According to the official history of MI5, Britain’s spy-hunters considered Jack Jones, the leader of the Transport and General Workers’ Union in the 1970s who died recently, to be a paid agent of the USSR.
What secrets did he pass on to Moscow? Brace yourself for the shock: he passed on secret... Labour Party documents!
Here the “official history” turns into an Eric Ambler or a Graham Greene spy novel. In Greene’s Our Man In Havana, a British agent there, a vacuum cleaner salesman by trade, is paid for what he says are photos of deadly Russian weaponry but are really parts of his vacuum cleaners photographed from odd angles.
It is surely improbable that Russian spies in Britain were so ill-informed as to value Labour Party documents and pay Jack Jones for supplying them. It is altogether improbable that a man like Jones would seek money for helping the USSR.
But what an ungrateful class the British ruling class is! Whatever small services Jones may, or may not, have rendered to the ruling class of Stalinist Russia, his services to the British ruling class in the 1970s were immense. If Jack Jones was anyone’s “agent” in the labour movement, he was primarily an agent of the British ruling class.
Jones was one of the two “left” trade union leaders on whom the Labour government of 1974-9 relied to control the labour movement and demobilise the working class. Waves of strikes destroyed the Heath Tory government of 1970-4, finally forcing it into an ill-judged general election on “Who Rules, Government or Unions?” which it lost. Waves of strikes and factory occupations continued well into the Labour government period.
It took a considerable time to calm things down. Here Jack Jones and the engineering union leader Hugh Scanlon, another man with “left” credentials, were invaluable to the Wilson government and to the British ruling class it served.
Everybody knew that then. In 1977 an opinion poll reported that a majority of the British electorate thought Jones and Scanlon more powerful than prime minister Harold Wilson. They were; but they used that power to sustain a government that, as it turned out, was a “transitional regime” between the Heath Tory government and the far more determined and ruthless Thatcher Tory government.
They deserve the gratitude of the British capitalist class for that — and the detestation of the working class.
If what they say about Jones and Russia is true, it is trivial and unimportant. And it muddies the political water.
The support that trade union leaders like Jones and Scanlon gave to the Stalinist regimes was a matter of rotten politics, not of them being tempted by Russian money or of “spies”. There was widespread support for those ruling Stalinists, but for political, not spy-story reasons.
Many British union leaders - by no means only those on the left — and vast numbers of rank and file trade-union and Labour Party people supported and sympathised, in varying degrees, with the Stalinist regimes that controlled one-third of the earth’s surface up to 1989-91. Why?
It was widely accepted that the Stalinist regimes were “socialist” to one degree or another. In any case, those regimes were the enemy of our native ruling-class enemy, and that was all-important.
Britain’s trade unions had and stubbornly maintained official and open links with the “trade unions” in Russia and Eastern Europe — "trade unions" that were not trade unions at all, but agencies of the state for regimenting and controlling the workers there. They were more akin to fascist labour fronts than to the British trade unions.
Support for the attempts to form real, illegal, trade unions in, for example, Russia, was in Britain limited to segments (not all) of the revolutionary left and to hard-core right-wing trade union leaders (of, for example, the Electrical Trades Unions, which its British right-wing leaders ran as a mini police state). An attempt to form a state-independent miners’ union in the Ukraine, whose organisers were imprisoned in mental hospitals, found little sympathy or support in the British labour movement and least of all in the National Union of Mineworkers, where Socialist Organiser (forerunner of Solidarity) supporter John Cunningham tried in vain to build a campaign in the NUM to back the persecuted independent trade unionists.
When Solidarnosc in Poland erupted in a vast strike wave and then, for fear of Russian invasion, turned itself into a political movement, it met with very widespread suspicion and hostility in the British labour movement — from Tony Benn, for example, the Labour Party’s leading leftist.
In the middle of the Solidarnosc strikes of August 1980, it took a large outcry to stop TUC leaders, right and left-wingers both, keeping an engagement to visit their strikebreaking official Polish “trade union” “colleagues”. Not even all the revolutionary left wanted to stop the visit. The Mandelite "Fourth International", for instance, refused to back demands that it be cancelled. One of those who backed his Polish “colleagues” was Bill Sirs, leader of the right-wing and heavily bureaucratised Iron and Steel Trades Confederation, who in British politics was a Stone-Age labour movement right-winger.
During the 1984-5 British miners’ strike, Arthur Scargill organised an international federation of miners in which the British union, fighting the most important class battles in many decades, was formally linked up with Stalinist police-state unions.
