I am most grateful to Sam Farber for allowing me to reproduce this document from 1973, and to John Rudge for providing such an extensive introduction. It gives a fascinating insight into the state of the organisation in 1973.
John Rudge Issued Version 14th May 2018
The respected Cuban-born Marxist scholar (Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College of CUNY),Samuel Farber has been involved in revolutionary politics since he was a part of the anti-Batista high school student movement leading up to Castro’s conquest of power in Cuba in 1959 (1). He may be best known for his books on the Cuban Revolution – Revolution and Reaction in Cuba 1933-1960 (1976), The Origins of the Cuban Revolution Reconsidered (2006), Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment (2011) and The Politics of Che Guevara: Theory and Practice (2016), but he has always been an activist as well. That activism has included a period of association with what is generally described as the International Socialist Tendency. It is that period I will be focussing on here.
Farber moved from Cuba to the United States at the age of 18 in 1958 where he became a member of the Shachtman-influenced Young People’s Socialist League at the University of Chicago. In 1961 he obtained a place as a graduate student at the London School of Economics and before he left the U.S. for the U.K. in the late summer of 1961, he:
“was strongly encouraged by a number of Shachtmanites to get in touch with Cliff, Kidron and the rest of the Socialist Review Group (SRG). Julie Jacobson, who was then the editor of the brand new New Politics journal, particularly encouraged me to contact” (Farber, 2009).
Thus it was that Farber became an active member of the SRG for the period of his stay in the UK from 1961 to 1963.
My primary purpose in this present piece of research is to bring to public attention for the very first time a report that Sam wrote for his American comrades in the International Socialists U.S. (ISUS) on his three-month long visit to Britain in 1973. The report is an important document giving, as it does, a very real view of the state of I.S. in 1973; where IS had come from in the previous ten years and where it appeared it might be heading. It can be realistically argued that 1973 represents the highest point achieved in the 68- year history of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), in terms of it being a revolutionary organisation with influence and roots in the working class. Understanding what it looked like in that year is therefore doubly important.
I am publishing this item specifically as an exercise in SWP history and not in any way as an attempt to critique Sam Farber’s own political views, either in 1961-1963, in 1973 or now. It is, however, obvious that one cannot write such a piece without his views looming large. Sam defines his current politics as:
“revolutionary democratic socialist. I see myself as part of the classical Marxist tradition preceding the rise of Stalinism. In that sense I am no more or less a “Leninist” than I am a Luxemburgist, Trotskyist or a follower of Gramsci” (Farber, pers. comms., 2018).
Sam’s 1973 visit report is reproduced in full as Appendix 1. Before dealing with that it is, however, worth spending some time on his period with the Socialist Review Group in the early 1960’s.
During the whole of this stay in London Sam lived in dormitories located near Euston and St. Pancras stations. His closest political associates were Mike and Nina Kidron, Tirril and Nigel Harris, Nick Howard, Noel Tracy, Alasdair MacIntyre and John Strauther. The first SRG branch meeting he attended at the invitation of Nick Howard was in late September or early October 1961 in the living room of the apartment of Tirril and Nigel Harris near Tottenham Court Road. At the meeting that was attended by 12-15 members Tony Cliff debated Alasdair McIntyre on Marxism and philosophy and Cliff (unsurprisingly) got trounced. Sam became active in the South St. Pancras and Holborn Young Socialists and the youth paper associated with the SRG, Young Guard.
Sam was particularly close to Mike Kidron:
“Mike became my friend and since he and his wife Nina had just begun to have children, I shortly became “Uncle Sam” (just as Cliff had previously become “Glickshtick,” and so on with other group members).
This was one of dozens of examples of Mike’s playfulness, great sense of humour, charm and utter lack of pretentiousness. He also became my mentor, not out of any intention on his part, but because I learned much from him and because his personality was a practical demonstration that one could be a principled and militant revolutionary, and still be a “mensch” (Yiddish for a full person or human being).
Mike was very supportive of my political and intellectual development and greatly encouraged me to write, not just about Cuba (where I was born, grew up and had my first political experiences), but about all sorts of topics.…. I also learned a great deal from Mike, the political activist.” (Farber, 2003).
The writing that Kidron encouraged in Sam first bore fruit with an article in Young Guard Issue Number 4 (December 1961) titled “Cuba and Socialism”. Sam wrote under the pseudonym “Sergio Junco” that he was to use throughout his stay in Britain. This first article had been long-forgotten, even Sam Farber tells me that he has“only have the vaguest recollection” of it,but I am very pleased to say that all of Sam’s writings on Cuba from his 1961-1963 membership of the Socialist Review Group are now featured in my article “The Socialist Review Group and Cuba” (Rudge, 2018).
“Cuba and Socialism” is important as being a first critique of the Cuban Revolution that airs many of the arguments that Sam was to develop further right up to this day. These are questions around the economic and social relations in society and he answers that:
“Socialists are certainly not interested in a type of economic development which in the process destroys all progressive human values, consolidates elitist rule, and that equals or surpasses the alienation which people already suffer in capitalist countries.” (Junco, 1961).
The article proved to be exceedingly controversial with that section of the Young Guard organisation that were open supporters of Castro and the Cuban regime, primarily the pre-IMG group centred in Nottingham. In fact, the debate on the article rumbled on in one form or another in the Letters Page of Young Guard until Issue Number 19 in August 1963 when the Editor of the paper called a halt to the correspondence.
Junco’s article finished with an editorial comment as follows:
“Sergio Junco is a Cuban Socialist student now living in Europe. A longer and more documented article by Sergio Junco will appear in the coming issue of International Socialism (Winter 1962).”
That International Socialism article did indeed appear as scheduled and is much better known than its Young Guard predecessor. Titled “Yanqui No! Castro No! Cuba Si!” it was written by Farber with Nick Howard providing valuable documentation from his recent visit to Cuba. Howard “was an uninvited visitor to Cuba for five weeks in August and September 1961. As an informal delegate of the National Association of Labour Student Organizations (NALSO) he worked his way to Havana and back relying on eight years’ experience in the Merchant Navy”.
The Junco (assisted by Howard) International Socialism article is strongly anti-Castro. Whilst conceding that:
“Castro still enjoys the support of important sections of the Cuban population, although not as much support as his apologists usually claim” and
“that sectors of the Cuban population have derived material benefits from the present government” its main contention is that Castro:
“created a revolution from above”, “there is neither a lower nor a higher form of democracy in Cuba, but just another repetition of the old story of government by an elite which uses coercion, persuasions and propaganda to suit its own purposes….It is not very difficult to describe the main sections of the Cuban ruling elite at the present moment; it is the not atypical combination of declassé petty-bourgeois intellectuals and the leadership of the old PSP which itself is mostly composed of intellectuals with a few trade union bureaucrats” (2) and it poses the question “If Cuba is a popular state, where are the popular vehicles through which the people exercise their control?”.
Whilst not the concluding paragraph of the article, in essence the concluding argument is that:
“The Cuban regime has ceased to be fluid, and any hopes of reforming the regime from within have been eliminated by the regime’s actions in stamping out the least dissent or criticism which might arise spontaneously from below. It is quite naïve to expect that an elite which has a complete monopoly of control will give it up of its own free will without the pressure of any opposition, and that Castro and his associates will suddenly acknowledge their mistakes and spontaneously give up any basic power. Consequently, the only progressive alternative left open is to oppose the Cuban regime from a socialist standpoint completely separated from any of the present reactionary groups which are opposing Castro with imperialist support.” (Junco and Howard, 1962).
During his stay in Britain, mainly for reasons of London geography – they were in different SRG branches – Sam Farber was not particularly close to Tony Cliff. He did, however, attend Cliff’s classes on Marxist economics which he described in a letter to Ian Birchall as:
“terrific. I learned a lot from these classes and Cliff was an excellent teacher. I also saw him occasionally in the context of London-wide aggregates and his give and take with the young working-class members of the Young Socialists was also very good. This is the time when Gus McDonald and the Scottish apprentices came around the group and Cliff was very good about teaching them about the labour movement and socialism. I also came over to Cliff’s house near Arsenal stadium several times to help him translate Cuban materials for the book on collectivization of agriculture which he was planning. The book was never published (3) but I do vaguely remember that he wrote an article for the journal on the subject.” (Farber, 2009).
Notwithstanding the limited face to face contact between Sam Farber and Tony Cliff in early 1963 they did have a debate in the pages of SRG publications on the subject of Cuba that was of importance to the theoretical development of the Group. Indeed, the debate formed a part of the gestation of Cliff’s theory of Deflected Permanent Revolution no less.
In January 1963, in the first internal bulletin produced by the IS in this period, Cliff produced an article simply entitled “Cuba”. Harman (2006) states that “no copy seems to survive today” but he is wrong – I have a copy in my personal archive that is reproduced in my “Socialist Review Group and Cuba” (Rudge, 2018) article. What, however, is stranger about Harman’s comment is that he does not appear to know that this Cliff piece was later to be the section on Cuba in his very famous article “Permanent Revolution” (Cliff, 1963) in which the theory of Deflected Permanent Revolution was first explicitly expounded.
Sam Farber (writing as S.J.) replied to Cliff’s January 1963 Internal Bulletin article in the next Internal Bulletin (the Bulletin was by now re-named A Socialist Survey and whilst the issue is undated it was clearly printed in February 1963). Farber’s article is titled “A Criticism of T.C.’s Analysis of the Cuban Situation” and opens thus:
“Although as a whole, the analysis of Cuban events which T.C. recently wrote for this bulletin, was sound, there are some aspects of it which I would like to criticize. I am doing this not because of a pedantic desire for scholarly accuracy, but because this criticism will deal with problems with important political consequences. These criticisms are not supposed to be an articulate exposition of the whole problem of Cuba but an exploration of some of its aspects”. (Junco, 1963).
Birchall covers Junco’s contribution in reply to Cliff fairly and as follows:
“Junco replied by accusing Cliff of fatalism and of underestimating the importance of political leadership in favour of a purely sociological analysis of the situation….
…..Junco insisted that there were many “political and ideological facts” in the Cuban situation which did not “automatically follow from a certain structural framework of underdevelopment and imperialism.” (Birchall, 2011).
I will only add the final sentences of Junco’s contribution as they further elucidate his views on the nature of the Cuban leadership, add something to the theory of Deflected Permanent Revolution and pose a straight question for revolutionaries:
“In reality, Castro’s leadership forms a section of the intellectual middle-class. This section behaves much more like declassés than like solid orthodox middle-class elements. Those who have a preference for obscure terminology may call it a sort of lumpen-bourgeoisie. This social group is very often the main propagator of what is, unfortunately, the present predominant ideology of the “Left” – Stalinoidism. This is the case both in developed and underdeveloped countries, but particularly in the latter. It is high time that revolutionary socialists face this fact squarely and decide what attitude to take. Do we compromise with it or do we fight this ideology from a Left-wing, anti-imperialist, revolutionary position?” (Junco, 1963).
It is worth mentioning that Farber’s later works on Cuba have, without exception, been favourably received within the IS Tradition in Britain. The following book reviews are well worth consulting – Harman (2006), Farber (2006), Gonzalez (2011), Sewell (2012) and Gonzalez (2016).
