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Guest post: A short account of the International Marxist Group

December 17, 2015
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IMG_20151216_102810We are pleased to publish this critical account of the International Group and the early-IMG by Mike Martin.

In the mid 1960s when I took the first step into political activity, I did so without high expectations. I had become politically aware largely in isolation and unaware of much of the richness of the revolutionary tradition. I began with little more than a burning hatred of capitalism and of authority, which I am pleased to say that I still retain. Political wisdom is a little harder to acquire. This summary outlines how I got involved and how I view the experience now.

Pretty soon events unfolded dramatically and thousands were drawn into oppositional activity, whereas I had fully expected to be involved in a long and isolated struggle. Perhaps I was right the first time, for even though whole institutions and movements have been thrown into crisis over the years, many of the “revolutionary” movements, which ought to have provided the means of putting an end to capitalism, proved ephemeral. Considering the depth of the crises we have witnessed relatively little has been achieved. Experience need never be wasted, however, provided we are willing to learn from it. With this in mind I intend to review my own political experiences perhaps to extract something of value that might contribute something to the progress of genuine revolutionary forces.

Communism could be said to have two aspects, that of being a conscious struggle to reshape the world, and that of being a social movement the outcome of a historical process involving millions of people. Most people attracted to Marxism in the second half of the 20th Century worked their way through an individual intellectual struggle, whereas the communist movement in earlier time was built on the collective experiences of class struggle drawing in large numbers. When the body of collective experience is weak, people who are individually at odds with the existing state of society necessarily try to comprehend and rationalise their experience and viewpoint by adopting variants of ideas that are already to hand. Reformist movements instinctively (and often consciously) pander to prevailing ideas, and thus help limit oppositional movements to safe channels which in turn reinforce the old ideas.

When my own ideas began to evolve I therefore had the advantage of isolation that there was no one to place my objections to established views into a limiting context, in order to lead me back to the slippery slopes of convention. I moved fairly steadily away from a mainly conservative and Christian ethos through various shades of reformist socialism, Christian socialism, pacifism. The controversies around the Beeching cuts on the railways had inclined me towards nationalisation, those around the theological musings of the Bishop of Woolwich destroyed any religious basis to my views. Pacifism or any view based on individual morality evaporated in the face of the bombing of Vietnam. I had read some Marx, specifically “Pre-capitalist Economic Formations” (this being a part of the Grundrisse with a useful introduction by Eric Hobsbawm) “1844 Manuscripts” and the “Communist Manifesto”. These seemed to me to provide an insight into the human condition and a key to explaining history. They also pointed to the means to put an end to alienation and exploitation.

The disadvantage to developing ideas in isolation is that there is nothing to measure against and have no idea what constitutes a sense of proportion. Consequently, I distrusted my own judgement and waited a long time before finally resolving to venture into the world of political activity.

What should be the first step? I considered the CP but only briefly as I knew enough about the repressive nature of Stalinism to be repelled by it even if I had not yet the means to view it through a class perspective. I had heard something about Trotskyists being expelled from the Labour Party and naturally sympathised with anyone who could be so at odds with the LP establishment, but my understanding of the term as also of reformism was extremely limited.. I opted to join the LP and my first political meeting was a ward meeting in a church hall in Cottingham, I recall an elderly lady who had been a founding member of the LP and an old man who would refer to the LP as the “socialistic Party” – unconscious humour I supposed. The others at the meeting were all young professional types, many from the University. I was put in touch with the LPYS and learnt of an imminent public rally at the City Hall to be addressed by the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson. This was May Day 1965.

I joined a picket outside and was easily persuaded to hold a banner protesting US aggression in Vietnam. Later I went into the hall and well recall the tide of enthusiasm when Wilson appeared, and being caught up in the ovation. He seemed to have the audience in the palm of his hand as he developed his familiar theme about the white heat of the technological revolution. A few minutes into his speech a voice from the back shouted “what about Vietnam?” All hell broke loose and there was heckling, fighting and a general commotion. I joined in some of the heckling but after a few minutes the meeting resumed, although Wilson never quite regained his authority. I consider this episode to be quite instructive. There were genuinely conflicting emotions at work throughout the audience. People of my age new little other than the “13 wasted years” of Tory rule, while older folk could recall the reforming zeal of the 1945 – 50 period. There was a real sigh of relief when the discredited and crisis wracked Tories were finally pushed out in 1964, and Wilson took much of the credit for that. Whilst I would have endorsed the most radical of measures and would have agreed with almost any criticism from the left, I still shared some of this feeling that the Wilson Government was an improvement. There is a big gulf between seeking the reshaping of society and recognising the distinction between reformist and revolutionary roads. I suspect that most people who join even supposedly Marxist organisations do not overcome that.

