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.


Had some illustrious members though, didn't they? The real cream of the IMG is still around:

I agree. That was my point - that the members were better than the organization!

As this link shows some of them went in other directions.

He doesn't remember which Trot group he was in. We should be thankful for small mercies.

Ernest Mandel, the leading intellectual light of the United Secretariat of the "Fourth International" was challenged at a public meeting about their support for "Solidarnosc" in Poland in 1981. He replied that "the leaders of Solidarnosc are the best socialists in the world!"

(These were the same crew that brought back capitalism a few years later).

"These were the same crew that brought back capitalism a few years later..."

After 6 million workers were demobilised by martial law, in a round table with the bureaucrats who instituted it.

It's support for people struggling against opression wasn't one of the IMG's faults.
The main one was its failure to put forward a marxist programme (despite its name)

Consequently, the sectors were never integrated and its new mass vanguard sort of exploded in different directions.

Actually, all the pro 'free-market' stuff, plus banning abortion, restoring the lost power of the Catholic church etc. AND having Poland join the IMF were all in the Solidarnosc constitution as democratically ratified in 1981.

I certainly agree with you that IMG never put forward anything resembling a Marxist programme, however.

Maybe the lack of such a programme had something to do with their not being able to spot the difference between a revolution and a counterrevolution?

This all sounds a complete mess. I have read a number of Kens books, but it has never been so clear how real life informed them.

Anonymous, there's nothing in the 1981 Solidarnosc programme about banning abortion and restoring the power of the Catholic Church. There is a call to consider joining the IMF.

Presumably they were being advised by people who were very gung-ho for the free market, as much of the dissident movement in East Europe was. In fact it shouldn't be impossible to find out who wrote the programme.

In a reversal (in a way) of Ken's point, these people - and their counterparts in Russia - are now feelinmg very lonely and wondering why the population has embraced authoritarian and nationalist rule rather than vote for social liberals with their free-market programme.

Marxist-Leninism and Trotskyism were strange 20th century political cul-de-sacs when you look back on them. Neither managed to get to grips with the relationship between univeral suffrage and political change.

Both got stuck in a 1917 timewarp and became little more than Russian Revolution Re-enactment Societies, with all the Monthy Python stuff thrown in for good measure.

But its true that organisations like the IMG sooked up and spat out a lot of good people who were legitimately disenchanted with inequalities and injustices.

Neither managed to get to grips with the relationship between universal suffrage and political change.

Well, to be fair both did and both came to the reasonable conclusion that the former did not bring about the latter. Whether they were right, as opposed to reasonable, I don't know: whether they had a better way of going about it, that I doubt. But it's scarcely a question they failed to grapple with.

It's actually quite scary how much of post-1945 UK politics makes sense if you take Marx's view that universal suffrage is the dictatorship of the proletariat, and think of recent decades in terms of a protracted period of socialist construction with capitalist roaders coming to power from time to time ...


I once wrote a long, rambling collumn about the prevalence of social policy in even the most fervently free-market nations, the world over. It's rather interesting.

The point I was tring to make there, albeit crudely, was that the many Marxian revolutionaries over the years have been so focussed on overthrowing on what they've crudely labelled "capitalism" and "bourgeouis democracy" that they didnt actually get to grips with undertstanding the actual relationship between universal suffrage and the people.

The Marxians thought they knew better, punting a system that had only worked for a few short months in Soviet Russia; a place which prior to 1917 had never achieved universal suffrage.

When universal suffrage had been fought for, and won, history shows that working people will resist any attempts by right, left or centre to undermine or overthrow such democracy.

Working people have put popular democracy above their own material interests time and time again, realising that one is a tool for improving the other.

Successful socialists, like Hugo Chavez in Venezeula for instance, arent trying to overthrow "capitalism" or "bourgeois democracy" but are using popular democracy to defend and deepen an ongoing social revolution.

Anyway, its the 21st century now, and the progressive left is learning new tricks all the time. :-)

Working people have put popular democracy above their own material interests time and time again

Is that an assertion that can be buttressed with examples?

"When universal suffrage had been fought for, and won, history shows that working people will resist any attempts by right, left or centre to undermine or overthrow such democracy."

Really, so why aren't the workers of the US, Britain and Australia fighting the raft of anti-democratic measures that are part of the "war on terror"?

How about some historical examples of your claim?

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