Farber’s writing during his 1961-1963 stay in Britain extended beyond the subject of Cuba and, again under the encouragement of Mike Kidron, they included several book reviews for International Socialism. These were reviews of La Realidad Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2 by Silvio Frondizi in International Socialism Number 8 (Spring 1962); Democracy and Power in an American City by Robert A. Dahl in International Socialism Number 10 (Autumn 1962); The Revolutions of Latin America by Halcro Ferguson and Power, Politics and People. The Collected Works of C. Wright Mills both in International Socialism Number 14 (Autumn 1963).
Farber also wrote two significant articles for Socialist Review in 1962. Alasdair MacIntyre was the editor of Socialist Review at the time and was no doubt the catalyst for getting these written.
“Kennedy’s Big Stick” appeared in Socialist Review May 1962 and concerned the recent dispute in the US steel industry and the role of the Kennedy administration, the unions and the biggest employers. The context was one that was becoming familiar in Britain – Government calls for pay restraint, wage demands to be related to increases in productivity and calls for actions to be in the “national interest”. A modest pay settlement, induced by the Kennedy Administration, was duly agreed with an implicit understanding that steel prices would remain the same. Immediately after the settlement some of the biggest US steel companies attempted to increase their prices and the “test of strength” was quickly won by the Administration.
Farber makes telling points concerning the “mythology of “free enterprise” in the USA”, how “the American Labour Movement has a very low level of political consciousness”, how “American Labour has quite a bit to lose with the strengthening of Kennedy’s position” and that “there will have to be conflict to decide whose definition of the “National Interest” is the valid one, and this cannot be achieved by pure collective bargaining, but has to be fought very hard on the industrial and political arena”.
Farber ends by saying that:
“Perhaps the main conclusion to be derived from all this is that the most important political enemy at the present moment is the basically pro status-quo policies of the Kennedy Administration, both nationally and internationally, and not the “Ultra-Right” fringe, as so many well-meaning Americans tend to think.” (Junco, 1962a).
The second article, “Alliance Without Progress” was published in the Socialist Review of June 1962. Whereas the previous article dealt with an aspect of the Kennedy Administration national agenda, this one dealt with an aspect of its international agenda, namely the “Alliance for Progress”.
The “Alliance for Progress” was a ten-year $100 billion aid programme for Latin America that the Kennedy Administration supported almost immediately after coming into office. Most of the funding was to come from US Government sources and was to be used in “infra-structural” expenditures (e.g. highway construction, health and education programmes, etc).
Farber starts by making the point:
“It is no accident that while Latin America was a solid pro-U.S. block there was no substantial aid given to Latin America but when the first crack occurred in the form of Castro’s bureaucratic-collectivist regime, then Eisenhower and later Kennedy came up with some important plans for aid to that region of the world. Some Latins have ironically called it the “Castro Plan””.
Time was to prove Farber correct in his analysis. Writing in 2016 Michael Dunne says:
“Confidential materials within the US government have since confirmed the public interpretation of the alliance north and south of the border: that the Cuban revolution was the catalyst for Kennedy’s initiative.” (Dunne, 2016).
It is also interesting to note that Farber managed to get his description of Cuba as a “bureaucratic collectivist” regime into the supposedly “state capitalist” Socialist Review!
Farber goes on to look at aspects of the aid programme to assess its scope and possible consequences. In particular he highlights a contradiction at its heart. The Programme looks for the public investment to be matched by private investment – but political unrest in Latin America and threatened restrictions against private capital in several countries curtailed the flow of money. As he says:
“Here lies the tremendous contradiction of Capitalism: it is the “political unrest” produced by, among other causes, the distorting effects of capitalist ways of investing in under-developed countries which forces these capitalist countries to give aid which to be successful requires nothing less than….lack of “political unrest” and no restrictions to the distorting effects of capitalist investment.”
Farber concludes that possibilities for social-democratic reform are very limited in Latin America and:
“The writer believes that these social-democratic parties on the whole, are a spent force because they do not seem able to get much more out of the system as it exists at present. On the other hand, almost all organized “revolutionary” forces in Latin America are very elitist and consequently show great addiction to Stalinism. The very composition of the groups, mostly declassé students and intellectuals, is a cause of the almost traditional paternalistic contempt that they show toward the mass of the people of Latin America.
A conclusion to be derived from these few remarks on the Latin American situation, and incidentally I do not pretend that they are conclusive, is that unlike some other left-wing groups we should not expect the “revolutionary” elites from under-developed countries to bring socialism about, but that socialists in the economically advanced countries shall strive to create a humanist alternative to the present-day exploitative social systems of the world.” (Junco, 1962b).
Farber returned to the US in 1963 and whilst he had some disagreements with the SRG during his stay in Britain a couple of later published quotes that he was clearly happy to put in the public domain encapsulate his general view of the organisation:
“The Socialist Review group was a hard-working, activist group with a stable and strong leadership that shunned the “Dr. Know It All” arrogance common to so many groups on the Left, then and now. Its humility was one of its most attractive characteristics and it made it possible for it to talk to hundreds of young activists and grow accordingly.” (Farber, 2003).
“The SR/IS group’s political atmosphere compared favorably in many ways with the Shachtmanite Young People’s Socialist League with which I had previously been associated at the University of Chicago. It was a more relaxed and open ambiance with far less emphasis on the role of the political intellectual “heavies” that, at least in my perception, characterized the YPSL (youth wing of the Socialist Party).
The SR-IS group was then very democratic, welcomed controversy and disdained the spirit of orthodoxy. It is no wonder that the group’s leaders, besides working on the theories of state capitalism and the permanent arms economy, were revising and reviving fundamental tenets of Marxism as witnessed by the writings of Michael Kidron on imperialism and the arms economy, and of Tony Cliff on Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution and Lenin’s theory of the labor aristocracy.
…… I remained very sympathetic to the group when I went to Berkeley in 1963. For several years, I sold copies of each issue of International Socialism to my American comrades in the Bay Area.” (Farber, 2013).
The 1973 Visit
As previously mentioned Sam Farber visited Britain for three months in 1973 during which time he undertook an IS speaking tour at the invitation of IS National Secretary Jim Higgins. Sam was therefore in a good position to provide some valuable insights into the current status of the organisation. Given his time with the organisation ten years earlier, his 1973 views are doubly valuable in providing some historical context.
In large part Sam’s views in the visit report speak for themselves but I will make a few comments on each section. These comments may seem of a somewhat random nature – they are chosen based on where I may be able to add more information or clarification, rather than as an attempt to cover all the issues raised.
For further context, before turning to Sam’s report, it is worth painting a picture of how things were being seen in 1973. Ian Birchall (pers. comms.) has done this expertly for me:
“1973 was a very hectic year. It was sandwiched between two years of major confrontation – 1972 was the year of the Saltley pickets which won the miners’ strike and of the workers’ action which released the Pentonville Five from jail. (I remember seeing the latter on television in a pub in Hull – never before or since have I had that sense that our side had won, pure and simple). Then in 1974 a miners’ strike brought down the Tory government and put Labour in power. In 1973 there was no direct confrontation – as Sam points out there was a “mini-boom”, but there was a feeling that there were confrontations ahead and that we needed to be prepared politically for them. That was essentially the basis on which the unprecedented worker recruitment took place. I think most of us expected this growth to continue for some time. Cliff, perhaps, realised it wouldn’t, and that was precisely the reason he felt the sense of urgency, that we should recruit as fast as we could. But there were other factors creating a sense of urgency. The Chilean coup in September made us realise just how high the stakes might be. And at the end of the year, when Heath brought in the three-day week, there were rumours circulating that if the Tories won the election they would bring in internment without trial (which already existed in Northern Ireland) for political activists in Britain. Perhaps it was just a scare story, though I think it emanated from Laurie Flynn, who has some credentials as an investigative journalist. I believe an alternative Executive was set up in case the leadership were jailed – though for obvious reasons this was not much discussed or minuted. But, certainly the threat of repression was one of the factors leading to a clamp-down on internal democracy. In retrospect, of course, we weren’t any sort of threat to the established order, but at the time we took ourselves very seriously.”
Now is a good time for you to scroll forward and read Sam’s visit report at Appendix 1.
The report mentions the speaking tour being to “Scotland, Midlands and Yorkshire”. It is worth noting that Sam specifically recalls speaking in Sheffield, Bradford, York, Leicester, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Whilst he does not remember the precise titles of his talks they were mostly about the U.S.A. (Sam Farber, pers. comms.). I know from a meeting notice in Socialist Worker that Sam spoke in Glasgow on 26th May on the subject of “The U.S. Labour Movement”.
The high-level details provided on membership numbers, recruitment and social composition of IS give a glimpse of a situation that the organisation today could only dream about. For instance, recruitment between the June 1973 National Committee meeting and their July meeting was 454 members. Half of those were manual workers and included 50 in the engineer’s union AUEW and 50 in the transport and general workers union TGWU. As at July 971 new members had been recruited since the IS Conference in March. Here is some useful information on IS membership and social composition for further context:
March 1972 March 1973 March 1974
No. %age No. %age No. %age
Manual 613 26 746 28 1155 35
White Collar 725 31 763 29 976 30
Students 381 16 617 23 591 18
Unemployed 109 5 106 4 94 3
School Students 51 2 41 2 49 1
Housewives 58 2 87 3 146 4
Others 414 18 307 11 299 9
Total 2351 2667 3310
If the total membership number for March 1974 does not look as high as seemed possible from the increases being quoted during 1973 it is the case that “during the membership drive of last year some 750 workers signed membership forms but were never really integrated into IS.” It also seems that Branch Secretaries took the opportunity to prune their membership lists to remove lapsed members.
The discussion on class tensions within the organisation and “The Two Souls of Workerism” is interesting. It is true that there was some attempt locally to temporarily restrict recruitment of “petit bourgeois elements”. It was done in Liverpool for example where, according to Roger Rosewell the Merseyside Organiser, it led to the majority of the branch being manual workers. I do not believe, however, that the practice was either widespread or widely supported. Sam cites Cliff as supporting the policy and, whilst undoubtedly true in the instance quoted, it sounds a classic example of his “bending of the stick”. In more considered moments he was very much against this dumbing down. In a very late article on Marxist theory, published posthumously, Cliff wrote:
“The worst damage that can be done inside a revolutionary party is if there is an attack on the intellectuals inside the party, in the name of a proletarian attitude. As a matter of fact, such an attack is not so much on the intellectuals but on the workers in the party. It is an insult to the workers as it assumes the workers are unable to grasp theory.” (Cliff, 2000a).
What must not be forgotten is that IS in 1973 was attempting to tackle an issue that no Trotskyist organisation in Britain had ever faced before – recruitment of workers in some considerable numbers into the organisation.
The Strategy and Intervention of IS
Sam writes approvingly about the dialectical economic and political analysis of IS in this period. One only has to read the internal documents to agree that it was indeed sophisticated, well thought through, rooted in facts and revolutionary theory – but also, in many respects, wrong. When the period from the 1973 IS Conference was being reviewed in 1974 the fact that “this period has probably been the most significant in our history” was put down to the strength and initiative of the membership as a whole because it “happened in spite of our political perspectives”. The review continues:
“We had expected “big, and for the government, decisive struggles” in which we could work for “a greater involvement and penetration”. What actually transpired was a series of small, localised or sectionalised disputes and a passive miners strike. We had telescoped the process of radicalisation and exaggerated the workers’ readiness to take on the Government and the employers at the same time. But nonetheless, when the struggle showed itself as being much more fragmented and drawn out, we adapted our work extraordinarily well.” (Anon, 1974).