I soon became immersed in left politics in Hull. There was the LPYS with 3 branches but not very active on their own. I helped organise some joint meetings which were fairly successful but did not lead to anything. There was a radical Folk music club and a Peace in Vietnam Committee, mainly Stalinists and CNDers I was involved in both for a while but left the Committee, along with Tony Topham as soon as a branch of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign was set up in Hull. There had been a meeting addressed by Chris Farley of the Bertrand Russell Foundation. Tariq Ali turned up for it and I got talking to him about support for the NLF.

In 1966 the town was livened up by the Hull North By-election. A very marginal seat, the MP died and virtually robbed the Labour Government of its majority. They won the by-election easily largely due to population movement to new estates, and launched Kevin Mcnamara on his career. At the time it was a cliff-hanger and all the parties threw all they had into it. There were a lot of very big public meetings and great scope for heckling, in contrast to meetings nowadays which are carefully staged events aimed more at the media than the audience. I was torn between the traditional left position of supporting Labour “critically” and supporting Richard Gott a middle class radical journalist whose main plank was opposition to the Vietnam war. The Secretary of the local CP resigned over the CP support for Labour, pointing out that Gott’s position was Party policy.

I also got involved with the Humberside Voice group. Voice of the Unions was a left reformist monthly oriented to the bureaucracy. We put out a local edition; four pages were given over to local material while the rest was fairly awful stuff from the national edition produced by Walter Kendall and Richard Fletcher. In the context of the time it did a lot of local campaigning and some useful work in support of workers in the docks, fishing, transport and of course merchant shipping. Concentration on the issue of the day was generally at the expense of wider political implications, and though most people would have despised the Wilson Government this remained a private subjective matter and opposition to existing leaderships was blunted. The people around Humberside Voice were a fairly disparate lot of radical academics, some labour and trade union activists. John Saville labour historian and new left Stalinist was among the former; Jack Ashwell and Walt Greendale TGWU activists among the latter. John Prescott, fresh from Ruskin also came to some meetings. I read an obituary of Tom Kemp (Socialist Labour League) which dwelt on the fact that Saville had blocked Kemp’s career at the University. This fits with my own recollection, since at one point Saville had objected to my involvement with the Voice group, regarding me as a bit ultra if not actually Trotskyist. Tony Topham, who had introduced me to the group, defended my role on the grounds that I was not at all sectarian. This was all done by letter, which Tony showed me later, and was never discussed openly.

Tony was an adult education lecturer who had developed his work towards trades unionists. Along with Ken Coates he had published a good deal on workers control / industrial democracy. He was basically a Fabian by early background and instinct. By contrast with Trotsky his borrowings from the Transitional Programme were not so much an assault on state power as a slow encroachment on management prerogatives. I still consider him the more able of the two with Coates as a more volatile prima donna figure.

Not long after the by-election, the seamans’ strike started. We did a lot of work for the strike, forming a solidarity committee which was 50% the Hull strike committee and the rest all and sundry who wanted to help. This included much of the Voice group, but also Mike Kidron of the International Socialists. We held marches and meetings and produced a pamphlet which sold very well and raised quite a bit of money for the strike. Entitled “Not Wanted on Voyage” it was in effect a semi official reply to the Pearson Report. The Government had hastily set up a commission to look into the dispute and come up with proposals to resolve it. It made sympathetic noises on some issues but did not concede much. The NUS rejected its findings and so the media portrayed them as being unreasonable; this was probably the intention all along. The pamphlet analysed the structure of the shipping industry, ownership, profits and the harsh conditions faced by the men, but contained little that a union official or labour politician could not live with. A large part of it was material used in speeches by John Prescott, ex Queen Mary steward then at Hull University. He was a talented speaker whose abilities were later misused by the Labour leadership. In view of the effectiveness of his speeches then, it is hard to understand how he acquired the reputation as a blustering mangler of the English language. He was already eyeing the East Hull seat, held then by the ageing Commodore Harry Pursey. One May Day rally we were heckling the MP. He shouted back “It’s no use shouting, I can’t hear you I’ve turned my deaf aid off”.

