Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Sad Book

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’,, 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.

John Molyneux
22 July 2012.


johng said...

I thought this a bit defensive. To take just one example: its certainly true that Cliff went on to build the SWP and Higgins and his supporters didn't. But equally one might wonder whether the SWP would have been a better organisation if the split hadn't happened and we hadn't been deprived not just of Higgins but of the very solid comrades who left with him.

The *no alternative* account of our history risks turning precisely into the kind of hagiography which Birchall avoids in his latest book (which John rightly praises). It also risks an overly contemptuous not to say light minded approach to those many good comrades we may have lost unnecessarily.

When it comes to Higgins caustic take on the SWP of the 90s (and the last chapter is by far the bitterest of course) John responds (wrongly I think) by suggesting that Higgins account is wholly false.

Given the origins of the comrades in AMM (whose exit from the SWP was hardly a free choice) it might have been better to suggest that Higgins claims were overstated. John has written publicly and well about some of these problems elsewhere. In relationship to IS and its tradition my own belief is that its better to have Jim pissing out then in-even if posthumously.

He is of course entirely correct about what Jim's attitude to the AMM would have been. Although it should be said that most members of that organisation did meet Jim in their previous incarnation as the confusingly named ISG, and they apparently got on famously (this book was one of the results). Unfortunately I never did meet him, something I've always regretted.

Having read and profited from many of Jim's articles (some of which its still possible to learn an enormous amount from)I find John's circle the wagons approach to this topic both uncharacteristic and a bit, well, sad.

John Mullen said...

I think John M says most of what needs to be said. I don't know why AMM thought it was worth reprinting this book. In particular, I fail to see anything musical about it.

Ian Land said...

It's a hackish review. Jim was indeed bitter about what happened, and remained angry about what he saw as an unnecessary expression of Cliff's capriciousness, but he never lost his politics nor his wit. Contra Molyneux, he very much did not spend the last third of his life chewing over what had happened to him, although he never neglected to draw on the experience when he felt it offered political lessons for the present. Those lessons were very current when the book was first published, and (although I am much less familiar with the SWP's political life nowadays), I have little doubt they still are. I got to know him when he was writing the book (I used to get a phone call from him every Friday afternoon, like clockwork, and would spend a couple of hours each week discussing the latest chapter with him), he was a breath of fresh air compared to the vile internal culture I experienced in the SWP in the late 80s and early 90s, which was indeed thoroughly Zdhanovite, moralistic, managerial, and unpleasant. He was clever, funny, literate, politically engaged; it was a privilege to have him as a comrade.

johng said...

yes I would say that Ian Birchall's generous if caustic view of Jim, both in his book and in an article in revolutionary history, show much better how comrades ought to remember socialists of Jim Higgins generation and the enormously important role they played in the development of our tradition.

johng said...

I very much admire Molyneux and his contribution to the IS tradition. I also admire Peter Sedgewick. And Ian Birchall. And Tony Cliff. And Jim Higgins. I don't really see it as an either/or. Our tradition contains different and sometimes disputatious elements. And there remains gaps and problems we need to think about. To treat the evolution of the SWP in too linear a fashion is I think to impoverish our own tradition. I'm against that.

Luke S said...

'What have you built?' is a valid enough criticism, but I get a little wary every time I hear it because it generally translates as: 'At least the SWP still exists'. Which is to defend the sonambulism and sheer stupidity the leadership have often exhibited throughout recent decades. But at least we're still here. I want to know HOW and WHY we are here, and Higgins' book gives us some of that while lampooning the self-perpetuation of hackery and fantasies of a direct lineage from Cliff to the present.

With the crisis, questions about organisation, the relationship of party and class, what we mean by rank & file or vanguard, who to relate to etc have all ignited in a real way. I think plenty of younger, and older, comrades can read Higgins, learn about the IS tradition, get a flavour of what it was like to build a modestly serious organisation with small but significant roots in the class, and transpose some of the lessons onto the present. The accounts of why serious militants joined the IS, and the arguments the IS used to win them, are valuable.