As regards the “strong and authoritative leadership” of IS, Sam identifies three groups – the longest-standing element (from the 1940’s and earlier), the Young Socialist and student intake (from early and late 1960’s) and the newer, more working-class intake (from say 1969). It is a fair enough categorisation as far as it goes but a largely unforeseen crisis was in the offing. The dispute was initiated by Cliff’s theory that the audience for IS politics in the immediate period ahead were young, inexperienced workers rather than the older, more seasoned militants. In his report Sam indicated that integrating the newer working- class membership into the leadership of IS may be a future issue and this proved correct. The dispute started amongst the more experienced leadership group – Cliff, Higgins, Hallas, Palmer, Protz – and spread from there. The very strengths that Farber had correctly identified as having been important in the past:
“This leadership….. has been internally self-restrained and avoided intense factionalism when there were disagreements on important issues…..The leadership is able to carry their organization by proving itself politically correct, and never allowing views to grow up in the group which don’t get answered and taken on by the leadership.”
evaporated for a period as the membership at large was effectively by-passed.
As Birchall (2011, Chapter 9) and Higgins (1997) both cover the dispute in considerable detail I do not intend to repeat the story here. I will, however, say that Cliff’s “new” focus on the youth was, to me, somewhat arbitrary and at odds with the need to start to build a rank and file organisation and a worker’s leadership in the here and now. It is self-evident that the youth are more frequently recruited to a revolutionary organisation but my 40 years of experience in the trade union movement tells me that you also need to relate to and recruit the more established militants as well. The latter task might be harder, require more patience and a proper understanding of how the workers’ movement actually works – but there are no “get rich quick” schemes in revolutionary politics!
In terms of Rank and File organisation, then at the start of 1973 IS members were “instrumental in producing” several papers. These were Advance (for power workers), The Carworker, The Collier, Rank and File (for teachers), The Printworker, NALGO Action (for local government workers), Journalists Charter, The Dock Worker and The Steelworker. The last two had only just produced their first issue. Some IS members were also active in the Builders Charter and Flashlight (for electricians). A list produced for the end of the 1973 showed the addition of Hospital Worker, Platform (for Bus workers), Textile Worker, Case Con (for Social Workers), Redder Tape (for Civil & Public Service Association members), Scots R&F (for Scottish Teachers), Tech Teacher (for Higher Education Teachers) and GEC R&F.
Turning to Factory Branches, the March 1973 IS Conference had voted for the formation of Factory Branches in the following terms:
“This Annual Conference, recognising that factory branches form a basic unit in a revolutionary combat organisation rooted in the working class, resolves to establish such branches, in consultation with the NC, where appropriate.”
The Conference debate was notable for some strong contributions. The veteran Trotskyist Frank Henderson stated:
“Opponents of factory branches had no confidence in the ability of workers to achieve socialism.”
Tony Cliff added that:
“The organisation is not a debating society, it is a combat organisation. Workers must have their own representation. Most of the opponents of factory branches “didn’t have a clue about industry” and have a patronising attitude to workers.”
Roger Rosewell, the Merseyside Organiser, made the link with the “class tensions” issue, as raised by Sam Farber in his report. Rosewell said:
“The organisation is in a transitional stage – it is workers, many comrades say, who have to be “integrated” into the organisation, never non-worker, middle-class comrades. But the threat of dilution comes from non-worker comrades. A revolutionary organisation must be disciplined and is concerned primarily with power. Power lies in the factories and for this reason we must have factory branches.”
The vote in favour of forming Factory Branches was “carried overwhelmingly”.
The 1973 IS Conference in March had set a target of forming 10 Factory Branches by the 1974 conference. By the June 1973 National Committee 12 had already been set up – York Buses, Watney Mann (London), Chrysler (Coventry), Fleet Street (London), Albion (Glasgow), Building Workers (Edinburgh), Steel (Teeside), Lucas (Birmingham), CAV (Acton), Vulcan (Wigan), London Hospital Workers and C.A. Parsons (Newcastle). The number continued to increase but Sam had returned to the US by September when 120 delegates met at a special Factory Branch meeting. By this time the number of Factory Branches was over 30.
By the IS September 1974 Conference 56 Factory Branches had been authorised of which 38 were still in existence. Sixteen of these were in the motor industry (6 in British Leyland, 3 in Chrysler, 3 in Fords, 2 in the major electrical firm Lucas and 2 in other motor component firms).
Sam commends Tony Cliff’s Factory Branches pamphlet as “excellent” and indeed it is. I won’t dwell on it here as Ian Birchall covers it at some length in Cliff’s biography where he calls it “a remarkable document” and one which “showed Cliff at his best, exercising the role of leadership within the organisation and grappling with new problems” (Birchall, 2011). Instead I will mention several of the other publications published in 1973 to cater specifically for the situation IS was facing. These included:
IS Basic Education Series pamphlet – based on original notes by Frank Roberts of Merseyside Branch. The notes were intended as a brief introduction to IS politics for industrial workers (14pp); 3 International Socialists Industrial Pamphlets – The Miners Pay Claim. £35-£40-£45. No productivity deals (13pp.); Defend the North Wales 24. Pickets on Trial (15pp); The 1973 Engineering Pay Claim (8pp); Know Your Rights: Social Security for Strikers pamphlet – providing information for strikers on what you can claim and how to do it (6pp); Workers Against Racism pamphlet – written by Paul Foot and giving “the arguments against Enoch Powell and his henchmen” (23pp); What’s Happening to your Wages? pamphlet – two articles from Socialist Worker from July and August 1973. “Money: It’s no longer as good as gold” by Chris Harman and “Why money is shrinking” by John Palmer (8pp); Can Socialism Come Through Parliament? pamphlet – written by Roger Kline. It discusses whether there is a parliamentary road to socialism as advocated by the Labour Party and the Communist Party (35pp); Anti-Freeze – a handbook for trade unionists pamphlet – again written by Roger Kline. Issued pre-Phase 3 of the Tories Incomes Policy and gives the arguments and strategy required to beat the wages policy (8pp); The Struggle for Workers’ Power pamphlet – written by Roger Rosewell. Essentially this is a rewrite of the IS Programme (40pp);Socialist Worker “specials” – including, for electricians, ambulance workers and hospital workers.
In addition to these national publications this was a time when local branches produced significant amounts of their own material and Factory Branches were soon a part of this with:
Crisis at Chrysler: The Company vs The Shopfloor pamphlet – published by the Chrysler IS Factory branch (18pp).
For a still small organisation it is a significant output when set alongside the national “flagship” publication Socialist Worker and the mass of local leaflets, bulletins and newsletters produced. Even though, at the time, there were demands for more and better material with hindsight it is still an impressive achievement.
Importantly, Sam’s report reminds us of a fundamental point which has tended to be forgotten as time has gone on. It concerns the IS focus on the “rank and file” – and the fact that it was much more than an organisational initiative. You cannot and should not separate the rank and file strategy of IS in the 1970’s from the political objective of supplanting the Communist Party within industry.
The I.S. Press
Socialist Worker started as a 4-page weekly in September 1968. It moved to 6 pages in November 1969, 8 pages in October 1970, 12 pages in October 1971 and 16 pages in October 1972. In the issue of 24th March 1973, the editor, Roger Protz, was able to write:
“1972 saw the most important growth of the paper in its five-year history. There was improvement not just in terms of sales but in political quality, analysis of events and growing intervention in working class struggles….the current print order of 28,000 is an all-time record….the extended sales are not about money or figures on a circulation graph. They are about political influence and increased membership.” (Quoted in Allen, 1985).
As Sam mentions in his report, there was a focus on starting SW Discussion Groups as a stepping-stone to the formation of Factory Branches. There was, however, a realistic understanding that “a Discussion Group that goes for longer than 4 or 5 meetings faces complete disintegration” because, as Cliff put it, “workers don’t like talk without action” or as he also said, but in more elegant fashion, “cocoons that are not transformed into butterflies simply die.” (Cliff, 1973). As it happens, the target of forming 50 SW Discussion Groups:
“was quickly abandoned as we realised it was impossible to conduct an IS membership drive specifically aimed at building factory branches, while at the same time trying to establish meaningful factory-based units of sympathisers.” (Anon, 1974).
To give a sense of the importance of Socialist Worker as at May 1973 the average circulation quoted was 28,250. A year later a report by the now editor, Paul Foot, stated:
“Circulation is recovering from a drop after the election when it went down from 50,000 to 33,000. Over the last five weeks it has climbed back to 38,000 which is 10,000 up on the period before the miner’s strike and election.”
The Theoretical Journal
Sam is perfectly entitled to his opinion about International Socialism, the organisation’s theoretical journal. Arguably, he does perhaps conflate two different things – a perception on the quality of the journal and a view of “a rentier” attitude to theory of the leadership who are living off past glories.
As regards the journal it is without doubt correct that in 1973 it was a different animal to that which had gone before. Not the least of this was a decision taken in 1972 to move the journal from quarterly to monthly with effect from January 1973. The reasoning for the change in the timing, role and content of the journal was, to my mind compelling, and was described in the January 1973 National Committee report thus:
“The decision to start monthly publication was taken by the NC after a full discussion on the nature and purpose of the Journal. It was the nearly unanimous view that the growth of the organisation and its increasing intervention in the class struggle required a journal more closely geared to events and more easily readable by militants inside and outside IS. This involves not only more frequent publication but also a deliberate policy of producing shorter and more simply written articles. The aim of the journal as previously defined – “background educational material for members, defence of the line of the organisation and discussion of socialist theory” – remained unchanged. The presentation seeks to gear education and theory more closely to practice and current issues. Inevitably there is an element of experiment in the first new-style issues. Experience and reader-reaction will no doubt lead to modifications.”
In terms of reviewing in the light of experience then the organisation was true to its word. A “Letter to Readers” from the editor in the April 1973 issue tells us that:
“This is the fourth of the new monthly International Socialism. When the change was made from the quarterly, which typically contained three or four long articles, it was decided to increase the number of topics dealt with in each issue and keep all articles short. Discussion with readers suggests that this policy was broadly correct but that it has been carried too far, that a certain number of longer articles are needed on questions of Marxist theory. It has therefore been decided to keep the present style but to include in each number one longer article on such an issue…….The first of these, Tony Cliff’s “Lenin on Party Organisation”, will appear in May.”
By coincidence, it is this very article by Tony Cliff that Sam cites with concern in his visit-report section on “IS and Internal Democracy”.
To give some idea of scale, the print runs for the first three monthly issues of International Socialism were Number 54 (January 1973) – 5,850, Number 55 (February 1973) – 7000, Number 56 (March 1973) – 7500. NB: Number 54 sold out; branch sales were 95% compared with previous quarterly journal average of 65%.
Regarding Sam’s comment on Mike Kidron and the editorship of the journal then this subject was strongly connected with what the journal should be.