At one stage in the strike Wilson tried to rally his support with a red scare and announced he was going to name a “tightly knit group of politically motivated men” behind the strike. Tony was in a panic fearing that he was going to be named. He took me aside and said more or less “you know that group we were talking about (he was referring to the future IMG which he and Coates were in and I was about to join), well I am not involved ok” By way of anticlimax Wilson named some Stalinists who were a soft target from a publicity point of view and who had some influence at national level. They were no doubt helping to keep the strike on non-political lines, but I don’t think we were doing anything fundamentally different.

The SLL were pretty much alone in stressing that the strike was a political confrontation between Labour and the working class, but they did not have much influence. In Hull they had Tom Kemp, not often seen, and Trevor Jarvis, both University lecturers. Jack Gale came over from Leeds a few times and there was a handful of working class youth around them. Mary Healy was a student at the University who sometimes sold the Newsletter. Legend had it that Jarvis was selling an edition of the Newsletter around the docks that denounced the union for selling out three weeks before they actually did end the strike, and that the dockers threatened to throw him into the dock. Possibly the story was an exaggeration but it became the stuff of folk-lore.

We ran another solidarity campaign for a 6 week strike of bus workers in Hull, though with less success. We then tried to keep the solidarity campaign going but it soon fell apart with nothing practical to do and with divergent but generally unstated political views. For instance there was Mike Kidron local state cap guru and author of the permanent arms economy thesis. He argued to me that (literally) if you could link up the separate “globules” of industrial militancy you would have political consciousness. I also argued with him about imperialism. For a while I would bounce ideas off him and Tony in turn. In the course of one argument he got exasperated and sounded off about Tony and the FI. This was something of a revelation to me and I confronted Tony and more or less demanded to join.

In my eyes this was the world party of socialist revolution and I was glad that I had been working on roughly similar lines. To hear Tony, though, you would think it was an exclusive club, all very discreet and with the emphasis on work with activists in the unions who might one day be in a position to lead struggles. I respected his approach but became more interested in the struggle for cadres, and spent a lot of time working on some dissident YCLers in Hull. At the same time I was reading Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and some of Cannon’s early work. I had some contact with the French JCR (USFI youth) and they placed a lot of emphasis on winning cadres. (“If you are the only Trotskyist in town, your first task is to become two”, one of them explained.)

Ken Coates had a similar approach to that of Tony Topham but on a rather grander scale. In 1966 he went to Havana for the OLAS Conference (Organisation of Latin American Solidarity) and had a private meeting with Castro, who apparently expressed himself in agreement with the brand of Trotskyism portrayed to him by Coates. (Maybe this was because Coates was so busy tailing the Fidelistas that neither of them could tell the difference anyway). Coates came to us and reported to us on the meeting amid a great air of secrecy. Tony and myself were there and some contacts, among them a local WEA lecturer who also worked with trade unionists. He was sympathetic to the USFI but also influenced by NLR. In a loose relationship this would not have mattered much, but when membership and commitment is involved they become obstacles. Even more so with his wife. She could justify her reluctance to join with all sorts of petty comments, only to launch out unexpectedly on her own political fling. (At the time of the cultural revolution she turned up on a Vietnam demo in a bright red trouser suit and carrying a Chinese flag. She looked so much like a caricature of a Red Guard that some Chinese (diplomats? tourists?) we happened to pass formed a queue to take photos. It was embarrassing after all our discussions, but the truth was that the weaknesses of our own political approach had prepared the way for this.

