This is a copy-edited and slightly expanded version of the printed text.
Click here for the debate on Libya of which this is part.
Click here to download the printed Workers' Liberty supplement as pdf.
Click here to download the text, as slightly edited and expanded, in pdf format.
Libya, anti-imperialism, and the Socialist Party
Did Taaffe equate the Libyan rebels with the Nicaraguan contras?
Anything other than "absolute opposition" means support?
Intellectual hooliganism and AWL's "evasions"
What is more important in the situation than stopping massacre?
Bishop Taaffe and imperialism
What is the "anti-imperialist" programme in today's world?
From semi-colony to regional power
Taaffe's record as an anti-imperialist
The separation of AWL and the Socialist Party
Militant in the mid 1960s
How did we come to break with Militant? Anti-union laws
What is a Marxist perspective?
Our general critique of Militant's politics
"We can't discuss what Grant and Taaffe can't reply to"
The US in Iraq and union freedoms
Socialists and the European Union
Toadying to Bob Crow
Ireland: why socialists must have a democratic programme
Postscript: Militant and the Labour Party, 1969-87 - a strange symbiosis
- What is a Marxist perspective?
- The Socialist Party and the workers: “Every sect is religious”
- Afghanistan: Grant, Taaffe, Woods hail Stalinist coup and back the invaders
Appendix: "An encounter with the shy Bishop Taaffe"
Appendix: "The Socialist Party and the workers"
Appendix: What We Are And What We Must Become: critique of Militant, written in 1966, which became the founding document of the AWL tendency
Appendix: The RSL (Militant) in the 1960s: a study of passivity: an account of how What We Are And What We Must Become came to be written, and the battle around its ideas.
This time out, he ranges far and wide, from Northern Ireland in the late 60s to the early history of the AWL tendency and that of this writer. For reasons of space and time, I will not here take up all the many issues he raises or half-raises.
First, I should undo an injustice by Martin Thomas against Peter Taaffe and the Socialist Party (and its predecessor organisation, Militant). It isn't true that Taaffe's effort was their first polemic against us.
Their first public polemic, perhaps. But they have long polemicised against us and others on the left privately and secretly, inside their own organisation.
That way they would not have to face responses. Those they attacked would normally know nothing about it, and thus young people in Militant or SP, or "close to" them, would not be confused by rebuttals and counter-attacks. And Militant/ SP leaders could boast that they ignored what they called "the sects". It is one of the traits that endears Taaffe and his close associates to those who know them.
In replying to Taaffe I have a number of problems. The first and politically most important is that it's difficult, and in places nigh impossible, to know exactly what Taaffe is trying to say.
He jumps back and forth from logic to emotional rhetoric, from specifics to sweeping generalisations. He goes from a semblance of reasoned exposition to moralistic denunciation and abuse - that is, to intellectual hooliganism. And back again. For responding to what we actually say, he substitutes a response to what he says we say, or really say.
He whinges about being misrepresented and "lied" about, while all through his own texts he writes about our "support" for the NATO intervention when all the facts license him to say is that we do not denounce it. Taaffe consistently misrepresents AWL, presenting his own tendentious gloss on what we're saying as what we actually say.
Sometimes he displays a degree of ignorance astonishing in one who has been in politics fifty years. He defines the American Trotskyist Max Shachtman as holding the position that the USSR was "state capitalist". "They" [AWL] "have now adopted Shachtman‚Äôs position, characterising the Soviet Union in the past as 'state capitalist'." In fact Shachtman held the radically different position that it was "bureaucratic collectivist", a new and unprecedented form of exploitative class society.
Taaffe bitterly denounces Martin Thomas for headlining his reply to Taaffe's first article, "Peter Taaffe equates Libya's rebels with Nicaragua's contras". But, if he is subject to the usual laws that govern the use of language - inside the SP, it seems, he isn't! - he did equate the Libyan rebels with the contras.
"When it has been unable to intervene directly, because of domestic opposition for instance, imperialism has not hesitated to use mercenaries to overthrow a regime it did not favour or to stymie a revolution. Such was the policy of Ronald Reagan‚Äôs administration in using hired thugs, the Contras, against the Nicaraguan revolution. Imperialism has been forced into the latest stand by the fact that Gaddafi appears to be winning or, at least, has sufficient military strength..."
You didn't mean to make that equation, comrade Taaffe? Then say that your writing was unclear, or ambiguous, and move on to discuss substantial issues. Don't muddy things further by absolving yourself of bad writing and accuse someone of bad faith when he erred only in thinking that you say what you mean and mean to say what, according to the normal rules of English, you do say.
Instead you wriggle by redefining terms: it was the British and other officers on the ground in Libya whom you were comparing with the contras. But the contras were Nicaraguans, not North Americans! British officers on the ground are “direct intervention”, not a case of being “unable to intervene directly”!
Taaffe's manner and style are those of someone used to speaking from the episcopal, or papal, chair; used to laying down the law; to playing the oracle. What he writes does not after publication become the property of his readers. Only the Bishop himself can interpret the Bishop. His auditors and readers have no right of interpretation of his utterances. "Protestants" who dare use their own understanding of logic, reality, and normal English are "frenzied petty bourgeois" sinning against the bishop and his prerogatives.
The one thing clear in Taaffe's texts is that he is against the no-fly zone. He presents this, for all practical purposes, as something axiomatic, as a matter of principle, as a reflex of being against imperialism.
But why it is an axiom, where he is coming from politically, that is not clear. In so far as there is an explanation in Taaffe's texts, it is twofold.
*That the states intervening from the air against Qaddafi are "imperialist", are "imperialist", are "imperialist"...
*And then that only two attitudes to the intervention are possible. Either "absolute opposition". Or full support. Between those two positions there is no political space at all.
In the old Stalinist formula, those who aren't with us are against us. In Taaffe's scheme, those who do not "absolutely oppose" are "attorneys and apologists for France and Britain". He says or implies, again and again, that not to condemn the bombs against Qaddafi is tantamount to supporting not just the bombs but also full-scale invasion, including military occupation.
If you don't faithfully invert the policies of the bourgeoisie, and produce an exact negative image of what in them in positive, then you are their "apologist".
But he is supposedly analysing AWL's position, which is that there is political space between denouncing the intervention and supporting it; and, specifically, political space within a general anti-imperialism for not denouncing a limited action whose immediate consequences,in this case, have been to stop imminent massacres of the anti-Qaddafi civilian forces in Benghazi and Misrata.
Telling someone that you think what he says implies, or may imply, something more or less radically different from what he spells out - that is a perfectly reasonable form of political discussion and argument. Telling someone that he is actually saying what you, rightly or wrongly, think is the implication of what he is saying - that is a form of attempting to shout him down. It dismisses his concerns and his viewpoint by bluster and ecclesiastical ukase, not by way of accessable reason and honest argument.
It is intellectual and political hooliganism, ideological bully-work. If this incoherent mix of emotionalism and moralism is used inside the SP - god help anyone who raises awkward questions there. Does anyone, ever?
Taaffe dismisses as nonsense the question I posed: why "raise a 'demand'... whose likely, calculable, practical consequences we do not want, which may well bring on a catastrophe that will abort all the (desirable) possibilities...". Taaffe does not deign to say why it is nonsense. As an Irish bishop once said to Noel Browne, a government minister he and the other bishops were forbidding to set up a rudimentary free healt service for mothers and children: "We do not explain!" Bishop Peter does not explain.
Taaffe talks emotively of our position being "evasive", but he doesn't say exactly what we evade or what there is in that for socialists to emote about, reject and condemn in relation to the Libyan situation, as it really is.
There is heavy moralistic condemnation of an approach which, in fact, "evades" denouncing and condemning every specific intervention of "imperialism". But that is a roundabout (moralistic, not political) way of saying that we should denounce "imperialism", in fact, the advanced capitalist world, in every detail of what it does, everywhere and always.
That is what needs to be discussed. That is what he needs to argue for. Instead, he "emotes" - pontificates, blusters and denounces.
What is it that AWL evades? We evade being pulled by our negative attitude to imperialism into de facto support for the butcherous Qaddafi regime. We evade putting ourselves in the position of denouncing the limited police action of the big powers (which is what it is so far), when, in this case, that action is intervening from the air to stop the imminent massacre of the rebels.
