Corbyn in the 1980s: "The level of hatred in British politics then was high - in both directions"

Submitted by martin on 17 July, 2019 - 8:51 Author: Sean Matgamna
The Times on Corbyn

The Times of 6 July 2019 ran an article by Dominic Kennedy, "Corbyn's hard-left blueprint revealed", attacking Jeremy Corbyn for his links in the 1980s with Socialist Organiser, a forerunner of Solidarity. Sean Matgamna, editor of Socialist Organiser in the period described, talked to Solidarity.



We have serious political differences with Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party.

But Corbyn has the record of an honorable, serious left-winger, who - unlike many others who had some association with Socialist Organiser in the 1980s - did not change his coat in the years of Blair's New Labour Party. He never gave any sign of being a careerist. He was not one to hide his politics.

Nobody needed to dig in old archives to know what Corbyn is and was in politics, or what Socialist Organiser was.

The Times condemns Socialist Organiser for its comments on the October 1984 bomb attack by the Provisional IRA on Margaret Thatcher and other Tory leaders, and Corbyn for being associated with Socialist Organiser after those comments.

The article about the Brighton bombing reported accurately the feelings in the labour movement. No doubt at all: across the country, vast numbers of people regretted that Thatcher had survived the bombing.

The level of hatred in British politics at that point was very high - and in both directions. Thatcher had a small-shopkeeper, petty-bourgeois hostility to the working class. She was a spiteful Victorian throwback to attitudes which the Tory party had seemed to be "educated" away from over decades.

Dominic Kennedy quotes Socialist Organiser as saying: "Thatcher is a Tory pig". That was unfair to every halfway-decent pig in Britain.

In October 1984, the miners' strike was still being fought. Over 12,000 miners and supporters were arrested in that strike, hundreds were jailed, over fifty were injured in the "Battle of Orgreave" (June 1984) alone, two pickets were killed.

The article also said that the bombing was not a good way of fighting the Thatcherites.

We made a distinction between the right of the Irish Republicans to take military action, and the advisability of what they were doing. But, yes, the Cabinet was a legitimate military target, as the Times quotes us as saying. That is incontrovertible unless you think that the Republicans had no right to fight.

It is easy now to forget what the British were doing in Northern Ireland then. The Six Counties entity imprisoned a Catholic minority which was about one-third the whole population at the time of partition, and a majority all along the border areas, including in Northern Ireland's second city, Derry.

Gerrymandering of the borders meant that for decades there was no political redress for the built-in Catholic minority. That is what led the IRA to resort to military action.

Whether you thought that advisable or not - and I would have said it wasn't advisable - there was no mystery about it.

The British army was holding the existing system in place - even after Britain abolished Protestant majority rule in Northern Ireland, in 1972 - and trying to beat down the Catholics by terror, internment without trial, collusion with Unionist assassins. Of course we backed what the Republicans were trying to do against the British war to maintain the blatantly untenable Six Counties entity.

What else should socialists in Britain - including Jeremy Corbyn - have done? Wag our fingers at the people trapped within the artificial Six Counties entity and told them: "No, no, no, you don't fight back"?

You didn't have to think what the IRA was doing was the best sense to side with them as against our own state and government, imposing severe repression to maintain the partition status quo.

It is to his credit that Jeremy Corbyn backed the Catholics, and did not indulge in typical British politicians' cant to denounce the Republicans.

In relating to Socialist Organiser, Jeremy Corbyn was also linking up with the only people on the revolutionary left who attempted to produce sober and accurate coverage and debate on Ireland.

Socialist Organiser was the only paper on the left where you would get serious discussion on Ireland, and attempts to deal with questions like the rights of the Protestant community in Ireland. Socialist Organiser carried articles defending the rights of the Protestants in Ireland, despite our continued general support for the Catholic revolt. We had a vigorous debate in the paper in 1983, which you can find collected on our website.

The Times accuses Corbyn of being linked with a paper which was revolutionary socialist rather than reformist.

Yes, the people who ran Socialist Organiser were certainly not reformists. We were proud to identify ourselves as revolutionaries dedicated to the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and of capitalism.

At the same time, we saw Socialist Organiser as a paper of the broad labour movement, and we had many mainstream Labour figures writing for us or being interviewed.

For example, The Times quotes Jeremy Corbyn as advocating in Socialist Organiser something like the Alternative Economic Strategy then popular on the Labour left. Those views appeared in Socialist Organiser, and so did debate with them from a revolutionary socialist perspective.

For another example, we had an interview on Ireland with Clive Soley, who was the Labour front-bench spokesperson on Northern Ireland from 1981 to 1984. The interview, which became a debate, was conducted by Jonathan Hammond, president of the National Union of Journalists, and me.