Kidron, with the strong backing of Cliff, was elected at the National Committee in May 1973 to take up the editorship from September. However, at the Executive Committee meeting on 30th July there was a long and fractious debate on the journal with Kidron taking strongly opposed positions to the majority on the Committee, including Cliff. To cut a long and detailed argument down to the bones. On one side of the fence was the concept of a monthly journal covering much the same subjects as Socialist Worker but in depth and written for, and in a way, that related to what the current members were discussing around the country. To cite an example that Cliff used in the debate, “Our members aren’t interested in the SLL, IMG, etc. but the CP is a different story. We have to approach it operationally…we criticise the CP on British terms – the parliamentary road, etc., not in terms of Russia”. Kidron, on the other hand, was adamant that:
“if you think the ISJ should be merely a glossy-covered colour supplement to SW, without the colour, then it is not on”……”I say the key thing about articles in ISJ that will differentiate them from articles in SW is that they should deal with problems that are not solved, things that are still problems amongst us, e.g., about the kind of party we want, the kind of organisation”…….”I cannot produce a journal of features where we produce the revealed truths – it is a journal of questions, where the problems that are worrying our membership are reviewed and we attempt a solution”.
The meeting closed with no agreement other than to revisit the position again at the next EC meeting. Whether the circle could ever have been squared we will never know as Kidron resigned the editorship before that meeting and, as Sam says, before he had edited a single International Socialism issue. In the event, Chris Harman took over from Duncan Hallas as editor in September.
Ian Birchall (pers. comms.) has some interesting remarks on this whole subject area:
“The monthly ISJ was not a great success. Sam, I think, is allowing memories of the early sixties to distort his view. In 1961-63 the journal really was the jewel in the crown, by far the best thing we did. In the very changed circumstances of 1973 it could hardly have been comparable. And I think the comment about the “rentier attitude to theory” is a bit unfair, even if it had a certain validity in the immediate post-1968 period when there were a lot of other pressures. True, Cliff’s later theoretical work tended to be a rather defensive restatement of the orthodoxy, especially his Trotsky, but the work by Harman, Callinicos and later, Rees, on changing capitalism and new forms of imperialism was a genuine attempt to understand a changing world, even if one does not agree with all of it.
Duncan, despite his many other talents, was not a particularly good editor, but the real problem was that ISJ was falling between two stools – was it a current affairs magazine or a theoretical journal? It was becoming a bit of both. It was only a few years later that we had the resources to launch both Socialist Review and the second series of the ISJ. But I think the Harman journal was not at all bad.
On Kidron my perspective is rather different. I had known Kidron in the early sixties and greatly admired him. But after 1968 he worked abroad for a couple of years. By 1973 he was back on the National Committee, but I felt he was still out of touch with what was happening in the party. Cliff was very keen to bring him back (they had been very close in the late 50s and early 60s and I think they both did their best work in that period). I remember being phoned when I was in the middle of eating my tea and told to go to Cliff’s home immediately. I was harangued for half an hour about why I must vote for Mike. I declined to do so (one of the reasons I was never trusted with top leadership positions!). I still think I was right, and that subsequent events showed I was.”
I would like to give a personal perspective on the “new” journal here. This is on the basis that I first became acquainted with the IS around this period and that I had never been a student, nor received anything more than a secondary education. To me as a teenage white-collar worker the journal was a revelation – articles on a range of interesting subjects, many of which I had never had the opportunity to even consider before, that I could actually understand!
As for IS and theory then Sam had, in my view, hit upon something much earlier than most people did. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems to me that by 1973 the organisation was indeed already well past the peak of its capability to develop and action new theory. My opinion, for what it is worth, is that the reason is not unconnected with the changes in party organisation. The change to democratic centralism led to a reduction in internal democracy, centralism trumped democracy, the fear of factions mushroomed and the attendant loss of opportunities for members to debate over the full 12 months of the year can have done no other than ossified that cross-fertilisation of views and cut-and-thrust required to generate new thinking within an organisation.
IS on Women
Those issues of internal democracy may have been coming down the line but in 1973 there is no doubt that the democracy was still sufficient for the organisation to have robust, stimulating and meaningful debates on strategy and tactics. Nowhere was this more apparent than on the women’s question. In fact, in one form or another the debates were ongoing for over a decade. That said, where were we in 1973?
Sam is undoubtedly correct to identify the area as one of weakness for IS. The organisation was quite “male-centric” throughout, with the 40-member National Committee containing only 5 women. According to Barbara Kerr, writing in the April 1974 Internal Bulletin, “only 25% of our membership is female, and very few of that 25% are working class”.
Some things were, however, in the process of change. The 1973 IS Conference passed 3 resolutions – firstly, recognising the importance of work with women workers and resolving that branches should produce bulletins and sell Women’s Voice with the perspective of forming WV Groups. Secondly, agreeing in principle to the need for a full-time Women’s Voice editor/national organiser. Thirdly, resolving that IS should carry out a campaign on Equal Pay.
Allied to this was the fact the IS Women’s Newsletter that had been running as an essentially internal women’s publication since late 1970 had been replaced by a more outward-looking women’s publication Women’s Voice. By the time of the IS Conference in March 1973 three issues had been produced. Issue 1 had sold out of all 1,500 copies produced, Issue 2 had sold 2400 of the 3000 printed and of the 4,100 printed of Issue 3, 3,600 had so far been distributed. The figures look quite satisfactory, but to give some perspective it was reported that these copies were distributed amongst 58 branches but only some 20 branches were involved in selling WV“as an integral part of their work around factories employing a large proportion of women, approximately the same number (and in some cases the same branches) are selling Women’s Voice on council estates as part of their work with tenants.” The total number of IS branches at this time was 124. As a matter of interest one of the “active” branches was my own Portsmouth branch where work was carried out around a local Goodmans (part of the Thorn Group) factory. This resulted in a major article appearing in Women’s Voice Issue 2 of which 55 copies were sold.
Writing very much later Farber puts a part of the problem of IS engaging with the struggles of women on Cliff’s shoulders by citing his “economistic” inclinations, “workerist” tendency and his sexism (Farber, 2013). That seems a little unfair. It does however seem true that Cliff was neither politically nor emotionally well equipped to engage with women’s issues. Let’s face it – he did not even write the relevant section of his own autobiography (Cliff, 2000b). His one major written engagement with the subject, the book Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation (Cliff, 1984), is hardly his strongest work. Indeed, when Abbie Bakan of IS Canada, one of the IS Tendency’s leading lights as regards the women’s movement, was asked to review a draft of the book she was absolutely scathing. I certainly will not quote any of the specific comments, but I will quote how she started her summing up:
“I realize my comments are harsh, but I think if you intend to write a serious Marxist analysis of women’s oppression, and a serious revolutionary strategy for women’s liberation, there is no room for mediocrity or lack of clarity….”. (Bakan, 1982).
My judgement is that, using today’s standards, IS had missed a great opportunity and would have done well to progress along the lines Sam suggested in his report. In part they did – Women’s Voice went on to produce 100 issues until its closure in July 1982 – in part they did not – the commitment to women’s issues and women’s organisation in that period was often grudging and skin deep. The reasons might have included economism, workerism and even sexism – but they also included prioritisation of scarce resources. In 1973 IS may have been doing well in terms of recruitment but in June of that year the total membership was still only 3156 and it was acknowledged within the leadership that the current “good times” could not last indefinitely.
IS and Internal Democracy
In some senses perhaps, this section of Sam’s report holds the most interest. To what extent was Sam highlighting issues in 1973 that it took many others a much longer period to come to terms with? Is he correct to identify this period as the start of what he later described as “the noxious Zinovievite internal regime in the SWP”? (Farber, 2013). Could the alternative options that he identified to the Cliff-inspired organisational changes have led somewhere different? Are Farber’s options even practical for an effective revolutionary organisation? Still, before I comment on any of this a few general points are in order.
Firstly, references in the report to the “S.W.P.” are, of course, to the US Socialist Workers Party – IS did not become the SWP in Britain until January 1977.
Secondly, I make no comment on the extent to which, if any, Sam’s comments on democracy were directed to events in the I.S.U.S. where that organisation had recently had a major faction fight and split.
Thirdly, it is worth recording that in 1973 the IS Tendency did mean something. Members of the IS in Britain were well acquainted with the US sister organisation. There had been major pieces on the ISUS in the IS Internal Bulletin of October 1972, December 1972 and September 1973. During a large part of 1973 Steve Jeffery’s was also writing a regular column in Socialist Worker on US matters.
Sam puts a portion of his argument on democracy around the treatment he perceives that the “Right Faction” received. This is slightly problematic for me as one of the main issues at stake here was the very fact that the internal group of members in question refused to acknowledge they were a faction. To my mind, if a group of members with common political views at variance in key areas with their organisation work together over an extended period to change the political line of that parent organisation it is a faction. It is not acceptable for those members to imply this is just normal debate, or coincidence, or how democracy should work, or they did not want to form the “us and them” of a faction, or even, indeed, to deny their own commonality of views (see the various documents issued by the group after the expulsion of the 8). Factional activity requires rights and responsibilities on both sides of a debate. This seems to have been lacking in this instance.
Perversely, however, though Sam might not have chosen the perfect example to highlight, he was correct when he said:
“All the available evidence shows that the leadership of the I.S.G.B. is moving towards the banning of permanent factions or towards creating the kind of administrative obstacles which would make the creation of a permanent faction an almost impossible task.”
For many years it has been the case that permanent factions are not permissible in the SWP. Moreover, given the administrative and other obstacles faced, the temporary factions that are constitutionally allowed for 12 weeks of the year, are always doomed to failure. An incumbent Central Committee has such an inbuilt advantage that, for any faction formed under the current constitution and organisational norms, defeat is nigh on inevitable. Of course, factions are not the be all and end all of democracy. As Ian Birchall observes (pers. comms.):
“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. Had the rot set in in 1973? I didn’t think so at the time and I still don’t really think so.”
That Sam should highlight Cliff’s article “Lenin and the Revolutionary Party” in International Socialism Number 58 of May 1973 in the context of internal democracy is interesting to me. Quite independently and before I had seen his 1973 visit report I had cause to re-read this article. It really is a bit of a depressing read and I made precisely the same personal conclusions as Sam does. I think Mike Kidron was also seeing the writing on the wall as regard to Cliff’s turn to Lenin, the future “Lenin” books and internal democracy. At the May 1973 Executive Committee Kidron could only have been referring to this Cliff article when he pointedly said “….we should ask Cliff to write the second part of his autobiography….”!
It is worth fast-forwarding nearly 20 years to quickly mention another major debate involving Sam Farber and the SWP on the question of socialist democracy.
In the International Socialism Journal (Second Series) Number 52 Autumn 1991 and in the light of the revolutions in Eastern Europe, John Rees published a major article mounting “a defence of the traditions that arose from the October Revolution and shows how it was later crushed by the Stalinist counter-revolution”. His article “In Defence of October” attempted this defence through the medium of tackling some writings from the non-Stalinist left that Rees perceived as having “given renewed force to an old argument: that the seeds of destruction [of the Stalinist regimes] were sown in the very first days of the Bolshevik revolution”. One of the key works that Rees was taking issue with was Sam Farber’s 1990 book, Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy.
Rees castigates Farber for arguing that:
“Lenin’s views and actions “inevitably and necessarily led to an elitist form of government” and that the “Bolsheviks firmly adopted policies that moved them a considerable distance towards what later became the Stalinist totalitarian model””. (Rees, 1991. Italics in original).
