ENDS, MEANS and “MILITANT” (The Socialist Party) (1990)

Author: 

Sean Matgamna

The spectacle of Steve Nally and Tommy Sheridan, the Militant leaders of the Anti-Poll-Tax Federation, on television promising to "go public and name names" of anti-poll-tax rioters in Trafalgar Square - that is, to turn their names over to the police - reminded me of the time a few years ago when I began to feel something like warmth for Militant, and how short-lived that was.

I'd been made uneasy. People who didn't like what I was saying about Ireland jeered that it was very like what Militant said. So I spent nearly a week reading back over almost two decades of Militant's coverage of Irish and Anglo-lrish affairs, making detailed notes.

It had been very many years since I had paid attention to what Militant said about anything (With the exception of their support for the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and for the 9 year Russian colonial war of conquest that followed the invasion; I wrote a pamphlet about that). In part this was because Militant's "line" on everything was fixed and unchanging, usually expressed in the same prefabricated phrases, which were thought to embody "science" and "Marxism". Essentially the same articles appeared again and again, faced up by a few paragraphs about the recent news.

You didn't have to agre with Ted Grant's dictum that "Marxism is the science of prediction" to feel that, knowing Militant's general ideas, attitudes, approach and history, you could predict almost exactly what Militant would say about more or less anything.

I found all that was true on Ireland. To get the drift, the ebb and flow, of their thinking from month to month and year to year, you had to study the shifts of emphasis within the routine fare, and note occasional dramatic absences. But I found other things too, in the nooks and crannies, so to speak, of the ever-repeated boulder-like big ideas, the "line".

The boulders dominating the landscape of Militant's coverage were "socialism now" and "a trade union defence force against the IRA and UDA" (A slogan raised first by the Healyite Socialist Labour League, then by the Northern Ireland Communist Party in 1969 for a couple of weeks, then by the Maoist British and Irish Communist Organisation, and dropped, only, finally, to be picked up and given a permanent home by Militant).

Interspersed between the boulders were strange political creatures that scurryied briefly into the light, and then disappeared. There was the call for a socialist solution within thc Six Counties; the unconcealed if ambivalent Joy at the 1974 Orange General Strike; the nonsensical seven-year fetish of the tiny rump Orange Northern Ireland Labour Party; the "economistic" pretence that out of occasional Catholic-Protestant trade-union-level unity could come working class political unity, and never mind things like the "Constitutional question - whether N I should be part of Britain or part of an all-Ireland state, - that pitted Catholic and Protestant workers against each other; the call on the leaders of the Republican movement to build 'a party of labour'; the de facto abandonment of the central slogan of a trade union defence force against the Green and Orange sectarians just at the point in 1974 when civil war seemed imminent, and Militant's weary recommendation, instead, that each community should defend itself; and so on. Their idea of the "socialism" they preached was also very odd: the "nationalisation" of "the monopolies" - by the bourgeois state. Marxism, it wasn't.

I ploughed through reams and reams and years and years of abstract socialist propaganda which simply had no grip on the political situation, nor even much real contact with the social and national realities underlying it. Of course I fervently agreed with the aspiration to "a socialist solution" and to working class unity. I would have been happy to support proposals for a trade union defence force if that slogan were not rendered an evasive and irresponsible pipe-dream by the deep Orange-Green cleavage down the centre of the working class movement. The one thing that my ploughing through years of Militant's abstract “socialist” propaganda proved to me clearly was the need for something more than pious wishes - the need for a democratic and transitional programme, for socialist answers to the burning and shooting immediate political questions that dominated the 6 Counties, as well as the socialist "maximum programme", socialism. The need to find solutions to the chronic conflict of national identities between Catholic and Protestant communities, so that workers really could begin to unite on the basis of an agreed working-class solution to the divisive "constitutional question". That was where what I was saying differed from what Militant was and had been saying.

Militant's "line" on Ireland was and is a political rendition of the old fable about the mice who decide that the best way to stop the rapacious cat is to put a bell round his neck so that they always know where he is. A fine idea, they all agree. But then they can’t figure out just how to get the bell in place.

Militant continued to insist that the socialist bell was the thing, and, since they couldn't get it in place, that meant they had nothing to say about real Irish politics.

Then there was the unexpected note that made me warm a little to Militant.

Despite my irritation with Militant's prayer-like litany of ideal solutions, devoid of any sensible idea of how to go about achieving even the basics of working-class unity, I found myself warming to a certain recurring humanitarian streak in the articles - an oft-repeated indignation with "bombers" and "killers" from the simple and uncomplicated point of view of common humanity.

Naive, a-political, and supra-class though the humanitarian sentiments usually were, I warmed to them because they seemed to have a raw genuineness. Because they seemed to be something alive and real within the dried and dead "socialist" verbiage.

Their Irish politics may have been dimwitted nonsense wrapped up in the eternal socialist truths, but at least there was this saving spark of humanity. Perhaps I felt that the comments I'd published on Ireland in the '70s had too ruthlessly suppressed and expunged such feelings in deference to the need for solidarity with the oppressed Catholics and their Republican organisations.

Then I came upon Militant's commentary on the Ranger Best affair.

It was during the mid-1972 truce between the British Army and the then two IRAs, leftist (Stalinoid) Officials and, then, right wing Provisionals. Best was an 18 year old serving British soldier who went home to Catholic Derry to visit his people. He was captured by the Official IRA and, after a while, shot in cold blood.