If you are pulled along by your "logic" into such a thing as support for a massacre -, or indifference towards it - such as Qaddafi would have carried out without the NATO intervention from the air, then you should at least ask yourself whether there is something wrong with that logic.
If your "political position" leads you, in Trotsky's words, to "pick your nose" while watching men "massacre defenceless people", then somewhere along the line your logic has parted company with your socialist and Marxist starting point. It is right to shy away from such logic - to "evade" political consequences that are unconscionable. Slogans and "positions" are tools, not fetishes.
Taaffe cites Trotsky's next paragraph to the one about "'objectively' picking one's nose" that I used as epigraph in my 23 March article on Libya, implying that there was something wrong in breaking the quotation where I did. But did he pause to read that next paragraph? Trotsky's views on the moral and political advantage of not "picking your nose" because some supposedly "objective" outlook, overview, "historic position" mandates you to be indifferent to massacre, says a lot to the left which thinks that "anti-imperialist" principle should compel indifference to slaughter in Benghazi or Misrata. Or anywhere else.
"A party or the class that rises up against every abominable action wherever it has occurred, as vigorously and unhesitatingly as a living organism reacts to protect its eyes when they are threatened with external injury ‚Äì such a party or class is sound of heart..."
Why is it a bad thing for anti-imperialism and anti-imperialists that the NATO planes pushed Qaddafi back and averted the massacre? There was something else in the situation that, properly assessed, loomed larger in the calculation, on the negative side? If so, what is it?
In large part our position depends on the fact that we don't see any such overriding "other factor" here. It might be that intervention against Qaddafi becomes a pretext for occupying Libya and holding it down. But the difference between a certain type of lunatic and sane people has been neatly summed up as the lunatic not being able to see the distinction between what it possible and what is probable or likely. A striking thing in Peter Taaffe's screeds is that he seems unable to tell the difference between what might be possibilities in Libya and what are active possibilities and probable developments. (Am I calling Bishop Taaffe a lunatic? No, I am saying he lacks the capacity and the inclination to think with a sufficient grasp of the reality and its likely developments).
Generalities about "imperialism" here are useless, indeed pernicious. There have been and are many forms of imperialism, and different phases in a given imperialism. It is not at all likely that one or another of the NATO powers wants to occupy Libya now. Everything in the political situation speaks against it.
It happens that from his first text one can form an idea of what was going on in Peter Taaffe's mind. It is plain, I think, that Taaffe saw the 15 April letter on Libya by Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy as the announcement of a major shift - which, in going for "regime change", it was - and extrapolated too freely from that.
There is nothing necessarily wrong in extrapolating. The problem is that two months later Taaffe is still unable, or unwilling, to make a balanced judgement of the reality.
Bishop Taaffe and imperialism
I can make sense of what Taaffe is saying about Libya only in terms of his having some notion, or unpurged fragment of a notion, that we are still in the era of the old colonial empires, or going back to it.
Leave aside for now a precise definition of "imperialism" and what it is now. We can agree that the big powers throw their weight about, and that we should and will oppose that.
Taaffe speaks of "neo-colonialism", and the prefix neo could be a way of saying that the old colonial imperialism is no more, or, anyway, not what it was. Yet for practical purposes he operates with something like a picture of the old world of colonial empires.
In fact, if there were a drive to make Libya an occupied colony, for the sake of its oil or possible strategic position, then that would go very much against the grain of the evolution of the world since World War Two, which has seen the liquidation of the once-great Dutch, British, French, Belgian, and Portuguese empires.
Such changes in direction are of course possible. The free-trader and world-marketeer Gladstone, in the mid 19th century, was inclined to see India as a liability to Britain, or an asset whose shedding might in the new, fee trade, era be seriously considered. Then came a new surge of British colony-grabbing and a competitive drive by the great powers to carve up the world.
Such shifts of direction are possible again. But to think sensibly that this is what is happening today, you would have to have enough observations to justify your conclusion. In Iraq, the drive of the great powers is not to turn it into a colony but to get out. Libya, according to all the evidence, is not a desired colony of any of the powers intervening there.
Most likely, the scope of the mass revolt against Qaddafi and its early successes helped convince Britain, France, Italy, and the others that they could easily kick him into hell. Of course they wanted to influence the new government and gain advantage.
I wrote in Solidarity 3/198: "Of course the no-fly zone on Qaddafi might in certain conditions develop into invasion and occupation. Wars escalate, combatants respond to situations they did not foresee". But that has not happened and, the letter of the three leaders notwithstanding, it is not happening now.
It is only if some sort of re-colonisation is going on that Taaffe's position on the limited NATO intervention, an international police action, would make any sense. Then, the immediate benefits of the intervention would be inextricably linked to and followed by the greater disadvantages of conquest, occupation, and colonisation. Socialists and anti-imperialists would let that fact shape their attitude.
It simply makes no sense to react to the actual NATO intervention now as we would properly react if it were likely to lead to renewed colonial conquest.
If Taaffe wants to be taken seriously, and not as the political equivalent of the paranoiac who cannot distinguish between what is theoretically possible and what is realistically probable, he must justify the suspicions and fears he expresses about occupation and colonial conquest in terms of a coherent picture of the world now. And it has to be a fully coherent picture, not the unpurged shards and fragments of an old view of an older colonial world.
One of the worst aspects of post-World-War-Two Trotskyism is that we responded to the freeing of colonies - their gaining of independence, some after colonial wars, some without them - by saying: "But this isn't real independence".
As a description of the limited economic weight of most of the ex-colonies in a world market dominated by the big powers, "not real independence" was all right as far as it went. But the description was very often, mostly even, used as a prop for denying, in our positions and responses, that imperialism had ceased to be colonial imperialism. Too often, it was used to pretend that nothing had "really" changed.
In practice, the "not real independence" line led most Trotskyists, in one degree or another, to embrace and support nationalist-populist movements and see them as "progressive" and "anti-imperialist". In their economic-nationalist programme, those movements were very often reactionary, similar to what Trotsky denounced (in its fascist form) as attempts "to tear the economy away from the worldwide division of labor; to adapt the productive forces to the Procrustean bed of the national state; to constrict production artificially in some branches and to create just as artificially other branches by means of enormous unprofitable expenditures" (1933).
Against colonial imperialism, the democratic and social programme of anti-imperialism is clear: self-determination and independence. Drive out by force the colonial power, dependent on political control and on armies.
But what when ex-colonies become politically independent, while still economically a very great deal less than economically self-determining, even in the limited sense that the great powers are self-determining, or "independent"? Still very much less than economic equals of the big powers? The programme of driving out the colonial power becomes meaningless in the old sense.
Is there a new sense? There can be: economic nationalism, the drive to become economically self-sufficient, as nearly autarkic as possible. In the 1930s and afterwards that "anti-imperialist" economic nationalism gripped powerful movements. It shaped the economic policies of governments in, for example, Argentina, and the 26 Counties Irish state.
There can be progressive manifestations of "nationalism" in certain economic areas. The nationalisation of industries like oil may be a legitimate expression of a drive for national independence. Trotsky saw the nationalisation of oil in Mexico in the late 1930s in that framework. But as a general proposition, economic nationalism is regressive. Generalised economic autarky would plunge the world backwards; and in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s it did
In his denunciations of fascism and in his analysis of Stalinism, Trotsky branded the drive for economic self-sufficiency, for cutting away as much as possible from the world market, as thoroughly reactionary. The same idea was there in all his own programmatic ideas for the development of the USSR - for instance, in Towards Socialism or Capitalism? (1925) - and in his proposals in the early 1930s that the unemployed movements in the advanced countries should advocate economic development linked to trade with the USSR.
There can be backward-looking as well as forward-looking "anti-imperialisms", as Lenin showed in his critique, in his pamphlet Imperialism: The Highest Stage, of the petty-bourgeois anti-imperialists who wanted to go back to mid-19th century small-scale capitalism and free trade. The idea of seeking the economic equality of countries under capitalism is dealt with in the Communist International's Theses on the National and Colonial Question of 1920, where it is dismissed as the international equivalent of seeking the equality of the millionaire and the worker under capitalism:
"An abstract or formal posing of the problem of... national equality... is in the very nature of bourgeois democracy. Under the guise of the equality of the individual in general, bourgeois democracy proclaims the formal or legal equality of the property-owner and the proletarian..."
