Redmond O’Neill, a leader of the Socialist Action group, has died aged 55 of cancer. Because O’Neill was an official in Ken Livingstone’s London mayoral administration, his death has received wide attention, for instance in the Guardian.
Ken Livingstone’s obituary describes him as a “lifelong revolutionary socialist and leading figure on the left for three decades”. In fact, for many years it has been an abuse of language to call O’Neill and his organisation socialist, or even really part of the left.
It was not just their grim support for Stalinist and other ‘progressive’ authoritarian regimes and movements in the developing world. (Hence the cant in Livingstone’s obituary about internationalism – though in fact Socialist Action’s politics are the polar opposite of international working-class solidarity.) Such ideas are, unfortunately, fairly common on the left, though Socialist Action has taken them to an extreme. What was and, to the extent that the group still exists is, unique about Socialist Action is their crawling to the rich and powerful in Britain itself.
Thus O’Neill was paid over £100,000 a year to work, alongside a number of his comrades, for a mayor who was quite openly a servant of the ruling class – breaking strikes, sucking up to bankers and property developers and lavishly praising the Blair and Brown governments. There is little evidence that Socialist Action had any interest whatsoever in workers’ struggles – except in so far as they came into conflict with their project for a “Progressive London”, in which case they had to be opposed ruthlessly (the Tube workers).
The group's politics could be summarised as a kind of popular-front Stalinist Fabianism - seeing the 'class struggle' not in the living battles and movements of workers and the oppressed, but concealed in all kinds of 'progressive forces', from the Stalinist states to politicians like Livingstone. By working and gaining positions of 'influence' within these movements, they would, despite all appearances, remain revolutionaries. Any betrayals of what real socialists would understand as class struggle could be explained by this framework.
An announcement of O’Neill’s death on the Socialist Unity website prompted some debate, with negative comments deleted by the moderator on grounds of respect for the dead. Clearly any individual’s death is a tragedy for their friends and family. But O’Neill was a politician, not a private individual. We would benefit no one by pretending he was anything other than what, by the end, he certainly was – a mortal enemy of working-class socialism.