Peter Taaffe, leader of the Socialist Party (SP), has recently denounced the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty over Libya. We have replied, and challenged Taaffe to a debate (no formal reply yet). Who are the Socialist Party? Martin Thomas offers a briefing.
The Socialist Party is a would-be Trotskyist group in Britain. Though smaller than the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), it prides itself on the number of places it has won on union Executives and on its electoral activity (for a while, it had a few local councillors, though it is now down to one).
It has an electoral “front”, TUSC, into which it has drawn RMT (rail union) leader Bob Crow, though in general Crow is closer to the Stalinist Communist Party of Britain, and in its stronger areas the SP prefers to run as itself rather than as TUSC.
These days the SP stands quite close to the SWP — and thus distant from AWL — on the “big” issues of world politics. It differentiates from the SWP mainly in being less keen on “broad” activity and more apt to deal with issues by a catch-all claim that “socialism is the answer”, and in its claim that the Labour Party is now no longer a “bourgeois workers’ party” but a straight bourgeois party, no different in essence from the Lib Dems and the Tories.
The SP has a tortuous history. In the mid 1940s almost all British Trotskyists were unified in one group, the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). Its main organisers were Millie Lee and Jock Haston, and its main writer, Ted Grant.
The RCP backed Labour against the Tories, but operated on the view that crisis and struggle would soon make millions of workers quit the Labour Party and swell the RCP into a mass party. The RCP crashed against a wall of fact. 1945-51 was a time of low industrial militancy and relatively high working-class assent to a Labour Party which was introducing the modern Welfare State.
In 1949 the RCP collapsed. Millie Lee and Jock Haston quit revolutionary politics; Ted Grant and the rest scaled down to life as a low-key faction inside the Labour Party.
Inside the Labour Party, the Trotskyists were split. An RCP minority led by Gerry Healy had joined the Labour Party earlier. They now became the most influential of the Trotskyist splinters, pursuing an activist, initiative-taking, alliance-building policy in the Labour left. Ted Grant’s group led a quieter life, combining general socialist education and Labour Party routine.
Grant’s group grew a bit in the 1960s, and started the paper Militant, by whose name the group became known, in 1964. But they were much outshone by the Healy group, which was the biggest would-be Trotskyist group until it went mad in the early 70s (it collapsed altogether in 1985). Militant were also outshone by Tony Cliff’s group (then called IS: today’s SWP).
Militant were known on the left as the people who showed little interest in, for example, the big demonstrations against the Vietnam war, and focused their efforts on passing resolutions in Labour Party branches for “socialism” (meaning, for them, the nationalisation of the biggest firms).
Theoretically, they were identified with a “perspective” which said that capitalism was inexorably collapsing world-wide and being replaced by triumphs of the “world revolution”; but those triumphs, for now, were “deformed”, i.e. Stalinist states, which they labelled “deformed workers’ states”.
The label “deformed workers’ states” was common among “orthodox” Trotskyists. Militant distinguished itself by the enthusiasm with which it saw “deformed workers’ states” as emerging even without the element of mass plebeian action which other “orthodox” Trotskyists saw as indispensable. From the early 60s Militant declared Burma and Syria to be “workers’ states”; in the mid-70s, they speculated that the army might create a “deformed workers’ state” in Portugal (bit.ly/lSmASg).
The “perspective” in Britain was that the labour movement was invincibly strong; and that if the Marxists exercised due tactical caution, the Labour Party would inevitably swing to the left.
Militant grew after 1969 when, by a strange combination of events, it was handed the Labour Party’s official youth movement to use as a recruitment agency. The other left groups had quit the Labour Party; the Labour Party leaders were in liberal mood, more anxious to repair Labour’s loss of activists in the late 60s and regain a functioning youth movement than worried about left-wing takeovers; and there was a surge of anti-Tory feeling in 1970-4 and after 1979.
The Labour Party leaders must have been pleasantly surprised, because in many years of running the Labour Party Young Socialists Militant did nothing more disruptive of reformist routine than pass repeated resolutions calling for the nationalisation of the top 200 or so monopolies and run a campaign for Spanish young socialists harassed by the fascist regime then ruling Spain.