The only progressive "anti-imperialist" programme in the epoch after colonial imperialism is proletarian international socialism - socialism created on a world scale, on the basis of the achievements of the capitalist world market.
Confusion on this is at the root of much of the would-be left's confusion in the face of conflicts between, for example, Iran and Iraq in their decade of very bloody war (1980-8), or conflicts between the great powers and former colonies or semi-colonies.
Some former colonies or semi-colonies are now regional or - for instance, China - even world powers. Saddam Hussein's Iraq was a regional imperialist power. To approach its conflict with the USA and its allies as if it were conflict between a colonial or semi-colonial people and "imperialism", that is, with your mind on past but now-transformed relationships, is to get lost politically. (The interested reader will find little bits of such old attitudes still clinging to the coverage by AWL of the first Gulf war, in 1991. Though they were peripheral and did not lead us to big political errors, they should not have been there).
Such transformations of the role and relations of countries happened in Europe in the half-century before World War One. In the 1860s the First International proclaimed as one of its principles the unification of Italy - its freedom from oppressive Austrian interference. The Second International (1889-1914) had to come to terms with united Italy's transformation into an imperialist power.
German unification was a goal of all European democrats in the middle of the 19th century. By the end of the 19th century Germany was a great imperial power.
Of course the regional imperialisms, like Iraq or Iran, plainly, are not on the same level as US imperialism. Anyone who would then demand that we behave towards the lesser, regional power, in conflict with the greater imperialism, as we did towards colonial peoples in conflict with colonial empires, should at least raise his position to a coherent view of history. Applied retrospectively, that position would involve supporting Japan against the USA and Britain in World War Two. (In Asia, Japan presented itself as a force for liberation against Western imperialism. It was quite widely accepted as that, even by some Black politicians in the USA).
What follows from this in politics is that we examine each situation concretely and in terms of its specifics, and that we approach no situation as if the old colonial imperialism is still here and the programme that properly went with it can be applied automatically.
Where old-style colonialism or the threat of it exists, the old anti-colonial programme of national struggle for independence and self-determination shows us what our attitude should be. To approach episodes like the NATO interventions in Kosova or Libya to stop massacres is - to steal a joke - like trying to find your way around the London Underground with a map of the Moscow sewers.
To do it as Taaffe does it in his polemic, with bits of half-thought-out ideas, the "shouting-down" methods of ideological hooliganism, and hasty impressions derived from too-limited evidence (the letter of the three) - that is to be simply unserious.
The Russian invasion of Afghanistan at Christmas 1979 led for a decade to the last great colonial war of the 20th century. It was a colonial war with the objective of conquering Afghanistan (for its economic, strategic and military advantage), and making it a full-scale, fully-occupied colony of the USSR.
It was a colonial war in its methods - napalm-bombing villages and so on - like the French colonial war in Algeria (1954-62) and - though that was not in its objectives simply an old-style colonial war - the methods of the USA in Indochina after 1965. One-third of the population (estimated at 18 million then) were driven over the borders. The Taliban took shape in the refugee camps in Pakistan. Perhaps one and a half million died. And the war lasted a full decade, before the Russians were forced to withdraw.
AWL's predecessors condemned the Russian invasion and the consequent long war. From the beginning we called on the Russians to withdraw. As it happened, we were the only "orthodox Trotskyist" group in existence to take that position (though there was a big minority in the French LCR with the same view).
And Militant (now the SP)? After a bit of internal fumbling (I formed the impression that Ted Grant was initially against what became the majority line), they supported the Russian imperialist invaders. They supported Russia in waging a savage colonial war for the ten years before it withdrew, defeated. Then as now the SP substituted great generalisations (about the supposedly progressive nature of the USSR) for specific analysis of the situation. At the time I compared their stance to that of the "socialist" Fabian imperialists of the early 20th century.
People who were avid vicarious imperialists during one of the worst colonial wars of the 20th century have no right to lecture anyone on anti-imperialism. Being denounced by Peter Taaffe for deficiencies in our anti-imperialism in relation to Libya is like being screamed at by Jack the Ripper with the accusation that we knocked someone over in the street, causing him to break the skin of his head on the pavement and lose a little blood!
The separation of AWL and the Socialist Party
Peter Taaffe's response to Martin Thomas's observation that the SP/ Militant have not explicitly polemicised with us in 45 years tells us a lot about Taaffe and the SP leaders. He reacts not by telling the truth of things here - that their polemics were internal poison-pen stuff against others on the left. done in such a way that the others were given no chance to reply and the youth in Militant had no chance to hear other accounts and interpretations of things - but thus:
"On the contrary, the AWL, before it was called this, through Sean Matgamna and a few other individuals, was, for a very short period, part of Militant ‚Äì now the Socialist Party ‚Äì in the 1960s". (In fact, for 18 months, and in the case of Rachel Lever, perhaps double that).
There you are, Thomas, you foul, frenzied, over-educated petty bourgeois, you! You forget that Taaffe and his friends dealt with us back in the 1960s! How long ago was that, Peter? Not only can Bishop Taaffe not write English or Marxian, he can't add up either. And in fact Militant never, to my knowledge, replied to the indictment of their politics that was the take-off point for what is now AWL.
According to Taaffe: "They constantly raised criticisms from the first moment that they joined our ranks ‚Äì in the case of Sean Matgamna, as a refugee from the thuggish Socialist Labour League of Gerry Healy.
"This culminated in them submitting a document of thousands of words for discussion at our national conference just before it was due to take place. The leadership of Militant said that we were prepared to discuss their ideas but properly and fully with full rank-and-file participation. This would not be possible in the time before the conference or at the conference itself; we could not have produced such a lengthy document or reply in time for Militant supporters to read it and make criticisms and comments. But we gave them an undertaking that we would publish the document and circulate it to the supporters of Militant and a full discussion could then take place on their ideas.
"They departed our ranks and collapsed into the International Socialists (IS) the forerunners of today‚Äôs SWP. They were incapable of conducting a sustained discussion where ideas were subjected to debate, as was the tradition and still is in our ranks. It was not Militant or its leadership that ran away but Matgamna and his handful of supporters".
This is factually untrue in most of what it says. Phil Semp and I were ex-SLLers. Rachel Lever was a "native" Militant activist, with two or three years membership (in 1966 Taaffe had had four or five years).
Notice Taaffe's attitude to my "criticism". (Initially, it was mine, though to call Lever and Semp my "followers" is to mis-state things). This guy has spent decades at the centre of an authoritarian organisation where "criticism" is met with the sort of moralising and bluster and ideological bully-work that the reader can see in Taaffe's articles. He has got into the authoritarian mindset to such an extent that he thinks it condemnable that four and a half decades ago, someone joining their organisation from a background in a different tendency - and one with which the Militant/ RSL/ Grant tendency had been in conflict for 20 years, first within a common organisation (WIL, RCP) and then (from 1947) as a rival group - should initially have "criticisms".
Taaffe has got so used to his own bluster and the authoritarianism of their organisation that he doesn't notice how odd this is. It is in effect a retrospective demand that his "correctness" on everything and his Bishop of Rome status within the SP and their "International" be extended backwards - that his present and for decades past inviolability from criticism be read back onto the distant past.
In the mid 1960s Militant was a very small group that did very little and - I thought this the most significant thing - tried to do little. Their four-page more-or-less monthly paper Socialist Fight had collapsed around 1960 and been replaced by a duplicated monthly format. That collapsed too, and for some years they had no publication at all. From September 1961 they went into a joint youth paper, Young Guard, with other groupings, most importantly the precursors of the SWP - but simply, and somewhat mysteriously, had no political presence in its pages, which, dominated by the proto-SWP, were more anarchist than anything else.
In 1964, after they recruited some other "refugees" from the SLL and were forced by the Mandel International, of which they were then the British section, to fuse with another Mandelite group, the future IMG, led by Ken Coates and Pat Jordan, they were able to start a monthly paper, Militant.