Another meeting we had was with Ken Tarbuck who was active in the London group of the future IMG. He gave us a broad sweep review of Trotskyism. Another time Ernie Tate came up to Hull for discussion. Later Ernie got badly beaten up while selling a pamphlet entitled “Healy Reconstructs the Fourth International” being a rather mocking account of a conference at which Healy parted company with the Robertson group (future Spartacists). Some say the beating was on Healy’s orders, others that stewards misunderstood some instruction and got over enthusiastic. Either way, there was no excuse and the USFI ran a big campaign to discredit Healy. Once, Cliff Slaughter came to speak at a meeting in Hull. The audience was myself and a docker. When I mentioned that some publications had been served with writs to stop them commenting on the Tate Affair, Slaughter threatened me with the same. The docker, incidentally, I had met before. He had been a Labour steward at a meeting in the by-election. Myself and a YCLer had hung a banner from the balcony and were heckling George Brown over the wage freeze. The steward came towards us and my YCL friend got alarmed and said “Mick do something” I simply stood up; cameras swung round and for a few seconds (captured on TV) it looked quite dramatic. All that happened was that the steward said quietly, “could you keep it down a bit lads”) At the Slaughter meeting he recognised me and said we had been right.

The group I was joining was at this time known as the International Group. It had originated as the Nottingham group of ex CPers around Coates, and had gone through a brief relationship with Ted Grants grouping, when both were in a relationship with the International Secretariat. At a meeting in Nottingham later in 1966 and for no obvious reason the name was changed to IMG. It was still mainly in the Labour Party and had two main areas of work; the Vietnam work mainly around the Russell Peace Foundation, and the activity around the series of conferences on Workers Control. The Russell Foundation had run an International War Crimes Tribunal to expose US atrocities, and gave birth to the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign. The Workers Control Conferences promoted industrial democracy providing a platform for a wide range of views, mainly reformist, and it eventually became the Institute for Workers Control.

I often hitch-hiked to Nottingham or London for meetings, and in summer of 1967 I took a job in a furniture factory in the East End of London, and moved into lodgings in Bow and later Stoke Newington. My connection with Tony Topham got me involved briefly in a “rank and file” paper for bus workers. Some of the older guys remembered my uncle who had been a driver in the 30s. (My uncle was a staunch Labourite in later years, but once told me that during the 1936 London Bus strike a photo appeared in the Bromley newspaper of him selling Daily Worker. If you ever come across it he was the one who looked like Charlie Chaplin). The project was a mistake from our point of view as it was a base for the old left TGWU bureaucrat Bill Jones. Not long after that we recruited John and Tony Roberts who ran a different rank and file bulletin for bus workers. Bill Jones had been trying to counter them. Another figure I recall from the Workers Control milieu was docker Brian Nicholson. Many years later it emerged he had been supplying information to the police.

Ernie Tate ran a bookshop from a room above a deli in Toynbee Street (nowadays a flat above a boutique). On the floor above that Pat Jordan had a small office which served as the IMG office. I was there often to help out with printing the groups bulletin The Week or attend meetings. Otherwise I would be at the Rivington Street office of the Peace Foundation; the VSC was operating from the basement and we were running an adhoc committee to build for our first attempt at a national demonstration.

The politics of The Week were based on the perspective that the election of the Labour Government would give rise to an upsurge of opposition creating a left centrist trend in the Labour movement. The modest duplicated weekly had an impressive list of about 20 MPs and prominent figures as sponsors named on the cover. Unfortunately, many of the leaders of the Labour left shifted to the right. Castle and Greenwood joined the Government; Wilson himself was a one time left. There was no sign of a move to the left in the official movement. Of the discussion in IMG of this I only recall two events. One was a headline on The Week “Welcome back Frank” after Frank Cousins head of the TGWU rejoined the ranks. Some comrades complained that this was too uncritical. On another occasion we had “Fred Lee Must Go” calling for sacking of Minister of Power (over pit closures I think); this was considered a bit ultra-left by some, and almost all the sponsors withdrew, leaving just William Warbey and Konni Zilliacus. That was all in 1966 and we were already quite strident over Vietnam and British Complicity in the War, so the great and good would have been feeling a little uncomfortable as sponsors anyway. Coates produced a pamphlet for the VSC “The Dirty War in Mr Wilson; how he stopped worrying about Vietnam and learned to love the dollar” which apparently infuriated Wilson with its talk of “the rattle of dollars in the begging bowl”.