Sam responded to Rees in International Socialism Journal Number 55 June 1992 and in the context of this particular article it is worth noting that he finished this 1992 piece by relating back to his own SRG membership in the 1960’s:
“I would like to conclude this essay by recalling the spirit of the Socialist Review/International Socialism tendency with which I am glad to have been associated in the early 1960’s. This was a serious, militant and hard-working group that with its humility and lack of dogmatism differed dramatically from practically all the other revolutionary groups that I have known in the subsequent 30 tears. Least of all did this group suffer from the political obsession of “hardness”, i.e. the tough macho “Bolshevik” posturing counterposed to the equally obsessive political “softness” of social democracy. The SR/IS tendency was also animated by a fresh and creative political spirit that expressed itself in its willingness to engage in a vigorous revolutionary revisionism, e.g. Tony Cliff on Lenin’s theory of the labour aristocracy and on Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, and Michael Kidron’s on imperialism. This is the sort of political openness, freshness and flexibility that is necessary in the present period – a period of great crisis for the left but also of great opportunities for those who have new and constructive directions to propose.
At that time Tony Cliff also had a lot to say about the Russian Revolution and its degeneration, and what he said was not contained within the boundaries of Trotskyist or Leninist orthodoxy. I’m thinking in particular about the article “Trotsky on Substitutionism” (International Socialism, 2, Autumn 1960), or the book Rosa Luxemburg (published as a double issue of International Socialism in 1959). The readers of this journal can and will judge for themselves, but I have a strong feeling that what Cliff wrote then is closer to my Before Stalinism than to John Rees’s “In Defence of October.” (Farber, 1992)
I read Before Stalinism last year as a part of my reflections on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. I think it should be required reading for every SWP member – it certainly raised a lot of issues for me – and it puts “Leninists” outside of their comfort zone. Fortunately, the book is now again in print from the publisher Verso. Farber concludes his chapter on “Revolutionary Alternatives to Lenin” with a comment on the book itself and then a quote from Victor Serge. The quote has a line of reasoning I have always admired and considered important. Sam writes:
“…the following observation from Victor Serge, besides being an accurate description of reality, constitutes one of the principal assumptions or points of departure for this book:
“It is often said that “the germ of all Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its beginning”. Well, I have no objection. Only, Bolshevism also contained many other germs – a mass of other germs – and those who lived through the enthusiasm of the first years of the first victorious revolution ought not to forget it. To judge the living man by the death germs which the autopsy reveals in a corpse – and which he may have carried in him since his birth – is this very sensible?”.
I will close this section with an extract from Farber’s review of Tony Cliff’s biography written in 2013. This is partly because it relates to the events of 1974/1975 and partly because it evidences a more complete exposition of the views Sam was already formulating in 1973. Sam writes:
“The central defining principle of “democratic centralism” is unassailable in democratic terms: the decision adopted by a majority requires its execution by all members of the organization until at least the next annual convention, or a special conference called before then, that may choose to overturn that decision. Otherwise, why bother to try to win over a majority, or for that matter have an organization?
This is not a principle that is specific to Marxism, let alone “Leninism,” but a straightforward tenet of democratic organizational comradeship and solidarity. However, the devil in “democratic centralism” lies in the details. One of those evil details is the banning of further discussion on the disputed matter until the next pre-convention period. Such a discussion can be easily continued in the organization’s internal bulletin in order to avoid consuming branch time outside of the pre-convention period and does not necessarily imply the formation or continuation of “permanent factions,” which should, in any case, have the right to exist if a group of members feel they are necessary.
Even more important than the issue of whether or not “permanent factions” are allowed is the political transparency of the leadership. If the leading political bodies fail to disclose the individual views and votes of their members on the political issues before them, how can rank-and-file members propose alternative leadership slates at convention time when they are ignorant of where the members of the leading bodies of the organization stand on those issues?
…….One thing I was reminded of by Birchall’s biography was that many of the splits and expulsions in the IS/SWP occurred not over matters of political principle (such as reform vs. revolution or right-left divisions) but over tactical and strategic differences arising over legitimate conflicting interpretations about the nature of the period.
One such instance was the major 1975 split about whether the group should orient to shop stewards…..or to young workers, the position favoured by Cliff that unsurprisingly won.
What if, heresy of heresies, the organization would have adopted a trial period during which both approaches would have been simultaneously attempted and then analyse the results? In the absence of such legitimate and principled “compromises,” it is difficult to conceive how an authentic democratic mass revolutionary party can ever be built anywhere.”(Farber, 2013).
Sam recalls that, at the time, he sent his report to a small number of people in IS in Britain although he received no formal feedback. Re-reading it now Ian Birchall describes it (pers. comms.) as “very fair, balanced and questioning rather than polemical”, Richard Kuper (pers. comms.) says “it is fascinating and prescient”.
Looking at any organisation through a fresh pair of eyes is a valuable investment at any time and place. Why else would commercial companies pay millions of pounds for consultancy reviews, mystery shopping programmes and the like! Sam Farber’s report on the IS in 1973 is therefore important as it sees an organisation in action (warts and all) during, what time has shown, to be perhaps the most interesting in all of its history. If you cannot learn something about a revolutionary organisation from what you see, hear and “feel” during a period of intense growth, of an influx of worker membership, of a small but increasing influence within the wider working-class movement, you will never learn anything.
One accepts that Sam Farber is just one person and one person’s report must inevitably come with “the baggage” of that one person’s politics. But, it has to be said, that with his experience of membership of the group in Britain in the 1960’s and his membership of the IS Tendency in the USA, then his position to comment independently is far better than most.
We should read his visit report in that spirit. There is much to learn from it. We have gone through decades where the revolutionary left in Britain has had no impact whatsoever on the working class. When it happens that workers are again being recruited to a revolutionary organisation in significant numbers there are messages we can take from what is written here – in terms of organisation forms, democracy, education, the development of theory, integration of members, class and status tensions within the organisation, the reaching out to all the exploited sections of society – and so much more.
We ignore history at our peril.
Sam (pers. comms.) provided me with this fascinating insight into his early political beliefs: “Concerning the issue of when I became a revolutionary, you could say that while in Cuba I was a political revolutionary but certainly not a socialist revolutionary. At the time, I was, in socio-economic terms, a sort of New Dealer without really knowing what it meant since I was only a teenager. It was only after the victory of the Cuban Revolution that I was radicalized and became a Marxist under the tutelage and education of the left Shachtmanites at the University of Chicago. I also spent the summer of 1959 in Cuba and was very radicalized by the experience and also became aware of the Stalinist potential of the situation. As it happened, most of my political friends from high school moved to favor the PSP-Raul Castro-Che Guevara wing of the 26th of July Movement. In particular, one of them, Osmin Fernandez, was the chief of staff of Camilo Cienfuegos, the head of the Army. On two or three occasions me and my friends met at his Army office to discuss political events. What I heard there about the “real democracy” of the USSR did not please me. But without the previous contact I had with the Shachtmanites, I would not have been able to grasp much of its meaning. However, I still supported the Castro regime for almost another year.”
- The PSP (Partido Socialista Popular) was the traditional pro-Moscow Communist Party in Cuba.
- Ian Birchall discovered the unpublished manuscript of the book on the collectivisation of agriculture in a cupboard at Cliff’s home after his death. It seems that Cliff just abandoned it in favour of other priorities. The manuscript is now with Cliff’s papers at Warwick University Modern Records Centre.
Allen, Peter. 1985. Socialist Worker – paper with a purpose. Media, Culture and Society Vol. 7 (1985) pp. 205-232.
Anon. 1974. Industrial Report 1973/4. IS Internal Bulletin Pre-Conference Issue.
Bakan, Abbie. 1982. Letter to Tony Cliff dated 19th August 1982. Bookmarks Publication archive held at the Modern Records Centre Warwick.
Birchall, Ian. 2011. Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time. Bookmarks Publications, London, 664pp.
Cliff, Tony. 1963. Permanent Revolution. International Socialism Number 12 pp. 15-22.
Cliff, Tony. 1973. On Recruitment. IS Internal Bulletin May/June 1973.
Cliff, Tony. 1984. Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation: 1640 to the Present Day. Bookmarks, London, 271pp.
Cliff, Tony. 2000a. The Importance of Marxist Theory pp. 18-21 in Marxism at the Millennium, Bookmarks Publications Limited, London, 86pp.
Cliff, Tony. 2000b. A World to Win: Life of a Revolutionary. Bookmarks Publications, London, 247pp.
Dunne, Michael. 2016. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress: Countering Revolution in Latin America. Part II. The Historiographical Record. International Affairs 92(2): 435-452.
Farber, Samuel. 1990. Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy. Verso, London and New York, 288pp.
Farber, Samuel. 1992. In Defence of Revolutionary Democratic Socialism. International Socialism Journal Number 55 Summer 1992, pp.85-95.
Farber, Samuel. 2003. Obituary Michael Kidron (1931-2003). Against the Current Number 105, July-August 2003.
Farber, Samuel. 2006. Feedback: Cuban Myths. International Socialism Journal Number 112. Autumn 2006, p. 224.
Farber, Samuel. 2009. Letter to Ian Birchall dated 18th March 2009.
Farber, Samuel. 2013. Tony Cliff as a Socialist Leader. Solidarity website. Available online at:
Gonzalez, Mike. 2011. A Political Monolith. Review 31. Online Literary Review ofCuba Since the Revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment. Available online:
Gonzalez, Mike. 2016. A Flawed Revolutionary Icon – A Review of The Politics of Che Guevara. RS21. Available online:
Higgins, Jim. 1997. More Years for the Locust: The Origins of the SWP. IS Group, London, 177pp.
Junco, Sergio. 1961. Cuba and Socialism. Young Guard Issue Number 4 (December 1961), pp. 5-6.
Junco, Sergio. 1962a. Kennedy’s Big Stick. Socialist Review May 1962, pp. 6-7.
Junco, Sergio. 1962b. Alliance Without Progress. Socialist Review June 1962, pp. 5-6.
Junco, Sergio. 1963. A Criticism of T.C.’s Analysis of the Cuban Situation. A Socialist Survey Number 2, pp. 6-8.
Junco, Sergio & Nick Howard. 1962. Yanqui No! Castro No! Cuba Si! International Socialism Number 7, pp. 23-27.
Rees, John. 1991. In Defence of October. International Socialism Journal Number 52 Autumn 1991, pp. 3-79. Available online:
Rudge, John. 2018. The Socialist Review Group and Cuba. Available online:
My thanks to Sam Farber, Ian Birchall, Richard Kuper and Charles Post for their assistance with this research.
(FOR MEMBERS ONLY)
IMPRESSIONS OF A VISIT TO BRITAIN BY S.F.
Los Angeles, Sept. – Oct. 1973
I was in Britain from April 15th to June 30th and from July 30th to August 13th, which amounts to exactly three months. Naturally, I spent a great deal of time in contact with our British comrades including a tour of Scotland, Midlands and Yorkshire during the first half of June. I should add that I had spent two years in Britain from 1961 to 1963 when the group was infinitely smaller – about 250 at the time I left in July 1963. I don’t claim to be an “expert” on the group or Britain but I want to relate to my U.S. comrades (as well as to at least some British comrades) what my impressions were. I do not intend to deal with everything that there is to be said about the I.S.G.B. but to highlight certain points. Thus, I will not discuss most of their theory (e.g., state capitalism, China, etc.) which comrades can glean from reading their publications, but to concentrate on what can be learned only by being there. I should state that I was very favorably impressed with our British comrades. The I.S.G.B. is certainly a healthy and impressive group. However, there are a couple of areas where I am particularly critical of the group and I shall discuss them later.
