The Socialist Party/Militant and the Working Class: “Every sect is religious”

Submitted by Matthew on 24 August, 2011 - 12:14 Author: Sean Matgamna

[This is a copy edited and slightly expanded version of the text in Solidarity.]

Commenting on Martin Thomas’s article “The Socialist Party’s working-class base”, Dave Osler wrote on our website: “In general, the 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 [...] 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..”

This raises important issues and begs an awful lot of questions about working-class socialism in general and the approach and history of the Militant/Socialist Party in particular. And, implicitly, of AWL


Lenin summed it up nicely with the aphorism: “Theory without practice is sterile; practice without theory is blind”. The central goal of Marxist socialists in politics is to reach the working class and educate it — the actually existing working class, as it is at any given time, in any circumstances, no matter what. James Connolly put it about as well as it can be put:

“To increase the intelligence of the slave, to sow broadcast the seeds of that intelligence that they may take root and ripen into revolt; to be the interpreters of that revolt, and finally to help in guiding it to victory is the mission we set before ourselves.”

We go through its experiences with the working class. For instance, when there is conscription, we do not become conscientious objectors as a matter of principle, no matter how much we may disapprove of what the army is being used for.

A young member of the Healy organisation (then known as “The Club”, later the Socialist Labour League, then the Workers’ Revolutionary Party) had to be persuaded by the organisation not to register as a conscientious objector in the Korean War, not to separate himself from the experience of his generation of workers. He died in Korea.

We act always to help the working class to understand capitalist society, to see it in history as one of a number of exploitative class societies; to see it’s own place in capitalist society, to learn that it can be replaced with a better, socialist, society. In practice, except at the height of a revolutionary working-class drive against capitalism, that almost always involves relating to a minority. The point here is that, although of course we use our heads in deciding what we select, stress, focus on at a given moment; we do not, on pain of political self-annihilation, dilute what we say in order to reach the maximum number of workers; we do not adulterate what we say in order to have more effective agitation. Our agitation must be consonant with our basic ideas, our programme. To do otherwise would be to work against our own fundamental, longer term, objectives.

To take something nobody on the left would think of doing, we do not use racist agitation or EDL-style xenophobia in order to reach the mass of the white working class. That would contradict and defeat the whole purpose of our work. We should not — to take something that almost everybody on the left does, and has done for decades — counterpose the increasingly defunct nation-states of Europe to the bourgeois attempt to unite Europe in the European Union. That is reactionary.

In my opinion, one of the great sources of political and intellectual corruption on the left is the dominance in its work of free-wheeling, opportunist, catch-penny agitation. Everything is agitation-led. "The party" must be built - and we don't need to be too fastidious in our agitation or ask how it squares with our general outlook on the world, what it says or implies about our picture of the world, to our "propaganda". The late Tony Cliff used to put it with inimitable crassness: "Tactics contradict principles". There is a whole Marxist literature about all that. See, for instance, Lenin’s polemic in What Is To Be Done against some of the Russian Marxists. [See also, for the contemporary left, the article on the AWL website on "Apparatus Marxism".]

History is full of examples of what not to do here. In the early 1920s — yes, the 20s, not the early 30s — the German Communist Party played with anti-semitism, during the so-named “National Bolshevism” episode. In 1881, when a wave of anti-Jewish pogroms swept across Russia, the Narodniks, who had recently assassinated the Tsar and, all in all, were splendid, magnificently heroic people who were, in broad terms, socialists, welcomed the programs as a manifestation of the popular will.

We work by way of general education. We use agitation against aspects of day-to-day life and conditions under capitalism to help workers see the system as a whole. We help the working class to organise. We act to organise the working class in trade unions, political organisations, ephemeral specific-issue organisations, all the way to organising armed insurrection, when that becomes necessary.

In all these phases, our central, all-governing concern, is to educate and prepare the working class, or a sizable minority of the working class that can then reach the rest of the workers. That central concern tells us what we can and cannot do. It is the fundamental reason why Trotsky, living in a political, world-flooding deluge of Stalinist lies, again and again insisted that lying to the working class, misinforming the workers, misleading then, manipulating them is impermissible.