This attempt to integrate with left centrist forces was not confined to Britain. It was reflected Europe wide in International Socialist Journal. Coates and Mandel were on the EB along with Jim Mortimer (of the draughtsmans’ union I think). Sponsors included Frank Allaun, Ralph Miliband, Michael Barratt Brown, Kai Moltke. Mandel in one article is calling for a programme of anti-capitalist structural reforms. Clearly inspired by the transitional programme it treats it as an extension of trades unionism rather than open political struggle by the working class. I now only have a couple of issues of ISJ but looking through them I notice that there was quite a bit written on industrial matters or trends in left social democracy. That was 1965, 1966. By 1967 – 68 USFI was publishing “50 years of World Revolution” a collection of articles by USFI figures where the emphasis is on third world struggles, and nothing on industrial struggles. There is a more balanced mixture in Tariq Ali’s “The Coming British Revolution” (1971-2) which intentionally sets out IMGs view on a range of themes, and was largely written by leading members.

The need for more strident and militant opposition to the Labour government conflicted with the cautious approach of the forces addressed by Coates. It should have been obvious that a parting of the ways could be expected.

Not long after I had moved to London. It was discovered that the Russell Foundation had a “financial crisis”. Coates proposed that the VSC operation be shut down. The National Secretary (David Robinson) who had been on the payroll was out and soon returned to New Zealand. We had to leave the office. It was clearly a factional move as there was no attempt to salvage anything. Militant demonstrations did not fit well with Coates’s cosy relations with union figures. So, two days before our first big demonstration I helped cart away a filing cabinet, that was just about all that was left of VSC. We borrowed a typewriter and set up operations in a tiny room behind Pat Jordan’s office, and shared his phone and duplicator.

The demonstration of October 22nd 1967, however, went better than we expected. The numbers were not fantastic, perhaps a couple of thousand, but there was a militant spirit; we took over the streets, in contrast to the marching 4 abreast and stop at traffic lights of the CND. Turning into Grosvenor Square we found that the police had put a cordon diagonally across part of the road, creating a restriction. This caused some pushing and shoving, but the march was moving on. The park in the square was surrounded by a box hedge which in those days was only about two feet high, and was guarded by only a thin line of police. I jumped over the hedge and ran into the park. A policeman chased me but soon stopped and turned back to see that the rest of the marchers were pouring through the gap he had left. We had nearly an hour of confrontation. I got as far as the parking meters just outside the US Embassy building before being pursued by a policeman charging on horseback. Eventually enough police arrived to push us out of the square. Militant opposition to the war was front page news and the activist layer was greatly energised.

We soon set about preparing for the next one scheduled for March 17th 1968 (the one that was filmed by the media). In the process I took over as National Secretary of VSC.

The factional move by Coates led to his expulsion from IMG. I was sent around to talk to comrades who might shed light on the affair. Most importantly, Coates himself did not come forth with explanation, so there was no political clarification of the underlying issues. This would have been necessary to provide a sound basis for future work. I reported to the Political Committee on the facts of the case, and Geoff Coggan who had experience of Coates directly in the Russell Foundation, proposed his expulsion and I supported it. A small number of members left or were upset for a while, but we were starting to win new members from a different social layer. In future, instead of adapting to the labour movement bureaucracies, we would adapt to radicalised layers of youth. This was summarised in the document “New Rise of the World Revolution” produced by the USFI for the 9th World Congress held in Italy in 1969.

Into 1968 we were still producing The Week but I persuaded Pat Jordan that we should end it in favour of a monthly that presented our political positions more fully than was the case in short newsy reports. “International” was the result. My name appears as editor of the early editions, but this was purely because I was getting well known through the Vietnam work. Most of my work was actually of the back office sort, arranging meetings etc. The main public face of VSC was Tariq Ali. He joined IMG in spring 1968 and we made him join the Labour Party, but then the USFI called an end to the period of entry work, so most of us left.

I had transferred to Poplar LPYS in 1967 but only attended a couple of meetings. One of these was a regional type meeting which turned out to have Tony Cliff as main speaker. He announced that the Labour Party was a cadaver, everyone should join the International Socialists. They actually did mop up quite a lot of ex LP youth in this period. Another stunt from Cliff came in 1968. He and John Palmer arrived unheralded at our offices. The dockers had just struck in support of Enoch Powell and Cliff’s response was “Social Democracy is finished. In 10 years it is either socialism or fascism, we must unite now”. We said we would discuss his proposal and the 4 points he advocated as a basis for uniting our organisations at our National Committee which met in 2 weeks time. “Two weeks! You are the Democratic Centralists – decide now!” Some people we heard actually joined IS on being told we had agreed to fuse. Eventually, it emerged that Cliff had not even discussed his initiative with his own organisation. The only organisation to take up his offer was the somewhat factional “Workers Fight” group, that had just emerged from the break up of the Irish Workers Group. After our discussion on the NC we wrote to IS group proposing further discussions and adding a 5th point as the basis; I think this was support for national liberation movements. We never had a reply