The I.S. is successfully making the transition from sect to party. This is not just a matter of numbers although its rapid growth (near 4,000 as of latest report) is certainly noteworthy. It is also a question of its social composition, real influence on working class and national politics and several other considerations. As far as size is concerned the I.S. is far ahead of the other Trotskyist and revolutionary sects. I gather that the International Marxist Group (IMG – the equivalent of the SWP) has about 400 members, the Socialist Labor League (SLL – equivalent of the Workers League) about 600 and the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL – no relation to our former political associates) about 300 members. I don’t know the membership of the two main Maoist sects but they are small. The Communist Party claims 30,000 members but their real active membership is perhaps from 25 to 50 per cent of that figure which still makes them considerably larger than the I.S.
The change in the social composition of the I.S. is even more remarkable. From 25 to 30 per cent of its membership are blue-collar industrial workers (unfortunately, almost entirely male), about 1/3 of the members are while-collar workers and about 20 per cent are students and the rest are miscellaneous categories. There is presently a campaign to recruit black and immigrant members into the organization, which includes the publication of at least one I.S. foreign language newspaper. The working-class character of the I.S. is particularly visible outside of London and I strongly recommend that any comrades visiting Britain should plan to visit some of the industrial branches, particularly in areas like Yorkshire and the Midlands; otherwise, you will get a distorted and much less impressive view of the group.
The group’s influence in national politics is growing. While I was in Britain the bourgeois press had a story mentioning the I.S. at least once or twice a month. Its growing influence in the working class is even more noticeable. In at least one important local trades council the I.S. is in a decisive and commanding position. It is a leading force in various opposition groups in trade unions (notably teachers and autoworkers) and its influence is growing in other trade union sectors (e.g., miners). The I.S. has begun to attract people who would never consider joining a sect and probably would not even hear about them. As an example, I have in mind a working-class grandfather in his late fifties who had been disillusioned by both the Labour and Communist parties and who only recently had heard about the I.S. because of the I.S.’s mass work against the National Front and similar fascist groups in his city. He joined the I.S. in the context of seeing it as becoming a credible alternative to both of the above-mentioned parties.
As both cause and consequence of these changes in the I.S. a lot of other things are different in the I.S.G.B. as well. The length, content, and style of membership meetings are considerably different from ours. Meetings are much shorter, there is a greater amount of discussion of actual activity and discussions center a lot more on how to affect the outside world rather than being inward-looking as we tend to be. Refreshingly, there is little posing and swagger in the outside world as well as inside the organization. After the almost dizzying talk of nuclei and embryos of vanguards in the American I.S. of early 1973 it was quite gratifying to see such modesty. Yes, there is a lot of talk of “join the I.S. and help build the party” but it sounds a lot more like an appeal on the lines of give us a hand in our great effort than the definitional fantasies and bravado we got so used to here. There appears to be an inverse relationship between boastful arrogance and real influence and size!
My contact with the I.S.G.B. in 1973 was a welcome refresher of many things I already knew either from my knowledge of the history of socialism and the working-class movement (particularly in regard to the difference between a sect and a party) or from my earliest non-sectarian political experience in Cuba. Thus, it was interesting to see the kind of topics that many working-class members and close friends of the I.S. wanted to discuss with me. One worker wanted to discuss the question of what would make people work once there were no bosses under workers control (wouldn’t people rather stay in bed and not work?). An autoworker comrade and I seriously discussed the question of why Indians, Bengalis and Pakistanis (unlike West Indians) just wanted to “keep to themselves” and not dress like or mingle more with native white workers. I also found a much greater interest among my working-class audiences on the questions of Watergate and blacks in the U.S.A. than on the question of the U.S. labor movement itself; and I don’t think that was solely due to my limitations in talking about the latter topic. In any case, this confirmed my earlier opinion that workers are not simply interested in discussing “point of production” matters and that our conception of what are theoretically important topics is very narrow and biased by our sectarian and academic training. As a matter of fact, the question of compulsion and work, cultural diversity, etc., are of the deepest philosophical and theoretical import and puzzled such giants as Marx and Freud. Those workers were trying to find in socialism not just a weapon to overthrow capitalist oppression but a new way of making sense and understanding the world and its complexity.
I was also “refreshed” in my earlier book knowledge that there are class and status tensions within a mass socialist organization. There are tensions between workers and middle-class members and between those who have had a lot of formal education and those who haven’t had it. Thus, I heard complaints about the tendency of the middle-class members to dominate and channel the discussion in branches where workers did not set the tone; or about the reluctance of some educated and middle-class members to engage in certain branch activities; or, less frequently, complaints about the life-style of some upper middle class I.S.‘ers which was in sharp contrast with the rest of the members. Needless to say, the visibility of class and educational contrasts in Britain as compared to the U.S.A. only makes the problem worse there.
This in turn led me to develop a new insight on what I would call the Two Souls of “Workerism”. What I mean is that on the one hand I felt very identified and in great sympathy with the anti-elitist political currents in the group which opposed the reactionary traits of educated and middle-class members inside the I.S. or the equivalent social groups outside the I.S. (even though these currents were often demagogically utilized by various elements in the I.S. leadership). On the other hand, there was a reactionary side to “Workerism” to the great extent that it showed a lack of sufficient concern for the struggle on non-working-class groups against their oppression. In addition, wrong actions were sometimes greeted with approval if they were done in a “Workerist” spirit. For example, at the London Regional Conference in late May, Tony Cliff, in what was otherwise a brilliant analysis and attack on the reactionary traits of many middle class and educated I.S. members welcomed with a great deal of approval the decision of two branches to ban the recruitment of non-working-class members for six months in order to change the social composition and climate in those branches. It is certainly the case that you can always take care and dispose of your sinus congestion by not breathing! I must point out, however, that I have felt much more negative and less ambivalent about “workerism” in the I.S.U.S. since until recently at least it has had very little anti-elitist content and a great deal of abstraction and just plain bad politics.
The Strategy of the I.S.: While Britain experienced a mini-boom during my stay there due to Heath’s successful floating of the pound earlier on, the I.S. has forecasted that this will not last long and that relatively soon the Tory government will have a recurrence of serious economic problems and that therefore the level of class struggle will rise again. More generally, the I.S. has a sophisticated analysis concerning the possibility of reforms in Britain. As opposed to the highly schematic and unreal view of so many “orthodox” Trotskyists that no reforms are possible, the I.S. sees the situation as one where greater and larger struggles will be required to attain diminishing reforms. This is both a political and economic analysis where the diminishing room for reforms in capitalism is dialectically intertwined with the decreasing reformism of the Labor Party and other traditional working-class institutions.
The I.S. utilizes as a model the Minority Movement of the twenties in Britain as the organizational expression of a revolutionary trade unionism which neither ignores the unions nor capitulates to its leadership whether left or right. The I.S. encourages and leads in the formation of rank and file caucuses of militants in industry as an important step towards the formation of a new Minority Movement which will link the militant and advanced workers of various plants and industries. On the political level, the I.S., while continuing the slogan “Vote Labour without Illusions” at election time, only exceptionally participates in Labour Party activities. It should be pointed out that one of the key theoretical contributions of the I.S. Journal during the sixties was its analysis of the decline of reformism and of the Labor Party becoming little more than an electoral machine. This analysis has been vindicated in practice and it has provided the basis for the I.S.’s timely turn towards building an alternative to the declining Labor Party. Those who would have us imitate our British comrades should take careful note of the key role played by the theoretical “capital” that the I.S. built during the sixties and which greatly enriched its understanding of British society and the British working-class movement. Since they have worked out their politics and theory, they do not need to engage in endless re-discussions of the line whenever they want to make a new organizational turn. Needless to say, we have built no comparable understanding of American society and of the international scene and must often engage in repeated and endless discussions, even when just putting out a leaflet. While replacing the Labor Party is not yet a possible goal for the I.S., the group does intend to replace the C.P. as the main organization to the left of the Labor Party. This could be accomplished within a few short years; there is a real vacuum in the British left and the I.S. has little serious opposition. Maoism is insignificant in Britain, a welcome relief after one sees how independent leftists in the U.S. continuously talk in Maoist jargon. The C.P., while stronger than in America in terms of influence and numbers, is also much softer and more fossilized than its American counterpart; perhaps the underground McCarthyite experience helped to make the C.P.U.S.A. a more aggressive and harder cadre-type organization than its European counterparts. The I.S. has already become a real rival to the C.P. in many areas in Britain not only because of the superiority of its political ideas and integrity but also because of its greater vigor and youth. As I previously mentioned, the Trotskyist sects have been left far behind the I.S. and they are not a threat to the organization although they can sometimes be a nuisance.
Having first mentioned the objective situation of capitalism in Britain where one might expect greater crises to occur, and secondly, the relative lack of competition on the left, we must also mention that the I.S. has developed a strong and authoritative leadership team which can take advantage of such conditions. That leadership has had a continuity with the past which we have lacked. There is a relatively small but very stable group of leaders who go back to the forties and even earlier, and then there are a much larger group of leaders who were recruited out of the Labor Party Young Socialists in the early sixties and the student movement in the middle and late sixties. This latter group has been successfully integrated both politically and organizationally with the former. Last but by no means least, a third group of working-class leaders recruited in the late sixties and early seventies has begun to play a key role in the organization. It is probably too early to tell how successful will be the integration of this third group with the previous two. In any case, it is clear that we have here a very competent and determined leadership which is both politically and organizationally sophisticated. This leadership has, on the whole, been able to make the right turns at the right time. It has been internally self-restrained and avoided intense factionalism when there were disagreements on important issues such as the Common Market. The leadership is able to carry their organization by proving itself politically correct, and never allowing views to grow up in the group which don’t get answered and taken on by the leadership. We, on the other hand, have had a fragmented leadership which has little respect from the members. I should add that the small size of the country has most certainly facilitated the British I.S.’s cohesion. Going from London to Glasgow is like going from Los Angeles to Berkeley and the leadership of the group does a great deal of travelling to all branches. Just imagine the whole of our organization within a country the size of California!
It is in the light of the above considerations that we must understand the current I.S. mass recruitment policy and the new policy of forming factory branches. At present new members are recruited to the I.S. on the basis of their agreeing to abide by all majority decisions, pay contributions, actively work for the organization and agreeing on the following four points: 1. Opposition to all ruling class policies and organizations. 2. Workers control over production and a worker’s state. 3. Opposition to imperialism and support for all movements of national liberation. 4. Uncompromising opposition to all forms of racialism and to all migration controls. Also, many factory branches have been started since the March 1973 conference (convention) authorized their formation (comrades are strongly urged to read the excellent pamphlet by Tony Cliff “Factory Branches”). Some comrades in Britain and the U.S.A. have approached these two policies as if they were matters of principle. Whether or not one engages in mass recruitment at a low level of political agreement and whether or not factory branches are a good idea depends on a variety of specific circumstances; socialist principle does not, in my view, indicate one course of action or another. Granted the limited nature of my knowledge, it seems to me that both policies are justified in the current situation of the I.S. in Britain while in the U.S. at the present time recruitment on the basis of a four-point political program would be disastrous for us and factory branches are in no way an immediate possibility for the simple reason that we have very few workers even in one industry or firm, let alone one plant.