For ourselves, the tendency that is now called Alliance for Workers’ Liberty has tried to live by those rules all through its existence. We regard the working class as central to all our concerns, as any Marxist must. That is why we have focused to a serious extent on the existing organisations of the working class, including, god help us, the Labour Party. Even the best Marxists are condemned to sterility if, ultimately, they cannot reach and transform the working class.

But to go from that general rule, the basic guiding rule, to the conclusion that the social composition of small propaganda groups — and all the Trotskyist groups are small propaganda groups — is the all important thing, or that having working-class members goes a long way towards compensating for political deficiencies — is to turn things on their head.


The other side of Lenin’s dictum is also true, and fundamental: a working-class organisation will, to one degree or another, be blind unless it is armed with Marxism. And a supposedly Marxist organisation with rotten politics is not only blind: it is an active, malignant force working, sometimes against its own best intentions, to prevent the working class from seeing capitalism as it is.

There are few examples in working-class history that demonstrate that as conclusively as the history of the Militant/Socialist Party.

Of course it would be foolish to try to decide which is most important, theory and politics or practical activity. Both are essential, neither is self-sufficient. But it is Marxism — coherent, consistent working-class socialist politics — that differentiates the revolutionary workers, those capable of leading the whole of their class out of capitalism, from the great mass of the working class. In the last reckoning, politics is what is fundamental to a revolutionary Marxist organisation. That is its special, irreplacable contribution. That's what we do. Without that, other than on that basis, striving for influence in the working class would be a pointless exercise. It is not enough, of course. To be effective, as Dave Osler says, it has to win the working class.

What if an ostensibly Marxist organisation wins the working class to non-Marxists politics? Then you have a historical abortion. The Stalinist communist parties of Italy and France were, each in its own country, the mass parties of the working class.

For decades they brought disaster after disaster, political betrayal after political betrayal, down on the working class they misled. They would have brought even worse disaster if they had taken power (as we 'orthodox Trotskyists' used to urge them to do, and condemn them for not doing).

Before the Second World War, the majority of the working class in Czechoslovakia backed the Communist Party. That party, with help from the Russian army, led the workers into a terrible half-century of totalitarian subjugation.

Sections of the Romanian working-class, some miners for example, were prepared in 1989 to fight for Ceausescu. Militant in Britain backed those Stalinist workers at the time, just as their predecessors in the Revolutionary Communist Party in 1948 publicly backed the Stalinist coup that put the airtight totalitarian lid on Czechoslovakia. I have known people who had few political illusions about the Communist Party of Great Britain who yet remained in that party, or joined it, because of its vaunted “working-class base”. And it certainly did have a solid working-class base for most of its existence.


I think it is probably true that the Socialist Party, and before it, Militant has had a majority of people of working-class background in its ranks. But so too did the Healy organisation, in its various stages. (That organisation also, incidentally, had a lot of black workers and black young people; and many of the people who still, occasionally, sell the daily paper of its ultra degenerate Qaddafi-ite remnant, in Peckham where I live, are both working-class and black.)

Am I saying that it doesn’t matter whether or not socialists influence workers and recruit then to their organisation? Of course I'm not! I am saying that just looking at the class composition of small Marxist organisations doesn’t even begin to answer the decisive questions about those organisations and their affect on the working class.

The sad truth is that since the political collapse of the Communist International, revolutionary working-class politics, as they had been understood all the way back to Karl Marx, have mainly been in the custody of small organisations that, more often than not, were sociologically not working-class.

Winston Churchill, of all people, put it very well in an article on the “Communist Schism”, written just before World War Two, which I happened to pick up the other day. Writing on the Stalinist-Trotskyist division he said: “Stalin has inherited Lenin’s authority, but Trotsky has inherited his message”. Of course it was a different sort of “authority” in organisations that were very different from Lenin’s organisation. But Stalin did “inherit” the internationalist would-be communist working class and its movement.