The March 17th demonstration was like a re-run of the previous October but a good deal bigger. The publicity even overtook the economic crisis. We soon began planning for an even bigger demonstration on October 27th 1968. However, the alignment of forces was changing. The March demonstration was on the heels of the Tet offensive and people identified with that. Later the Peace talks started. The Stalinists and Pacifists took the initiative to call a demonstration to coincide with the start of the talks; implicitly a demand on both sides for Peace rather than Victory for the NLF. By October we were all planning for the one demonstration. There was so much publicity in the media for what was billed as the “October Revolution” that there was little incentive to campaign; after all the Evening Standard carried a centre spread showing the route. We had a mass meeting that voted for a route that avoided Grosvenor Square, but some Maoists organised a breakaway regardless, believing that having a truncheon over the head turned people into revolutionaries. We did what we said we would and marched on the agreed route*1. There was no violence apart from having to deal with a group of fascists who tried to attack the platform. Meanwhile, the Maoists had their fight in Grosvenor Square. The day was something of an anticlimax especially for anyone who took the “revolution” hype seriously. After that the VSC was just about dead. I had been National Secretary for much of that year but was flat broke. Ed Guiton took over from me in the summer but only stayed a few weeks, followed by Hall Greenland (an actual Pabloite) who lasted a whole month. Then I was asked to return for a while. After the October demonstration I set about trying to earn a living, and eventually ended up as a Guard on the London underground.

The whole VSC experience was pretty chaotic. We had not so much organised a protest movement as created a channel through which it could pour unhindered. It boosted the activity of a range of radical groups, helped to weaken the CP and marginalised movements like CND for a period. However we had built nothing lasting out of it and CND for example was able over the years to regain its influence and is once again one of the main elements of broad front anti-war protest activity.

The journal International never had as much impact as the Black Dwarf, a lively radical fortnightly, that captured the mood of the time very well. We had people on the board alongside others who were not so keen on party building or vanguards. I think there were also pro SLL people. Apparently the meetings would get quite factional. Eventually, our people on their own initiative split away. Coincidentally, (in that it was not pre-planned and certainly not discussed at the Political Committee), one of them had just inherited quite bit of money. We were able to set up a print shop and launch the Red Mole. At last, a technically well produced paper; but one that we had never had to fight to build. It was never as good as Black Dwarf which was weakened by the split. Nor did it address the working class very effectively. It eventually became Red Weekly.

By the end of 1968 IMG had started to grow but still had only one London branch, and there were factional arguments. A group around Al Richardson proved quite disruptive. He built a circle of friends and cultivated the attitude that most of IMG including leaders did not understand the labour movement. Eventually they came to place loyalty to the faction above that to the group. To a degree we were paying the price for not having clarified all the issues re the Kork affair (Coates expulsion). True we had members who had no experience of trade unions, but the opposition were hardly better placed and had nothing to offer. I recall being the chair of a branch meeting when the treasurer (Jess MacKenzie) proposed to open a bank account, Barclays being most convenient. Uproar from the opposition! You have to use the Co-op bank! The Co-op bank had about 10% of its shares held by Unions; otherwise it was no different from a regular capitalist bank, and its labour movement links rather tenuous. When I called the vote it was even so I said that as I had not voted I would cast my vote for the proposal. More uproar. “Chairman can’t vote. You should read Citrine on Chairmanship”, shouted Keith Veness. Lord Citrine was a right wing TUC bureaucrat who wrote a book on how to chair meetings. For a TU branch it might make sense for the chairman to be above the debate, but Citrine also says that in the event of a tie the Chairman rules in favour of the status quo (usually the bureaucracy). Anyway we were not a union branch. Veness, one of a group of YCLers we had recruited, was probably the only one of the opposition to have real industrial experience. He later became a full time union official. Eventually, we suspended 2 or 3 of this opposition for voting opposite to group decision in a meeting. Mercifully, the entire group disappeared from view. Richardson later helped set up the journal Revolutionary History, so his obsession with old archives and sectariana finally had some value.

