Speak One More Time – Selected Writings, by Jim Higgins
Socialist Platform, 2005
Reviewed by Andrew Johnson
30th January 2006
This slim volume, attractively produced by Socialist Platform, is a worthwhile addition to any socialist’s library. It collects a representative sample of the writings of the late Jim Higgins (1931-2002), who, along with his late comrade Duncan Hallas, represented a dying generation of working-class autodidacts who used to be much more common in the British labour movement. Over a long period of political activity, Higgins made a serious, albeit often overlooked, contribution to British Trotskyism, and, even years after his effective retirement from political activism, continued to produce high-quality writing. This book contains some of Higgins’ most significant articles, some of them of real historical value. It also has the great advantage of sampling Higgins’ caustic wit, the characteristic that makes him one of the few Trotskyist writers it is a pleasure to read, even if, as Ted Crawford remarks, the targets of his wit didn’t find it quite so funny.
Jim Higgins had received his political training in the Communist Party, only to find himself among the 10,000 CPGB members who resigned in 1956 following Khrushchev’s “secret speech” denouncing Stalin at the Twentieth CPSU Congress, and the bloody suppression of the Hungarian Revolution. Most of these former Stalinists either left politics altogether or became right-wing Labourites. A minority of a few hundred, who wanted to maintain some form of class struggle politics, were won to Trotskyism, mostly by the energetic intervention of the colourful charlatan Gerry Healy, then projecting a smiling and non-sectarian image. Of course, those familiar with Healy’s record could have predicted that wouldn’t last long, and in 1959 the big bust-up came and Healy managed to liquidate virtually all the gains of 1956. Higgins again was among the minority who decided to stick with a revolutionary political commitment, and ended up joining Tony Cliff’s Socialist Review Group, later International Socialism, the direct precursor of today’s Socialist Workers Party.
Higgins was a member of the SRG/IS between 1959 and 1975, and for most of that time a key part of the leadership. The Cliff group at the time was quite an eclectic outfit. The theory was Cliff’s 1948 document on state capitalism in Russia, plus Mike Kidron’s writings on the permanent arms economy and a few other (mostly unfinished) odds and sods. The day-to-day activity was based on whatever Cliff thought would bring in a few recruits. The strategy was that of Rank and Fileism, and if the group stumbled on it empirically, then that is how real parties progress, including Lenin’s. It is also worth pointing out that, while recent interpretations of the Rank and File strategy cast it as a kind of syndicalist dual unionism, IS conceived it as an application of transitional politics – in fact, the group explicitly critiqued dual unionism. So the group progressed through the 1960s and, as class struggle hotted up in the early 1970s, seemed poised for a real breakthrough into the organised working class. Recruitment had been proceeding steadily, a good third of the membership were manual workers, and the rank-and-file groups were taking on real life.
As Higgins relates, it is at just such times that a party must guard itself against throwing away hard-won gains on some get-rich-quick scheme. Unfortunately, Cliff had a rush of blood to the head and decided that the revolution was imminent. (By his own account, Higgins was only slightly less detached from reality.) Suddenly, the group’s steady progress was not enough, big strides needed to be made yesterday. To this end, Cliff proposed various cunning plans, such as the Buyers Into Sellers scheme or the Leading Areas Executive, which are worth mentioning today only as a reminder that these harebrained schemes are nothing new. Cliff became convinced that IS’s failure to advance at the pace he demanded was the fault not of the objective situation but of “conservative elements” in the leadership (read Jim Higgins and Duncan Hallas, who went overnight from being Cliff’s right-hand men to outcasts). This, and the consequent draconian tightening of the group’s regime, was accompanied by the sectarian Youth Vanguard thesis, according to which experienced workers were all corrupt and the future lay with inexperienced youth who, because of their inexperience, were held to be revolutionary, at least to the extent they agreed with Cliff.
