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After Walton: more excuses

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In the aftermath of the Walton by-election a factional struggle has broken out within the ranks of Militant. Ted Grant, its founder and theoretician, now commands only a small section of its supporters and is seemingly bound for a split. The debate over standing independent candidates reveals deep flaws in the politics of both the Grant minority and Peter Taaffe’s majority faction, and calls into question the whole of Militant’s method. On the following pages we examine the roots of the argument. Here Paul Morris explains the tactical muddle Militant has created out of the Walton events.

Throughout the 1980s the left in the Labour Party was been faced with the summary de-recognition of candidates who were considered too left wing by the Walworth Road bureaucracy. In each situation Workers Power advocated that candidates deposed from above should stand, seek recognition from their party organisations and confront the witch-hunt from a position of strength.

The tactic of defiance that we proposed flows from a strategy and perspective which is the very opposite of Militant’s and which is being proved correct by every current event.

Workers Power supporters in the Labour Party aim to commit as many party members as possible to revolutionary ideas. We aim to prove in practical struggle the impossibility of transforming the party into an instrument of socialist change, and to show the need for a revolutionary combat party.

For Militant, however, the “inevitable” influx of workers into the party at some unspecified future date, makes any thought of organisational separation from the party before this impermissible. Any conflict which leads to a “premature” break from the Labour Party is deemed ultra-left.

This was the rationale for Militant’s response to the expulsion of the entire editorial board of their paper in 1983 and later to the expulsion of Hatton, Mulhearn and the Liverpool DLP leaders.

The same attitude guided Militant’s response to the closing down of the LPYS. When the Labour bureaucracy moved to strangle the LPYS in 1987 Workers Power alone argued for a tactic of defiance.

So Militant was disorientated when a section of its close allies amongst the left reformists in Liverpool decided to defy the witch-hunt and stand. For the Broad Left, Militant’s schema came a poor second to defending the positions and reforms gained in the council chamber. Workers Power had no hesitation in welcoming this development and giving the Broad Left councillors critical support in the election.

When Militant went along with this tactic they could only describe it as a special case, forced on them by the ferocity of the witch-hunt. In the pages of Militant there was no attempt to explain how this fitted in with decades of refusal to break under any circumstances with Labour.

The tactic of critical support for Labour in elections flows from the fact that Labour is, as Lenin said, a bourgeois workers’ party, led by pro-capitalist bureaucrats but organically related to the working class and its movement. As long as revolutionaries do not have the strength to pose as an electoral alternative to the main reformist parties of the working class we will operate the critical support tactic at the polls.

The only exception we make to this tactic is where an advanced section of workers in struggle is in the process of breaking with Labour in practice, or where struggles within a mass workers’ party lead a militant minority to mount an electoral challenge to a right wing candidate.

Nothing in Militant’s “science of perspectives” prepared them for the Walton events. But we wrote as long ago as 1980:

“Whilst the tactic of critical electoral support is most generally applicable to mass based bourgeois workers’ parties it can, in certain circumstances, be applied to smaller reformist or centrist formations. Again the deciding factor is that of the relationship of such currents to the working class, or sections of the working class. Where small reformist or centrist groups represent a genuine break to the left by workers or oppressed groups it is possible that illusions in their incomplete or false programmes can best be dispelled via the use of critical support. However such a tactic has to be very carefully weighed in its context. Communists must oppose any tendency in such formations to turn their backs on the working class who still support the major reformist party.” (“Theses on Reformism”, Permanent Revolution 1)

In the context of the class struggles taking place in Liverpool at the time, and the support she received from organised workers, Mahmood’s candidacy represented such a break in practice. It is the task of a Marxist leadership to lead such a political break whilst soberly assessing the extent of remaining working class illusions in the mass reformist party. Militant proved incapable of doing either.

The victory in the 3 May council elections unleashed a bout of wild optimism about the position of Militant within the Liverpool workers’ movement. Dave Cotterill declared:

“The results have shown the real balance of forces . . . The right wing have no support among the party activists. Trying to frighten voters with the spectre of Militant doesn’t work for the Labour right or the Liberals, it only further radicalises the population and builds support for the Broad Left . . . Liverpool is now heading towards having a mass radical socialist movement, free of the right wing impostors and careerists.” (Militant, 10.9.91)

In contrast to this, another section of Militant’s leadership rejected the decision to stand Mahmood altogether. Ted Grant, Rob Sewell and Alan Woods formed a faction in opposition to standing independent candidates, characterising the tactic as a challenge to Militant’s whole method, perspective and strategy.

Ironically we can at least agree with Grant on this. In attempting to explain away the Mahmood campaign as a limited tactical reorientation within the general framework of Militant’s method, Taaffe and co are trying to square the circle.

