Left history - learning the lessons

What is keeping revolutionaries in separate organisations? Petty sectarianism, argues Dave Spencer

I have followed Jack Conrad's dissection of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty with interest (Weekly Worker November 28 2002-January 23 2003 - see links below). I do agree with his main conclusions and that Sean Matgamna's insistence on Trotskyism versus Stalinism in the AWL/CPGB discussions is false and misplaced. However, I know that Jack's history of the AWL is inaccurate, since I was an original member of Workers Fight in 1967 and on the national committee until the faction fight with Alan Thornett's group in 1984. I think it must be possible to learn some lessons from the history of the left groups in Britain. I offer some observations from my own experience since 1960, when I joined Gerry Healy's Socialist Labour League. I think most of them reinforce the points Jack Conrad has been making. The forerunner of the AWL was Workers Fight. It was formed in 1967 and its first publication was For a Trotskyist regroupment. From then until the expulsions and split in 1984 it held the principled position that there are no major political differences between the Trotskyist left groups which justify them being in separate organisations. Any differences could be accommodated within a single democratic organisation. It seems to me that that political position is even more correct now, after the implosion of Stalinism. Whether the Soviet Union should be called state capitalist or a degenerated workers' state or bureaucratic collectivist should not be a splitting matter. There is no obvious reason why all the left groups should not join one party - as in Scotland with the Scottish Socialist Party. They could retain their identity as factions if they so chose. Unity in IS In 1968 Tony Cliff invited socialists (including groups) who had been involved in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and in the student protest movements to join the International Socialists. The basis was openness and faction rights. There were at least five factions after his call. Cliff himself particularly wanted ex-members of Healy's SLL to join to "harden up" his group. Until then the IS had a loose, federalist organisation. Workers Fight joined the IS as a faction, because it seemed that Cliff's call for unity was similar to our own. In my experience this sort of appeal to unity and to democratic openness does raise hopes and optimism and gains a response. This was certainly the case with the IS in 1968 - hundreds of comrades joined and new branches were set up all over the place. Prior to that Healy's SLL had been the dominant left group throughout the 1960s. However, the SLL refused to join the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and at the mass demonstration in Grosvenor Square gave out a leaflet 'Why we are not marching', which is a classic example of sectariana. From then on the SLL became a cult, as Jack Conrad describes it in his articles on the AWL. Before that it was not a cult. In fact the SLL had become the size it had as a result of a similar open appeal in 1956 after the Hungarian Revolution and Khrushchev's speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Both of these events caused questioning in the ranks of the CPGB and far more open discussion on the left. EP Thompson's New Left Review came out of these discussions. At the same time the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was launched, which attracted a broad layer of the left, including the Labour left and the CPGB. The SLL's appeal had a good response and gave them quite an influence in this layer. After the election defeat in 1959 the Labour Party set up a Young Socialist organisation which rapidly grew. I was a delegate to the first YS conference in Camden town hall in 1960. There was a large attendance and most of the delegates, like myself, were not affiliated to any left group. By 1964 the SLL dominated the national committee of the YS. They did this by building YS branches in working class estates on the basis of weekly discos. They got student socialists to come out of the universities and build these branches. The YS branches sent delegates to the constituency Labour Parties, where they began to influence policy. In 1964 the Labour Party expelled Keep Left (the SLL's youth paper) and the SLL. It has to be said, however, that the SLL pulled out all its members, whether they were expelled or not; it could have left people in. There was a protest demonstration of 8,000 at the Labour Party's annual conference in 1964 - which gives some idea of the influence the SLL had. Tony Cliff told me in conversation that he had modelled his appeal for openness and for a very proactive approach to the working class on Gerry Healy's SLL. This was because the IS and the Militant Tendency had had a passive approach and only a small influence in the 1960s. They ran a youth newspaper together called Young Guard. One old comrade at the time described their performance from the early 1950s as "arsing around on the left of the Labour Party, to no purpose". That is how it seemed to me and other youth in the early 1960s who joined the SLL. That is why Sean Matgamna left the Young Communist League and joined Healy's SLL: it was where the action was. After leaving the SLL, Sean joined Militant, the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and the Irish Workers Group. It was with comrades from all these backgrounds that he founded Workers Fight in 1967 and made an appeal for a Trotskyist regroupment. Within IS, Workers Fight worked as a faction. We had several political positions which gained wider support. For example, we supported the nationalist struggle in Ireland and criticised the position of Socialist Worker, which backed the troops going into Northern Ireland in 1969. This led to a fierce debate at the IS national conference in 1970, which we just lost. We had a position of neutrality on the European Economic Community. This became the official policy at the IS conference in 1971, but Socialist Worker called for a vote against the EEC in a referendum. We called for a conference to discuss the issues of the EEC and of the accountability of Socialist Worker to IS policy. We managed to get the necessary number of IS branches in accordance with the IS constitution to back the call, but the NC said it did not have the financial resources to hold a