Edited by Roger Protz (future editor of Socialist Worker), it was a good-looking eight-pager for the first three or four issues. Taaffe, who was somewhat artificially being "built up", had his name appear as editor, but in fact Protz was editor.
Then Protz and the other "refugees" from the SLL - the future "Red" Ted Knight of Lambeth was one of them - left in disgust with the organisation's leaders for defending and justifying the calling in of police to a Labour Party Young Socialists branch, Wandsworth YS,by a member of Militant/RSL (in fact the Business Manager of Militant, S. Mani)to eject some young Healyites who had been expelled from the Labour Party.
Militant thereafter became a not-always-monthly four-pager, unbelievably drab and dull and amateurish-looking. My sense of futility and tokenism, and consequent depression, after trying to sell it one evening in the Salford pubs, where we had had a very healthy sale of the SLL paper Newsletter, remains in my mind to this day.
Taaffe became a full-timer in London, the "National Secretary", early in 1965, to run the office they hired in the ILP headquarters in Kings Cross. Things couldn't but get better, and they did, a little bit. Even so, Taaffe would still send out routine circulars on which would be printed: "Date as postmark"...
Plainly only an incorrigible malcontent and a serial practitioner of lese-majeste would find anything to "criticise" in such an outfit!
They had an "official" history of how things had got to what they were in British Trotskyism - how, from the 1940s, when the Haston-Grant tendency had led a more-or-less unified British Trotskyist group called the Revolutionary CP, the Healy group had come to be the all-overshadowing thing it was in the 1950s and 1960s and the Grant tendency had come to be the broken-backed feeble creature it was now.
They had always, they insisted, been right on everything, making at most a "mistake" here and there. But events and people had conspired against them. They had a cult of the 1940s British Trotskyist organisation, the RCP (the cradle not only of the SP, but also of what is today the SWP and what was from the 1950s to the 1980s the Healy group, the SLL/ WRP). Everything that had happened since the great days of the RCP had been inevitable because of "the nature of the period" and the malignity of their Trotskyist enemies.
I let Militant (and my hostility to the SLL) convince me for a while that they had not been at fault, or much at fault, in the Wandsworth affair. And I was more than willing to see the faults of the Healy/ Cannon tendency of the 1950s. But I could never accept Militant's general view of the history. There was too much special pleading, too much self-exculpation, too much sickly self-love in it.
It was living, curen, political issues that led us to separate from the Militant (then known to its members as the Revolutionary Socialist League). Since subsequent history has pronounced on those issues, and not in favour of the Militant/ RSL, I find it surprising that Taaffe, even given his mindset of incumbent high priest in an authoritarian organisationcan, can write of it as he does.
I have written at some length about those issues - www.workersliberty.org/wwaawwmb - so I will only outline them here.
Rachel Lever and I came into conflict with Peter Taaffe, Ted Grant, and the other leaders of Militant/ RSL first over the Wilson Labour government's plan to control wages by way of a statutory incomes policy.
This was an attempt to shackle the unions. Compared to what the Tories would put - and New Labour leave - on the statute books, it was a very small thing. Compared to what had gone before, for decades, it was an enormity. A Labour government doing such a thing to the working class and the trade unions was an outrage.
It would become law in mid 1966.
In late 1965 Militant carried a strange commentary by Ted Grant [It appeared under Keith Dickinson's name] on the proposed wage-curb legislation. Instead of trying to raise the anger of the labour movement against the Wilson government and the Labour Party, Militant told its readers - who, fortunately, were very few! - that there was not much to worry about. The labour movement, it said, was too strong to be shackled. Anti-union laws would not matter much.
Wasn't it true, what Militant said? Yes and no. Of course, the labour movement was very strong. But the statutory incomes policy of July 1966 did for a while dampen down effective working-class militancy. In 1969 the same Labour government tried to bring in full-scale legal curbs on the unions - a first version of the sort of legal framework that the Tories would succeed in installing in the early 1980s..
That attempt was defeated - the government was forced to withdraw the legislation - by a tremendous, angry campaign by the labour movement, led by the unions.
That strength in action was not the product of the movement passively contemplating its own might, but was the power deployed in the tremendous demonstrations and strikes that developed in 1969 and again, against the Heath Tory government, after 1970.
Thought Grant's article seemed a piece of ineptitude rather than something politically worse, the idea that the role of Marxists was in effect to preach quietism and complacency to the labour movement, by way of smug contemplation of its own great strength and foolish complacency towards what the Labour government was doing, outraged Rachel Lever and myself. We protested.
It was agreed that we would write a letter, couched as if from casual readers, to the paper. We did. It never got into the paper. But in the next issue of Militant there was another article, signed by Ted Grant, in which he conceded various points in the letter without mentioning it, and then essentially repeated the line of the first article. He added to the political mess a bit of philosophical ultra-leftism; union-shackling laws would stimulate rather than quash militancy.
That was to look at the affairs of the labour movement, in which we were supposedly an activist force, as from a great distance - from a philosophical watch-tower far away. Again, as "prediction", it was both true and not entirely true.
Things would not always be favourable to the labour movement and to militancy. The labour movement was roused in 1969, and again, on a larger scale, with Tory anti-union legislation actually on the books, in 1972-4. But there came a time - as we said in response to Grant's sleep-walking vulgar evolutionist complacency there might - when, with the labour movement weakened by disappointment with the Wilson government which trade union militancy had effectively put into office in 1974, and by mass unemployment, the Thatcher anti-union laws were installed. They have been a powerful force against industrial militancy ever since.
Militant's approach was wrong in principle. Our role should never be to preach complacency to the working class and the labour movement. And the idea that the labour movement was too strong then ever to be defeated, was foolish and irresponsible (as we said in the analysis of RSL politics which we produced in mid-1966).
Their approach here seemed to be all of a piece with an all-pervasive "vulgar evolutionism" in the Militant/ RSL. Vulgar evolutionism is a view that society evolves automatically, incrementally, and smoothly, without the revolutionary breaks or changes of direction that in reality are an essential part of real evolution. It is, you might say, evolution without dialectics. On the level of politics, it seemed to me to be plain stupidity, as well as being irresponsible and light-minded, and cut adrift from the lessons of working class history.
Rachel Lever and I proposed that the organisation should try to set up a broad labour-movement committee, involving other than Militant members, to campaign in the movement against the statutory incomes policy. This led to three sorts of reaction.
One: from the London office - go ahead and see what you can do in Manchester (where we were).
Two: from the Liverpool branch of Militant, the biggest and oldest one - they wouldn't hear of the idea. That sort of thing was what the Healyites did. "It's against the organisation's perspective, comrade!"
Three: from the London office again - actively undermining what we tried to do in Manchester.
I arranged for Peter Taaffe, on a visit to Manchester, to meet an important mineworker contact, a former SLLer, John Parkinson, on whose collaboration or lack of it what we might do in Manchester would greatly depend. Soon after than I learned that with the mineworker Taaffe had dismissed and argued against the idea of starting a labour-movement campaign.
Taaffe did that, so I understand it, because that sort of activism was a mark of the Healyite beast, and he wanted to convert the "contact" to a different mindset.
More than anything else, that two-faced performance by Taaffe - saying one thing to Rachel and me, and another to the "contact" - soured and eventually embittered relations between us and "the office" and those who ran it. Such things, we believed, were impermissible in a healthy Trotskyist organisation.
In fact the argument between the Militant centre and us about launching a broad labour-movement campaign was a continuation of a recurring division in the ranks of the Trotskyists. It had been an issue between the Healyites and Haston-Grant in the 1940s, and again between Grant and what would become the IMG - the Mandelites, Coates, Jordan, etc. (I don't know if Rachel or I knew that then. I'd read some of the RCP archives from the 1940s, in the Militant office, so maybe we did).
Rachel and I had come up against a cluster of basic Grantite politics and attitudes. That forced me to think about those attitudes, and about the vulgar evolutionism which pervaded everything and in all important things defined the organisation's politics.
They made a central fetish of what they called their "perspective" - a scenario about the evolution of the British labour movement and the world.
