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John Riddell: Democracy in Lenin's Comintern

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Financial Appeal

We're up and running! An appeal for funds to kickstart the IS Network

Financial Appeal

Jim Kincaid: IS in the early 1960s

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International Socialism #51Ian Birchall’s fine book on Tony Cliff records in detail the period in 1960-2 when the Socialist Review Group was transforming itself into the IS organisation. It was a highly creative phase in the development of what later became the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), so maybe a few recollections might be of use in helping us think about directions for the new IS Network.

As Birchall explains, there was a small core of committed members, in a democratic organisation with subs, aggregates and voting, etc. What I was drawn into in 1961 in London was one of the broader networks which the Group generated around it. I was a student at LSE, radicalised by CND and by a taste of machine politics as a youthful member of the notably corrupt Glasgow Labour Party. I had worked with Nigel Harris in the Labour Party’s student organisation and he got me attending Socialist Review Group meetings where Tony Cliff, Mike Kidron and the others argued with each other and anyone else who would take them on.

 

Within those networks we were not treated just as ‘contacts’ or as passive meeting attenders, but as active quasi-members … expected not just to support and sell the Internatiional Socialism journal (which had replaced the Socialist Review in April 1960), but take an active part in discussions of its politics. There was a big emphasis on encouraging people to start writing for it (a book review, an account of industrial action, notes on trade union issues, etc). Politically there was much diversity in the people drawn into the networks. The early 60s equivalent of autonomism was welcomed – brilliant eccentrics such as Peter Sedgwick were not repelled or expelled. Many in the networks were still active in the Labour Party.

What impressed me indelibly – and scores of others – was the intensity of the political debate in and around the Group (as it called itself). Cliff made no bones about it – he was in the business of training people in the practice and theory of revolutionary politics. And for him that meant – for starters – argument, disagreement, debate, challenge, and involving everyone who turned up at a meeting. State capitalism, permanent arms economy as basis for economic growth and reformism, deflected permanent revolution – the analyses first forged in the 1950s by Cliff and Kidron – weren’t stuffed, reified and nailed to the wall as was later to happen. They were actively examined, developed and argued over, again and again.

What Cliff and co. generated was an adventurous, free-wheeling, creative, quarrelsome atmosphere – not afraid to get it wrong … to be out on a limb – trusting to a collective spirit of scientific and political debate to sort stuff out. Within the labour movement they had to establish their positions and identity against the entrenched intellectual and bureaucratic power of the Communist Party, well supplied with capable researchers, established doctrine, and of course a Central Committee to enforce conformity. The IS Group could only rely on the sheer ability of its comrades, on the patient and careful research which went into its publications and positions, and on the attractiveness of active, passionate, collective thought, debate, and writing. Newcomers were in effect invited to join a struggle to disentangle Marxist politics from what had become wrong, or irrelevant, or dead, or distorted in the inherited tradition – always under pressure to address what was new and changing in capitalism and in movements of resistance around the world.

But the other notable thing about them was – modesty. Certainly not about their own individual talents – Cliff was no shrinking violet and he attracted strong personalities around him. And not even about how tiny the IS Group then was, and how slight its influence – this was too obvious to need emphasis. But about how large an organisation would have to before it could be a serious force – and how deeply rooted in the working class movement and other struggles. The honesty about this was attractive. Cliff especially was a militant deflator of every kind of puffery and bullshit about numbers, paper sales, influence, etc. Never lie to the class or to yourself about your size and importance. The conversion of IS into a party in 1977 was a massive change of line for Cliff. In earlier years, his teaching was that an organisation which decided to call itself a party made itself ridiculous unless it was at least heading towards the standard set by the Bolsheviks – the model, he insisted, of how large and rooted a real party of the working class needed to be. He was also strongly opposed to playing at electoral politics – you only end up looking even weaker than you really are.

There was honesty also about appraising the activities and political positions taken by the Group – where did we get it right, what mistakes did we make – what can we learn? This seemed to me one of the biggest losses as the SWP developed in the 1980s and after – the clamping down on a tradition of open discussion about mistakes, both within the organisation and in debate with its periphery. Instead we get insecure leaderships who hide their internal differences, repress criticism and avoid being held to democratic account – with the perpetual excuse that the urgency of whatever is the current political situation does not allow the luxury of debate. The earlier tradition was that if the political situation was urgent, that made real debate even more urgent. In the 60s and 70s there was an insistence that the organisation had always to keep learning by reviewing and arguing about its tactics and politics. And to learn also how to listen to its periphery.

Imagine an annual Marxism in which, apart from being a carnival, with lots of meetings on safe topics, there was a also a full open debate about how and why the SWP has been so consistently wrong about, say, China.

I think the IS comrades of the early 1960s would have seized on the internet, had it been invented, and, whatever the difficulties, would have searched for ways of using it to develop a democratic Marxist politics. What I’ve said about them above is of course tinted with romanticism – how I saw the leaders of the Group as an overawed student. But hundreds of others at that time had their own experiences of inspiration and commitment. It was an extraordinary achievement to build up the organisation to the strength and reach it attained by the early 1970s. It would not have happened without the openness, the encouragement of creativity in practice and in theoretical work, the hospitality to political diversity, the space for eccentrics and people of extraordinary talent.

I missed most of this – spent the rest of the 60s working in Aberdeen and, apart from writing on welfare topics for IS publications, was only marginally involved in the organisation until coming to Coventry in 1971. There, and later in Yorkshire, I became heavily involved in branch activity. In the early 1980s I drifted away for reasons which included the suppression of Women’s Voice in 1982 and the resignation of many excellent socialist-feminist women, some of whom I worked with and who, with a host of others, were becoming a militant and transforming force in the trade union and feminist movements. This was a fateful turning point in the development of the organisation – priority given to internal party control. Women’s Voice is not mentioned in the index to Birchall’s book on Cliff, but there is an account of its closure on pp. 463-74. The black workers’ paper, The Flame, was also closed about this time, and most of the rank and file papers. The party moved into a position of lecturing social movements from the outside rather than being centrally and directly involved in their struggles. There was a whole other direction which the organisation could have taken – to become an organising and educative force – a focused network of support for Marxists active in women’s politics, anti-racist and anti-imperialist movements, green politics, gay politics, animal rights. Not what happened: a fatal either/or. It would have meant the importation into the organisation of all the untidiness, divisions and stresses of the real struggles the movements were involved in. Instead the dedicated work, imagination, drive and passion of the social movements has been rejected and seen as a threat, not as a potential expression of Marxist practice and politics in the conditions of the late 20th century.

The bureaucratisation of the SWP brought a tidier and more efficient organisation, but most of the creativity was lost, as the bureaucrats increasingly took over, and Cliff began to align himself with them.