A large element of the IS leadership thought this nonsense was jeopardising everything they had sought to build, and formed an opposition faction. One of the IS Opposition’s major documents, “The International Socialists – Our Traditions”, is reproduced in this volume, and contains a sharp critique of the direction of the group, as well as the dreadful heresy that Cliff’s great strengths were mirrored by serious weaknesses, and the old man should learn to function as part of a disciplined collective leadership. Higgins’ book More Years for the Locust deals with this episode in exhaustive detail – suffice to say that Cliff dispensed with Higgins’ services in short order, and hundreds of members were expelled within a few months in 1975. Some of the IS Opposition formed the short-lived Workers League, whose deliberate modesty did not help them escape the effects of the downturn in class struggle. Meanwhile, the IS majority continued on, rebranding itself the SWP. While I don’t believe that the 1974-75 fight marked the end of the SWP as a revolutionary organisation – those of us who were members in later years were not all dilettantes – the points raised by the IS Opposition remain important, and there is no indication that subsequent SWP leaderships learned anything from those debates.
The earlier section of the book comprises mostly articles written by Higgins for the International Socialism journal, with a bias towards working-class history. These articles – on the early years of the Communist Party, the National Minority Movement and revolutionary trade unionism – are of a high quality and could easily stand beside Brian Pearce and Mike Woodhouse’s Labour Review articles from the late 1950s (usefully collected in a volume by the SWP some years ago). We also find Higgins’ “Ten Years for the Locust”, an account of British Trotskyism in the 1940s that forms a piece with Duncan Hallas’s articles on the Fourth International. All these articles are extremely valuable, although not as immediately relevant in today’s environment of working-class defeat and the decline of the labour movement. Later on in the book, we find diverse articles written by Higgins for the Spectator – although the Speccie, under the proprietorship of sinister Canadian press baron Conrad Black, later became a drear tribune of the far right, in those days it would hire someone like Higgins because he was a good writer and a funny one. There are also a number of reflections on Trotskyism, always witty and thought-provoking even when, to my mind, they might be wrong.
Among the later articles, probably the most interesting are a series of reviews written for Revolutionary History and dealing with various key figures in the history of the Trotskyist movement. There is a rather rude dismissal of Jim Cannon, someone who I esteem a good deal more than Higgins did, even if many of Higgins’ barbs hit home. We also find an assessment of Cannon’s foe Max Shachtman, on the occasion of some of Shachtman’s writings being republished by Sean Matgamna under the rubric of recovering “unfalsified Marxism”. This is a furrow Sean has been ploughing for some considerable time now, and on closer examination Sean’s “unfalsified Marxism” turns out to be his own patented brand of Shachtmanism-Matgamnism, which can be got wholesale from the Alliance for Workers Liberty. Puzzlingly, Sean has seen fit to revive the Shachtmanites’ theory of Stalinism, perhaps the least interesting or attractive feature of that tendency, with the goal, one suspects, of lending some theoretical respectability to his own consistent Stalinophobia. Of this exercise Higgins comments that “it is really no good reinventing the wheel if it was a small inadequate one that only moved to the right, and was, in any case, irreparably smashed with the fall of the Berlin Wall.”
The folly of looking for a golden thread of pure and uncorrupted politics is further demonstrated by the case of CLR James. While both Cannon and Shachtman have slid into obscurity, James has become quite trendy among Black Studies academics – typically, they hymn James’ weaknesses while failing to understand his more interesting sides. While Higgins considers a book of academic gibberish which, were it translated into English, would probably present an almost total incomprehension of James’ work, this failing is general. I should mention in this connection Farrukh Dhondy’s biography of James, which, while well written and displaying a real devotion to James the man, is hopelessly at sea when it comes to James the Marxist. Dhondy even claims that James’ Marxism is the only version not discredited by the author’s practice, which seems an odd judgment in light of CLR’s last escapade in Trinidad.
The reviews conclude with a memorable skewering of Tony Cliff’s appalling autobiography, a work Higgins accurately describes as “a book that only Cliff could have written. It is clever but naïve, cunning but transparently obvious, and a mine of misinformation with terminological inexactitude like a giant worm leaving a small deposit on every page.” Higgins’ ire is not unrelated to his own transformation into an unperson, and Cliff’s dishonesty about the purge, but it is entirely justified – the book calls to mind a Byzantine court chronicle, which attributes every success to Cliff’s wisdom, every failure (those that aren’t glossed over) to objective circumstances, and even such important figures as Jock Haston or Mike Kidron virtually written out of the story. Of course, the book isn’t meant as a history – for that we will have to wait for Ian Birchall’s volume on Cliff, which poses an interesting dilemma for Ian, who is both a good honest historian and unrepentant SWP apologist. No, the Cliff book is intended as an inspirational vademecum for SWP members, reassuring them of the great strides made under Cliff’s wise leadership, and urging them forward to the Promised Land.
