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More Years of the Locust: The Origins of the SWP by Jim Higgins July 30, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in The Left.

I’ve recently read the above and found it an useful and interesting read, not least given that the former recent controversy in the UK SWP appears to have gone live again, at least to some extent. Higgins who was a mainstay of the UK SWP in the 1960s and early 1970s, provides a partial account, no doubt, but an entertaining one and a good sense of the cast of characters comes across. It’s also both a cautionary tale, and an educative one, about the growth and limits for growth of further left parties within near-contemporary democracies.

Many quotes worth reflecting on, not least these:

For many of the groups, the maintenance of “Leninist” forms of organisation are a kind of play acting. It does not help in their activity in the working class, because there usually is none, but its elaborate system of committees does fill their time nicely and affords them an opportunity to abuse one another with names from the rogues gallery of Bolshevik history. P44 More Years of the Locust

Another quite debilitating complaint is the virus that infects people with the Collected Works of Lenin on their bookshelves. This particular malady manifests itself in the patient’s inability to observe any present day situation without bending it into an analogy from the history of Bolshevism.

The experiences throughout this period confirmed that IS’s theoretical appreciation of the key nature of the rank and file was turning out to be a good guide to revolutionary practice. It also confirmed that trade unionism, even of the most militant kind, cannot, of itself, represent a mortal threat to the system. No matter how long drawn out or bitter a strike might be at the end of it, win lose or draw, both sides have got to get up, dust themselves down and co-exist, until the next time. Trade unions may recruit capitalism’s gravediggers, but capitalism also provides the raison d’etre for the trade union’s existence and, almost as important, an enhanced lifestyle for officials. In this contradiction is the reason for the bureaucracy’s betrayals and the key to the way rank and file bodies can adapt and transcend the limitations of trade unions.

In this rather overheated atmosphere, especially shocked by the dockers support of Powell, Cliff successfully urged for a unity of the left campaign against the urgent menace of fascism. The “Vacuum on the Left”, which is how Cliff characterised the period, could not disguise the fact that we were returning to the old Trotskyist formulation: “the crisis of the working class is the crisis of leadership”.

If the theories seemed to be largely composed of hot air, the movements themselves were real enough and they were all not just potential allies but an integral part of the struggle for socialism. With the possible exception of the IMG, this phenomenon was not much appreciated. From the outside, it seemed that the IMG’s interest was a function of its lack of influence, and inability to acquire any in the working class movement, but that may be uncharitable. In IS, what were essentially new opportunities were seen as a diversion from the central task of recruiting workers. Women workers, black workers yes; women in general and blacks per se, no thank you. This could, in part, be attributed to the fact that a significant part of the leadership of IS, by age and experience, did not understand the significance of these new movements (as part of that leadership at the time, I would certainly have to plead guilty). Even more significant was the simple fact that once more we had got the future wrong. The general expectation among all the parties to the democratic centralist argument was of an increasing and rapidly deepening working class radicalisation. The experience with Workers’ Fight was, especially for Cliff, a torture. He justified his increasingly draconian suggestions by reference to the great strides we could make without having to spend an inordinate amount of time arguing with Sean Matgamna. To contemplate the sort of reorganisation that would be necessary in building a homogeneous revolutionary group, with all that implied in the way of faction and dispute, was almost too much to bear thinking about. So we did not think about it and resisted when others did. It was not admirable but seemed sensible.

IS was back to doing what a small sect can do with comparative ease, the one shot noisy campaign: it was a form of activity that Gerry Healy was particularly adept at organising. The comrades are kept busy and the sheer pace of activity disguises the fact that the organisations is marking time. The less rewarding the prospect, the more boastful the promises.

If the class nature of Stalinist Russia seemed of vital import to Trotsky in 1940, then it must be at the centre of our thoughts in 1996. Never mind that country no longer exists; the maintenance of the argument is the maintenance of the tradition, it has become an end in itself. So powerful is this yearning for the certainties of the past that even the way some of us talk and write is redolent of Commintern jargon of the 1920s, freshly translated from the Russian by an incompetent.

The uncritical, not to say idolatrous, veneration for everything Bolshevik, until 1924, and the obsessive desire to see everything through the prism of Russian precedent, has resulted in far too many people suffering a self induced inability to communicate with workers in a language they can understand without an A level in Russian Marxism.

One thing that all the groups on the left share is a dedication to democratic centralism.This goes for those from the Trotskyist tradition and from the survivors of the Stalinist shipwreck. Democratic Centralism is something that is taken as read, that is now so manifestly appropriate for all occasions as to be beyond discussion. Why this should be so is difficult to understand. It is not a form of organisation that can be easily deduced from a close examination of the classical Marxist texts. On the other hand, it can be readily understood as a necessary organisational response to the oppression of Tsarist autocracy and the intrusions and exactions of the Okhrana.That it grew out of the 1903debates in Russian Social Democracy, on who is and who is not a member of the party, and subsequently developed piecemeal into a set of rules, is because it was a reaction to events as they occurred and not as a result of a preconceived plan of action. In the Communist and Trotskyist tradition, democtratic centralism has now acquired a universal validity beyond time and context. It is like some deviated cargo-cult where the strict observance of certain complicated rituals will result in the great four engined bird flying in, loaded with a nourishing mass revolutionary party just for us.