The tragedy of the working class in the mid-20th century — and of course of Trotskyism, which cannot thrive when the working class is defeated — was that though Trotsky and his very small movement could see and foresee the political realities with tremendous clarity (in pre-Hitler Germany for example, and in mid-30s Spain) they were unable to affect what the mass working-class movement did. In the diary he kept for a while, in 1935, when he was living in France, Trotsky compared himself to a wise old surgeon compelled to watch quacks and charlatans kill someone he loves. And they did kill the old revolutionary socialist working-class movement.


So what of Militant/the Socialist Party? In reality, Militant has been a source of backwardness and mis-education in the labour movement. It has never been anything else. In the decade and a half during which they ran the Labour Party Young Socialists, that movement was on many key questions to the right of typical young people in Britain, socially backward compared to large sections of working-class youth at that time. On such things as gay rights and the legalisation of soft drugs like cannabis, for instance. But not only on things like that.

Take racism, for a particularly scandalous example. In a notorious case in the 70s they refused to back Asian workers striking against racial discrimination at Imperial Typewriters. Why? Because in part they were striking against white workers they accused of racism and of benefiting from discrimination.

Now, plainly, where the workers are divided like that you should tread very carefully. You should advocate working-class unity, as Militant no doubt did. But not unity on the basis of keeping quiet about discrimination and the special ill-treatment of some of the workers in question! Not on the basis of implicitly or explicitly telling the most oppressed workers, in this case the doubly oppressed workers, not to split the working class. That is, not to fight back until they had first won over the white workers.

Has the Socialist Party learned from this? I’ll be astonished if they have. To learn from your own history you have to know and understand it. The Socialist Party’s way with awkward facts in its history is to bluster and deny them. Their nonsensical bluster and lying to cover what they did in Liverpool during the miners' strike is the worst example of that.

The work of another organisation, the Communist Party of Northern Ireland, is an instructive example of the same method of dealing with a divided working class.

From 1941 until they reunited in 1970, there were two Communist parties in Ireland, one on each side of the border, built up a great working-class following during World War Two, when it was unrestrained in its British nationalism and thus in-line with the outlook of the Orange workers.

It retained considerable influence in the unions for decades after the war. They had leading positions in the engineering union; Betty Sinclair, a woman of Protestant background and a one-time student at the Stalinist “Lenin University” in Moscow, was secretary of the very important Belfast Trades Council. How did they handle the fact that Catholics were discriminated against? They helped build up a tacit acceptance in the unions, where Catholics and Protestants were united on trade-union issues, that the discrimination against Catholics in jobs, in housing, in voting rights, etc., would not be raised!

That helped build the Communist Party of Northern Ireland. It kept a deceptive facade of working-class unity, but its influence in the working-class movement was malign. There might have been a principled political campaign in the relatively quiet years before 1969 — when the Protestant-Unionists did not feel actively threatened with incorporation against their will into an all-Ireland Catholic state — against such discrimination, in conditions where they could appeal to the class consciousness of the workers, and perhaps have educated that class consciousness. Thus they contributed to the explosion that began to engulf Northern Ireland in 1967, 1968 and 1969, with the rise of the Catholic civil rights movement.

Of course the Communist Party backed that civil rights movement, and indeed, helped get it started. They said the “right” things. The call for a Trade Union Defence Force in 1969 originated with the sll, and, in Ireland, with the CPNI. (It was then picked up by the Maoist British and Irish Communist Organisation for a while, and after that by Militant, which for decades used it as an 'abrakadabra' magic, a-historical slogan, long after the CPNI had abandoned it, and long after it had lost what little purchase - very liitle purchase, in my opinion - it may have had at the beginning.)

But here the CPNIers were being liberals, having failed to be any sort of working-class communist politicians where it mattered — in the labour movement.

