The International Marxist Group and the SWP Crisis.
The International Marxist Group, and the Present Socialist Workers Party Crisis.
“For us, a socialist revolution means…the dissolution of the existing capitalist state, the expropriation of the possessing classes from the means of production, and the construction of a new type of state and economic order…..the emergence of such forms of second power, incarnating the sovereignty of a proletarian democracy alternative and antagonistic to that of bourgeois democracy, must be the long term strategic goal of the socialist movement….the tradition to which these conceptions belong is broadly speaking that of Lenin and Trotsky, Luxemburg and Gramsci.”
Perry Anderson, Arguments Within English Marxism. Extracts. Pages 194-5 1980.
“For most students the roster of Bebel, Bernstein, Luxemburg, Kautsky, Jaurès, Lukács, Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci have become names as remote as a list of Arian bishops.”
Perry Anderson, Renewals. New Left Review. Second Series. No 1. 2000.
It is not always easy to talk about the political past. People move on, they find ideas that they worked with do not fit the present, or their own needs, they take on new political identities, they reinterpret their old ones. This is even more the case on the committed left. The IMG was such a highly dedicated force, or at least had considerable activist energy, during the 1970s. It was strongly revolutionary. On demonstrations, for years after the 1973 Chile Coup, its members shouted Armed Road, Only Road, One Solution Armed Revolution!
There is no British film, like Romain Goupil’s Mourir à trente ans (1982) which recounts the life of Michel Recanati of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR), that captures the intense atmosphere that enveloped their sister Party, the IMG. As yet only sketches of the Group (of which this is one), and some account in John Callagham’s book on the British far-left (1987), are available for those interested in the history of this left.
But the IMG has reappeared, if not in substance, at last in reference, in the debates around the current SWP crisis. The SWP leadership has criticised its so-called ‘permanent factions’, that is the competing tendencies that existed within the IMG. Mike Macnair in the Weekly Worker develops a substantial argument around this (which we will return to (SWP and Theory. 28.2.13). Alex Callinicos has made another reference. He has claimed that SWP oppositionists, associated with the journal Historical Materialism, would like to see it play the role that New Left Review did for the IMG – separate and independent, but very influential. Or to put it in his own words, they had the “NLR syndrome’—Perry Anderson sought to profile himself as self-appointed generalissimo of the class struggle.”
There is a simply and obvious reason for these references. The International Marxist Group, (IMG. 1968 – 1982) was, during the 1970s, the chief rival, politically if not organisationally, of the International Socialists/Socialist Workers Party (founded in 1977). It was, from 1969, the British section of the Trotskyist Fourth International. The IMG described the International Socialists as “centrists”, that is not full-bloodied revolutionary Marxists. In 1972 Tariq Ali had predicted, “This, coupled with an increasing adaptation to left social-democracy, will mark the decline of IS as an organisation containing many dedicated revolutionaries” (The Coming British Revolution. 1972)
The IMG was a ‘cadre’ organisation, that is people were ‘candidates’ expected to undertake education and show commitment before full membership. Reaching up to 1,000 members at its peak towards the end of decade the Group underwent, as Mike Macnair writes, a series of “wrenching turns” as it developed. In 1973 its “main strategic goal” was the “preparation of organs of dual power immediately before or during the general strike” in Britain (Tasks of the IMG. International Vol. 2. No 2. 1973). In 1976 the objective had shifted to the construction of a “class struggle left wing”, a “united front” to break with the “bureaucracy” of the labour movement. (The Programme We Need. International Vol. 3. No2. 1976).
The IMG’s ‘action plan’ thereafter evolved ever closer to “left social democracy”, as its relaunched ‘broad’ paper, Socialist Challenge (1977). The name of the paper indicates a shift. What else could it refer to but Stuart Holland’s The Socialist Challenge (1975) and the Alternative Economic Strategy (AES) that developed on the Labour and trade union left? Despite standing as Socialist Unity (with Big Flame) in the 1979 General Election it became more and more directed towards Labour activists. By 1982 the IMG was dissolved. As the Socialist League it ‘entered’ the Labour Party.
During this period the IMG had close ties to New Left Review (NLR). The Editor Perry Anderson wrote in 1976 of the “objective possibility of the reappearance of the political ideas associated with Trotsky in central areas of working-class debate and activity.” (Page 101. Considerations on Western Marxism. 1976) Anderson’s commitment to the strategy of ‘dual power’ has already been cited.* The Managing Editor, Robin Blackburn, and several others, closely linked to the journal, including Norman Geras, Tariq Ali and Quintin Hoare, were active members of the IMG. The background of many of its debates is best looked at through NLR’s pages rather than in the IMG’s official documents.