Reclaiming our traditions
This leads us neatly back to the relevance of the 1974 debate. Duncan Hallas used to say that the absolute last thing we needed was a state capitalist version of the WRP. It is important to realise that Duncan wasn’t referring to the sex and violence – the more outré aspects of Healy’s Caligula-style regime were reflections of Healy’s personality that the more fastidious Cliff was unlikely to replicate. The real thrust of Duncan’s remark can be found in his excellent article “Building the Leadership”, an article the present SWP leadership prefers to either ignore or shiftily palm off as a “critique of orthodox Trotskyism”. In fact the article, in line with other IS writings of the time, is a critique of substitutionism. Duncan enumerates various features of the Healy movement, chief among them the belief that the revolutionary vanguard party already exists, small but perfectly formed, and only needs to be added to by individual recruitment. There is also the catastrophist belief that the revolution is, if not straight ahead, then around not too many corners; and that any problems the party faces are subjective and can be overcome by exhorting the comrades to ever greater levels of hyperactivity. This in turn burns out the cadre at a ferocious rate and leaves a distinctly middle-aged permanent leadership sitting on top of an extremely young and inexperienced membership which turns itself over every few months. Many SWP members will find this scenario horribly familiar.
I would go further and make some more explicit parallels. Cliff’s reliance on his own instinct – the “suck it and see” approach in Higgins’ words – differs from Healy’s “practice of cognition” only in being infinitely less pretentious. This approach was enshrined in Cliff’s four-volume Lenin biography, a book which boils down Lenin’s genius to his inspired instinct and ability to “bend the stick”, qualities which, it was implied, had transmigrated to Cliff like the soul of a dead Dalai Lama. In the international sphere, we find that Healy could coexist with the French Lambertists as long as they were junior partners – once they grew to rival the British section in size, their cussed independence suddenly became a problem and Healy and Banda solemnly excommunicated them for a largely invented heresy, just as Cliff and Callinicos would do thirty years later with the American ISO. Tim Wohlforth, leader of Healy’s American section, regularly found himself being summoned across the Atlantic to Clapham High Street to be briefed on the latest “turn” which he then obediently implemented, only to become the fall guy for the disastrous consequences of Healy’s bum advice. If I were Kieran Allen, I would be mindful of that precedent and watch my back. Finally, it can hardly be a coincidence that the purge of the IS Opposition in 1974-5 was almost concurrent with the purge of the Thornett opposition from the WRP, and demonstrated a similar reaction – in the heady atmosphere of 1974 – of the group guru, in the midst of an ultra-left binge, discovering that the painstakingly accumulated working-class cadre were “conservative elements” whose services should be dispensed with forthwith (Cliff’s simultaneous purge of the Left Faction was somewhat different in that it represented Cliff’s intolerance for genuine leftist doctrinaires).
This is not intended to put Cliff on the same level as the truly ghastly Healy. Rather, it suggests that the Cliff tendency, no matter what Alex Callinicos may say, did not manage to transcend the limitations of the Trotskyist movement it came from. The three men who dominated British Trotskyism after 1950 – Cliff, Healy and Ted Grant – all remained trapped in those limitations. They manifested themselves in different ways and, as Higgins often remarked, it was no coincidence that Healy’s WRP was paranoid and thuggish, Grant’s Militant was (and the Socialist Party still is) conservative and stupefyingly boring, and Cliff’s SWP was and is over-excitable and prone to go veering off on tangents. But Higgins suggests, and I am inclined to agree, that Cliff’s sin was the greater because he had further to fall, and because the IS Group in its prime began to transcend the Church of Latter Day Trotskyism in a way that Healy or Grant never approached. But those of us who come from the IS tradition, and still identify with it even with whatever criticisms we may have, feel that it is still a proud and worthwhile contribution to Marxism, and this little book gives some sense of what its best features have been, as well as some of its pitfalls.
I can therefore unreservedly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in Trotskyism or labour history. It may perhaps be of most interest to SWP members who want to know where their tendency came from, although they would be well advised not to show it to their fulltimer. Reading it has been both an education and a pleasure.
Jim Higgins Internet Archive atwww.marxists.org/archive/higgins/