When Militant in Liverpool came into conflict with the local black community, which had been subject to institutional racism for many decades, how did they explain the issues to their own people, and the Labour Party Young Socialists, which they led, and which did have some raw young people in and around it?
They spread the story that the black people agitating against them in Liverpool were “spivs and gangsters”. They resorted to the worst sort of racist prejudice-mongering and stereotyping of black people. (That is what was being said at Young Socialist Summer Camps, according to our young comrades who were there.)

What was their general role amongst those workers they reached? They preached “socialism”. What was socialism? It was the “nationalisation” of “the monopolies” — by the bourgeois state.

What else was it? What existed in the Stalinist states. These of course were not fully socialist. They were degenerated and deformed workers’ states that needed “political revolutions” to make them properly socialist. But, they were the first stage of the world socialist revolution unfolding in a perverted form in response to the “autonomous movement of the productive forces”.

And by god, they were altogether better than anything else that existed on this sin-full and imperfect earth! They were to be defended in all circumstances, even while being criticised. Those who were trying to create similar states, had to be supported. The Russian army had to be supported in its terrible colonial war in Afghanistan — and was, for the duration of the 10 year war. Those “defending the nationalised property”, even a Ceausescu, were to be supported, as the 1948 Stalinist coup in Czechoslovakia had been supported by the RCP, one of whose key leaders has been Ted Grant.

One of the oddest things was that they did not even talk about nationalisation under workers control. In the 60s, you could find supporters of Militant and supporters of the International Socialists, now the Socialist Workers Party, in the Labour Party’s Young Socialists, arguing vehemently that socialism was workers control (IS), or that it was only and fundamentally, nationalisation (Militant).

It was like the blind men and the elephant in the children’s poem, each of them feeling different parts of the elephant, and arguing about what an elephant was — a snake, said those at the tail, a tree trunk, said those at the feet, a palm tree, said those at the ears, and so on. It was even odder when you knew that in the late 1940s, the RCP, whose leadership included Ted Grant, later of Militant (and then Socialist Appeal), had used the demand for workers’ control to differentiate their politics from the politics of the nationalising Labour government.

Or take international affairs. Sometimes Militant’s policies beggared belief. During the British-Argentina war over the Falklands Islands, what did they have to say? They were very wary of seeming to oppose the war, though I think they did “make the record” in the small print somewhere that they were against it. What did they think of the issues over which the war was being fought, the Argentine invasion of the Falklands Islands? What did they try to get workers who listened to them to accept?

They said that Britain, Argentina and the Falklands should immediately unite in a common federal state! It was the art of political evasion taken to the level of quasi-lunatic genius! The reader doesn’t believe it? I don’t blame you, but it’s true.


In a previous article I dealt with their general approach to politics, with their fantastical “perspectives” for the labour movement and the world (“Libya, anti-imperialism and the Socialist Party”, Workers’ Liberty 3/34) This in any meaningful sense was not a Marxist organisation. It was a strange sectarian formation, incorporating no more than strands of Marxism and Trotskyism, making a quasi-religious fetish of some of its vocabulary. Certainly, their definition of socialism, either in relation to Britain or to the Stalinist world, had little in common with Marxist, working-class, socialism.

For what we are discussing, most pertinently, it parted company with Marxism and its view of the working class’s role in the socialist revolution and in its attitude to the working class and its movements.

Their view of the world was a hybrid species of “bureaucratic collectivism”. They saw as positive what a Max Shachtman saw as utterly negative.

Ted Grant, Peter Taaffe and Alan Woods were bureaucratic collectivists because what they described as going on in the world, as distinct from what they called it, was the rise of a distinct new exploitative ruling class, with an essential role in the economies created in the revolutions which they led and the societies which they shaped, on the model of Stalin's Russia. Grant called this class the “Proletarian Bonapartist Bureaucracy”.

Trotsky's "Degenerated Workers' state" assessment of Stalin's Russia depended on the idea that the ruling bureaucracy, though, as he once put it, it had all the worst features of all the exploitative ruling classes in history it had no necessary role in the economy created by the 1917 workers' revolution, that it was a usurper, a historical "excresence".