The labour movement was too strong to be defeated. The widespread trade-union commitment to "nationalisation" was a serious socialist consciousness. The labour movement would evolve by way first of the creation of a mass Labour/ trade union left wing, and then that would become a Marxist current organised around themselves.
The world was experiencing a gradual socialist revolution. The first stage of it, driven by the "autonomous movement of the productive forces", was the inexorable spread of Stalinism. (But not only Stalinists could create "bonapartist deformed workers' states": in 1965 Grant, Taaffe and the rest of "the leadership" announced that Burma and Syria had become "deformed workers' states".) As late as the mid-1970s, they looked with enthusiasm to the seemingly likely creation of a Stalinist regime in Portugal.
In those two, linked, "perspectives" - of the British labour movement, and the Stalinist-in-its-first-stage world revolution - the role of Marxists was to explain what was already going on, give it "critical support", and predict the future. Ted Grant used to say of Marxism that it was "the science of prediction". It was rather, as Rachel and I put it, like proposing to catch - and meanwhile wait for - a train that would eventually come along and continue the journey on pre-set tracks.
At the same time, they could be refreshingly brutal about the realities of Stalinism, in sharp contrast to, for example, the Mandelites. Stalinism was "totalitarian", but progressive-totalitarian. It was "working-class Bonapartism".
The mix was utterly incoherent, but, if you didn't see that, it could be satisfying. You could define the horrors of Stalinism by their proper name, "totalitarian". At the same time you could see the spread of these totalitarian "proletarian Bonapartist" regimes as tremendously progressive, the ongoing "world revolution", and everywhere to be approved and supported and "defended". You could glory in the "achievements" of progressive totalitarianism, see it, despite everything, as the advancing "proletarian revolution" of our time. You could cheer-lead for Russian Imperialism _ in Afghanistanm for the worst instance.
As ideology, it was strong. That depended, however, on the believers not knowing much about Marxism -or, indeed, about socialism. Militant preached, and educated its members to preach, that Marxism was only their "perspectives".
They fervently advocated "socialism".They had an ultra left strain that led then to counterpose future socialism to democratic solutions to, for instance, national conflicts. But they defined "socialism" as the "nationalisation" of the main elements of the economy - by the bourgeois state! Their young people were taught to think they were the most left wing current of all because of the "extrimism" of the number of monopolies they called on the bourgeois state to "nationalise".
Militant's position on the Labour Party was that it was "the workers' party", without qualification. When Rachel Lever and I put into circulation Lenin's description in 1920 of the Labour Party as a bourgeois workers' party, that was dismissed as irrelevant.
The Labour Party was inevitably going to evolve to the left, and continue evolving until "the Marxists" would take over. Just as today the SP sees nothing contradictory in the Labour Party and organisations like it, which they dismiss as having no sliver at all of a working-class dimension, so then also they could see nothing contradictory in what they called "the workers' parties". Then as now, a dialectical view of reality was as foreign to them as coherence is now to the Bishop Taaffe.
Their "perspectives" gave their members a stable labour movement routine - and a group routine - and a viewpoint that saw that routine not as what it was, in a politically inadequate labour movement, but something glorious and revolutionary.
Militant's politics were for practical purposes more a matter of a resolutionary than of a revolutionary approach. But for sect-building they were ideal - so long as the organisation could thread itself through the trellis-work of the Labour Party and the trade unions.
Around the spindle of their "perspectives", the Militant leaders spun a whole skein of related positions. For example: there could be a peaceful, parliamentary, road to socialism in Britain.
I learned that they had the position in the following way. I organised for Ted Grant a meeting of, mainly, ex-SLLers in Manchester. Taaffe would then travel around with Grant and chair his meetings: he was thus being promoted, the altar-boy to Father Ted, so to speak - being built up and fitted with a set of political Cuban-heeled boots. Grant came out with the peaceful revolution line. It provoked heated responses from a number of people there, but he stuck to his guns; and Taaffe stuck to Grant, defending "the line2 of the Group.
In 1966 Rachel and I forced that to a discussion on "the Secretariat" (which was effectively both Political Committee and National Committee). Of the five members, the three "senior" comrades - Ted Grant, the trade-union official Arthur Deane, and Ellis Hillman - said yes, they did hold that Britain would, or could, have a peaceful revolution. Of the two apprentices, Keith Dickinson said he wasn't sure, and Peter Taaffe said he did not believe in the peaceful revolution. Such independence by Taaffe was very rare; otherwise he would have been removed as Grant's official acolyte. And he had toed the line at the Manchester meeting.
Militant also had a general all-purpose excuse for saying and doing what they thought would be organisationally advantageous to them. "The workers wouldn't understand that, comrade!"
For me in the mid-1960s, all this took some untangling. As a response to their alarming quietism over statutory incomes policy, I wrote a short piece on what exactly a Marxist perspective was, as distinct from their railway-station waiting-room notion of a perspective. Then I got lost in "reading around" the subject. I didn't have enough political self-confidence, or political drive, or see the urgent necessity of settling political accounts with them.
The seafarers' strike of May-June 1966 changed that. Militant responded to a strike that was being witch-hunted by the Labour government (Prime minister Harold Wilson said it of being engineered by a "tightly knit group of politically motivated men", and threatened by statutory incomes policy, that is, state action, with routine articles in support of the strikers' trade-union demands. Politics,the state, "the overall running of society" was "forgotten".
When Rachel and I again objected, we were told not to get too excited. The self-excited and habitually profound Peter Taaffe dismissed the strike as only something "ephemeral". You couldn't fool little Peter: only four or five years in politics, and already he knew that a strike didn't go on for ever. He was already "the brilliant young comrade", which some perceptive outsider had called him once (they still quote it!).
With help from Rachel Lever and Phil Semp, I set about writing a systematic critique of Militant's politics (and also a summing-up on the SLL's politics).
"The office" had urged us - perhaps hypocritically, or jeeringly - to write our views out "systematically". We did. We told them that we were writing a long document and that we would type it and copy it, so that (in those pre-computer, pre-photocopier days) nothing was required of the office but to circulate it.
That was the starting point of What We Are And What We Must Become. It was a not-so-small book, covering everything from the Labour Party and our policy towards it to the nature of a Marxist perspective, peaceful revolution, and the role of a revolutionary party and that party's relationship to the labour movement. If we'd had more experience, it could have been pruned and reduced; but essentially it was long because it was comprehensive.
Militant did not have a regular internal discussion bulletin (as Marxist groups often had in those pre-internet days). There was no set length for internal discussion contributions. I cautiously tried to prepare "London" for a "big" document.
There were never any objections. Since we were producing the document, there could be no objections along the lines that the organisation could not spare the time and energy required to get it out.
Rachel Lever and I went to London at the start of my annual holiday, 1 August, to produce the document on the stencil-duplicator at the office. (Stencil-duplicators were then the standard way of producing multiple copies for anyone who could not afford full-scale lithographic printing; but they were not cheap or widely available).
Objections to the document came only after the people at the Militant office, and Ted Grant, had read it. Then everything changed. They tried to confiscate the only hard copy we had, and I had to trick Peter Taaffe in order to get it back.
Peter especially was upset. The document had recounted his double-dealing on the projected campaign against statutory incomes policy. It was, he said, with characteristic self-effacement, "all about the warts on Peter Taaffe's face". The document debunked the mystique of Militant's "perspectives", and it was out of key with maintaining the internal mystique of "the leadership", Grant, and his unique mastery of the mysteries of Marxism. It knocked away the political Cuban heels they had been putting underc Grant's "brilliant young" acolyte, Peter. It was meant to.
From the point of them reading it onwards, we were given the runaround in London, wasting a week. When we eventually managed to produce 100 hard copies, they refused to let us circulated it. It surprises me that Taaffe is so self-unaware now as publicly to repeat some of their arguments from that time.
It was a "pre-conference period" for Militant - the conference was about three months away - so surely we had a right to circulate the document? No, they replied. "The leadership" would not have time to reply! So, our democratic rights as members could be removed because they could not reply, or not reply within three months? Exactly!
In fact, the conference had, in the preceding year or so, repeatedly been postponed. Was it now absolutely fixed? Of course it is, comrade! In fact, if my memory is reliable here, it would not held be held on schedule but would again be postponed. It was, I think, not held until early in 1967, half a year or so after the beginning of August.