I attended the 9th World Congress in 1969 as an observer. IMG was accepted as the British Section. Chris Arthur turned up as well; he was involved in producing Bulletin of Marxist Studies along with Ken Tarbuck. We rarely saw it and we had not seen them since the split with Coates. We made it clear we did not regard them as members and Chris was turned away. The Congress was memorable for endorsing guerrilla struggle in Latin America. I did not have a vote but would probably have supported it. Some of the sections were very much for it and would probably have gone ahead anyway. Moreno’s group in Argentina were against. We ended up recognising 2 sections in Argentina which seemed to me to be a bit odd even at the time; it proved to be a recipe for creating a centrist swamp.

Ernie Tate left England shortly after this, along with Jess MacKenzie, and returned to Canada. He had been on a sort of secondment to help build in Britain. He was replaced by Alan and Connie Harris who took over the bookshop work. They contributed something to the gradual emergence of a pro SWP(US) tendency. They favoured retaining one big branch for London, which meant meetings were dominated by business and political discussion marginalised. I eventually argued successfully, that the branch be split up into several working groups so that we could recruit locally, and allow members some freedom to develop.

I was working on the railway by then which complicated political activity owing to shift work, but at least I could get involved in strikes. Union branches were pretty well moribund and the split between NUR and ASLEF a complicating factor. Just after I started, a meeting was called by ASLEF (with one eye on some upcoming elections for reps) about mileage payments. A new agreement had tied our pay to mileage which was alright for mainline trains but affected our pay quite badly. At the meeting a work mate of mine proposed a guards committee be set up. This took the issue out of the hands of the union hacks who had seniority and had become Motormen. The guards called 3 one day strikes that paralysed London. And we won the claim. The ASLEF candidate won the election and immediately knifed a proposal to link up with bus workers. The guards committee broke up; the guards were only interested in the money and one of the committee was later gaoled for armed robbery on a ticket office.2 I sometimes think that there were quite a few people around who were interested in politics, and we might have had some success if we had set up a discussion group.

In the summer of 1970 I took a holiday in Ireland, then gave up the job in London to work the summer in a hotel. People from Derry would come in at weekends, so I got some glimpses of the developing situation. Once I went to a nearby Irish Army fort to collect some furniture. I only got to the gate, but later learnt from the local police sergeant that there had been a terrible fuss about this English chap hanging round the fort. I just laughed at the time, but 30 years later I read an article in the Observer that said that this fort was where the provos were getting some training. At the same time an element in the Irish establishment had put out the paper “Voice of the North” to portray the conflict in religious/nationalist terms.

Our position on Ireland was born of ignorance. We had some involvement in solidarity work with the Civil Rights campaigns (Irish Civil Rights Solidarity Campaign), but when the troops went in we were scratching our heads a bit. We needed some historical analysis. At a PC meeting the day before a demonstration on Civil Rights we were asking each other if anyone had studied any history. Murray Smith gave a relatively coherent explanation of why self-determination was the key issue and that we should call for troops out. We did so only to back track a bit on the demand (Pat Jordan Article suggesting the demand was “educational”). We also tended to view permanent revolution as an unfolding process that would generate more radical movements to which we would need to orient; the source of many mistakes.

After the summer I settled in Stafford where we had a small group of supporters but which needed a bit of support as the main organisers were moving away, chiefly Chris Pailthorpe who took me on a tour of contacts. This included a trip into Shropshire to meet Jeremy Corbyn. We had a brief discussion with him, but he made it very clear that he was committed to working inside the system. By this time IMG was taking more and more radical positions, especially on Ireland as the conflict sharpened and taking sides seemed to be the order of the day. There was also an influx of new people and John Ross was becoming influential, initially in alliance with Bob Pennington. There was a lot of pseudo-intellectualism about and some internal discussion documents sounded like attempts at philosophical treatises. One document by Ross (known informally as the “truckload”) contained masses of quotes from Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky etc and pages of philosophising about consciousness. To refute any particular part would have been difficult and pointless, but we were meant to vote on the “general line” of the document whatever that meant. Some comrades were still wading through it months after the conference. It was getting harder to defend the theorising of the group or to keep up with it.