The IMG’s internal life was marked by conflicts between a number of different ‘factions’, called ‘tendencies’. Comrade Macnair describes them as follows. “Between 1970 and 1979 there was continuously a (small) minority faction which supported the line of the US SWP, led by Alan and Connie Harris, under a variety of names. Beyond this, there were several oppositional factions (called ‘tendencies’) in pre-conference discussions, but mostly they did not lead to ‘no overall majority’ and dissolved after the conference. At the 1973 conference there were, indeed, multiple factions – the larger ones beyond the pro-SWP tendency, the Alan Jones (John Ross), Tony Whelan, ‘New Course’ (Pat Jordan, Peter Gowan, Tariq Ali and others) and Robin Blackburn tendencies – and no majority. The conference, as was USFI practice, gave the largest minority, the Jones tendency, a working majority on the national committee.”
Some may have a slightly different description. Apart from pure US SWP imported ‘The Faction’ (Capitalised), with a cultist air; there were fairly stable divisions. These was the ‘majority’ the ‘Ross’ led grouping (Tendency ‘B’), which looked to the 1930s/1940s American SWP ‘Cannon’ model of ‘building the proletarian party’, and the British Labour left as a potential ally and (eventually) the AES as a way forward. Against them were the more European inspired IMG members (including all the New Left Review writers), Tendency ‘A’. They looked to the French LCR, and the leading theorist of the Fourth International, Ernest Mandel. They were (in the 1970s) more sceptical about the Labour Party and the AES (amongst other items, its proposals to introduce import controls and withdrawal from the, then, ‘Common Market’).
We would say that conflicts between these – partially shifting – groups did mark the internal life of the IMG to a strong degree. They must have led to a degree of political paralysis but as Macnair points out, the way this was avoided was a lot worse,
He states that in the IMG the, “core group in the apparatus was not willing to lay political turns and differences within this group before the membership, at conference; it would wait until its re-election was secure before announcing a new turn. This was, at the end of the day, functionally the same ‘not in front of the children’ behaviour as the SWP’s ban on permanent factions: differences at the top and changes of line were to be kept within the leadership, not referred to the members for decision: the apparatus had to present a united face to the membership, at least in circumstances where the leaders might lose their jobs.”
So whether moments of political immobility would have been a bad thing, given the abrupt change of line from ultra-left rhetoric to Labour left, is not clear. A brief holiday and some horse-trading might (as in all might ofs.. pretty uncertain) stabilised the IMG around a common project.
In the event it was continually wracked by change. There were plenty of them: ‘Bolshevising’ the group by a cell structure; a sudden mass campaign for a ‘No’ vote in the Common Market Referendum to the ‘turn to industry’; sending comrades into manual jobs (as always not involving the previous Central Committee itself). Macnair describes the demiurge behind this process, John Ross, as a kind of Tony Cliff. He was always “bending the stick” (with Lenin’s Complete Works to justify this). From some quarters virulent dislike of Ross, who leads a comfortable existence as an advocate of the Chinese Model, and leader of the miniscule Socialist Action, indicates the endurance of the strong feelings of those days.
Dual Power in Practice?
The backdrop to all the IMG debates of the 1970s was the expectation that Europe would experience revolutionary upheavals. To the Fourth International 1968 had thrown up a “new vanguard of mass proportions, by and large eluding the control of the traditional workers’ organisations”. (The Building of Revolutionary Parties in Capitalist Europe. International. Vol2. No 2. 1973). Their objective was to “crystallise into a serious Marxist political organisation”. The FI would win hegemony, and create a real international organisation on this basis. When the “next explosion of mass struggle occurs” they will be there to help create a system of “dual power” for the “logic of the revolutionary situation to unfold.”
We quoted some of the IMG’s early 1970s predictions of imminent British dual power, in this vein. It is hard to disagree with Geoff Roberts of the Communist Party of Great Britain, that its premise was to expect “revolutionary upheavals” everywhere including in the United Kingdom. (The Politics of the IMG. Marxism Today. February 1976) Indeed there were those within the Group who referred to Lukács and the “actuality” (that is contemporary reality) of the “revolution”.