In 1981-3 Militant had another gift of fortune. Now the Labour Party leaders did feel threatened by left-wing revolt within the party. Militant had little to do with the threat. It focused on its own routine, giving only token support to the left-wing coalition, the Rank and File Mobilising Committee for Labour Democracy. Just for that reasons, so the Labour Party leaders hoped, Militant would be an easy target for a slap which could intimidate the whole left.
The Labour leaders bungled. After much travail, they succeeded only in expelling five chosen Militant people.
Militant refused to join the broad Labour left campaign set up to fight the Labour leaders’ attempt to exclude Militant, and put off many Labour activists by going to the bourgeois courts to fight the exclusions. But the Labour leaders’ bungling left Militant much stronger after the expulsion attempt, with huge free publicity and their control of the Labour Party Young Socialists undisturbed.
In the 1980s, Militant became the biggest and most visible of the would-be Trotskyist groups in Britain. The high point came when it won hegemony in the Liverpool Labour Party and, from 1984, on Liverpool’s Labour council.
This was a time of much talk of Labour councils defying Tory cuts, and a few flurries of action of that sort. Militant’s rise to hegemony in Liverpool coincided with the start of the 1984-5 miners’ strike, one of the greatest battles in British working-class history, and the decisive showdown between the British labour movement and Thatcher’s drive to cut down the labour movement’s post-1945 strength.
Militant could have made the difference by bringing the Liverpool labour movement into battle alongside the miners. Instead, in July 1984, they accepted a rotten deal with the Tories, essentially postponing Liverpool council’s budget problems until a year later.
A year later the miners, starved of solidarity, had been defeated. The Tories came after Liverpool council.
The Militant leaders of the council blustered about militant action, but organised none. In mid-September they announced they would issue redundancy notices to all the council workers — as a legal gambit to win time, so they claimed! The council unions forced them to back down.
In the wake of that fiasco, a ballot for strikes against the government by council workers was conducted, on 22 September, and lost. On 27 September the council sent out the redundancy notices. On 11 October it was forced once again by union opposition to withdraw them, but said it would instead issue notices of a 28-day layoff. On 22 November it backed down again, announcing a budget within Tory financial limits, with cuts and a loan from Swiss banks which had already been negotiated months before.
The Labour Party leaders were now both keen and confident to purge the left. Militant’s behaviour in Liverpool, hugely discrediting it, gave them a good pretext.
The LPYS was effectively shut down in 1987, and several Militant people were expelled. Purges of other leftists in the Labour Party followed. Socialist Organiser (forerunner of AWL) was banned in 1990.
Militant did not fight this purge at all, other than by court proceedings. By the start of the 1990s, with some successes in the movement against the poll tax, they had decided to bail out of the Labour Party.
That decision caused a split in Militant, in 1991. A minority around Ted Grant and Alan Woods stayed in the Labour Party (they are now Socialist Appeal).
Peter Taaffe, who had been one of Militant’s central organisers since 1965, but never a theorist, now became the leader of Militant outside the Labour Party, which renamed itself Militant Labour (1991-7) and then the Socialist Party (from 1997).
Meanwhile, thing were changing world-wide. The Stalinist states of Eastern Europe were toppled by popular revolt in 1989; the USSR collapsed in 1991. Militant’s theoretical scenario of an ongoing “world revolution”, of which the inevitable first stage was the creation of “deformed workers’ states” in country after country, was shattered at the same time as its “perspective” of the British labour movement being invincibly strong and the Labour Party being certain to swing to the left as capitalism decayed.
Militant had always had a drab, old-fogey-ish style, which it seemed to think good for attuning itself to the labour movement. The old Militant had also had theory, if of a scholastic sort. Militant Labour/ SP responded to the collapse of its “perspective” by shelving the theory while keeping the drab style, plugging up all gaps in thought with its traditional abstract preaching that “socialism is the answer”.
It became more eclectic, a purveyor of a bland “average socialism”. It also declined hugely. Militant had claimed 8,000 members at its peak, and plausibly. By around 2000 a closing plenary of the SP’s annual weekend school and rally mustered only 90 people.