The Catholics of Derry reacted with great hostility to the Official Republican heroes. There was a powerful march by Catholic women in protest at this act of pointless savagery. The Official IRA responded with a ceasefire which brought to an end their war against the British. The Provisionals were both more humane and more effective at the propaganda game when, soon after, they released a British officer whom they had captured.

I was then one of those responsible for producing Workers' Fight, a British paper which felt obliged to support the Republican’s right to make war on the British state, and did so in an atmosphere in the labour movement and on the left very different from that of today, when even some tepid reformists are favourable to the Provisionals. In 1972 even the SWP (then IS) did not dare defend the IRA. (*FN) Workers' Fight felt obliged to refrain as much as possible from attacking the Republicans

Yet we also felt obliged - all too mildly, to describe the killing of Best as "an ugly deed of doubtful utility"

And Militant, the naively humanitarian Militant whose denunciation of “killers” and “bombers” had seemed to me an almost redeeming spring of humanity in their deserts of petrified prose? They half-defended the killers of the 18 year old boy, William Best. It was not, Militant snarled, for the vicious right-wing Provisional IRA thugs and killers to condemn the left-wing Officials on such a thing!

Militant, you see, was then trying to get friendly with the Officials, had had some contact with them. Militant’s nucleus of a group of supporters in Ireland had come from the same seed-pod as the left-wing Derry Officials who killed the 18 year old lad from the Bogside, the Derry Young Socialists of 1968-70.

Humanitarianism is all very well when you haven't got anything to say except the wish to be in some other situation (socialism is the only answer) and the wish that nastiness would go away. If political deals and gains become possible – why then, we're Marxists, comrades, aren't we? We have no abstract morality. We can turn the names of anti-poll-tax rioters over to the cops. They're just anarchists and "petty boourgwah" “elements" anyway. We can collect money on demonstrations of ambulance workers, or striking miners and siphon it off to Militant.

In Liverpool we can lake over the scams and fiddles long associated with the Liverpool labour movement's Catholic Action Mafia, and siphon off something for the organisation. When a prominent "Militant" decides to feather his own nest we can be quiet about it and defend him; and when he cuts loose completely we can express regret at his going and agree a mutual pact of silence with him.

When we find ourselves in Liverpool opposed by leaders of the black community - a community suffering from institutionalised racism and from white working-class racism - we can explain to the Young Socialists and to white workers in Liverpool and elsewhere that the black leaders are just "pimps and gangsters" – that is, we can wallow in ordure and deploy for self-defence vicious and backward racist stereotype-mongenng.

In short, we can do whatever serves the organisation. That is the old fallacy of Stalinists - or rather the fallacy of honest Stalinists who really thought they could serve socialism by the methods of corruption, double standards and gangsterism.

Marxists don't believe in an abstract morality which comes from God or some timeless principles outside of historv and society. It is wrong to kill; and wrong not to kill, if that is the only way to free ourselves from class slavery.

We want to cleanse human relations of all violence; yet the tragedy of the miners' strike lay in our inability to deploy enough violence to defeat the state violence inflicted on our side by Thatcher's police thugs. Our business is to fight the working class struggle, not propound moral principles to underpin and define a good way of life which we know is impossible under capitalism.

But neither do we reject the idea that some things are right and others wrong or believe that the end justifies any means, that anything goes which serves 'the party'. Trotsky dealt with this long ago in Their Morals and Ours. The means condition the end, and some "means" may render the end more difficult, or even impossible to attain. The end may justify the means, but only such means as do not contradict, work against, pollute, warp or mutilate the end.

For example, we want to win the working class over to our political programme for replacing capitalism with democratic collectivism. We might at certain times and places have a much better chance of doing that if we explicitly and openly accepted and promoted anti-black racism. But that means of "building the party" would corrupt and destroy the end which it supposedly served - workingclass and, ultimately, human solidarity, equality, and liberty.

We live in a labour movement grown spiritually cross-eyed from the long pursuit of realpolitik and the operation of double standards, a movement ideologically sick and poisoned. In terms of moral ecology, the left and the Labourr movement is something of a disaster-area because of the long-term use of methods and arguments which have corrupted the consciousness of the working class. The most poisonous root of that corruption was the Stalinist movement.

"Militant" is the biggest organisation in Britain claiming roots in the Communist Internalional. In the trade unions it increasingly plays the role the Communist Party played for decades, in terms of its dead weight and bureaucratic inertia.

The Communist Party went rotten over decades under the influence of the Stalinist bureaucratic ruling class in the Soviet Union. But Militant, too, believes that the ruling bureaucracy rules on behalf of the working class. For 43 years Militant and its predecessors have eagerly supported the expansion of Stalinism. That is one of the sources of the moral and intellectual infection in Militant - that, and its inclination to follow the modus operandi of the Stalinised Communist Parties, for which "the interests of the party" were everything, and the rest increasingly came to count for nothing.

The Healyites (WRP), once an imposing organisation and now a scattering of a dozen negligible groups, have learned the hard way how foolishly short-sighted is such sect-building "realpolitik".

(*FN) We paid for that in September 1973, when armed police raided our offices; we were the only British Group to be so raided during the long years of the Provo war.

Against the Tide, SO 447
May 10, 1990