Andy Wilson said...

‎"Jim was a part of the history – often trivial but sometimes inspiring – of the revolutionary left in the later twentieth century, and he deserves to be remembered" (Ian Birchall)

I agree. The old IS Group published the book originally because we thought it criminal that Jim's voice should be extinguished just because he was on the losing side of the split with Cliff - the most important split the IS tradition experienced. And now we've made the book available again for the benefit of those members of the SWP / IS tradition interested in their own history. I don't think you have to take Jim's side in the factional dispute to find his account of use. And I don't think you have to take Jim's side in the factional dispute to find his account funny and engaging.

As for John's implied criticism of me that I too lost all hope of living a 'meaningful life' once I had been expelled from the SWP, and that I am incapable of overcoming the associated trauma... well, 'mileage may vary, and your experience may differ', as they say.

John wonders whether I would have any inkling of what Jim might have had to say about something so rarefied as an 'Association of Musical Marxists'. Well, I think I have a pretty good idea. I think he would have considered the idea quite barmy - yet still we got on fantastically. But we can ask the same question of Cliff; what would his attitude have been to the Association of Musical Marxists'? About this we can speak with some certainty; he would have had me expelled for forming such a group, as he did when I wanted to publish The Assassin, a journal about culture. So it's a bit rich John's complaining that people like myself should get over the past and get back on board with the party - while, as far as we know, we would not be allowed to exist if we were in the SWP except at the whim of the CC, since Cliff's attitude remains in force. Because that is what it comes down to. John says that he "... 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." and so he rejects any charge of Zhdanovism. Yet when I was being expelled over the Assassin, I asked Cliff and Lindsey German directly why I was being expelled while other 'cultural' projects such as RedWords were run by party members. They explained that these cultural groups were allowed to exist because "If we told them to stop, they would". In other words, in the revolutionary party a cultural organisation can only be allowed to exist if the CC permit it. Now, according to Wikipedia, "Zhdanovism... became a Soviet cultural policy, meaning that Soviet artists, writers and intelligentsia in general had to conform to the party line in their creative works." So, the big difference between the SWP practice and Zhdanovism then, is that, under Zhdanovism, one's creative works *must conform to the party line*, whereas in SWP practice, one's creative practice *must not conflict with the party line*. It's different approach, I admit, but it is not unreasonable to sense some similarities.

Still, since one of John's points seems to be to characterise myself and my comrades as stuck in the past and wanting to put the boot into the IS at every opportunity, I better not say too much more by way of criticism of the SWP I experienced, for fear of seeming to bear out at least one of his arguments.

Anonymous said...

If i remember it correctly Higgins was persuaded by Cliff to leave his job of many years (and a very promising future as a left trade unionist with significant rank and file support) within the Post Office Engineers Union, in order to help create a viable socialist organisation of the working class. i can imagine the type of arguments that Cliff used to convincing Higgins that his sacrifice was the right and necessary thing. When Cliff dumped Higgins some short time later it must have seemed brutal, and, from Higgins's discription the process was dishonest, manipulative and pretty undemocratic.. Cliff, despite his brilliance always had too much personal power, and in this case he didn't seem to care very much about the personal fall out that his political maneuvering would involve. Most of us under Higgins's circumstances would be entitled to feel bitter and would point up the loyalty deficit involved. It seems to me that the workers movement is scarred and debilitated by the many failures to create a socialist organisation in which ordinary members are able to properly control extraordinary leaders (like Cliff).

Andy Wilson said...

Has anyone else noticed the irony in the fact that those who simply argue that Jim Higgins' account has something to offer, if you want to take a rounded view of history, are labelled as being bitter, sectarian, obsessive and stuck in the past, while those supposedly capable of taking the wider and more inclusive view seem to believe that the WL / Higgins were wholly without merit, motivated by nothing but selfish pride, and that any mention of them other than for the purposes of excoriation is retrograde.

