’ letter that I found most interesting. I’m not sure whether you had a specific purpose in seeking his view of the split, or whether it was simply curiosity. But since I know his reply will go into your copious archives, I was stung into sending a few comments which hopefully you will file with them; maybe they will be of interest to some researcher in the next century. I was on the EC till August 1973 and the NC till September 1974, and have most of the documents from the period. Basically I still stand by what I wrote in the Socialist Register 1979 as being true to both the documents and the spirit of the period, though a little sanitised for public consumption. In my view Higgins’ account is both demonstrably inaccurate and somewhat tendentious.
(1) The chronology of the account is very confused. The rejigging of the EC took place in July 1973 and Higgins resigned as National Secretary in September 1973. This can therefore scarcely be attributed to Cliff’s perspective on the Labour Government; at the time none of us expected an early election, and, as I recall, Labour were doing badly in the polls. The IS Opposition was then defeated at two conferences (September 1974 and May 1975) before the final split in December 1975 (which was essentially over the Right to Work Campaign and the AUEW Broad Left).
(2) The ‘lightweight functionaries’ who were brought on to the rejigged EC were Rosewell, Charlton, Kline…and Granville Williams. It is significant that Higgins omits Granville, since he was later to become one of his closest allies. And while I would cheerfully call Rosewell a treacherous swine, he was hardly a lightweight. Jefferys was actually highly critical of the whole operation, and only joined the central leadership two years later.
(3) There were only roughly six weeks between the rejigging and Higgins’ resignation, and most of that time was during the August holiday period. So it is a little difficult to argue the new structure had been proved inoperable. In essence, however, Higgins is right. The aim of the operation was to force his resignation.
(4) The debate about recruitment is not quite how I remember it. In fact the turn to rapid recruitment was taken in the Spring of 1973 in response to the defeat of the various public sector struggles against Heath’s incomes policy. The theory was that while the class had suffered a setback a minority of militants would see the need for a political alternative (just as, after the General Strike, the CP grew quite rapidly).
Moreover, Higgins never directly opposed the recruitment orientation, though he made various sneering comments about it. (To have a National Secretary visibly less than enthusiastic about the organisation’s main orientation obviously posed problems.) The reason was obvious. The only people in the organisation opposed to the recruitment orientation were the Yaffe bloc (whom Higgins took pleasure in expelling in the Spring of 1973). The rest of the membership shared Cliff’s enthusiasm. To have openly opposed the position would have been political suicide.
(5) The rank and file debate is also not as I remember it. The initial argument was whether we could mount a delegate conference for trade unionists at all. Some said we would only get twenty delegates; others thought we might make 150. In fact the building of the Rank and File Conference was central to the organisation’s work for some months up to March 1974 and some 500 delegates attended. A rally was held at Belle Vue in November 1973, but it was clearly seen as a means of building the R&F Conference; it is simply untrue to say the ‘Rally notion of politics prevailed’. (In fact, what we only realised later was that with the decay of the CP it was actually all too easy to get TU bodies, especially Trades Councils to nominate delegates to distant conferences – but it involved no real commitment on their part).
(6) Even after the Labour election victory the division on perspective was not that great. Higgins is on record in March 1974 as saying that the honeymoon with the Labour Government would probably last only six or seven months. Cliff though it would be less – but the real point is that both were catastrophically wrong.
(7) Cliff may have said ‘all TU officials…were rotted by reformism’. He does have a tendency to overstate points. But the main point of the argument was to point to the fact of the great growth in full-time convenors (a new layer of bureaucrats) and to challenge the tendency to idolise shop stewards which the organisation had inherited from the sixties. Hence Higgins was wrong to see ‘comrades with a TU track record’ as the key to the perspective. Here I think Cliff was vindicated by events – the main disputes of the next period (Trico, Grunwicks, Garners) were not led by experienced trade unionists but by unknowns from hitherto unorganised sectors.
(8) The charge that elections for conference delegates were ‘gerrymandered’ is a serious one which needs substantiating. I don’t doubt that comrades were leaned on hard to vote the ‘right’ way – but isn’t that normal practice? Gerrymandering implies something more sinister. In any case, Higgins’ enthusiasm for democracy dates largely from the time of his fall from power. Before the 1973 Conference Higgins came to the EC with his list of forty who should be elected to the National Committee. When I, as an EC member, suggested an amendment (actually to add Vic Collard, later one of Higgins’ faction) I was unceremoniously shut up. Higgins scored 36 out of 40.
(9) One aspect that Higgins – not surprisingly – doesn’t deal with is that for many of us Higgins was not part of the solution but part of the problem. Jim had some enormous merits – a wide political culture, extensive TU experience and considerable organisational skill. But there were other aspects. He ran the centre like a trade union office, on the basis of minutes and written reports; he travelled little and was out of touch with the membership outside London. He had great difficulty relating to some of the new developments in the movement – the changing role of students and above all the women’s movement. He had a sense of humour which often delighted me – but no sense of when it should be suppressed. He found it very difficult to disguise the contempt he evidently felt for a significant section of the membership. And he had an obvious hang-up about the fact that he was considerably older than most of the leadership (he used to refer to Chris Harman as ‘the boy’.) All these are things which – to adapt Lenin’s Testament – were common and acceptable among the membership, but not tolerable in a National Secretary.
(10) Whether IS with a Higgins’ perspective could have transformed the situation in the 80s I don’t know, but I doubt it. Objective factors would have been too strong, I think. In fact the SWP has survived the 80s better than any other group in Europe. Would we have done even better with factory branches, etc? I doubt it. (I met an ex-LCR member from Caen a few years back. The Ligue had a total of 25 members in the town, of whom 10 were teachers. Every week the 10 teachers met as an occupational cell, and rarely saw the other fifteen. If I were setting out to demoralise people I could not have thought of a better formula. And I don’t think it would have been any different if they had been ten dockers instead of ten teachers.)
What I am fairly certain of is that if Higgins had been determining the perspective in 1978 there would have been no Anti Nazi League – and the one point at which the SWP did have some real impact on the course of events would have been lost. Likewise in 1968 it was Cliff, not Higgins, who grasped the importance of the VSC and the student movement. And if we had not recruited students in 1968 there would never have been a worker base in the early 70s.
In retrospect, therefore, I think Cliff’s faction in 1973-75 made many gross errors of tactics but that the basic political line was vindicated. Certainly there are elements of megalomania and obsession in Cliff, but I think that is probably inevitable in anyone who is going to build an organisation. I have seen Cliff lie and manipulate in a quite outrageous fashion on occasion but I have accepted it because I am totally convinced of his absolute revolutionary integrity. It is when the same methods are used by those without that integrity that I am worried.
Finally, as far as oscillation is concerned, my own worry is that the SWP is not oscillating enough in what to my mind is a period of profound change for the left. And while the old promote-and-purge policy went too far, at present a small purge would not come amiss. (I name no names.)
My own position, since you enquire, is as follows. I left the SWP for largely accidental reasons (not so much a health problem as a Health Service problem; I was being prescribed the wrong substance by a doctor who was apparently unable to monitor the effects properly. I am fine now I am out of the hands of the medical profession, though I am developing an ultra-left deviation on the NHS…) However, after some thirty years of virtually uninterrupted political activity I feel a year to think and write won’t do me any harm; so I don’t intend to make any political commitment of any sort till the autumn of next year.
All best wishes to you and to RH.