More Years for the
Locust – The Origins of the SWP
Unkant Publishers, London, 2011.
Jim Higgins (1930-2002) was amongst the relatively large number of militants who left the ‘official’ (i.e. Stalinist) Communist Party in 1956 after the shattering experiences of reading Nikita Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’, which denounced the crimes of Stalin, and the crushing of the Hungarian uprising. First, he joined ‘The Club’, a splinter from the erstwhile Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) lead by Gerry Healy, which was to become the Socialist Labour League, and later the Workers Revolutionary Party. Soon after, he joined the small Socialist Review Group (founded 1950) around Tony Cliff, which had also grown out of the RCP. This group would later turn into the International Socialists, which later became the Socialist Workers Party.
The topic of Higgins’ book is exactly this pre-history of the SWP. It was written in view of yet another split, when Higgins and some other prominent members formed a faction (the International Socialists Opposition, later Workers League) and were expelled by the Cliff leadership in 1975. The book was published in 1997 by the IS Group, an organisation which had at this point just gone through a similar splitting experience from the (by now) SWP.
This 2011 re-edition can be seen in the context of the more recent disturbances in that party (see e.g. Crisis in the SWP, or: Weiningerism in the UK in the last edition of datacide). At least it is an attempt to draw attention to the roots, and the later more ‘libertarian’ phase of the IS, a phase that deserves some attention, since it has been covered by the debris of the discredited SWP.
The main text of the book starts off with a description of the early political years of Tony Cliff, first in Palestine, then in Britain. We find out a lot about the origins and early days of British Trotskyism, the different groups that would coalesce into the formation of the RCP in 1944. Cliff arrived on British shores in 1946, first joined the RCP which for a few years managed to unify the British Trotskyists. At this time, discussions already started about the points that would later lead to so many splits. One crucial issue (at the time) was the ‘nature of the Soviet Union’. Was it a ‘deformed workers state’, or ‘collectivist bureaucratic’, or ‘state capitalist’? Was the right course of action the ‘building of the party’ or entrism into Labour?
The Socialist Review Group adopted the ‘state capitalist’ view which became one of the distinguishing ideas for the group and for its successor groups. The two other central points became the idea of the ‘permanent arms economy’ as an explanation for the post-war boom, and the ‘deflected permanent revolution’ as an explanation of the permanent failure of the revolution to materialise.
The SRG initially profited much less than Healy’s ‘Club’ from the tremors of the old CPGB in the years of ‘de-Stalinisation’, but it also slowly grew and the production values of its paper improved. More interestingly, it increasingly seemed to emancipate itself from orthodox Trotskyism, especially by appropriating Rosa Luxemburg as one of its theoretical ancestors. Higgins writes: ‘Whatever we might think about the emphasis of this Luxemburg worship, it was certainly a breath of fresh air amid the stale orthodoxy of 1950s Trotskyism. Alone among the revolutionary groups, the Socialist Review Group had used the time fruitfully. It was actually attempting an overall analysis of capitalism, reformism and Stalinism together with a credible strategy of working class advance, cast within the framework that encouraged self activity and openness within a genuinely democratic framework’.
Higgins’ book is full of historical details, observations and anecdotes. His narrative is informative, but also conveys the sometimes tragic-comical goings-on in the (most of the time) rather sectarian milieu of the radical left. Somehow he managed to keep his sense of humour despite decades of involvement. Perhaps this was the only way to survive it intact.
Higgins became a full timer and ended up as National Secretary in the early ‘70s and was thus at the core of the organisation during the rapid growth from the mid-’60s. Its paper Socialist Worker reached a print run of 28,000 copies, and the group grew to over 3,000 members. Unfortunately, as the wider movement started to stagnate and the revolutionary illusions of ‘68 started to implode, the International Socialists, as the group called itself at that point, redefined itself as the nucleus of the revolutionary party. Indeed, only a few years later it set itself out to become that party and renamed itself Socialist Workers Party. This couldn’t happen without a dumbing down of Socialist Worker, throwing Rosa Luxemburg out the window, and wheeling in old Lenin instead. It is not an accident that Cliff wrote a 4 volume biography of Lenin in that period. Articles would hence forth be started with a Lenin quote to make sure no one would dare argue with whatever pronouncement the Central Committee would choose to make, something that was repeated countless times since then.
Higgins and his comrades from the IS Opposition were eventually expelled or left the organisation; it is hence a bit difficult to judge if he is not slightly idealising the IS, but it is evident that his condemnation of the SWP is wholly accurate. The critique of Leninism evident in the closing chapter of the book is something other IS dissidents should take to heart.
Several documents complement the main text, including two new introductions (in addition to the original introduction by Roger Protz), and two obituaries for Jim Higgins who died in 2002.
- “There isn't enough bile to conjure up the shame and disgrace of all of this, nor the palpable physical revulsion, nor the visceral contempt building, nor the sense of betrayal and rage, nor the literal physical and emotional shattering of people exposed to the growing madness day in and day…
- An overview of the British radical left party press. The radical press in Britain still consists largely of the papers of the various organisations that situate themselves in the left radical milieu. A visit in Housmans Bookshop in King's Cross can easily yield a mostly depressing collection of papers by…
- Politik und Organisation des Kommunistischen Bundes 1971-1991 Assoziation A, 2002 This is a monograph of one of the most important left wing groups that constituted itself in the wake of the 1968 student revolt in Germany. After `68, the september strikes in `69 in Germany and the unrest in Italy…