The mix of their day-to-day sluggishness and incapacity, and, now, the deployment of a full panoply of bureaucratic leadership self-defence methods, aroused our (certainly, my) contempt. They could have been mocking or guying themselves. They were, but they didn't know it.
We started to campaign in the organisation for the right to raise our criticisms of the leaders' politics. We found - in London, for example - solid and seemingly unquestioning support for whatever the leadership said or did. The story circulated by Taaffe and Grant that we were or were "probably" Healyite agents contributed to that. But fundamentally it was a matter of the nature of the organisation. The members were people recruited to and educated in the group's "perspective" and in its cult of Grant, not in general Marxist politics. They had been given a vulgar-evolutionary scenario of the future, and something to do now: that was the extent of the political education.
A proposed "compromise" was finally suggested - that the document be circulated to "the National Committee", which would decide if it should be circulated to the membership. An obviously sensible "democratic centralist" approach? No, it wasn't.
The National Committee was three quarters a fiction. It never met separately. National Committees were always "extended National Committees", that is, "teach-ins" with as many non-NC members as could be mustered. We saidof the "National Committee" that it was little more than a form of differential franchise, should anything need to be voted on at the "Extended National Committees". Anyway, the NC was certain to back "the Secretariat".
Unless the document were circulated so that everyone could read it, any discussion would be dominated by claims that what we said was "all about the warts on Peter Taaffe's face". They wanted a "discussion" in which most of those taking part would be deprived of the right to read the document under discussion! We rejected the proposal for circulation only to the NC.
I remember the point at the October 1966 extended National Committee at which I decided I wasn't going to remain a member of Militant. It was the justification that the members accepted from Peter Taaffe for some particular bit of clumsy bureaucratic blocking by the centre. "This is exactly how it is done in the broad labour movement. It is perfectly democratic".
In the bureaucratised, routinised, ideas-unfriendly "broad labour movement"? I aspired to something better. On the second day of the Extended National Committee, I made a formal statement, and we left.
The US in Iraq and union freedoms
Taaffe justifies his dismissal of my question about "troops out of Iraq" by exclaiming: "This was under an imperialist occupation that had seen the outlawing of trade unions like the oil workers' union..."
So... there was an oil workers' union more or less thriving under Saddam Hussein? Then the US occupation outlawed it? But it would regain its freedom if we successfully pushed "troops out" during Iraq's sectarian civil war?
In fact the oil workers' union (today IFOU) was formed only after the US invasion in 2003. Not even small underground unions could survive under Saddam.
The US occupation deserves censure on union rights on Iraq - for not abolishing the Saddam-era laws which already outlawed unions in the public sector and which now mean that unions like IFOU remain legally in the shadows.
Any wing of the hardline-Islamist "resistance", triumphant, was sure to crush the fragile union movement.
Socialists and the European Union
Taaffe says of the SP's "No2EU" campaign in 2009: "We fought a campaign with the RMT to oppose the anti-working class laws of the EU summed up in the Lisbon Treaty. But at the same time we argued in separate material for our programme for the position of a socialist Europe".
Of course socialists counterpose the socialist United States of Europe to the capitalist EU! The problem is that those in and around the labour movement, and in the country at large, who stridently oppose EU integration, counterpose to it an "independent" capitalist Britain. That is all that anyone can counterpose to it now as an immediate alternative. It is what the broad anti-EU forces, from UKIP and some Tories all the way to the CPB on the "left", counterpose to it. It is the only meaning that demands for Britain to 'get out of Europe', things being as they are, can have now.
Internationalist socialists counterpose to the bosses' European Union not "British independence but working-class unity across Europe, and a common working-class policy across Europe, within the EU. We explain the case for a socialist Europe as for a socialist Britain. We advocate democratic reform of the EU.
To propose to unravel what the bourgeoisie have done in the way of reducing barriers between countries in Europe - yes, albeit in their own way, which is not ours, and not congenial to us - is thoroughly reactionary. It amounts to throwing out decades of progress and returning bourgeois Europe to the conditions that bred two World Wars.
Many on the left, including the SP, go along with the "little Britain" opponents of the EU while simultaneously muttering under their breath about the socialist United States of Europe. But the socialist United States of Europe is not the available alternative to the EU - an independent capitalist Britain is.
In World War One Trotsky raised the question: what if Germany unites Europe by conquest? What will socialists advocate? That it be returned to the old conditions?
Trotsky advocated a campaign within a German-unified Europe not for unravelling it into the old sovereign states, but for its transformation into a democratic Europe, voluntarily united, and, specifically, for the Socialist United Europe.(See Trotsky's The Peace Programme)
I think he underestimated the extent of national resistance to conquest that would exist in such a Europe. But the approach is clear. And it is the correct approach towards the EU now.
Instead of counterposing internationalism to the nationalists - inside the labour movement and beyond it - the posture of the anti-EU left is to go along with them and use "socialist United States of Europe" as a private prayer to placete the gods of internationalism.
The reason for this is that some of the most unbudging opponents of the EU are labour movement people, many of them otherwise respect-worthy people. Initially the anti-EU position was that of the Communist Party, pursuing the Russian foreign-policy interest in not having a united Western Europe.
The Trotskyist left initially, decades ago, refused to follow the chauvinist and Stalinist opposition to a Europe united under bourgeois rule. But then groups like the SP jumped into line on the question so as to keep in step with the labour movement chauvinists.
That is what Taaffe advocates doing now. Young SP people may feel they are being very "left wing", internationalist, and are virtuous in their almost sotto voce calls for a "socialist United States of Europe". In fact, in terms of practical politics, they are part of a British-nationalist ideological bloc.
It's the little boy with a tin whistle standing in front of a clamorous orchestra and telling himself: when they play Rule Britannia, I'll play the Internationale and the Red Flag. People will hear me, not them.
Except that Taaffe and the others are not little boys: they know what they do here.
Toadying to Bob Crow
Taaffe is indignant with AWL because a member of AWL, on a blog over which we have no control, is less than polite to Bob Crow of the RMT.
This part of Taaffe's article is a piece of toadying to Crow. He tells us, indignantly, that Crow is "perhaps the most militant... trade union leader in Britain". So Crow being a militant trade unionist is all that defines him? All that need concern Marxists? Because he is a militant trade unionists, the rest of his politics don't matter?
If that is not what Taaffe is saying, what does he want to say?
Bob Crow is, in my opinion, a respect-worthy militant trade unionist. He is one of the best of the trade-union leaders. But politically Crow is a supporter of the Stalinist Communist Party of Britain. On things like the European Union he is a reactionary "Little Britisher".
If the contradictory nature of Crow is hard for Peter Taaffe to grasp, what does he think about Arthur Scargill? In 1984-5 Scargill led the greatest strike since the 1926 general strike. In that he was a revolutionary trade unionist.
For our part, we did everything we could, threw everything our organisation had, into backing and helping the miners - while Taaffe and his protégé Derek Hatton, who then controlled Liverpool's Labour council, did a short-term deal with the Tories instead of taking the Liverpool labour movement into battle alongside the miners.
But Scargill was also a typical trade-union bureaucrat, complete with chauffeured car, high wage, and so on. And he was a dyed-in-the-delusions unteachable Stalinist.
In the middle of the miners' strike he set up a federation with the police-state pseudo-unions of Russian and Eastern Europe. Despite wholeheartedly supporting him against the Tories, we criticised him on such questions. By the way: did Taaffe do that?
Ireland: why socialists must have a democratic programme
Taaffe defends his "united workers' defence squad" scheme for Northern Ireland (which, incidentally, was raised first by the Healyite SLL, then, for a short while, by the Communist Party of Northern Ireland (there were then two Irish CPs), then by the Maoist British and Irish Communist Organisation, and then by Militant).
In fact, during the prolonged crisis of 1969, Militant had no supporters in Northern Ireland. They gained some supporters in Derry only afterwards.
There is a lot of mystery in what Taaffe writes. In the mid 90s, soon after the IRA ceasefire, the Socialist Party came out in favour of some sort of federal united Ireland (apparently a 26/six county federation).