For Grant, the rulers of what he chose to call "Bonapartist Workers' States" had a politive economic and social role to play in the underdeveloped world for an entire historical period, a role comparable to that attributed to the bourgeoisie by the Mensheviks in the Russian revolution. This “Proletarian Bonapartist Bureaucracy” was the blind creation of “the spontaneous movement of the forces of production” and in turn created its own sort of collectivist property.

And the working class? It would have the role it had had in the Stalinist revolutions in China, Vietnam, etc - no role beyond supporting the revolution-makers. Eventually, after the "Proletarian Bonapartists" had industrialised the country, doing what the West European bourgeoisie had in its time done, the working class - at the end of a whole historical epoch - then the workers could make their own "political revolution". This had nothing in common with the Trotskyism of Trotsky's time. And what had it to do with Marxism? Or with working class socialism?

Their outlook had more in common with the views of the strange Bruno Rizzi, with whom Trotsky polemicised in 1939, than with Trotsky’s. Rizzi saw the world being involved in a progressive bureaucratic collectivism, driven by both the fascists and the Stalinists, in their different ways. To promote this bureaucratic revolution, he advocated the fusion of the Stalinists and the fascists in one organisation.

This, to Ted Grant, was a two-stage world revolution, in which the Stalinists (but not exclusively the Stalinists: other, non-Communist, forces had also turned Burma and Syria and Ethiopia, etc, into “deformed workers states”) were the protagonists in creating an immensely progressive form of totalitarianism which replaced the working class “in the period ahead”.

And it wasn’t just a matter of trying to define reality as he saw it. This view of progressive “Proletarian Bonapartist” totalitarianism was incorporated into their own programme by way of their support for Stalinist revolutionary movements — as the inevitable “next step”.

The Stalinists, the bearers of a new form of production, had a progressive role to play even in a country like Portugal, or so said Grant in their magazine, as late as 1978.


Grant, Taaffe, Woods et al also had a full quiver of rationalisations for accommodating to the bureaucratic leadership of the existing labour movement. Take their idea of the “existing socialist consciousness of the labour movement”. This was an issue in dispute between them and those of us who founded what is now the AWL.

There was, undoubtedly, a mass “socialist” consciousness in the broad labour movement — a belief in statism, a preference for nationalised and municipalised industry over profit-driven-private enterprises. And, certainly, the then very widespread workplace struggles over working conditions, over seemingly small things like tea breaks, were a form of struggle for control by workers of their industries, and their working lives. There was a very high degree of de facto workers control in a number of industries. On the docks, for instance, a powerful element of workers control had emerged within the peculiar employment structures set up under the National Docks Labour Board. (Dockers were employed permanently, at a very low guaranteed minimum wage, by local Docks Labour Boards, and hired out as they were needed to the employer’s working the ships.)

But all this was tremendously inadequate, measured against what was necessary if the working class were to overthrow capitalism and replace the bourgeoisie as the ruling power in society. Workers had to understand about the nature of the capitalist state and what they needed to do about it; about the difference between nationalisation and democratic working-class socialisation of the means of production and exchange; about the need for international working-class unity. In reality the best of the labour movement in the 50s, 60s and 70s came to be in the grip of a sort of headless syndicalism.

In the largely syndicalist “Great Unrest” before World War One, and its continuation during and after that war, its thinkers and writers, such as James Connolly, saw the movement they were building as a means to overthrow the bourgeoisie. They saw the industrial unions they advocated and built as the infrastructure within capitalism of the future Workers’ Republic.

The de facto syndicalism in mid-20th-century Britain was an often tremendous movement of rank-and-file workers that relied on direct action. It was very often, also directed against the union bureaucracy. But it remained politically tied to Labourism, and many of its militants and rank-and-file leaders to the Communist Party. They had very little notion of their movement as a mobilisation, and an education in action that would eventually overthrow capitalism. They looked to Parliamentary action to achieve political ends, even when they themselves acted to achieve political ends, as when hundreds of thousands struck work to force the release of five dock workers jailed for illegal picketing in 1972.