conference. However, it did have the resources to start a witch-hunt against Workers Fight and then to organise a conference to expel us in December 1971. This was the bureaucratic shutters coming down in IS. It was not just expelling Workers Fight: it was the end of democracy in IS. A precedent had been set: factions were banned and from then on throughout the 1970s other groups began to be expelled. I mentioned the term 'witch-hunt' and it was the worst example I have experienced for lies, abuse, bribery and physical threats - and I have been expelled from the Labour Party a few times and have been in faction fights in other left groups. In its practical work in IS, Workers Fight had pushed the idea of industrial bulletins in the manner of Lutte Ouvrière. The idea was to turn the many IS student members to the working class. Every fortnight an A4 bulletin was produced for a particular factory. This is not an easy task. It requires teamwork. Meetings with workers in the factory are needed to get information and to discuss what is to go into the bulletin. The bulletin has to be written and produced. It has to be given out at the factory gate in the early mornings. Paper sales outside the factory also have to be organised. One side of the bulletin dealt with topical politics of the day, the other side dealt with what was going on in the factory. These bulletins were very successful; they recruited a whole layer of shop steward members to IS and paved the way for factory branches and the rank and file papers which IS produced in the 1970s. In Coventry we had bulletins going into the main factories, so we had five or six teams at work and recruited around 100 members. There are a number of points I would like to make from this experience. Firstly there were two actual living movements here - student radicalisation and a shop stewards' movement under threat from a Labour government. They were brought together in IS. When a left group responds to a living movement with energy and creative ideas, it wins support from the vanguard of the working class. However, democracy is the oxygen of this process: without that the movement dies. At the same time political discussion and training are vital, as well as the organisation learning from the experience of the working class; there has to be a dialogue, not diktats from a bureaucratic elite. I still have somewhere a bulletin which went into the Chrysler factory stating: "The bosses are looking for trouble and we're the boys that's going to give it them" - written by a sociology student. There was in IS the idea that militancy was enough and that just recruiting shop stewards was a worthwhile end in itself. We used to call this approach "workerism", similar to Jack Conrad's description of economism. Recently the SWP have held meetings on the 1970s where they repeated the same message about militancy, as though the 1970s were a golden age. To me they have learned nothing. It was great to be involved in producing factory bulletins and discussing with shop stewards and we did win some victories. But politically the industrial militancy led to the return of a Labour government in 1974, a government that had been hated and despised by the working class in the 1960s. Arthur Scargill's argument was that it did not matter what government was in: the power was now with the trade unions. But that argument was clearly false and was the downfall of the miners' strike of 1984-85. The ruling class made strategic political preparation from their defeats in the early 1970s; the working class made no strategic political preparation and have suffered ever since. Expulsion Workers Fight had 100 members when it was expelled from IS. We continued to work with industrial bulletins and rank and file papers. We did draw up a programme of systematic political education, but it was based on Lutte Ouvrière's hierarchical method of concentric circles, starting at the top. This assumes that the leader has ultimate wisdom and passes this down to the next layer, which passes it on down the line. To me this was at the time, and still is, an elitist method of education. Better models are that of a dialogue with the working class, as described by the Brazilian adult educationist Paolo Freire in Pedagogy of the oppressed, which is a recipe book for building a revolutionary part; or the development of critical thinking, as advocated by Henri Giroux in Theory and resistance in education: a pedagogy for the opposition. Both of these models require extreme democracy and a proactive approach to work among the working class. In 1973 Workers Fight joined the Labour Party. Here we came across the Militant in the LPYS and they were extremely hostile to another left group being on what they saw as their patch, almost as though we had no right. This hostility by Militant to any other left group lasted from the 1970s through until they left the Labour Party in the early 1990s. If there was a broad left they would either try and dominate it or destroy it; there was no cooperation. When voting for positions like constituency secretary, councillor or MP, Militant would rather vote for a rightwing candidate than for a member of a rival left group. At no point did they make an appeal for openness and faction rights like Healy had in 1956 and Cliff had in 1968 - until of course the Scottish Militant formed the SSP and got themselves expelled. This was a real mistake on the part of Militant, because the leftwing movement in the Labour Party for democracy and for changes in local government during the 1980s was very big, and very much wider than the influence of Militant, and more revolutionary in many ways. It could have been the basis of a large radical organisation, but incredibly this leftwing movement took no organisational form. This was criminal and a sectarian neglect on the part of left groups during the 1980s. Workers Fight did make an effort in the Labour Party. We set up Socialist Organiser as a broad front and this was enthusiastically welcomed at first. We cooperated with the Chartist Minority who later produced London Labour Briefing, which was very successful. But we fell out with the Chartists and there was a lack of clear strategy and a proactive concentration on one area of work. We tried to react to every struggle. At the same time there was some suspicion as to the motives of Sean Matgamna. As Jack Conrad says, Workers Fight did have the policy of uniting and cooperating with various