We have outlined in Workers Power 145 our major criticisms of the Mahmood campaign. But the end of the campaign did not mean an end to Militant’s mistakes.

Having portrayed the whole process, from Broad Left victory in May to Mahmood’s defeat in July as a forward march, the leaders who had supported the standing of candidates had to do some quick re-thinking when she polled a lower than expected vote. Clive Heemskerk’s article in Militant International Review (MIR) 46 contains the fruits of this attempt to reorientate the leadership. It admits that all the rhetoric about official Labour’s demise on Liverpool was well wide of the mark:

“MIR concedes that the Liverpool candidacies—in the council elections and in Walton—were indeed not part of a generalised ‘advancing working class movement’.” (MIR 46, p6)

Acknowledging the debate in 1985, when Derek Hatton advocated the declaration of an independent DLP but the Militant EB vetoed it, Heemskerk explains the difference between then and now:

“Developments on the council and in the Liverpool Labour Party have taken a qualitative turn since these lines were written.” (MIR 46, p5)

Just how feeble Heemskerk’s excuse really is can be judged by comparing today’s tactic with what would have been possible if, in 1985, Liverpool DLP had defied the Labour bureaucrats, or if the LPYS had defied the threat of closure. The Labour leadership had not yet achieved a fundamental change in the balance of forces. It had not yet reduced the left to its current state of disorganised impotence. In these conditions such actions could have had the chance of winning far more support.

Militant could have led a break before the left in the party had been defeated, whilst their influence over the city council was far greater, and when the bitter trade union battles of the mid-80s were still raging. The most favourable tactical opportunity for the building of an independent party was missed.

But in fact Militant’s case against an independent DLP in 1985 never rested on the level of the witch-hunt or on the balance of forces. It rested on Grant’s schema that Militant had to be inside the party at all costs awaiting the “inevitable” flood of workers to Labour. Heemskerk tries to dodge this point, because to acknowledge it would be to highlight Militant’s fundamental error of political method.

Instead Heemskerk calls on a military analogy to justify the tactic in retrospect:

“But does a retreating army preclude the possibility of mounting limited offensives? Napoleon wrote that ‘retreats always cost more men and materials than the most bloody engagements’. Could not a stand be made at a point of strength, the better to conduct a rearguard action and prevent a rout?” (MIR 46, p8)

If Militant supporters paused to think about this lame analogy, which stands as the only real rationalisation for the tactic in all the pages of Heemskerk’s explanation, they would realise what an admission of political bankruptcy is being made.

Of course it can be part of a military strategy, even a Bolshevik military strategy, to sacrifice troops in a rearguard action to allow for organised retreat. But even at a military level Bolshevik tactics differ from bourgeois tactics. Basically, Bolshevik generals tell the truth to their troops. They do not lead them into such actions claiming that they are offensives, still less that the enemy is finished!

Even when judged against its stated intention of providing for orderly retreat, the tactic must be considered a failure. Has it slowed down the witch-hunt? No. Despite Nellist and Fields’ decision to sit out the rearguard action in their bunkers they have taken a direct hit and are now suspended. Hundreds of those who canvassed for Mahmood are threatened with expulsion. The campaign did not serve as a rallying point for the force which could really have altered the situation—the best organised council workers. Only as a means of preserving the left councillors’ grip on office can it be deemed a temporary success.

But even as far as the council Broad Left is concerned the retreat has been far from orderly. In the aftermath of the Mahmood defeat and the intensified witch-hunt a section of the Broad Left has set up its own Liverpool Independent Labour Party (LILP). Militant has condemned the setting up of LILP.

Finally, it helps if any rearguard action—political or military—contributes to stability in the leadership and amongst the cadres. But only weeks after the end of the Mahmood campaign the bourgeois press was filled with stories of a public row between Militant’s “Napoleon” and his Chief Marshal!

This reveals what a mess can be made out of a correct tactic when it has to co-exist with an unscientific strategy and perspective.

Ted Grant’s intransigence on the need to stay in the Labour Party come what may is revealed as a recipe for accepting “under protest” any attack on the left, no matter what its consequences for the working class.

Peter Taaffe’s rationale for standing Mahmood was muddled from beginning to end. It was a tactic essentially forced on Taaffe by Militant’s Broad Left reformist partners. It found an echo amongst sections of the membership for whom the lifeless schema of transforming the Labour Party bore no relation to their everyday practice. First, it was rationalised as an advance towards a new party, although only in certain areas. Then it was explained away as a kind of suicide mission within an overall retreat.

The whole process calls to mind Trotsky’s description of the Mensheviks during and after the 1905 Revolution, being swept along by the stream of events only to emerge “like hung-over revellers” declaring “never again”. Wild zig-zags, political inconsistency, intrigue, and manoeuvre—Trotsky had a word for this: centrism.n