The SWP had had its own troubles, but it now once again became the most visible group on the left. Intellectually it came to hegemonise the SP, with the SP distinguishing itself mostly by the odd dose of its old “socialism is the answer” stuff, by claiming more skill in trade-union tactics, and by a more rigid rejection of the Labour Party.
At the start of the 1990s, the SP spoke as if it could itself quickly become, or broaden out into, a new mass workers’ party, supplanting a Labour Party which was held to have been converted by Militant’s exit into something with no more class contradictions within it than the Lib Dems or Tories. That orientation not only failed, but brought setbacks. The bulk of the Militant/SP members in its strongest areas, Merseyside and Scotland, split away to form the Merseyside Socialists (now defunct) and the Scottish Socialist Party (now almost defunct).
The SP hunkered down. It came to present the “mass workers’ party” as something to emerge in the more distant future. For now the job was not left regroupments but building the SP and campaigning for union disaffiliations from the Labour Party.
After about 2001 the SP began to revive noticeably, mainly by borrowing gambits from the SWP (placards on demonstrations, well-decorated street stalls, etc.) Again, fortune favoured it: simultaneously the SWP began to disappear from the streets into a mess of often-botched “broad fronts”, like Respect.
In 2003, as part of the general surge to the left at that time in union elections, the SP defeated the very right-wing incumbent majority on the Executive of the civil service union PCS. The SP has kept hegemony on the Executive since then, and now also has hegemony in PCS’s corps of full-time officials.
Militant/ SP had long been strong in that union. In 1981-2 it briefly controlled the CPSA, the main predecessor of PCS. But there was more to the 2003 victory than a reward for years of patient work.
The back of the old right-wing had been broken earlier, in 2000, by Mark Serwotka winning an election for PCS general secretary. The SP had opposed Serwotka standing (saying that it would be more prudent instead to support the less right-wing of the two right-wing candidates), and refused to support him positively when he stood in defiance of a vote against the venture by the SP-run Left Unity caucus.
Serwotka has since then become a prisoner of the SP in PCS, but he stood on a different basis, in a campaign organised and shaped by AWL and SWP members.
The SP touts PCS as “the fighting union”. In fact it has done nothing more militant than organise a string of one-day strikes, rarely winning anything much. In general terms the SP is for union officials being paid workers’ wages; it resists that policy in PCS, where it has many full-time officials.
Its control in PCS is based on a permanent alliance with the old soft-right faction in the union, the PCS Democrats.
The SP today is thus a curious mix of three elements: old Militant cadres, battered but surviving; a section of the trade-union bureaucracy, operating very much like the old Communist Party union officials did; and a cloud of younger members, recruited to a general idea of socialism on paper sales, street stalls, and demonstrations, but not given any serious political education by the SP.
In general, the above article is a fair assessment of the history and politics of Militant/SP.
But what it doesn't mention is the class nature of the SP's base, and that is important. I only have my own impressions on which to base this judgement, but as an experienced observer of these things, my estimate is that the SP is alone on the British far left in having a predominantly working-class make up.
Yes, I know that this is not decisive. 30 years on the far left have taught me that political ideas outweigh sociological composition or weight of numbers. But it cannot be insignificant that the SP recruits workers, on a scale that no other Trot group currently can touch. I include the AWL in that stipulation.
Trotsky somewhere uses a phrase - can't remember the exact reference -about the importance of 'smelling of the workers' whisky'. The thing that strikes me more and more about the SWP is that it smells of the university seminar room and the academic journal. The SP, whatever the deficiencies of its ideas - and its 'theoretical' output is weak - is noticeably more proletarian and less ex-studenty.
It's members are also simply nicer human beings. Although they are deferential to their group's received wisdom, they are not as robotic as goodthinkful SWPers. They know how to operate as citizens of the labour movement, in sharp contrast to some SWP I have observed in my own union branch. Sometimes civil conversation about political differences is possible.
And as Marxists believe that the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class itself, I will freely admit to a grudging respect for the SP. So wrong on so many issues, but still ...