When, in 1979-80, Russia invaded Afghanistan and started a horrendous colonial war of conquest, there was widespread support for that “extension of the revolution” — not only among perennially bonehead “revolutionaries” such as Militant (now Socialist Party), Workers’ Power (now also Permanent Revolution) and the not invariably boneheaded Mandelites, but also in the Labour Party. Indeed, while the British Communist Party condemned the invasion and the colonial war, a number of Labour MPs supported it, and so did every “orthodox Trotskyist” group in the world, except AWL.
An experience of my own, debating the invasionof Afghanistan with the pro-Russian Labour MP Ron Brown on his home ground in Edinburgh will give the reader some idea of the atmosphere on the left then.
It was one of the rowdiest labour movement meetings I’ve ever attended. It was a Saturday afternoon at the end of some miners’ gala or conference, and a big proportion of the large meeting were miners, many of them bevvied-up. The meeting was overwhelmingly pro-Russian and very hostile to those of us who denounced Russian imperialism and its invasion of Afghanistan. “The Yanks are against the Russians, so is Margaret Thatcher, so is the CIA — and so is Socialist Organiser!” was the theme of a number of speakers.
Some of them were, but most of them were not, diehard old Communist Party “Tankies” (believers in a “Russian-tanks-invade” road to socialism). Most of them would have been Labour Party people.
Ron Brown, the Labour MP for Leith was a former engineering worker and, after his lights, an honest man, but a political idiot who thought that Leonid Brezhnev and Colonel Gaddafi — and probably Saddam Hussein — were socialists. Just back from Afghanistan, he was keen to tell British workers that the Russians were doing great progressive work there, and, moreover, that they were very popular. To the loud approval of much of the meeting Brown praised the Russian leaders for sending tanks to Kabul.
When I argued that we should condemn the invasion and call on the Russians to get out of Afghanistan, I attracted fierce abuse and much interruption.
I’d taken part in open-air mass meetings of dock workers in Manchester — noisy, sometimes conflict-ridden, affairs in which a genteel middle class outsider would have seen imminent violence where there was none. But at a number of points in that Edinburgh debate, I did think the meeting was about to break up in violent disorder.
I was struck by the fact that at no point did Ron Brown appeal for order. Even he was intimidated, or so I thought at the time, by the fierce feeling whose tribune he was.
I remember the Edinburgh meeting as a distressing experience, and not only because it is a bit unnerving to stand in front of two or three rugby teams’ worth of pissed and half-pissed miners, and have to continue telling them that they are suicidally wrong, when some of them are acting as if they are about to rush you.
What distressed me then and distresses me now, remembering it, is who and what these angry supporters of Russian imperialism in Afghanistan were, who looked on what I was saying as treacherous and a comfort to the class enemy in Britain — and the tragic gap between what in reality they were supporting and what they thought they were supporting when they cheered on the Stalinist dictator Brezhnev.
These were some of the best people in our movement then. But they were hopelessly disoriented. Politically they had no future. It was one large aspect of the tragedy that befel that often militant but politically bankrupt British Old Left.
The examples could be multiplied many times over. Political confusion about Stalinism, and the prevalence of the idea that “my ruling class’s enemy is my friend”, were the problems, not the influence of paid agents of Russia.
And it is not a matter of the past. European Stalinism is dead, but the pattern and attitudes that led labour movement people and socialists to sympathise with it and support it are still with us. The dominant attitudes on the “left” now are transposed from what used to be the dominant attitude to Stalinism in power. The fact that SWP did not have that attitude to Stalinism has not saved it from aping the old pro-Stalinists in its attitude to political Islam, supporting clerical fascism in the name of “anti-imperialism” and the sacred duty to say no when our ruling class says yes and yet when it says no.
In fact it is worse than the old support for Stalinism. The pro-Stalinists thought that Stalinism was socialism being built; the political bag men and women of Islamic clerical fascism have no comparable delusory expectation. Jack Jones at least went to fight fascism in Spain.
The Morning Star, for which all sorts of leftists still write, is scarcely less supportive now of the vicious mixture of Stalinist state totalitarianism and red-in-tooth-and-claw market capitalism that dominates the Chinese people than it once was of Russian and Chinese “high Stalinism”. (Its opposition to the invasionof Afghanistan and earlier to the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia were exceptions in a long and vicious record.)
The story of the British labour movement’s toleration, sympathy, and support for foreign Stalinist regimes is a terrible one - as is the recent collapse into sympathy for Islamic clerical fascism. It is not to be explained as a mere spy story.
We have called that left “kitsch-left” to express our belief that our own political positions and attitudes are the authentic left and to note the fact that what passes for left-wing politics now is mainly an eclectic mix - an inorganic pastiche, rather than coherent working-class politics. It is an inorganic and even more senseless pastiche of the old attitudes of the Stalinist-oriented and Stalinist-sympathising “left”.
Maybe it might be more accurate to call it the “posthumous left”.