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On the Turn to Industry, the American SWP and other questions of IMG history

May 5, 2020
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The following was written in in April 2020 in response to comments by Penny D, Phil W and Mike P on the Socialist Resistance discussion list.

One thing you will never get agreement about is the history of revolutionary organisations, especially from participants. We are usually wedded to the correctness of what we did and our memories – face it comrades – are fallible. A lot of what is being discussed here refers to events up to 40 years ago, and some before that. Inevitably you start to get factual disagreements as well as disagreements of assessment. So I am not writing here to disagree with what Penny, Phil or Mike have written, but just to explain my take on it. In fact, what’s amazing is that we are all still here, and still at it in our different ways.

First up, what was the turn to industry all about, and did it destabilise the IMG? I don’t think you can say the turn was responsible for the demise of the IMG, but it was a major contributory factor, both in what it involved directly, the way in which it was linked to the (mis)handling of internal disagreements and above all because it was a crucial part of the international offensive of the American SWP.

In the summer of 1983, I was in a place called Wengen, literally half way up a mountain. The only British paper we could get was the two day-old Financial Times. We were stunned one day to see on the front page an internal circular from ‘Comrade Hanks’ at the centre, calling on people to apply for jobs at the Cowley car plant, an operation now exposed by the whole British media. Something like 18-20 comrades actually got into the plant, a fact that neither escaped the attention of British Leyland management nor MI5. diaryThe ‘Cowley moles’ were fired, and the press made a bee-line to witch hunt Stephanie Grant (‘Red Steph’). The way these events were dealt with (with most of the IMG leadership on holiday) caused a storm of debate, and put Stephanie and the others in a very difficult position. Paul Foot wrote an article in SW attacking the IMG (by now renamed the Socialist League) for going into denial mode and for refusing to bluntly defend the right of socialists to get jobs in a car plant. Whatever the truth of that, you could not but conclude that the whole affair was an incompetent fiasco, which put lots of young comrades in an awful position through no fault of their own. You might have thought that the fact that there was an existing revolutionary socialist leadership group in the plant, around people like Alan Thornett and Tony Richardson, would have given the IMG leadership pause for thought – before sending swarms of young members into the plant, to ‘talk socialism on the job’ in a way and with numbers that were at best, indiscrete.

But this all stemmed from the almost religious zeal behind the turn to industry, especially among sympathisers and supporters of the American SWP.

The turn originated in the US-SWP in part because of their completely false perspective of a ‘coming upsurge’ in the American working class. The SWP had built itself in the 1960s out of support for the civil rights and Black Power movements, the women’s liberation movement and above all the anti-US war movement. But the decline of the 60s radical movements made the SWP search the horizon for ‘what’s next?’ The answer should have been a long slog, in which getting a toehold in the labour unions was an important part. But the workers’ upsurge kept on not coming. So the SWP stopped waiting for it to arrive and went to meet it, mainly in factories, but also on the rail and other transport unions.

The US turn had two political functions apart from gearing up the enthusiasm of the members. First, it was used as a weapon against internal dissidents, forcing them into manual jobs against their will and in places they didn’t want to go. As former SWP leader Barry Sheppard puts it:

“The turn to industry,” launched in 1978, “could have been a big step forward for the party, instead of the disaster it became (as it) developed over the next year or two into a forced march, riding roughshod over a continued campus orientation for the YSA [the party’s youth group] and the maintaining of our teachers, health care workers, and social service fractions.”

The Jack Barnes SWP leadership group put the turn to industry together with an international perspective based on ‘convergence’ with the international Castroist current – the ‘three giants of the Caribbean’ – Cuba, Nicaragua and Grenada. The Barnes people tried to discover an international Communist trend emerging around this axis – for a time this was supposed to be developing at the base of the South African Communist Party. But the truth was that even with the support of Nicaragua and Grenada, Cuba did not have the social weight to recompose the world workers’ movement, even at the high tide of the Salvadorian revolution in 1979-80 and the wake of the seizure of power in Nicaragua by the FSLN. It involved a supposedly inevitable ‘workers and farmers’ government’ stage, everywhere – even in countries with no peasantry and a tiny rural proletariat (like Britain). This mainly fictional international current was part, supposedly, of ‘Communist continuity’, which did not include Trotskyism and ditched the theory of permanent revolution – all summed up in a Barnes text called ‘Their Trotsky and Ours’.

The additional problem of this perspective was the lack of interest of the Cubans themselves. And like most unrequited love, it ended in bitter recriminations in the 1990s, when Barnes turned against Cuba and the Sandinistas.

