The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The IMG remembered

Whenever he made a speech, the late Tony Cliff looked and sounded like a mad scientist, explaining how his apparatus of cogs, wheels, transmission belts and rank and file movements was about to transform the diaphanously-draped damsel of trade union reformism into the capering chimpanzee of revolutionary socialism. There was no personality cult of Cliff, but his personality left an imprint on the party he founded. The same was true of all the grand old men of British Trotskyism. It's no surprise, as John Sullivan puts it somewhere, that the SWP is excitable, Militant long-winded, and the Healyites [redacted] had anger management issues.

In the 1970s I was a member of the International Marxist Group. It was the largest British Trotskyist group not led by one of the grand old men of British Trotskyism. This was less of an advantage than might be supposed. Lacking a grand old man the IMG settled for a squabbling coalition of alpha males (and females). The resulting frenzy of competitive nit-picking has often stood the group's ex-members in good stead in their later careers. It also helps to explain why the intelligence of so many of the group's individual members seldom showed itself in the group's political line, which lurched hither and yon as the squabbling alphas wrested the joystick from each other. Opening the weekly bundle of the group's newspaper was always a thrill. One week there was a supplement on surrealism; the next, the editorial office had been briefly occupied by feminists and an apology inserted for the sexism of the surrealists. People familiar with the IMG only from its press, or hearing of its political interventions, could be forgiven for thinking that its members were half-wits. Who can forget the argument of the IMG's Women's Liberation Commission that the demand of South African mineworkers for a family life was reactionary?

The IMG had a great deal of similarly helpful advice (worked up by the Colonial Revolutions Commission) for every national liberation movement, except those directed against the USSR and its allies. They supported every anti-Soviet-bloc movement without offering any advice. To orthodox Communists this seemed senseless, if not suspect, but there was a logic to it. The Fourth International hoped to displace the Communist parties. So, in the case of an anti-imperialist national movement, the point was to criticise its Communist component for peaceful co-existence/guerrilla tactics/popular frontism/whatever. In the case of a national movement opposing a Soviet or Soviet-aligned state, the point was to criticise the Communists who ruled or supported that state for their incorrect handling of the national question. The movement itself could be relied upon to be, or to become, socialist and progressive without any advice from the IMG. This needs a little further explaining.

The Fourth International, of which the IMG was the British section, maintained that was worth defending in the then-existing socialist states was state ownership and planning, and what was not to be defended but attacked was the bureaucratic dictatorship. What the planned economies needed to overcome their well-advertised deficiencies was democracy. Any movement, therefore, that did not inscribe upon its banners the privatization of heavy industry was not counter-revolutionary, but instead ('objectively') revolutionary. After all, it was not directed against 'the economic foundation of the workers' state', but against its bureaucratic and tyrannical superstructure. This applied to almost every anti-Soviet (etc) movement and dissident, so the Fourth International hardly ever regarded any of them as counter-revolutionary. To be fair, when the Australian section started sharing platforms with a local offshoot of the Ustashe, this was considered a mistake.

The Fourth International was taken completely by surprise when the overthrow of the Communist dictatorships was followed in short order by a nationalist welter and a complete dismantling of the bureaucratically planned economies. After thinking about it for a year or two, the IMG's successor, the ISG, brought out a pamphlet with the title 'Socialism After Stalinism'. Its front cover consisted of a portrait of Stalin. Say what you like about the grand old men, they always kept a watchful eye on the printshop and wouldn't have countenanced something as stupid as that.
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Saturday, August 11, 2007


The International Socialist Group has broken with decades of tradition and published a worthwhile book: Karl Kautsky's Foundations of Christianity. It's a long time since I read this Marxist classic but I remember learning a lot from it. It's a fine example of how to use the materialist method to work over the best available information. This means it's very dated now, but it remains worth reading, and at £11 or $22 on Amazon it's a good buy.

Another resurrected work, this time available for free, is the complete run of Benjamin Tucker's Liberty. (Via.)
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Tuesday, August 07, 2007


I'm doing a couple of events next week around the Edinburgh Book Festival. As part of its Edinburgh Book Fringe programme, the independent radical bookshop Word Power is hosting "Glory Days: Fiction, Free Speech and the Terrorism Act", where Hal Duncan and I discuss issues raised by the SF and fantasy anthology Glorifying Terrorism, to which we both contributed stories. The meeting will be chaired by Andrew J. Wilson and is at Word Power, 1 pm on Wednesday 15 August.

On a lighter note, I'm doing a ten-minute short-short-story reading at 4 pm on Friday 17 August, at the Story Shop venue at the Book Festival, sponsored by the Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust.
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