Though the idea seems since to have disappeared from the SP press, that was a recognition, some 25 years after the Troubles started, that the Irish situation could not be dealt with just by the typical Militant generality: "socialism is the only answer". By then, the SP leaders would have had to be completely, as distinct from partly, brain-dead not to recognise that the all-shaping fact in Ireland is that there are two distinct peoples, with different national identities, on the island.
(The distinction is not the same as the six/ 26 county division. There is a very big Catholic-nationalist minority in the Six Counties, who are the majority in a large part of its land area, in Derry City for example).
The political issues that have split the Irish working class and convulsed Irish political life concern the relationship of those two peoples to each other.
The Protestant-Unionists do not want to be, and greatly fear being, a minority in a Catholic-majority state, and positively want to be part of the UK; traditional nationalism demands that they should become a minority in a Catholic Ireland.
Faced with that conflict, socialists can either pretend that this complex of issues will go away if ignored - it hasn't, in 150 years - or, as socialists, seek a way out that could make sense to the mass of the people, Protestant and Catholic, Unionist and nationalist.
There is, after all - and someone should remind Bishop Taaffe of it - within the socialist programme a comprehensive democratic programme, with which we relate to such questions. Our anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism is part of it.
On all socialist precedent, where there is a situation like that in Ireland, we advocate federation, local self-rule, and so on. We counterpose to the chauvinisms thrown up by such conflicts proposals for a benign democratic arrangement and rearrangement of affairs. We propose working-class unity on the basis of agreement to wage a common fight in both conflicting communities against any oppression, or future oppression of minorities. Instead, Militant pretended that trade union unity on bread and butter issues -which had been commonplace in Northern Ireland before 1969 - would banish concern with relations between the two peoples, the so-named "constitutional question".
While fighting for a socialist revolution, and after they had made it, in a Tsarist Empire with many nationalities, the Bolsheviks made great use of their democratic approach. "Socialism is the only answer" politics, without any democratic programme, are irrelevant and sectarian. In so far as they implicitly say to those afflicted by the "constitutional" issues, "forget it", they are ultra-left.
Throughout the Troubles, Militant had no policy for Ireland. "Socialism" in the abstract, especially Militant's "socialism equals nationalisation" version of it, was not a policy. A socialist sect can be built on such indifference to the political questions, but not a Marxist organisation.
Militant's mid-90s conversion to a (very inadequate) version of a "federal united Ireland" policy suggests they eventually caught on to that, or some of them did. In fact it is one of the great lessons of the lead-up to the 1968/9 crisis and the aftermath.
In the late 60s, "everyone" in dissident Irish politics was socialist. The official Republicans were (in fact they were Stalinists). The People's Democracy movement in the North was. Eamonn McCann and the Derry Young Socialists were. The Guevarist Saor Eire guerrilla organisation was.
But soon the socialists - that is, the sectarians and the ultra-left socialists who tried to ignore the national and "constitution" question - were pushed to the sidelines because they had no answers on the "constitutional" question. The national question, the "constitutional" question, emerged not in a benign democratic and working-class form, but in the chauvinism of the Provisionals and the "left" IRSPon one side and, on the other, of the Protestant-Unionist ultras.
Eamonn McCann, standing on a class and socialist policy in the 1970 general election, got 7,565 votes. He did not shape subsequent events. The different chauvinist forces did.
Taaffe's two pieces, which Martin Thomas and I have analysed, highlight a prime source of the bureaucratisation in so many of the would-be Trotskyist organisations. The mixture of demagogic attempts at shouting down and moralistic bullying which Taaffe has publicly displayed tells you what the internal life of the SP is like.
If Taaffe, self-satisfied in his political clumsiness, political illiteracy - and plain illiteracy - existed in an organisation where people had the habit of thinking for themselves, and could exercise the right of taking what he says not as the oracular voice from the bishop's chair, but critically, as the voice of an ordinary mortal, a comrade among comrades, then he would quickly deflate.
If they could mock his pretences without calling down on their heads a chorus of full-timers and loyal cultists in the vein that Taaffe displays in these polemics, then he could scarcely hope to maintain influence, let along the position of supreme bishop and giver of the law to the organisation.
Finally, Peter: when are you going to deal with the truth about what you did in Liverpool in 1984-6? Derek Hatton has said on TV, in response to it being put to him that you had claimed you knew nothing about the council issuing mass redundancy notices in September 1985, that this idea was "news to him". You knew. You bear over-all political responsibility for the fiasco and the outright treason against the striking miners.
It would be interesting, and might even be fruitful in terms of educating the new generation of socialists, if you were to abandon the lies and the bluster about "the city that fought" - you didn't; your organisation didn't! - and attempt an honest account of it based on the known and incontrovertible facts.
Postscript: Militant and the Labour Party, 1969-87: a strange symbiosis
From about 1969 Militant would develop a strange - as far as I know, unique - relationship with the Labour Party. For almost two decades they were allowed to run the Labour Party Young Socialists as a political nursery and recruitment pool for Militant.
The Labour Party had been pretty rigidly controlled in the 50s and early 60s, by a repressive right wing backed by the trade-union bureaucracies. Nye Bevan MP, the founder of the National Health Service in the 1940s and leader of a big left-wing "Bevanite" current in the 1950s, was nearly expelled at one point.
Then, when the right-wing leader Hugh Gaitskell died unexpectedly in 1962, the once-Bevanite Harold Wilson became leader and in the next few years liberalised the Labour Party. The Healyites, who had gained control of the Labour youth movement, were expelled in 1964-5 (some of them: the rest just left), but they courted expulsion (see here).
The next biggest group in the Labour youth movement, the proto-SWP, drifted out in 1967-8 in response to the Labour government and its doings, and to the youth radicalisation in the movement against the Vietnam war and the cultural-sexual revolution of the time.
In 1969 Militant gained the majority on the national committee of a much depleted and diminished Young Socialists. For 17 years and more they ran the YS as a pretty tightly-policed and bureaucratised organisation. In 1977 they even managed to get their own full-timer appointed as Labour Party youth officer, paid by the Labour Party.
At YS conferences there would be a "National Committee" - Militant - summing-up speaker, and NC "recommendation" on how to vote, on every resolution and amendment. They managed to evolve a uniform speaking style, which all their people seemed to have. It would sometimes relieve the tedium to see some poor youngster proposing something like a tea-break in the prescribed style, with standard "dramatic" hand-gestures and all. Far more of the youngsters affected a Liverpool accent than could possibly have come from Liverpool.
They denounced everyone else who was a Trotskyist as "the sects". But they were the most rigid of sects, in their ideas and in their uniformity of style.
(I once, at a YS conference, saw a comrade-barber offering what was placarded as a "revolutionary haircut", proceeds to the organisation. The "revolutionary haircut" was one like that of Ted Grant, who hid hair loss with hair combed forward on top. I think there was an element of intentional humour in the offer - but the barber was in fact giving youngsters a haircut like Grant's!)
How was this possible? Why did the Labour Party let them do it, and even, after 1977, subsidise them in doing it?
As I've said, the Labour Party was run by tolerant ex-Bevanites who in 1973 even abolished the Party's very long list of proscribed organisations (membership of which was incompatible with Labour Party membership). But that alone would not have done it. Decisive was the fact that Militant kept rigidly within the rules, and did not do anything beyond passing resolutions about "nationalising the monopolies". They retreated from the conflict with the Labour Party leaders which their politics would naturally have engendered up a ladder of propagandist abstractions.
In social policy, the "Trotskyist" YS in the 1970s was more often than not aligned with the stone-age right wing of the Labour Party. Motions on lesbian and gay rights and on women's equality were routinely voted down. Motions to legalise cannabis called forth youngsters - complete with the regulation dramatic hand-gestures - to say it would lead to just another capitalist monopoly, like beer and tobacco (which, however, they did not propose to ban).
The history of the Labour youth organisation had been one of the youth being on the left of the party, and often falling under the control of other political organisations - the Stalinists in the 1930s, the Healyites in the 60s. The Labour Party leaders thought that the docile Militant "revolutionary YS" was their best option, short of once more shutting down the youth organisation (as had been done in the 30s and 50s, and half-heartedly attempted in the mid-60s after the fight with the SLL). And Militant in turn policed the YS for the Labour Party.