April 1974 saw the start of the actual Portuguese ‘Carnation Revolution” which the IMG foresaw would the “foundation stone of the United Socialist States of Europe.” (Editorial. International. Vol.2. No3. 1974) The perspective of a wider ‘Iberian’ revolution appeared with “a Socialist Spain, a Socialist Iberia, and a Socialist Europe” was on the agenda. (Portugal, Spain.Towards the Iberian Socialist Revolution. 1975)
This was not to be. Ernest Mandel’s promise that the next Fourth International Congress would take place in a liberated Barcelona failed to materialise (Page 196. Ernest Mandel. A Rebel’s Dream deferred. Jan Willem Stutje. 2009). In retrospect it was not any ambiguity on the part of the FI’s tiny section, the LCI, towards, the still strong, Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) and the land’s Fifth Provisional Government, that was at fault. Nor that the fragmented Spanish groups with which it was linked remained isolated partly because of their own divisions.
Portugal and Spain were simply ‘caught up’ in a massive drive to normalise their political structures on Western European models. Generous external funding helped this. Internal political support – not least from sections of the people’s themselves – quickly excluded any revolutionary possibilities. It was the reformist Socialist parties, led by Mário Soares in Portugal and then by (most markedly) by Phillipe González’s PSOE, rapidly ‘modernising’ before the word got into more general use, in the region who became political players, not the left.
Yet as the decade wore on most of the IMG remained united around what Robin Blackburn called “working for the emergence and victory of institutions of dual power. This entails striving to develop a revolutionary alternative to reformism in the working class movement and thus educating and preparing the working class for the creation of their own instruments of power.” (What is the Democratic Road to Socialism? International Vol. 3. No 4. 1977). In 1979 Ernest Mandel admitted that the Portuguese revolutionary process had now “ended temporarily” (Page 48. Revolutionary Marxism Today 1979). However Mandel avoided predicting further ‘dual power’ crises, preferring to talk more vaguely of Southern Europe being “on the verge of a pre-revolutionary situation almost continuously” (Ibid)
Did the IMG and the FI only manufacture illusions about socialist revolutions that never happened? Not at all. Amongst the differences that marked them out from both ‘orthodox’ Trotskyism and the SWP of the period was its insistence on democracy. That is, not only did revolutionary parties have to have a “democratic internal life”, but that there “are no infallible parties…no infallible party leaderships, party majorities, ‘Leninist central committees’ or individual party leaders”. In workers’ state there should be
“unfettered political freedom for all those individuals, groups, tendencies, and parities who in practice respect collective property and the workers’ constitution.” (Socialist Democracy and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Resolution of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International. Imprecor. No 10. 1977).
The Failures of the 1970s.
The International Marxist Group underwent great changes as the 1970s failed to produce a mass shift to the left, let alone Perry Anderson’s “second” or “dual power”. In 1982 Tariq Ali and Quintin Hoare wrote a “balance-sheet” of this period.
The second half of the seventies, however, administered a series of brutal shocks to the entire ‘new vanguardist’ perspective. The fall of Saigon to the armed battalions of Vietnamese Communism did not coincide with a successful proletarian revolution in Portugal. On the contrary, not only did not Lisbon Commune emerge but virtually the entire European revolutionary left failed the test of how to respond adequately to the tumultuous events which were to climate in the restabilisation of the bourgeois order some groups tempted by military adventurism, others tailing the Communist Party in its undemocratic manoeuvres with sections of the officer corps.(Socialists and the Crisis of Labourism. New Left Review. 1st series. 132. 1982)
Ali and Hoare root the difficulties of the revolutionary left in their inability to “intervene with a conception of socialist democracy capable of convincing the mass even of the industrial workers of its superiority to the bourgeois democracy offered by Soares.” They list the other failures of the revolutionary left, from the implosion of Maoism as the reality of the Chinese Communist Party became more and more apparent, to the widespread inability of the radical left to grow, or to have a wider political impact, apart from (uniquely in the latter, impacted, sense) the Italian far-left’s descent into the ‘years of lead’. It would seem not just a strategic failure, but the whole idea that there was a “new vanguard” that was “detached” from traditional politics to the point where it was open to revolutionary Marxism was false. That there was no new ‘constituency’ on the left for ‘new parties’.
The answer, for Ali and Hoare, was to be found in a “united front between the Labour left and Marxists”. In other worse, the left could not create a new party at all, at least in Britain. The Marxists would need, they asserted the newly founded Socialist Society (New Left l and ll figures, from Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams, to supporters of the ‘Anderson’ New Left Review and others) to supply a “cultural” and “ideological” front. Socialist activists inside the Labour Party and the unions could offer the practical workers. The AES would meld them together.