Naturally, there are many problems involved in the successful implementation of such policies. There is first the question of political education of new members. In connection with this the I.S. has produced numerous popular pamphlets, syllabi for the education of new members, and various other kinds of educational materials. In addition, several hundred members attended cadre schools this summer in London and Yorkshire. These cadre schools had basic, intermediary, and advanced sections. So, it does appear that a great deal of effort is being put into this task. I am somewhat more sceptical as to whether an equal amount of effort is being put into creating cadres out of new members not in the sense of reading and attending class series but in the broader sense of total functioning (e.g., regular and punctual attendance of branch functions, ability to explain I.S. policies and tactics to non-members, ability to act individually as an I.S.’er if that becomes necessary in certain situations, etc.). In any case, I was not in a position to assess how successful the implementation of these policies has been. In order to do that you have to be able to observe at first hand and over a period of time what does in fact happen to new comrades recruited in a mass recruitment drive or to one or more factory branches. It is also clear these new turns have created some tensions and stresses within the I.S. leadership bodies, as witness the most recent and very substantial changes in the personnel of their Executive Committee (equivalent of our NAC) and the appointment of a new National Secretary.
The Intervention of the I.S.: A key tool in building rank and file groups which eventually will link up with each other and form a new Minority Movement are the rank and file newspapers. These range from papers where the I.S. is in a controlling position to papers where the I.S. is in a minority within a broader group with the C.P. sometimes in control. On the whole, rank and file papers deal with matters concerning the particular industry and also issues like tenants’ grievances to the extent that the workers in that particular industry are directly affected by a rise in rents for example. The different and limited political character of these papers is dictated by the fact that workers who are willing to struggle in a militant manner against the employers and the union bureaucracy very often do not share the socialist approach to general politics that one finds in Socialist Worker. Nevertheless, it seems to me that these rank and file papers may not have sufficiently explored the extent to which broader political matters might be dealt with (e.g., the Poulson and Lambton scandals in Britain) without necessarily raising all the political conclusions that the Socialist Worker would. However, these papers do perform an invaluable function and we must reject the slanders of “orthodox” Trotskyists that these papers (and the I.S.) are Economist and reformist. The fact of the matter is that the I.S. work in the rank and file movement is a very good example of how revolutionary Marxists (as opposed to sectarians) should intervene in non-revolutionary situations. I would even contend that the practice of the I.S. in this regard is even better than its theory; I have in mind the extent to which I.S.’ers in Britain tend to make somewhat rigid theoretical distinctions between propaganda and agitation in the abstract, and also what I found to be an inadequate treatment of the question of how to fight for reforms and Economism in articles by Duncan Hallas in International Socialism numbers 54 and 56. I should also mention the important role played by the many shop bulletins put out by the I.S. which are designed to deal with grievances and issues within a given plant. These shop bulletins are often crucial in establishing the presence of the I.S. among workers and a great deal of care goes into producing what at first may appear to be an insignificant mimeographed sheet dealing with some highly specific matters. But these are the kinds of projects that test whether a group has struck roots among the workers or is simply hanging around the factory gate without being in touch with what’s going on inside. Increasingly, the I.S. has been able to produce factory bulletins totally from the inside and this is another positive indication of the rapidly changing composition of the group.
The I.S. Press: Perhaps the most impressive single feature of the I.S.G.B. is the Socialist Worker. This is a very lively and professionally produced weekly which stays away from much of the jargon and inwardness of so many socialist papers. It is also a very well-balanced newspaper with just the right proportions of national, international, and industrial news and features. The contents of Socialist Worker are the most telling and conclusive against the slanderous charges that the I.S.G.B. is reformist, centrist, and economist. Most recently S.W. has had extensive coverage of the I.S.’s anti-racist work and it has been an important tool in the current effort to recruit black and Asian workers. The paper has also covered issues affecting tenants and perhaps most importantly it has developed socialist muck-racking into a fine skill. Occasionally one finds in the letters to the editor sectarians complaining about the paper’s muck-racking. These people would have us believe that socialist propaganda must be abstract, schematic, and of course boring in order to be truly revolutionary. I believe that the paper is still weak in its cultural and arts section, with more than occasional lapses into a kind of socialist realism. It is also weak in its coverage of the struggles of many specially oppressed groups such as women and gay people. Socialist Worker is a true organizer for the group. Factory sales often lead to the formation of S.W. discussion groups which in turn are potential factory or industrial branches. In fact, S.W. groups usually do not last very long; they either become I.S. branches or dissolve into oblivion. It should be pointed out that there is a much higher degree of overlapping between workers who read one of the rank and file papers and S.W. than there would be between workers who read Workers Power and those who read rank and file papers we are involved in. There are many reasons for this difference but some of the main ones are the much greater number of politically advanced workers in Britain and their greater receptivity to socialist ideas; even relatively conservative workers are not likely to consider paper sellers as being some kind of kooks. One would wish that many of the American comrades making easy comparisons with Britain would bear some of these key differences in mind.
The Theoretical Journal: The quality of the journal has gradually deteriorated in the last few years and in no way compares to the quality of Socialist Worker. Just recently there have been some attempts to change or modify the nature of the journal but the appointment and unexplained replacement of Kidron as editor (even before he put out one issue!!) leave one wondering as to how the journal will change. The leadership places a great emphasis on using the journal as a rather direct aid to its current political work. One cannot help but sense that many of the I.S. leaders have developed a rentier attitude towards theory by continuing to live off the contributions they developed in the sixties and not seeing the need to continually review and renew such contributions. A group with so many talented Marxist economists should know that rentier classes are sooner or later displaced by those who are in tune with new modes of production. This applies to socialist theory no less than it applies to the economy.
The I.S. on Women: The I.S.G.B.’s politics and behavior concerning women’s liberation leaves a lot to be desired. It is true that some improvements have taken place: the group is putting out a newspaper called Women’s Voice and it has also put out an excellent pamphlet by Kath Ennis entitled Women Fight Back. The last I.S. Conference (convention) approved by a narrow margin a motion mandating the group’s leadership to conduct an Equal Pay campaign; this motion passed in spite of the opposition of a majority of the outgoing National Committee. Yet, as of a couple of months ago the leadership continued to regard women’s liberation as a low priority; no paid full-time organizer had yet been appointed to do women’s work even though the group had a sizeable staff of paid full-time organizers. I was struck by the very wide range of women’s liberation consciousness among the women members of I.S. This ranged from the most advanced consciousness (particularly in some of the Midlands branches) to the most chauvinist set of attitudes. In my view, the main reason for this is that in the absence of a strong women’s liberation politics emanating from the center of the organization toward all the branches, the level of consciousness will then depend on accidental factors such as whether there happen to be strong leaders in a branch who happen to be women’s liberation conscious. (I should point out that on more than one occasion I ran into very talented women leaders that had very little women’s liberation consciousness). Unfortunately, it is still the case that male chauvinist behavior on the part of male members and especially male leaders of the organization towards female members goes unpunished and sometimes even unnoticed; no mechanisms have been developed to deal with such violations of what should be the proper behavior of a revolutionary socialist. The fact that some male members and even leaders of the I.S. try to deal with this problem through the use of jokes only makes the situation worse.
I believe that the I.S.G.B. could make very rapid strides in this area if sufficient pressure was brought to bear on the leadership of the group. The politics of the group would not be an obstacle to this; unlike Lutte Ouvriere for example the I.S.G.B. has no fetish about “class politics” which would force it to oppose the independent organization of women as I am informed L.O. does; in fact, Kath Ennis’ pamphlet advocates explicitly the formation of women’s caucuses within larger rank and file caucuses in industry. I would expect opposition to women’s caucuses within the I.S. although the matter has not been discussed in the group. To the extent that I talked to men and women members about women’s caucuses within the I.S., I found a mixture of misunderstanding and disagreement with the position of the I.S.U.S. majority. But more often than not my discussions showed that the British comrades had never considered the idea.
There seems to be a point of view among many I.S. leaders that the fight against racism is important and the fight against male chauvinism is not because the former is a tool of the ruling class to divide the working class and it is a more serious phenomenon than male chauvinism. It is true that racism is usually a more explicit and unsubtle way of dividing the working class, but any comrade who would study the conservatizing role of working-class women vis a vis their striking husbands or the usual tendency of working-class women to be to the right of their husbands in national politics, and all the other ways in which the sexual division in the working class sets back the working-class movement as a whole, would realize that the difference is nowhere near as great as one might think. In any case, the existence of such a difference might be used to justify priorities in terms of allocation of organizational resources but in no way could it be used for example to justify the lack of internal measures to combat open male chauvinist behaviour of I.S. members toward women comrades.
The weakness of the I.S.G.B. on the question of women’s liberation is at least partially accountable for by the relative insignificance of the general women’s movement in Britain as a whole. The absence of a strong women’s movement has eliminated one powerful external pressure for change. Still, I find it very hard to accept the idea that revolutionary socialists should be content to be behind and more backward than other political elements in the population in the struggle against oppression. We should be the ones to take the political if not the organizational initiative in those struggles as well as in the more usual struggles of the working class. As V.I. Lenin put it in What Is To Be Done?: “The Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be a trade-union secretary, but a tribune of the people, able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects;….He who forgets this obligation to be in advance of everybody in bringing up, sharpening, and solving every general democratic question is not a Social-Democrat.” (Lenin’s emphasis – pp. 77-78. 80. Little Lenin Library, Vol. 4, International Publishers edition.).
The I.S.G.B. and Internal Democracy: Without a doubt, the thing that disturbed me the most about the I.S.G.B. was its current practices and even more its current tendencies on the matter of internal democracy. I should point out that I arrived in Britain in the midst of the expulsion of the so-called Right Faction and that I was very much bothered by the manner in which they were expelled. They were called into a hearing with a sub-committee of the N.C. after which the N.C. went into executive session (which the potential expellees were not allowed to attend) and unanimously expelled eight leaders of the “Right Faction”. The rest of the members of the “Right Faction” (about 60 members) were eventually expelled when they refused to cease “factional activity” after a thirty-day period. The original expulsion of the eight leaders happened shortly after the I.S. Conference (convention) at which the politics of the “Right Faction” were overwhelmingly defeated but where the question of expulsion never came up for discussion. I should point out that I am even less sympathetic to the politics of the “Right Faction” (degenerated workers’ state, Transitional Program, Labor Party entrism, etc.) than the I.S. leadership is. The “Right Faction” was accused of disruption and “entrism” into the I.S. They were concentrated in four or five branches (Bristol, Brighton, Bradford, and Kilburn in London). I had no way of verifying these charges but from all that I have heard it is highly likely that they did deserve expulsion, but that does not make the question of how they were expelled irrelevant or unimportant at least in terms of the setting of precedents.