On one occasion in 1971 we objected to a cover article in the Red Mole; “Asians, Big Chance for Left” and refused to sell it

I spent a few months in Cardiff working in the old steelworks, and then returned to Stafford to study for a degree at the North Staffs Poly. I was still in the IMG but had dropped off the leading committees; and it was not easy to follow the developments. College life bore an odd resemblance to life in the IMG in that we would attend seminars etc, chew over some ideas and not come to any conclusion.

That was 1972. We continued selling the paper and running a local discussion group (Red Circle). In 1973 there was a mobilisation against the NF which was holding a conference in Conway Hall, Red Lion Square. We (ourselves and some IS I think) were confronting the police line, in fact just about surrounded on three sides, when the marchers charged. It is a wonder there were not mass arrests. In reaction to this the remaining members of the Stafford group left the IMG. A year later (1974) a repeat of the encounter in Red Lion Square led to the death of Kevin Gately.

Statement of Resignation

We wish to announce our resignation from the IMG. Stafford comrades have for some time been critics within the organisation, especially since the notorious incident of the “Asians – Big Chance for Left” article in the Red Mole. That incident may have faded from mind somewhat, but the sectarian attitudes it revealed have not disappeared. The group has assumed more and more the character of a sterile sect. This is summed up most vividly by the recent lunatic escapade outside Conway Hall, and the ridiculous attempts to defend it in the paper. The fact that we did not suffer a serious defeat can be attributed more to good fortune than to “disciplined organisation”. It would seem that the whole of the IMG leadership bears some responsibility for this.

Hand in hand with this sectarianism we find a continuing political malaise – with shifting perspectives, and constantly changing forms of the “conventional wisdom” which is meant to guide the organisation, a poor substitute for a programme and a coherent stable perspective.

Taken with the latest wave of documents, the failure of the leadership to publicly disown the Blackburn article is an alarming indication of the trend of thought in the group.

The internal life of the organisation is hardly a source of encouragement. The last conference was not merely a shambles but a victory for behind the scenes dealing and for factional manipulation. Since then political leadership has given way to administrative edict, eg. The levy imposed for premises fund – a wrong approach and wrong priorities. It is regrettable that TNC comrades acquiesced in this.

Given the deepening crisis in Britain, one of the most crucial tests facing the revolutionary left will be that of facing up to the challenge of the far right. This involves both intelligent tactics and a commitment to regroupment of the revolutionary left. Frenzied ultra-leftism and heroic isolation are no substitute for struggling to build a party which can meet the challenge of the time on every level. The situation demands an effective pole of attraction for militants with real roots in the working class. As a step towards this united action, not merely on a single issue basis, but for electoral campaigns should be considered seriously. We consider it unlikely that the IMG will prove capable of responding effectively to the needs of the situation.

Our only regret in leaving the IMG is that it will place us outside the International, since we have been in general sympathy with the International Majority. However, regret is tempered by the spectacle of the failure of the international to establish democratic centralist norms, without which it is impotent. At a future date we will elaborate our views more fully; suffice to say that we no longer view the IMG as a viable arena for work, and we now choose to pursue an independent course.

TNC – The New Course- refers to the tendency around Pat Jordan. There were numerous other groupings in the IMG by then.

The “future date” never came and we did not elaborate our views in more detail as a local group. I developed a more critical view of the USFI which I came to regard as a centrist swamp, and of the “left” in general. Shaking off the false method of adapting to whatever milieu you are in is more difficult than simply leaving an organisation, especially as an individual. It requires constantly basing one’s efforts on the independent political interests of the working class. Politically, I am now closer to the tradition represented by the International Committee/ World Socialist Web Site.

Notes:

  1. The establishment were concerned by the prospect of widespread clashes. Peter Jackson, a former Hull University lecturer who I had met after that first meeting I went to of Cottingham LP, and who had become MP for High Peak, sought me out to ask me about our plans. It was pretty obvious he had been sent by someone higher up. I could only tell him that the route had been decided and even though I would have been happier to go to Grosvenor Sq, we were abiding by the decision.
  2. I was not actually on the committee but would meet them at the end and then rush to the IMG office to run off leaflets announcing the strike date. I then rushed to the tube at key intersections and collared guards as they passed to take the leaflets to their depots
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