It is frequently claimed that democratic centralism makes the organisation more efficient, enabling it to become a more effective combat organisation. I have often heard this claim; indeed I confess to having asserted it myself on occasion, but I cannot recall any time when it was manifestly so and unsupported assertion is seldom accepted as conclusive evidence before impartial tribunals. Let us suppose a democratic centralist organisation is split 49 per cent to 51 per cent on whether or not to adopt a particular course of action. Will the magic of democratic centralism ensure that the 49 per cent fling themselves into activity with little squeals of enthusiasm equal in intensity to those of the 51 per cent? Will they together be as effective as another organisation, unblessed with “Leninist” rules, where 100 per cent of the members are agreed on the course of action to be taken? The answer is No. For even the most “Leninist” organisation has only volunteers for the overwhelming majority of the membership. No matter how forcefully the Central Committee promulgates its instructions, the only sanction available against those who refuse to follow them is that they will not be allowed to carry out any future orders, to pay the extortionate subscription and to attend meetings. Not much of a frightener when you come down to it: indeed, it sounds more like a promise than a threat. It is true, however, that for some people the “party” becomes a way of life, an extended family in which to feel at home. It is the cause in which all of the idealism and enthusiasm has been invested and where a complete social life can be found.

Precedent suggests that the most enthusiastic partisans of democratic centralism are, more often than not, the most authoritarian in their control of the party regimes. One thinks of Cliff and Healy and the old CP. They are, of course, the top tenth of the centralist iceberg; beneath the surface there is a proliferation of smaller centralised sects where democracy is the absolute right of the people who agree with the leader, their freedom of speech in praising the guru and his works is not only guaranteed, it is mandatory. There are those who claim that their version of democratic centralism is heavy on democracy with just a soupcon of centralism. It is open to anybody to believe this story, but before signing up for the duration it might be wise to seek out any recent expellees to see if the claim is universally accepted.

Is the democratic centralist organisation secure from the attentions of the organs of state security or malign political opponents? Not really. Anyone who wants to know the inner working of the leading committees just needs join the group and hang around the centre making himself useful and frequenting the right pubs. In not too long a time he will be supplying his spymasters with information about who is doing what to whom, who is in and who is out and, if he has any nous at all, whether any of it matters a toss.


1. doctorfive - July 30, 2013

Certainly raises a wry smile in places. Even out of context but perhaps in others.

Is it much of a contemporary mirror or do you see much progress since 1996 or 1940 or 1903?


2. NollaigO - July 30, 2013


John Palmer was close politically to Jim Higgins during the political upheaval in the British IS/SWP in the mid 1970s.
John has posted to CLR on an number of occasions .
Recently he spoke on the history of the British SWP in a debate with Seán Matgamna. His comments are an update of many of the points made by Jim Higgins. The links are available here.


3. Dekkard - July 30, 2013

If the class nature of Stalinist Russia seemed of vital import to Trotsky in 1940, then it must be at the centre of our thoughts in 1996. Never mind that country no longer exists; the maintenance of the argument is the maintenance of the tradition, it has become an end in itself.

Pretty much sums up Trots ( not meant in derogatory fashion ) to those looking in from the outside. Could be said of any of the further left groups sacred cows and why they fail to connect with the working class, particularly young people today.


4. workers republic - July 30, 2013

95 years ago Rosa L made similar criticisms of her contemporaries, who elevated decisionsm made by the Bolsheviks,hasily made under pressure a brutal civil war and foreign invasion into immutable principles.
All movements have their traditiond which can have positive aspects; the difficulty is in deciding what is principal and what is not.


Bob Smiles - July 30, 2013

The one shot noisy campaign- sums it all up really


5. que - July 30, 2013

The Weekly Worker edition which mentioned the Socialist Party’s recent travails had a detailed piece on the nature of Democratic centralism in the Bolshevik era. It had more than a tint of the golden age of man has passed about it.

I think anyone who has genuinely wanted to see a functioning left prosper and who can consider the matter without distorting it via the need to establish the theological blood line has written or thought the exact same as Higgins.

How nicely the phrase ‘within near-contemporary democracies’ contrasts with the belief that the fundamental dynamics of a Tsarist Russia fighting a brutal war with a collapsing economy is similar to every country and every decade since and consequently the same approach could be replicated.

In the good times this nonsense made no difference. Next year would approximately be the same as last year for the party but thereafter etc. etc. but now its for real.

Who in the further left is truthfully looking forward to the General Elections of [likely] 2016?

I thought the ULA was an honest effort to move past the bubble but where previous socialists fought the black shirts, brown shirts or blue shirts it appears the ULA fell at the hands of a pink shirt. Thank god there is no crisis or anything.


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