It was a strange symbiotic relationship. Militant thrived, until catastrophe hit them in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They were discredited by their fiasco on Liverpool council (www.workersliberty.org/files/illusions.pdf) and Neil Kinnock was then able to shut down the YS and expel some Militant people as a way of intimidating the whole Labour left. (Incidentally, contrary to what Taaffe says, the proto-AWL - Socialist Organiser - was banned, in 1990). Militant did not fight the YS shutdown or the expulsions (other than by court actions). Then the collapse of Russian Stalinism in 1991 dealt a death-blow to their world perspective, as Kinnock had dealt a death-blow to their "British perspective".
Bluster and lies - as in Peter Taaffe's book with Tony Mulhearn, Liverpool - A City That Dared to Fight - had a limited power to fool or placate people who on some level have a glimmering of the truth. (Their power to convince trusting young people later - now - is greater).
The pensions demo on 30 June was exciting enough, but I felt an extra thrill at the start in Lincoln’s Inn Fields when I spotted Peter Taaffe. There he was, the General Secretary of the Socialist Party! The "legendary Peter Taaffe", as his friend and disciple Derek Hatton said of him in his memoirs.
Peter Taaffe, the main man responsible for the great victory of the Liverpool labour movement over Thatcher and the Tories in 1985. (The one associated with the name of Derek Hatton and the image of a fleet of council-hired taxis dashing around Liverpool to deliver notices to council workers telling them they were sacked.)
The staunch anti-imperialist who for ten years supported Russia's colonial war against the peoples of Afghanistan.
Taaffe isn't seen out much these days, so spotting him was quite an event. Here was my chance to invite him, face-to-face, to debate with us on Libya. Taaffe has written thousands of words in their press polemicising against us on this question. Some inexplicable shyness stops him accepting our offer to to go head-to-head with him in a debate before supporters of AWL and the SP to explore and thrash out our differences.
I didn't want this shy man to take fright so I tried to put a reassuring smile in my voice. "Hello Peter", I said, in my friendliest manner.
Taaffe responded with a smile and an equally friendly "Hiya". But the smile vanished when he caught sight of Solidarity, which I was selling. Picking up the signal, a big lad wearing an RMT badge stepped in. A bodyguard! To protect him from me? Taaffe is small, but I'm even smaller. Then I saw another big lad moving in. At this point my inner groupie stirred.
I was in the presence of a man important enough to rate bodyguards! Two of them! Wow! In that Kevin Costner film, the mega pop star had only one. The General Secretary had two! For a moment I was awestruck. Then my inner Bolshevik elbowed the over-impressed groupie aside.
What does he need bodyguards for? This is about status and self-importance, not protection. Perhaps the bodyguards are the Socialist Party equivalent of a stretch limousine for the company director? Or were they there to protect his Royal Shyness from people like me? In any case, a debate would do him good. I did what I'd come to do!
"Peter", I said, "I’m offering you an invitation to debate us on Libya. We’ve been calling your office, but we haven’t got very far. We’ve been asking local SP members. Some seem willing, but not sure that you will allow them to. So, how about it?"
"Who are you?" he replied, now spitting his words out. In the same breath, he answered his own question "You're irrelevant, we’ve said what we’ve got to say, you're irrelevant."
"Peter", I said, still trying to put a smile in my voice, "you’ve just spent thousands of words polemicising against our 'irrelevance'. Obviously there are rumblings in your organisation about your position on Libya, and I guess there’s some support for the AWL position: isn’t that why you’ve taken us on on your website?"
While I’m talking Taaffe is rolling his eyes, slowly shaking his head from side to side and repeating the mantra: "You’re irrelevant, you lot are irrelevant". The minders, the big lad from the RMT and a tall passive bloke with a fixed look of love on his face, pleased just to be in the General Secretary’s orbit, roll their eyes and slowly shake their heads, mimicking Taaffe in perfect synchronisation. For a second I think I’ve been teleported to the set of Dr Who.
The big lad speaks excitedly, but I haven’t a clue what he’s trying to say. The General Secretary, in a soothing voice, tells him: "It’s okay, I can speak for myself". When he indicates that he is about to speak, the others instantly fall silent and become reverently attentive.
I make the offer again, and now Taaffe starts to get angry and a little nastier. "AWL — middle class. You're all middle class" , he spits out. "You're all middle class students. Yous lot are irrelevant". Peter is strongest on sociology: he knows that the decisive thing is not its politics, but the class composition of a would-be socialist organisation. Look at the good results that approach helped win in Liverpool. Look at the history of the proletarian-based Communist Parties of Western Europe.
Now he’s waving his hands in poo-pooing motions, as if to brush me off. When I persist, he says: "Do you know Janine Booth in the RMT"?
"Yeah, of course. She’s great, isn’t she"? "No!" says Taaffe angrily, "She’s a disgrace to the working class. We’ll debate you in the RMT".
The General Secretary is now wearing a sly smile, pleased with himself, as if he’s trumped me. I say we’ll be happy to debate the SP in the RMT too. This is my day for surprises: when I persist in urging the need for a wider public debate, he starts to get a bit upset, agitated.
This is an old man who is not used to being contradicted and talked back to. Or debating on an equal footing with his opponent. He repeats, again and again: "Yous lot are irrelevant". Then without any sign that he sees the irony in it, he blasts out an order to me: "Stop repeating yourself, you're irrelevant. Go on - do a runner like Matgamna".
He pauses for a second, his eyes flit back to the distant past, a rheumy old man reliving a triumph of his youth, and then he lets out a theatrical laugh: "You won’t know about that will you? It’s before your time, when Matgamna did a runner".
He likes this; he likes himself: he has reassured himself, remembering when the three people who started what is now AWL walked out of the Militant/Socialist Party National Committee meeting (after they had, in a pre-conference period, been forbidden to circulate internally a wide-ranging criticism of the organisation's politics).
"What? Like you don’t know about the Russian Revolution because it was before your time? Of course I know about our history. Now you're just making a fool of yourself". He really didn’t like that; and neither did his bodyguards. You don't call the Pope a fool to his face! If angry glares and clenched mouths could kill...
When a younger male comrade of mine came over to see what was going on the General Secretary ordered him: "Take her away, she’s hysterical, she keeps repeating herself".
Hysterical? I recalled the stock cartoon image of a flabby-bodied Margaret Thatcher in a "wonder Woman" bathing costume, in Militant and on their placards, and the slogan "Ditch the Bitch!" with which Taaffe tried to "raise the consciousness" of the labour movement in the mid 1980s.
For a moment or two I wondered if I’d mistaken some foolish old man, wandering the streets with a menacing grin and delusions of grandeur, for the General Secretary of the Socialist Party. But I knew I hadn’t. It really was the Bishop Taaffe. And his bodyguards!
[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
1. WHAT DO MARXISTS DO IN THE WORKING CLASS AND ITS MOVEMENTS?
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 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 buit - 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 sizeable 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.
2. MARXIST, CONSISTENTLY CLASS-CONSCIOUS, POLITICS AND THE WORKING CLASS
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.
3. WHAT POLITICS DID MILITANT BRING TO WORKERS, WIN SOME OF THEM TO?
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.
4. MILITANT A FORCE FOR BACKWARDNESS AND CONFUSION IN THE WORKERS' 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 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 them (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 'abrekadabra' 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.)
5. MILITANT'S IDEA OF SOCIALISM
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 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 Young Socialists, arguing vehemently that socialism was workers control (IS), or that it was only 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.
6. THE WORKING CLASS AND THE UNFOLDING STALINIST REVOLUTIONS
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 was not in any meaningful sense 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 thay 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 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 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 — 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.
7. THE "SOCIALIST CONSCIOUSNESS OF THE BRITISH WOTLERS' MOVEMENT, OR: WHAT "THE WORKERS" WOULD AND WOULD NOT "UNDERSTAND"
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!” (For old-timers who might remember the period, it was 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.
8. MARXISM IS NOT SOMETHING GIVEN, A FINISHED PROGRAMME
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.”