When the labour movement brought down the government in February 1974, all we had to replace it in government was Harold Wilson’s Labour Party!

In that situation the revolutionaries, the Marxists, were those who told the labour movement the truth about its own situation and about its own weaknesses, and what needed to be done about it. The idea that the socialist consciousness of the labour movement, such as it was, was adequate, or anything remotely like adequate, was simply preposterous.

The idea that all that was necessary for socialism, for working-class rule, was to generalise the widespread labour movement support for nationalisations into the demand that all “the monopolies” should be nationalised, was both foolish and pernicious. Militant’s activities were the preoccupations of a self-cultivating sect for which the class struggle was at best, less important than their own organisation.

What Militant did in all its activities was batten on the existing movement, accepting and reinforcing but also mystifying the ideas that existed — and sometimes even the most backward ideas as above — in the movement, at every point and in every way.

Militant’s propaganda for “socialism” was a species of miseducation of the workers it reached. In its unrealism, its attitudes, its sectish schema-mongering, Militant peddled a kind of utopian socialism. It had an essentially manipulative attitude to the working class. Their formula to excuse saying whatever would help the organisation to survive and grow and avoid clashing with widespread working-class public opinion was “The workers wouldn’t understand that, comrade!” It generated such scarcely-believable idiocies as the British-Argentina-Falklands Federation and was a manipulative license for virtually anything.

Instead of the Marxist idea and its modus operandi that you function to educate the workers, that you stand against the tide of opinion when necessary, you had “the workers wouldn’t understand”. Trotsky’s advice was “To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as in big ones; to base one’s program on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour for action arrives.” Those were his “rules” for the Fourth International, that had “shown it can swim against the stream”. Instead of that you had idiotic evasions like the British-Argentina-Falklands Federation demand.

And who knew what the workers would or wouldn’t understand? The wise men at the centre, licensed thereby to cut and trim, evade and obfuscate. The truth is that they had contempt for the workers. The leaders of such groups always do.

One of their youth organisers at a Labour Party Young Socialists summer camp, where there were quite a lot of “raw” young workers, rowdy and factionally primed-up against the minority there (which was essentially the forerunner of the AWL), said to one of our organisers, speaking “man-to-man”, wised-up Marxist to wised-up Marxist: “If we let them off the leash, they’d tear you to pieces!” (Kevin Rammage speaking to Mick O’Sullivan). With that spirit, and I cite it because I think it sums up their real spirit, the fundamental attitude of the organisation’s leaders – and that, whatever they say, always shows in practice.

They did not try to develop and raise up and broaden the outlook and the real understanding of the youngsters they organised, courtesy of the Labour Party. They didn’t teach them to think. Instead they taught them political parrot work.

The Socialist Party operates with the idea that “Marxism” is a given, that it is fixed. In reality it has to be sifted, applied, and redefined again and again in the light of experience. The Marxists have to learn and go on learning before they can be adequate interpreters and teachers for the working class. The Socialist Party is still making propaganda for the wonders worked by the defunct “planned economy” in Stalinist Russia!
People like Peter Taaffe are evidently incapable of learning. The bureaucratic sect-structures of the Socialist Party and the foul religious spirit cultivated in and around it by its leaders, prevent others from discussing and maybe learning from their own and other peoples’ experiences.
The key idea of Marxist socialism, that the liberation of the working class must be self-liberation, is put like this in “The Internationale”:

“No saviours from on high deliver,
No faith have we in Prince or peer,
Our own right hand the chain must shiver,
Chains of hatred, of greed and fear”.

Least of all will a socialist sect like the Socialist Party, teaching political and intellectual docility to those it influences, liberate the working class. As Karl Marx said: “In the last analysis, every sect is religious” s, every sect is religious.”