We had comment from Tony Benn on many questions - for instance, we interviewed him on the EU (then called EEC), with Benn supporting "Brexit" and us opposing - and Benn was not a revolutionary socialist.

Jeremy Corbyn, as a non-revolutionary, was not at all an unusual figure in the pages of Socialist Organiser.

The Times suggests that the Labour Party was slow to realise what Socialist Organiser was, but banned it in 1990 when they realised it was revolutionary socialist.

It wasn't we who had changed, or become more visible. The Labour Party had changed, becoming narrower.

But Jeremy Corbyn eventually moved away from Socialist Organiser?

Corbyn, who became an MP in 1983, was involved in the group that set up Socialist Organiser in 1978 - the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory, a broad front of Labour leftists which included Ken Livingstone, Ted Knight, and others.

There was a division in the ranks of the SCLV, with Ken Livingstone on one side and us on the other, over policy for the Labour left in local government, where it was then strong. Corbyn can be found signing a document of people who defended Livingstone's peaceful coexistence with central government.

That group seceded from Socialist Organiser in 1980 to found London Labour Briefing. Corbyn continued to write for Socialist Organiser. But in terms of his political genealogy he had sided with the reformist group which seceded from Socialist Organiser.

He became less involved with Socialist Organiser from the mid-80s, though he still occasionally wrote for us.

The Times cites an article he wrote in 1990 opposing the USA's plans for the first Gulf war. Opposition to the first and second US wars against Iraq are not positions that anybody, reformist, middle-of-the-road, or revolutionary socialist, needs to apologise for!

Jeremy Corbyn had no organisational connections with Socialist Organiser. If there was any particular point at which a separation took place between him and us in the mid 1980s, I have no memory of it, and neither do others who were involved then.

But the Corbyn who wrote for Socialist Organiser belonged to what might be called the Trotskisant left, and over time he gravitated towards the Stalinoids of the Morning Star.

The Times holds it against Jeremy Corbyn that he criticised Michael Foot in 1982

Of course Corbyn criticised Michael Foot as Labour leader! Despite Foot's left-wing past, there was nothing left-wing about his policies as leader.

Socialist Organiser carried detailed arguments against Foot, and later on, in 1994, I debated him face-to-face in Conway Hall over the issues of the early 1980s. You can find that debate in print.

The fact that Corbyn criticised Foot only meant that he was broadly left-wing, not that he was a revolutionary socialist.

And that Corbyn criticised Eric Heffer over Tariq Ali's attempt in 1981 to join the Labour Party.

Heffer deserved to be criticised over that. Ali had broken with the Fourth International because they supported, and he opposed (as did we), the Russian occupation of Afghanistan after Christmas 1979.

In any case, in the Labour Party, being reorganised as it was then, we were for the affiliation of the left groups that wanted to affiliate, including the Communist Party if it had wanted to. Heffer was acting against that.

Yet probably the most frequently interviewed MP in Socialist Organiser over its entire history was Eric Heffer. In the years before the proscription of Socialist Organiser in 1990 and Heffer's death in 1991, he was the nearest thing to a "Third Camp" socialist MP, or even a "Socialist Organiser" MP, in Westminster.

Heffer held no grievance against us for our criticisms.

The Times concludes by equating the Labour Against the Witch-hunt of Tony Greenstein today with the Labour Against the Witch-hunt which Socialist Organiser and Corbyn supported in the early 1980s.

The equation of the left of the early 1980s with the antisemites of today made by quoting Tony Greenstein is completely off-beam. The word "witch-hunting" is now tossed around in the labour movement as a charge against reporting on any information someone thinks is not favourable to them. It is just cant.

In the 1980s, the left was really being witch-hunted - as the cases of Peter Tatchell and Tariq Ali, the banning of Militant and then Socialist Organiser, showed.

The equation today is with the purge carried through by Labour Party officials, especially in 2015 and 2016, to try to exclude left-wing Corbyn supporters.

Many of those purged then are still excluded now. The organisation which has camapigned against that is not today's Labour Against the Witch-hunt, which did not stir until October 2017, but Stop the Labour Purge.

Comments

Submitted by Robert McKnight (not verified) on Fri, 12/07/2019 - 09:33

You say 'two pickets were killed' during the 1984-5 strike. Two men separately died while they were on picket duty - one was hit by a brick, the other run down by a lorry. No one was charged with causing these deaths.

You, in common with almost everybody else on the far left, 'forget' to mention that two miners were convicted of killing a taxi driver who was driving a strike-breaking miner to work. The two strikers were convinced of murder, which was reduced to manslaughter on appeal.

Tell the truth, or at least mention what happened. Otherwise, you are not much better than the capitalist press.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.