I am convinced that in the IMG the turn to industry brought together two things – the desire of the Ross faction leadership for a political rapprochement with the supports of the US SWP, and the pressure of people inside and outside the organisation who thought the IMG was too slow to outgrow its mainly student origins. It had some calamitous consequences for the work of white-collar fractions. The whole teachers’ leadership, more or less, went out of the organisation and became for decades the leadership of the Socialist Teachers Alliance, ironically mainly championing the Castroist international line of the US SWP. The leading NALGO comrades mainly dropped out, but could be found years later plugging the IMG line circa 1978 on the united front, anti-racism etc inside NALGO. And the Medical Committee against Private Practice, a brilliant initiative through which comrades like Janet Maguire had recruited doctors like Berry Beaumont and Dominic Costa, was dispersed to the four winds. The attack on the public sector work of the organisation (“rag, tag and bobtails”) was led by Brian Grogan and was politically idiotic through and through.

I remember a National Committee in 1982 or 83 when Peter Gowan attacked “this anti-Trotskyist turn” and criticised the international leadership for using it to patch up things with the US-SWP. Ernest Mandel was present and said he backed the turn through “deep personal conviction”. I thought immediately: I don’t believe you.

Ex-members of the US SWP leadership have subsequently told me how people in the SWP leadership openly joked about the gullibility of the Europeans taking up the turn, saying they didn’t understand the obvious – that it was being used to expose their ‘petty bourgeois’ character.

People who were in the French section generally have a different memory of it, because it was interpreted there – as far as I understood it – not as a political line, but as simply an instrument to get some comrades into useful jobs. And of course there were some useful ‘turns’ here, that got people into politically useful jobs for the long-term, for example on London Transport and the Rail. Fair enough. But the price was very high.

I think there were many comrades in the organisation who were deeply sceptical about the turn, even if they were not in a tendency that opposed it. It helped to create an atmosphere of internal animosity, and it helped to create the political basis for Brian Grogan’s split with John Ross, to take up the torch from Connie and Alan Harris as the main leader of the pro-SWP faction. Brian Grogan was exasperated at John Ross’s political instability and lurching from one perspective to another. Political stability, it transpired, lay in taking orders from Charles Street in New York.

In any case, it is far from clear to me that getting more of a working-class base was a matter of sending people into manual workplaces. It should have been a matter of getting people into jobs, yes, but of getting a base in the labour movement, through which white collar fractions would have been very useful.

At the beginning of the 1980s, the subsequent semi-collapse of heavy industry was far from certain. There appeared to be good reason to expect that the engineering industry, the car industry, steel and coal would continue to be central features of the economy. In fact, ‘de-industrialisation’, as it became known, was mainly dismissed on the far left, and in the IMG too. We did not foresee the massive changes in the international division of labour that would make Britain mainly a service-based economy, and a lot of that was based on defeats that had not yet taken place. But even in the early 1980s the growth of white-collar occupations (especially in local and national government), and with it the feminisation of the workforce, was already under way. The NHS was already the country’s largest employer. White collar militancy grew alongside the titanic struggles of the miners, steelworkers, dockers and printers. The self-immolation of the IMG’s white-collar fractions was an act of political vandalism.

Which brings me to the Labour Party. Using the immensely powerful tool of hindsight, I don’t think the IMG/SL should have tilted towards being a mainly entrist organisation. I agree with Penny on that. The problem is that you cannot build an organisation of any size in the long term switching back and forward between entrism, outism and combination tactic. A revolutionary organisation needs a coherent strategic view of where it sees the centre of activates as being. And that involves accepting something very difficult for people from the British Trotskyist tradition –with a small organisation and a big labour movement, it may well be the case that there is not one single position that is ‘correct’. There may be two or three things you could possibly do, all of which would enable you to build, but you have to do one of them. And stick with it.

This was not always my position, to put it mildly. But in retrospect it seems to me that the most successful period of the IMG was the late 1970s, the time of the Socialist Unity campaigns, the Socialist Challenge project, the Working Women’s Charter and Socialist Woman, the IMG’s sharp turn to the ANL once the SWP had launched it, the launching of Revolution Youth, anti-racism and anti-fascism in general, the TOM and Irish solidarity and of course (like the rest of the left)  our support for the struggle at Grunwick.

Then came Thatcher and Benn. A re-orientation was necessary, and indeed the IMG turned towards the Bennite base, not only in the Labour Part but especially towards Greenham Common, CND, YCND and the anti-missiles movement. Important sections of the ’68 generation went into the Labour Party, exerting a big pressure on the IMG. How exactly to orientate to the Bennite base was an issue that would have been difficult enough to navigate, but that discussion was knocked off balance by the international offensive of the US SWP and its British supporters. The organisation became enmeshed in political overload, the attempt to deal with too many questions at once.

And finally, the issue of internal party management. In my view the IMG fetishised conducting debates through tendencies and factions, indeed normalised this way of operating. The same was true of the LCR, and I suspect of the NPA today as well. We made a big deal of out democratic functioning, but there were bits of it that were not very democratic.

