Ever the Stalinist nostalgic, in his new book The Fall and Rise of the British Left, Murray laments the passing away of “a largely vanished world of working-class power” and the fact that “none of the scenarios which gripped the left I grew up with in the twentieth century appear fully plausible any more.”
What is to fill the vacuum?
Murray’s answer is not: Slough off the dead weight of Stalinism, re-assert the centrality of independent working-class politics, and reforge a labour movement fit for the overthrow of capitalism.
Instead, and this is his explanation for Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, he recycles the old Stalinist mantra about the need for a broad democratic alliance.
Murray – currently Chief of Staff in Unite the Union and also an adviser to Corbyn (1.5 days a week) — writes of the need for a “broad-based alliance for social change” and “a broad progressive movement”. This consists of “the New Left movements of the twenty-first century” and “the historic vehicle for working-class politics, the Labour Party.”
By “New Left movements” Murray primarily means the Stop the War Coalition, of which he was chair for many years, and which he describes as “perhaps the major tributary in the flood that lifted Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party.”
Such an alliance made possible Corbyn’s election as Party leader. Now, uncritical support should be the rule: “The greatest threat to the coalition the Labour Party has assembled in furtherance of the socialist option is its fragmentation under the rubric of the culture war.”
Murray therefore admires Momentum for everything which is wrong with it: “It does not seek to inculcate a common ideology, beyond support for Jeremy Corbyn and his values. It also does not seek to advance particular policy positions.”
Conversely, he condemns “Brexit Derangement Syndrome (which) now runs riot on the left and has the potential to destroy the broad-based alliance for social change assembled under Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.”
In a section mistitled as “Is There Anything to Learn from the Leninists?” – for “Leninists” read: Stalinists – Murray gives three answers:
Understand Marx; be a genuine internationalist; and adopt “a spirit of self-sacrifice and discipline, a willingness to put one’s career and personal aspirations, even one’s life, on the line for the cause.”
Murray himself has clearly failed on all three counts. But anyone concerned about their own level of self-discipline and self-sacrifice could test them by trying to wade through this 220-page political morass of Stalinist corpses.
The book is diffuse because its author has lost the lodestar of the Soviet Union.
Murray joined Labour only three years ago, after 40 years membership of the Communist Party. In the Party’s internal faction fights Murray had been on the side of the most hardline Stalinists (the “super-tankies”) and had allied with the ultra-Stalinist “Straight Left” faction.
Murray has swapped his party card, but not his politics.
In his book he yearns for the good old days when trade unions were “influenced by a still-extant Communist Party” and “a significant number of Labour MPs were not ashamed to align themselves, partially or wholeheartedly, with the Soviet Union.”
The Soviet Union’s collapse – attributed to “the pressure of confrontation with the capitalist powers externally and Gorbachev’s perestroika internally” – was “a cataclysmic event for socialists across the world.”
The collapse of “the only model yet created of a post-capitalist society” had “a powerful impact on the British left… The end of socialism in the USSR and Eastern Europe and the opening up of China to huge inward investment was a double whammy for the labour movement.”
Murray even claims that it is “not irrelevant” that the old Labour Party Clause IV was scrapped “soon after the collapse of the USSR, the society whose whole mission, and for many years apparent success, was predicated on public ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.”
He tells a bland and simplistic history of the British labour movement over the past five decades.
In the 1970s there was a powerful trade union movement. This was destroyed by Thatcher in the 1980s. New Labour in power was a continuation of Thatcherism. The Labour left collapsed under Blair. Now, after the Miliband interlude, Corbyn has emerged victorious from the wreckage.
The potted history is skewed by the fact that Murray sees it through the prism of his lifelong adherence to Stalinism.
Murray displays a prickly sensitivity to criticism of the Communist Party. He singles out for denunciation left-wing journalist Paul Mason for writing that the Communist Party has “the unerring ability to destroy every political project it touches.”
Murray’s riposte is to list the supposedly successful campaigns run by the Communist Party over the past century.
The list includes: opposition to Mosley at Cable Street (backed by the Party only at the last minute); campaigning for opening a Second Front in the war (ignored by the Allies); the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (which consistently failed to live up to its name); and “the survival of the Morning Star as a daily newspaper.”
Obvious omissions from Murray’s list are: support for the Stalinist purges and show trials, calls for a vote for “progressive Tories” (including Winston Churchill), support for the post-war Eastern European antisemitic show trials, and support for the bloody suppression of the Hungarian Revolution.
But Murray appears to be mellowing with age. Rather than denounce Mason as an agent of Mossad and the CIA, he attributes Mason’s article to the sins of his youth: “Mason’s view may have been coloured by his twentieth-century Trotskyism.”
Murray denounces the Alliance for Workers Liberty, the organisation that produces Solidarity, on just one occasion. To try to justify the uncritical attitude of the Stop the War Coalition towards Saddam Hussein’s regime and its later cheerleading of reactionary Islamist insurgents, he writes:
“It is to your own government that your political action should be directed rather than deploring the shortcomings (undoubtedly real) of those resisting these violent intrusions in their own lands.”
In a footnote Murray adds: “In Britain this trend exists in its most concentrated form in the group presently known as the Alliance for Workers Liberty.” In fact, the AWL combined, rather than counterposed, hostility to “our own government” and hostility to Saddam’s regime.
Murray’s loyalty to historical Stalinism at home and abroad appears again in the book’s pro-Brexit polemics.
Lexiters had “a cogent argument” in the 2016 referendum. It was “unfortunate” that it was drowned out by “rancorous nationalism and buffoonery.” Even so, the referendum result counts as a win: It was “a rejection of the Davos priesthood of global capitalism.”
“The EU apparatus,” writes Murray, “is a concentrated political articulation of that market pressure [the main force which disrupts progressive governments], combining absolute fealty to the interests of the stock exchange with imperceptible democratic accessibility.”
The EU might appear to have some virtues, such as it promotion of anti-discrimination and minimum workplace standards. But these “values (mis)identified with Euro-liberalism” are secondary to the bigger picture:
“In a choice between an unaccountable bureaucratic ‘dictatorship of virtue’ and the greater potentials of democratic struggle [outside of the EU], the latter is more appealing. And that is before one gets on to the free-market commitments entrenched in the EU’s founding treaties.”
If Labour were to be a full-on Remain party, “it would endanger decisive layers of time-honoured support now regarded as out of joint with the new enlightenment. It would be a Hilary Clinton strategy.” Labour would end up on the side of “metropolitan liberalism”.
Murray dismisses the call for “remain and reform” as “threadbare”. Apart from Portugal, no EU government supports the call: “So, ‘reform’ looks pretty forlorn at present – a gesture of intent at best, more likely an exercise in painting leftist lipstick on the neo-liberal pig.”
He likewise dismisses EU-wide free movement of labour:
“Some on the left retreat into a politics based on a radical individualism rather than collectivism. Labour has been right to frame the issue by focusing on the common class interests of all workers in Britain and the importance of labour market regulation.”
Outside of the EU, he continues, ignoring the evidence that doors more closed to Poles and Romanians will also be more closed to Syrians, Sudanese, and Eritreans, “a radical Labour government” would be “free to set whatever immigration policy it liked, free of the requirement to prioritise the migration of mostly white people from other parts of Europe over the needs of refugees.”