Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Tony Cliff: students, the radical left and the movement

Demonstrating against war in Vietnam
This is a short excerpt from Tony Cliff's autobiography, 'A World to Win'. Also see my Counterfire article on International Socialists in the 1960s.

'Student occupations took place in more and more colleges, from Manchester to Bristol, from Hornsey Art College to Hull and Essex. However, by far the most important focus for student activity was opposition to the Vietnam War.

IS branches in the localities helped to prepare the demonstration in October 1967. The result was some 30,000 people in Grosvenor Square (outside the US embassy), a confrontation with the police, and the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign’s name firmly on the political map (two more massive demonstrations followed, in March and October 1968). On the day before the mass demonstration on 27 October, an occupation took place in the LSE to provide sleeping accommodation and first aid facilities for thousands.

The demonstration was a very important test. Three Trotskyist groups were present, but each took a different position.

The Socialist Labour League (SLL), followers of Gerry Healy, came to the demonstration for one purpose only – to distribute a leaflet entitled ‘Why The Socialist Labour League Is Not Marching’. The argument was that it was not led by Marxists and not composed of workers: ‘The Socialist Labour League refuses ... to participate in the demonstration. Our task is to direct all young workers and students towards serious consideration for the theory and role of Trotskyism and the Fourth International towards the building of the revolutionary party’.

Then there was the International Marxist Group (IMG), whose characteristic was to overlook the revolutionary potential of the working class and look for the agents of socialism elsewhere: the national movement in the colonies, the peasantry, and now the ‘student vanguard’. The talk was about turning the universities into ‘red bases’.

The orthodox but ossified ‘Marxism’ of the SLL assumed that the question of how students would behave in 1968 was made clear by their behaviour during the 1926 General Strike, or by Trotsky’s article of 1910. If that is so one does not need theory, only memory.

For the impressionistic ‘Marxism’ of the IMG, on the other hand, everything changes completely. There is only change, no continuity. Hence one cannot have a theory, as one cannot generalise. The ideas of Marx shaped in the 1840s about the centrality of the working class in liberating itself, and liberating society, have no relevance for 1968.

IS members were deeply rooted in Marxist theory, but we did not live in an ivory tower. So we were quite conscious of the changes that took place. For us it was clear that students could not be a substitute for the working class but could only aid the working class in its liberation. We always looked to the student movement as a detonator. On the 27 October 1968 demonstration IS distributed a leaflet that aimed to link the anti-war struggle with the class struggle at home:

'... the battle against the wage freeze; against social service cuts; against bad housing and rent increases; against bad hospitals and schools; against unemployment; against the government’s racialist policies is the same as the battle against the Vietnam War ... In the factories workers are fighting against the wage freeze and unemployment. On the housing estates tenants are resisting rent increases. If we are to help the Vietnamese we must go on from Grosvenor Square to fight these struggles. ‘A blow against the boss is a blow against the Vietnam War.’

Today on Sunday we are demonstrating against the war in Vietnam. What will we do on Monday? We will have to go to the factories, the docks, the bus depots, to connect with the workers’ fight.

Out of the three Trotskyist groups – the SLL, the IMG and the IS – only IS built significantly out of the demonstration.

The SLL declaration of disdain for the demonstration would not have encouraged anyone among the demonstrators to join it. The IMG did not say anything the demonstrators disagreed with, but it did not raise any argument to convince the demonstrators to go beyond the point they were at at the beginning of the day. To say, ‘Victory to the National Liberation Front’ was obvious to anyone who came to the demonstration.

This has parallels with intervention in a strike situation. For example, you can stand on a picket line and next to you is a worker who makes racist comments. You can do one of three things. You can say, ‘I’m not standing on this picket line. I’m going home because no one makes racist remarks there.’ That is sectarianism, because if ‘the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class’, you have to stand with workers on a picket line against the boss.

The other possibility is simply avoiding the question. Someone makes a racist comment and you pretend you haven’t heard it, and you say, ‘The weather is quite nice today.’ That is opportunism.

The third position is that you argue with this person against racism, against the prevailing ideas of the ruling class. You argue and argue. If you convince them, excellent. But if you don’t, still when the scab lorry comes you link arms to stop the scabs, because ‘the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class’.

You cannot choose between activity and argument. Activity alone is blind. Argument alone is futile. Both must be combined in a dialectical unity, one with the other. To give a lead one has to go with the stream three quarters of the way, and against it a quarter of the way.

Our leaflets did not convince the 100,000 demonstrators, but they must have impressed a few thousand, made them think. IS was with the demonstrators but at the same time arguing with them.'


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