The Socialist Society itself was to dissolve, its own leadership reduced from the original broad front. In the late 1980s it helped hold the Chesterfield Conferences that seemed, for a time, to function, as Ali and Hoare would have wished. It was involved in what is now called a “network” of activists and theorists. But the Collapse of Official Communism in 1991, and its fall-out, undermined any consensus about what ‘socialism’ meant. As the quote from Anderson that heads this intervention indicates, people drifted away from Marxism, their frame of reference changed. The fate of the Labour left was marginalised by the rise of modernisation and then Tony Blair. . Attempts to ‘refound’ the left on first principles, to launch left parties, up to the Socialist Alliance, have not been successful.
What of those who wished to continue building revolutionary parties? Not everybody agreed that the game was over. For Alex Callinicos, by contrast, the SWP had become a winner by keeping its head.
“The British International Socialists (SWP from 1977 on) went through an acute crisis at the end of the 1970s, in which the main issues were, first the very question of whether or not the upturn which had brought down Heath was over, and second, the problem of how to relate the “new social movements” responding to various forms of oppression (of women, blacks, gays, etc.) to the working-class struggle for socialism. Eventually these arguments were resolved and the SWP was able to weather ten years of Thatcherism with a membership of something over 4,000 in good political spirits”(Trotskyism. 1990)
The SWP has never become a mass party. Its past and present problems do not need rehearsing here. Louis Proyect notes their ‘deeping degeneration’ which may well be true. At least some of their difficulties come from the belief that there they are the group that can occupy the political space – such as it is – opened up in the wake of ’68. That is, to put it no lower, they think they are on the side of history. For those inclined to read a more detailed, and highly amusing, analysis, Soviet Goon Boy comes strongly recommended.
That at least is part of Mike Macnair’s analysis. For him “The IMG, the LCR and the IS/SWP were all at the end of the day ‘children of 68’. In place of these reasons for a working class political party, and for organisation independent of the class-collaborators, they defined themselves as ‘revolutionary’ by commitment to events like May 68.” He continues, “By the end of the 1970s, this concept of ‘revolution’ was plainly useless to concrete political perspectives. What it left behind was ‘initiatives to draw masses into action’. But such initiatives, if to be taken by small groups, logically implied political capitulation to the class-collaborators.” The conclusion, “The IMG collapsed because the capitulators won.”
Class-collaborators are always with us, like those (the Weekly Worker included) who joined the Respect Coalition, perhaps? May 68 was, by all accounts, something a lot more rare. It was not an Event in the pompous metaphysical way Alain Badiou now labels it. But it did open up some long-termer political space for the left. Its more spontaneous legacy may be found in the self-organised activity of the Internet as well as in ‘social movements’ , ‘networks’ and even parties, A dislike of authoriarianism may be an enduring trait.
It could be that it is this that has finally caught up with the SWP. In this sense we democratic leftists are all children of ’68’.
It was not, however, only such ‘events’ that determined the life and dissolution of the IMG. It was a thoroughly wrong ‘conception of the epoch’ in which events were merely the signs of an underlying structure. Revolutions, ‘dual power’, were ready to spring into life as a ‘crisis’ unfolded. The left, networked with its ‘practical workers’ would rush up, undergo what Ali and Hoare call a “process of splits and fusions”, and something, something – a Party – would emerge. When belief in these principles waned, so did the IMG in its organised, united, form, ended. That is why it “collapsed”. But much of its wider legacy, its democratic and New Left side, and many of its former members, continues to be present on the left.
Some kind of union of the left (and please, please, no more ‘coalitions’), not in a revolutionary climate but here and now, faced with the dire right-wing Liberal-Tory government, may yet happen.
Some of us still think that before any of this, we are still stuck in the process of ’refounding’ the left.
I always had a soft spot for those Arian bishops.
* The terms is obvious to all Marxists, “The basic question of every revolution is that of state power. Unless this question is understood, there can be no intelligent participation in the revolution, not to speak of guidance of the revolution.
The highly remarkable feature of our revolution is that it has brought about a dual power. This fact must be grasped first and foremost: unless it is understood, we cannot advance. We must know how to supplement and amend old “formulas”, for example, those of Bolshevism, for while they have been found to be correct on the whole, their concrete realisation has turned out to bedifferent. Nobody previously thought, or could have thought, of a dual power.
What is this dual power? Alongside the Provisional Government, the government of bourgeoisie, another governmenthas arisen, so far weak and incipient, but undoubtedly a government that actually exists and is growing—the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.”
There is also this interesting blog on the IMG.
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