Steve, my friend and fellow Imperialism reader, made a comment last week about being a revolutionary in non revolutionary times. This led us to that Life of Brian scene where John Cleese is asked if the group he leads is the Judean People’s Front.
Fuck off! We’re the People’s Front of Judea!
You had to laugh: even if, like me, you were in one of the splits and splinters making up Britain’s far left. In 1930 Freud wrote his essay on The Narcissism of Minor Differences but you can get the gist from that old joke about the Welsh Methodist, stranded Robinson Crusoe style for thirty years on a South Sea Island. His rescuers are amazed at Taffy having passed the time building a replica Rhondda village with not one but two chapels. Why did he do that?
Well look you! There’s the chapel I go to. And there’s the chapel I don’t go to.
But back to the seventies far left, its bones of contention amusing but not trivial. For simplicity I’ll leave out a Communist Party split in two. (In the maroon corner, Morning Star Man in donkey jacket, adamant the Hungarian Uprising had been a fascist coup foiled by Russian tanks. In the fetchingly pastel pink corner, Marxist Today of Hampstead.) I’ll also leave out the Maoists, all ten of them, and while I’m at it overlook the rich irony that Cleese has for years beaten all rivals to snatch Gold in the Takes Himself Way Too Seriously Awards. For now I want to focus on the targets of his derision, the sects and sectlets of the would be Fourth International.
Though bewildering to the outsider, a British Trotskyism for Beginners could plot each group on a 3-D matrix by its stance on (a) the Soviet Union, (b) Ireland and (c) the Labour Party, though none of these issues lent itself to a simple binary divide.
Take the sect I know best, Workers’ Power. It began as a ‘left tendency’ within Britain’s largest Trotskyite group, International Socialists, now the SWP. Tensions long simmering boiled over after the Birmingham pub bombings 1974, when IS ran the front page headline, All Socialists Must Condemn These Killings. Seeing this as craven capitulation to British imperialism – since, as pro-Palestinian Israelis can attest, it takes real courage to support freedom movements at war with your own State – this faction voiced its disgust, was duly expelled, and spent a few years re-reading Marx, Lenin and Trotsky while formulating new positions.
On the Labour Party, Workers’ Power distanced itself from the ‘sectarianism’ of any left group calling itself a Party. That included the WRP, a short-lived RCP and SWP itself. Workers’ Power argued that, with no mass working class party but Labour – distinguished from Europe’s social democrat parties by its ties to the trade union movement – revolutionaries needed to breathe contemporary meaning into Lenin’s dictum of supporting it as a rope supports a hanged man.
Then again, Workers’ Power was equally critical of the ‘opportunism’ of both the deep entryism of Militant Tendency, and groups like Socialist Challenge and Socialist Organiser, which it saw as barely distinguishable from left reformists around Tony Benn.
Argument raged on whether the USSR was state capitalist (Tony Cliffe’s SWP) or a degenerate workers’ state (Workers’ Power, WRP and Spartacist Tendency). But cutting across that debate, which drew scorn from philistines but I say was important, were other contentious matters. On the one hand Workers’ Power deemed the Spartacists insufficiently critical of the bureaucrats running the USSR, hence insufficiently distinct from Stalinists; on the other it damned SWP – strapline, neither Washington nor Moscow – for pandering to imperialism and failing to defend the Soviet Union’s property relations and planned economy. (Should you be interested in the debate on the nature of the Soviet Union, I recommend Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed. That’s not just because, right or wrong, he was a superb writer. It’s also because Trotsky in exile made a sharp distinction, between economy and political leadership of the USSR, which to this day is blurred by admirers and detractors both.)
Workers’ Power saw Ireland as a colonial issue but with a unique aspect (France and Algeria form the nearest parallel) in that the 1801 Act of Union had incorporated it into the UK while the 1922 Partition had legitimated a gerrymandered statelet practising sectarian apartheid in the name of religion and the interests of Profit. Ireland was by far the toughest challenge for any British anti imperialist group. Supporting the right of the ANC to take up arms against Pretoria was one thing. Doing the same in respect of the Provisional IRA was something very else.
Workers Power adopted the slogan, critical but unconditional support for the IRA. As a Marxist group it saw the ‘Provos’, and later the INLA, as petit bourgeois nationalists to be supported in their fight – however they chose to conduct it – against a British State blocking their right to self determination without that support negating the right of revolutionary socialists to criticise the shortcomings of the nationalist perspective. Such a position led Workers’ Power to oppose on the one hand an RCP it saw as slavishly cheerleading Irish nationalism; on the other an SWP it saw as – well, we’ve seen how it saw the SWP (IS) position on the IRA …
None of the above is offered as an overarching perspective on the maze of sects and sectlets making up the British left in the Wilson/Callaghan then Thatcher years. My aim is to show that issues driving the schisms were (a) simpler and fewer than initial appearances suggested, and (b) not angels-on-a-pinhead obsessions but matters of real import to those who saw capitalism as life negating and criminally insane (as I do) and its overthrow by an industrial proletariat as humanity’s only hope (as I no longer do).
This is not to excuse the internecine ferocity and frequent absurdities of groups in ninety-eight percent agreement on most things. The sectarianism was daft and was funny and the Life of Brian scene was on target. (As was Freud.) Equally though, it is philistine to assert, without troubling to look into the issue, that it mattered not one iota whether the Soviet Union was state capitalist or a workers’ state hijacked by bureaucrats .. that all we needed to know was we had to protect ourselves from its hideousness by spending billions on nuclear weapons.
Who would deny that humans are indeed prone to psychological sectarianism, to the narcissism of minor differences? I’m well placed in this regard. Driven either by my own psychological extremism (if you’re feeling harsh) or a realisation life can be so much better (if you’re feeling generous) Workers’ Power isn’t the only sect I’ve been in. I later joined a spiritual cult whose leader knew all there was to know about ego – all, that is, bar the fact his own had him by the throat when he’d thought it under lock and key – and spoke of it constantly, with piercing wit and profound insight. Existential insecurity has us all, without exception, seeking constantly to locate ourselves through difference – I Am The One who is Not [x]. That’s why Taffy erected two chapels, not one, in his South Sea Llareggub.
Oppositional groupings will by their very nature attract folk with chips on their shoulders, but here too the Life of Brian sketch plays to a simplistic gallery. Everyone knew a Dave Spart, for sure, but my experience tells me that for every psychological extremist drawn to revolutionary politics, there were two psychological moderates who’d reluctantly come to conclude that the revolutionary road was the only one capable of averting barbarism. That doesn’t mean they were right; that’s not the point I’m making. I’m saying the caricature of the so-called far left as populated entirely by the psychologically damaged is just that; a caricature. As such it has some basis in reality, as all stereotypes do, but only fools and the intellectually idle mistake caricature for the full and rather more complex picture.
But back to specifics. Ireland, Labour and the USSR did matter and socialists did need accurate understandings of them. The irony does not revolve around Freud’s (let alone Cleese’s) correct but limited insights. The real irony was that these avowedly Marxist, hence materialist, groups were forced by the realities of a non revolutionary epoch into an idealist role of debating issues too far removed from class struggle – which is not the same as “of no relevance to it” – to be tested in praxis. The various positions on those three axes were neither silly nor schismatic for its own sake but were unfalsifiable. There was no way of finding out, by reference to gains and losses in the struggle, which ones offered advantage; which led to defeats and dead ends.