All the available evidence shows that the leadership of the I.S.G.B. is moving towards the banning of permanent factions or towards creating the kind of administrative obstacles which would make the creation of a permanent faction an almost impossible task. The Constitution of the I.S.G.B. already states (Part 8 paragraphs e and f): “If a faction meeting is open to any non-member of the faction it must be open to all I.S. members….It is impermissible for a faction to try to levy a regular subscription on its supporters. Any member of the group may make a voluntary contribution to a faction or to the publication of an internal document which is in disagreement with group policy.” Although the above provisions seem not to have been implemented in practice they could easily be used to make it very difficult (through the use of administrative means) to form a faction. It would mean that if a faction tries to recruit somebody in the I.S. by inviting the comrade to one of their factional meetings, Tony Cliff himself would presumably be entitled to attend as well. The Constitution does not of course establish the same obligation for dissenters being invited when the leadership meets with group members who are not part of the leadership. Any responsible leadership worth its name is a de facto faction. If factions are banned, or under a pall, then it is the rank and file who are being restricted because the leadership maintains its factional rights.
Some things have happened which unfortunately feed my fears. Immediately after the “Right Faction” leaders had been expelled, an official Branch Circular (73/77) was sent on April 18, 1973 by Jim Higgins, the then National Secretary of the I.S., calling on the Left Faction to dissolve after the Left Faction had already rejected an earlier call to dissolve. (The Left Faction is even smaller than the “Right Faction” and they are best known for their position of critical support for the Provos in Ireland; unlike the “Right Faction” they tend to have “orthodox” I.S.G.B. politics on more general questions such as state capitalism). This Circular, while stating that the decision to dissolve was up to the Left Faction itself, also indicated that “the comrades of the Left have the opportunity to raise their disagreements in the next pre-conference discussion, they have the right to discuss the implementation of existing policy. For the next nine months they should make every effort to carry the policies agreed by the Conference….Even at this late stage the National Committee appeals to them to reconsider their decision not to dissolve and to join the majority in building the organization.” In other words, keep silent about your disagreements for nine months, the implication being that you cannot both loyally help to build the organization and continue to express your disagreements in an organized fashion. There is little question in my mind that this is the sort of circular that might indeed help to create a disloyal comrade where there was not one to begin with. When I read this circular I could not help but feel an uneasy SWP flavor in my mouth. Nor could I be reassured when I found, while perusing a collection of I.S.G.B. internal bulletins, the following statement by Andreas Nagliatti, a very prominent leader of the group (in “Report of Visit to Avanguardia Operaia” – Dec. 1972 I.S. Bulletin): “They are quite strict in controlling dissent, the attitude being that those who can belong to the organization are those who agree with it and not those who do not. They seemed quite pleased when we told them of the departure of the Workers’ Fight, since they are adamant, as we are now, that tendencies can not be tolerated in revolutionary groups.” The rest of the article lists several other elitist and undemocratic traits of A.O. without any criticism whatsoever from the writer except to state at the end of the report the following: “To conclude: in A.O. an internal regime which would certainly be under considerable attack in I.S. exists and is defended by the members who have spoken to me.”
The I.S. is currently being reorganized and a new constitution is being drafted. Unfortunately, it seems that this new constitution will be less democratic than the previous one. Cliff’s recent article (IS 58) more than hints about how various safeguards are unnecessary in a revolutionary party. The article also obfuscates a key distinction: while it is clear that in the course of the political life of Lenin or any other revolutionary leader violations of the democratic safeguards of a party will occur, there is quite a difference between making such a description of fact and making that a prescriptive rule. Also, within the last three months the N.C. decided to publish the Internal Bulletins every two months instead of every month (the I.B. also has a 2,000-word limitation per article) and also to discontinue the publication of N.C. minutes for distribution to the branches of the group; there will be a letter from the National Secretary instead of the N.C. minutes. That might not be a bad thing if that letter described, among other things, what differences of opinion existed within the N.C., on what matters, so the membership at the very least have a more informed opinion on who to vote for at the next Conference (convention). But instead of that, the then National Secretary told the membership in Branch Circular 74/114 of July 31, 1973 that the purpose of his letter would be to “draw out and emphasize the points for activity in the localities, a function that the minutes (which are essentially a record for participants) cannot perform.” Not a word about the minutes as an actual or potential source of information for the members to check on what their leaders advocate and are doing.
A variety of arguments are put forward to justify the above practices and tendencies in the group. One very common argument is that the revolutionary organization is not a mirror of the future socialist society but a weapon in the struggle for that society and that consequently one cannot demand the same safeguards of the former. Granted that there is a difference between a voluntary organization and the state which is an involuntary organization, and granted that we cannot be a “mirror” of the future society, the fact remains that there is a very strong connection between the kind of organizational tools and political traditions that we build and the kind of society we will obtain when and if we are victorious. The habits and orientations we build among today’s revolutionaries will have a great impact on the content and shape of the society we will obtain after the Revolution. It is certainly undialectical to create a Chinese Wall (to use one of Cliff’s favorite expressions) between the two situations.
Another argument is that procedural safeguards are inappropriate to an organization and party which should not set up a court system, trials, etc. This argument misses the point since neither I nor any other member of I.S.U.S. that I know of would expect or demand a duplication of a court system with very strict rules of evidence, self-incrimination, etc. But there are still many basic elementary safeguards which fall far short of such an elaborate setup, such as the requirement that a potential expellee have a right to a full hearing and the ability to present his or her full case to the whole membership of the body which is going to do the expelling, (whether it is the N.C. or a branch) and that the charges be specific and not vague so that the comrade in question might present a defense on those very specifics. In the absence of such elementary and minimal safeguards, minority rights soon become a farcical dispensation from above.
The most serious argument I heard was that an organization with permanent factions is not viable; that if the same people within an organization always disagree with the majority on every important issue then it won’t be long before a split occurs. I think there is a great deal of truth in this argument but the key point is that it is not necessarily true. And, in any case, the way to combat factionalism is not through administrative and bureaucratic means but politically, by creating an activist, outward-orientated organization which does not stagnate in its political and theoretical development. The creation of a non-factional climate must include a leadership which whenever necessary conducts a political battle to politically isolate potential or actually destructive elements in the organization. Expulsions should be the last and not the first resort and should be applied only when disruptive and/or disloyal behavior clearly warrants such action. Factions can be very useful in changing the orientation of an organization whose incumbent political leadership has not appropriately kept up with a changing situation. Furthermore, a growing organization like the I.S. is likely to develop a real “Left” and a real “Right” in the sense that some comrades will tend to be more cautious or conservative on every issue as the organization will have more of its own organizational gains and achievements to risk. These comrades should not feel that as soon as that happens their only choice will be to leave the organization altogether or keep their mouths shut for nine months. Real discipline does not mean to keep your mouth shut for nine months; it means unity in action while you continue, in a loyal and non-disruptive manner, to try and win over your comrades to your views all year round; this of course does not mean that a minority has the right to have the same question discussed at every meeting. People who are engaged in revolutionary politics and not engaged in propagandizing fixed religious truths must leave room and flexibility for political change within an organization and for changing a leadership which might fall out of tune with a changing situation or with the wishes and desires of the membership; and this often requires the formation of organized opposition which may continue to share basic agreements with the leadership they are opposing (e.g., revolution vs. reform, workers’ power, etc.). It is particularly ironical that the basis for membership in the I.S.G.B. is politically much broader than in the I.S.U.S. (as defined by the four-point program cited previously in this report as well as by the statement of purpose published in every issue of Socialist Worker). None of the positions put forward by either the “Right” or the Left factions, or by any other potential factions in the future, are incompatible with what the group itself defines as a basis for admission to membership!
There are plenty of utilitarian grounds to justify the existence of the fullest internal democracy. But in no way do I want to rest my case on those grounds. I do not share the pseudo-tough position of so many “Marxists” that we should be in favour of internal democracy because it produces better results in the sense of better functioning. In some instances the opposite might be the case, at least in the short run. In that case I am still in favor of it because I happen to believe that a group belongs to all of its members, whether they are dissenting or not, and not to the incumbent leadership, and that the views of the members have as much right to be aired as those of the leadership. If this is “petty-bourgeois” or “liberalism”, then we have found one issue where some “revolutionaries” are more reactionary than the liberals and the petty-bourgeoisie.
I should also clarify that as often as not some leaders and members of the I.S.G.B. had a very cavalier attitude towards these questions rather than any kind of worked-out positions. I should also point out that I do not consider that the I.S.G.B. has become Cannonite, let alone Stalinist, in terms of its internal structure. For one thing, I was very positively impressed by the very independent spirit of the great majority of the members; talking to a member of the I.S.G.B. is in no way similar to talking to an American S.W.P.’er in terms of the way they relate to the political line of the organization. I also witnessed some very spirited arguments between members and leaders of the organization in connection with some fundamental policies of the group (e.g., mass recruitment) and I saw no attempt to intimidate those members into line. But there is definitely forming an intimidating atmosphere against organized dissent; and that is disturbing.
It could be argued that the I.S.U.S. behaved no differently than the I.S.G.B. in the manner it recently expelled the Revolutionary Tendency. While there would be a small amount of truth in the charge, the analogy is fundamentally erroneous. In the first place, there is no pattern emerging in the I.S.U.S. towards the restriction of internal democratic rights. Secondly, the departure of the R.T. was actually a total and irreconcilable split of nothing less than 1/3 of the organization which for a variety of reasons took the form of an expulsion. Thirdly, there is no comparison, quantitively or qualitatively, between the behavior of the R.T. and that of either the “Right” or Left faction in the I.S.G.B. The case for expulsion against at least the leaders and a substantial number of the R.T. membership was as clear as any case for expulsion could possibly be. However, having said this, I do believe that the I.S.U.S. acted incorrectly in the manner it expelled the R.T. I do believe that the N.C. was certainly entitled and obliged to act immediately, even though the convention was two months away; otherwise the organization could have fallen apart in that period of time. But there was an inconsistency between the actual motion for expulsion which gave the behavior of the R.T. as the main reason for expulsion and the accompanying “Letter to Comrades” which gave their politics as the main reason for expulsion. We know of course that there is a close connection between the two and the political reasons which impelled them to disruptive and disloyal behavior can and should be stated in the whereases (sic) of any motion for expulsion. But the actual motion for expulsion and the accompanying letter should have stuck to their behavior as the operational and actionable part. Incidentally, such behavior can include speech (e.g., saying in public that the I.S. is reformist is certainly a clear case of disloyalty). That also means that the expellees should have been singled out by name – even the I.S.G.B. did that in the case of the “Right Faction” leaders and supporter! I know of at least one member of the R.S.L. who can correctly assert he himself engaged in no behavior which was expellable under the I.S. Constitution. I believe that in this particular expulsion the outcome would have been no different had the N.C. followed the procedures outlined above. A likely scenario would have been that the N.C. would have expelled by name the leaders of the R.T. and say those members of that tendency in Chicago and Detroit who engaged in the well-known disruptive acts, and would have empowered the N.A.C. to proceed immediately to expel the rest – also by name – as soon as those others would have engaged in disruptive or disloyal actions. This would probably have happened within a matter of a very few days given the certain refusal of the Los Angeles R.T. for example to cease and desist in such practices as locking people out of the office. But it would have put the burden on them and leave no doubt where the total burden of guilt for the split lay. In this particular instance we are primarily dealing with a matter of precedent for a future situation where matters may not be so clear cut and where the arguments put forward in the “Letter to Comrades” might be used (with at least some validity) for a much less worthy cause. It seems to me that it is a serious concession to the authoritarian climate which is unfortunately hegemonic on the Left today to dismiss these objections as irrelevant, unimportant, and not worth discussing.