A Sad Book
Review of Jim Higgins, More Years for the Locust: The Origins of the SWP, Unkant Publishers, 2011
I was sold this book by Andy Wilson at The Association of Musical Marxists stall at Marxism 2012 in London. I have to admit my first thought on seeing it what to wonder if Andy and his collaborator Ben Watson realised what the Jim Higgins I remembered (from when he was the International Socialists' national secretary in the early 70s) would have had to say about them, or how he would have mocked the very idea of an ‘Association of Musical Marxists’. But maybe they do realise and maybe they don’t care: it being more important to have a book to have a go at IS with. Anyway I found it a sad work.
Its main theme and animating spirit is the conflict in the IS between Jim Higgins and his supporters ( Roger Protz, John Palmer etc) and Tony Cliff and his ( Chris Harman, Jim Nichol etc) in 1974-75, which led to his removal from the group’s leadership and later to his voluntary departure. If it had been written at the time, in the heat of the factional struggle, it would not have been very good (far too much title tattle and far too little political analysis) but published, as it was, in 1997 – that is a quarter of a century later and a few years before Higgins’ death – it is sad indeed. It meant he spent the last third of his life chewing over this episode, quite unable to move on.
Of course someone will say that I, or the SWP, should answer the book ‘politically’. But since it consists of over 200 pages of jokes, sneers, sarcasm , ad hominem abuse and tendentious arguments this would require a point by point refutation of similar length. This is not undertaking worth even a fraction of the time or effort it would take. (A bit like Marx’s immense reply to the racist police spy Carl Vogt – but at least Marx was defending himself against serious slanders). Instead I will give one example a make a couple of general observations.
The Central Committee is uniquely qualified to pronounce on anything and everything, containing as it does that renaissance man, that Marxist Leonardo Da Vinci, Chris Harman. Not long ago he pronounced, ex-cathedra, as it were, on the question of anthropology and now that is the line, although why the SWP should require a line on anthropology is beyond me. The anthropologist member of the SWP – there could even be more than one of them – who accepts the modern academic wisdom on the subject, now contradicted by Harman, is under a vow of silence on his own specialisation. One recalls Lysenko, who, at Joe Stalin’s command, stood Darwin on his head, inducing genetic changes in plants over a few generations by altering their environment…The SWP’s cultural climate is strangely reminiscent of those halcyon days when Zhdanov wielded the cultural hatchet for Joe Stalin, a triumphant outing for philistinism. (p.192)
This is a tissue of easily refutable nonsense and lies. The article concerned (unreferenced by Higgins) is, I presume, Chris Harman’s ‘Engels and the Origins of Human Society’, http://www.marxists.org/archive/harman/1994/xx/engels.htm, an outstanding piece of work which if it didn’t correspond to the conventional academic wisdom, (why should it?) was certainly based on the latest scientific research. Moreover, as Higgins would know perfectly well, the SWP didn’t have ‘a line’ on anthropology which anyone was obliged to accept – but it did and does publish material on the subject because it is of considerable importance to the socialist argument – which is why Engels wrote outstanding texts on it (which Higgins must also have known). The academic anthropologist is unnamed by Higgins but, assuming my guess as to his identity is correct, was far from accepting ‘the modern academic wisdom’ (much further than Chris Harman) and instead espoused a whacky theory involving the notion of an imaginery sex strike by women about 50,000 years ago.
As for the stuff about Lysenko, Stalin and the SWP’s cultural climate resembling the days of Zhdanov, this is complete fantasy. I will answer it from my own direct and verifiable experience. In 1998 I published an article in IS Journal on ‘The Legitimacy of Modern Art’, which as its title suggests, was strongly anti-Zhdanovist. Chris Nineham wrote a critique of one aspect of the article (not its anti-Zhdanovism which he endorsed) and I published a reply to Nineham and Chris Harman then replied to me. Nineham and I also debated the issues publically at Marxism. Later I went on to organize and curate four exhibitions of contemporary art at Marxism (2006-9) without the slightest attempt at direction, let alone, censorship or political control, by the leadership. No debate! Zhdanovism? It is nonsense and, as I said, easily refutable provided one is prepared to take the time. Since I am not I will just make two final comments.
At the time of the split between Higgins and Cliff I was a member of the IS in Portsmouth in my mid twenties but due to difficult personal circumstances not very in touch with what was going on nationally and I had great difficulty in getting my head round the issues involved in the faction fight, which were very unclear at the time.
However, I did know the main protagonists, and made up my mind partly on the basis of who I thought would be most serious about building the party in the future. Here I thought there was very little contest. And it has to be said experience has proved me right. Cliff went to build and maintain what, for all its many faults, has remained the largest and most active revolutionary socialist organization in Britain for the last thirty or more years. Higgins and his supporters built absolutely nothing. Compare also their respective intellectual production. A glance at that splendid resource, the Marxist Internet Archive, shows that between 1974 and his death in 2002 Jim Higgins produced, apart from this one book, a number of short journalistic pieces (some for The Spectator[!], mocking the left), a few book reviews and a couple of polemics with Sean Matgamna about Zionism (on which I am 100% on the side of Higgins). In the same period Cliff, who was thirteen years older and also engaged in full time agitation and organization, produced a four volume biography of Lenin, a four volume biography of Trotsky, a book on Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation, a book on the history of the Labour Party, a book on Marxism and the trade union struggle, shorter books on Trotskyism after Trotsky and his autobiography, plus a huge number of articles on subjects ranging from the balance of class forces to why socialists should support gays.
So why did Higgins use what energy he had to write this book. To point the way forward? No, to do that he would have had to analyse the outside world, not the IS in the seventies. To set the historical record straight? To do that he would have to have been far more scrupulous about his facts and references, far less personalized in his abuse (on both scores compare Ian Birchall’s meticulous biography of Cliff) and above all have paid more attention to analyzing what was actually happening in the class struggle that was conditioning Cliff’s and his own behaviour. No, I think he wrote it to scratch an itch that had been tormenting him down the years.
On the last page Higgins writes that ‘the happiest times of my life have been in the movement’ and herein lies a clue. I would hazard a guess that those happiest times were when he was centrally involved in IS. Deprived of that, as he saw it by Cliff, he could neither forgive nor forget. And that’s sad. But he is by no means alone in this. I have known quite a few former comrades unable to sustain their commitment but still haunted by the most meaningful time of their lives. That’s sad too.
22 July 2012.