groups. We tried in the 1970s with a number and succeeded with Workers Power, who had been thrown out of the Socialist Workers Party and with Thornett's Workers Socialist League, which had split from Healy's Workers Revolutionary Party. The suspicion was that Sean's unity policy was a predatory one, that his aim was to swallow up the other organisation. A sect is born I was a member of the NC of Workers Fight from 1967 to 1984 and I can honestly say that I do not recall any cynical discussion on predatory unity. We always hoped for the best and looked to a larger organisation. Both the conferences we held for unity with Workers Power and with WSL were well attended by members and the periphery of both organisations. The problems seemed to arise at leadership level because of personality clashes or different organisational cultures. As I said earlier, Workers Fight had a policy that there were no political differences between the left groups which justified them being in separate organisations. By the same argument there were no political differences to justify a split with the former members of Workers Power and the WSL. In the case of Workers Power their leadership walked out. They made no attempt to democratically explain their case or win support from members of Workers Fight. They left a section of their members behind and won over not one member from Workers Fight. In the case of the WSL, Sean Matgamna decided to expel Thornett's Oxford faction. In doing so he lost the whole of the former WSL and a section of long-standing members of Workers Fight, including myself, who objected to the undemocratic way in which the expulsion took place. Even a section of comrades who remained loyal to Sean left soon afterwards. He started these expulsions during the miners' strike of 1984. It was clear that Sean was changing his political views - for example, on Ireland and on the nature of the Soviet Union. It would have been difficult to get these passed in the united organisation. There had also been a recent turn to student work, which meant an influx of new members and allowed the expulsion to take place. The fact is that the expulsion was not carried through in a democratic way: the membership was not involved in a political process of discussion; it was driven from the top. The AWL was formed on this undemocratic basis. When I read Mark Fischer's report of the CPGB/AWL joint school of January 30 (Weekly Worker January 30), I recalled a piece in the bulletin of the 1984 faction fight, where Sean asks why people are still in the organisation when they know they are going to lose the battle. It was as though the process was an arm-wrestling contest, not a democratic debate or discussion from which comrades would learn, no matter what the outcome. The object of the exercise to Sean was to win the vote, not to raise consciousness. What the point of winning was is a mystery to me, since half the membership was expelled or walked out in the middle of a miners' strike. We were all dubbed "non-Marxists" by Sean - which clearly contradicted the regroupment policy that there are no differences on the left to justify so many separate organisations. A sect was born: the AWL. The comrades who had been expelled or had left Workers Fight fused with the International faction of the International Marxist Group to form the International Socialist Group. Again there was a large attendance at the founding conference and a commitment was given to democratic procedures, since we had all been reading Marcel Liebman's Leninism under Lenin. My own contribution to furthering internal democracy was to move a resolution calling for an internal bulletin, which got passed. A few months later when I asked on the NC what had happened to the internal bulletin, I was told that there would not be one because the full-timers did not agree with it. I pointed out that normally in the labour movement conference resolutions are supposed to override what officials might think. But apparently not in the ISG. My motion for an internal bulletin was passed three years running, but not one appeared. Another strange undemocratic aspect of the ISG was its relation to the United Secretariat, its international, about which the membership knew nothing. Peter Tatchell was speaking one night at a meeting in Coventry and he asked me what I thought about the recent split in the French section of Usec. I was embarrassed to say, "What split?!" He then proceeded to give me details of the various factions and their political positions and said he was surprised I did not know, considering I was on the NC of the ISG and one of the faction documents in the French section had been signed by one of our leaders on behalf of the ISG. Nice one - who needs an internal bulletin? From Workers Fight to the ISG: from the frying pan into the fire. The main lessons I draw from my experience are: * Sectarianism is the bane of left groups. By that I mean: putting their own organisation before the interests of the working class as a whole; using united front organisations only to build their own group; believing they are the fount of all wisdom and knowledge. * Linked to that is a fear and loathing of the democratic process and open political discussion within their own ranks. Undemocratic procedures which we would criticise in the Labour Party or trade unions are normal practice in left groups. It is not surprising that many independent radicals involved in politics recognise these failings in left groups, do not trust them and avoid them like the plague. In my opinion that is a major reason why the Socialist Alliance is not larger. * Where left groups go for unity and open democratic methods, they gain an enthusiastic response. The SSP is the most obvious recent example, but there have been others, as I have tried to show. * Where the left group has a proactive approach to the working class movement and to working class areas and concerns - as the SLL did with youth and the IS with shop stewards - they will recruit members and learn politically from the experience. Jack Conrad dissects the Alliance for Workers' Liberty * Leeds, lies and Owen MacThomas - part 1 * Afghanistan and Owen MacThomas - part 2 * National questions and the AWL patriarch - part 3 * Sectarian amateurism and the complacent world of Sean Matgamna - part 4 * Matgamna's platonic republic - part 5 * Bourgeois revolution and Walter Mitty polemics - part 6 * Origins and revolutionary tradition - part 7