In such circumstances it is not so clearcut to me that it is the defenders of the book who are stuck in the past.

John Molyneux said...

To Andy Wilson

As it happens Andy I didnt have you in mind at all in my comments, but quite different people.

Andy Wilson said...

OK, thanks for relying on that, John.

Andy Wilson said...

= 'replying'

johng said...

One comrade around at the time put this in his facebook status sharing this discussion. I think it epitomises the way the SWP ought to respond to these issues. There are things here we can learn and things we can fruitfully discuss. There always are:

I remember agonising over the split at the time. It was by far for me, the most painful split we ever had. As someone who had joined in late1969, many of the opposition were key people in my political development and whom I respected and admired. I do not want to retrospectively abuse them, and some of them stayed consistent revolutionaries. However one had to choose and I chose to stay with the majority which I have never regretted (though one can regret the loss as Ian does so well in his Cliff book). Nonetheless there were political differences and the opposition were wrong. The success of the social contract and the destruction of the 'shops stewards movement' by the Callaghan government meant that the opposition's perspective was dead in the water. That doesn't necessarily mean that the IS's turn to the left with 'The Right to Work Campaign' in 1976 wasn't without problems (And I say that as a marcher on the 1st 3 week long Right to Work March). Nonetheless the majority were 'more right' than the opposition.

Dave said...

I agree with you John when you say that while people leave the SWP for a variety of reasons the memories of being active in the SWP is always haunting. While I'm no longer a member I still get a shiver of delight when I see SWP placards on demo's and see SWp sellers.

Snowball said...

I generally agree with John's review - but I just wanted to make a very small point about the dangers of using the Marxist Internet Archive to judge 'intellectual productivity', as John does in this piece. This is essentially because there is a lot that because of copyright / efforts of ppleavolunteer transcibers - has not or cannot be added to the MIA. So for example, if you just judged a Marxist like Isaac Deutscher or EP Thompson (or even a radical socialist like George Orwell) by what was on their respective MIA pages you would wonder how they acquired the reputation they did. Even those like Chris Harman and Tony Cliff who have a lot of their material on the MIA are very far from having all their writing up there - simply because of the effort it takes to put it up there. If there are AMM and SWP members with time on their hands who want to pay respects to the IS tradition - why not for example, help out transcibing eg some of the large number of old ISJs and Socialist Reviews that are not yet online in any form for the MIA? All you need is a scanner and time really - you can learn what to do very quickly. Also in general, if the AMM are going to republish material - why not focus on work that is not accessible online already like Higgins's book and instead do more things like the out of print and not online Ray Challinor book? Just some thoughts.

Mike Sheridan said...

My own fault, but I have never read the John Molyneux blog spot before, so I take the liberty of commenting on the 2012 Molyneux review of the Jim Higgins book. I am sorry to note that it is couched in such spiteful and inaccurate terms. It is not true, as John Molyneux claims, that Higgins wrote little. There is another collection of Higgins writings entitled Speak One More Time. It is certainly available on line at abe books, if nowhere else.
Let comrades read it for themselves and make up their own minds about Jim Higgins, all 16 stones of lifelong Socialist and flawed human being that he
was. Mike Sheridan

Mike Sheridan said...

My own fault, but I have never read the John Molyneux blog spot before, so I take the liberty of commenting on the 2012 Molyneux review of the Jim Higgins book. I am sorry to note that it is couched in such spiteful and inaccurate terms. It is not true, as John Molyneux claims, that Higgins wrote little. There is another collection of Higgins writings entitled Speak One More Time. It is certainly available on line at abe books, if nowhere else.
Let comrades read it for themselves and make up their own minds about Jim Higgins, all 16 stones of lifelong Socialist and flawed human being that he
was. Mike Sheridan