If you conduct everything through tendencies, then everyone feels the pressure to belong to a tendency. You can only get onto the leadership by being proposed by a tendency. And people are often recruited simultaneously to the organisation and one of the tendencies. And smaller tendencies breed even littler ones, so you end up with five or six in a bewildering merry-go-round. In the IMG, perspectives documents were often rendered incoherent by being ‘composited’ between the factions. So the January 1980 conference simultaneously decided on a) building inside the Labour Party b) the turn to industry and c) the fight for unity with the SWP – ie it was an incoherent mess, but brought enough people on board to form a majority. Between 1973 and 1977/8, the majority and the main minority tendencies almost literally swapped political positions, but no one shifted tendency loyalty. Which meant what you really had was competing leadership teams with variable politics.

In the IMG, factional dispute could be very harsh and brutal. I agree with Penny that the John Ross style of wanting to ‘smash’ the opposition gave a very bad example to the supporters of his tendency. Some people say, well you have to put up with factions and tendencies, the alternative is bureaucratic centralism. I think however that revolutionary democracy needs to cultivate a culture of democratic debate, without automatic recourse to tendencies and factions – especially permanent factions, which tend to have their own internal rhythms and structure, pulling the organisation into a huge devotion of resources into internal stuff.

The IMG had to cope with very choppy waters. It was always a long shot that a different type of revolutionary organisation could be built from scratch against the sectarian traditions of ‘British Trotskyism’. It could have just made it through if it had not had to cope with the offensive of the American SWP and/or a leadership prepared to politically bend to them.

There are lots of rubbish theories and misapprehensions about the IMG current on the left. For example, the falsehood that anti-racism and anti-fascism became front and central in far-left politics because of the SWP and the Anti-Nazi League. Not true: as far as far left organisations are concerned, it was pioneered by the IMG, as demonstrated in the two Red Lion Square demonstrations.

For example, that no one on the far left was interested in women’s liberation before the movement itself emerged. A complete fiction: IMG women played a key role in the first women’s liberation conference in Oxford in1969, and in launching the campaigns in defence of abortion and women’s reproductive rights.

More irritatingly, that the falsehood that the IMG was ‘studentist’ and did not understand the central role of the working class. Complete rubbish.

Many comrades on this list were not in the IMG because they came into activity later, or were in other organisations like the WRP and WSL. They will have their own take on things that will differ from mine. But I continue to believe that the refoundation of the militant socialist left in Britain will necessarily incorporate basic political positions pioneered by the IMG and the Fourth International, including its united front approach that permeated everything it did, its positions on socialist democracy, its internationalism and its support for the movements of the oppressed. But as one of the founders of the firm said, “Gratitude is not a political attitude”. New generations of activists will not doff their hats in the direction of the IMG. Or rather they will, but won’t necessarily know they are doing so.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 5, 2020 3:31 pm

    A very useful article, especially about the Fourth International “Turn to Industry” Policy of 1979 and following years. This policy contributed to a political decline of People’s Democracy in Ireland in the 1980’s – although that was not the only factor. We live and learn. Others may make a different political judgement, and that’s OK. One of the FI people I worked closely with in the 1980’s was Gerry Foley, an early target of the American SWP. However, for most of the 1970’s, Foley and me were on different sides in FI debates, and did not agree about the history of that period. – John Meehan

  2. Hilary Driver permalink
    May 11, 2020 11:03 am

    That bloody “Comrade Hanks” has a lot to answer for!!

  3. Tariq Ali permalink
    May 17, 2020 1:51 pm

    Phil Hearse is correct on all these questions. The main reason I left the FI was because of the ‘turn to industry’. At the World Congress that adopted this line, Winfried Wolf [German section] and I had a counter-resolution opposing it and we tried very hard to get Bensaid to sign it since he agreed with us as did many others but they did not want to oppose the majority. We argued that there was a downturn, that privileging sociology above politics was anti-Leninist and that the line being imposed would on a practical level wreck the white-collar work of our sections. Ernest and others tried to ‘convince’ me by absurd argument such as ‘nobody is suggesting you make the turn’ that angered me even more as if one’s objections were subjective. Ernest has NOT convinced himself as he half-admitted to me on a number of occasions. The Europeans were willingly bull-dozed by Barnes and his gang [currently supporting Trump’s turn to the white working-class or so I’m informed]. I remain very proud of many things the IMG did: VSC, NAC, AIL, Socialist Challenge, etc….these remain a useful model if ever a broad left party emerges in Scotland and England/Wales. But the grotesque factionalism coupled with fantasy politics dis the group in….The schematic dogmas of JR and his group were soon in action in Livingstone’s mayoral outings with total support for globalisation and its appalling architecture, the City of London, the public execution of Menezes and the failure to use that office to build something concrete . Likewise the blind support for the actually existing EU….enough.

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