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Militant Tendency faced with a turn

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Militant’s turn to standing candidates against Labour contradicts everything they said and did in the 1980s. It is the result of the collapse of their political perspectives, argues Richard Brenner.

For decades Militant justified its strategy of work within the Labour Party on the grounds that Labour can be transformed into a genuine socialist party. Workers Power has always warned that this is an illusion. Whilst supporters of our paper work in the Labour Party we have never peddled the illusion that it can be a vehicle to implement socialism. The whole history of Labour, and particularly the experience of the inner party struggles of the 1980s, has proved us right.

Now Militant has decided to support the tactic of standing independent candidates against the Labour Party. It supported the campaign of the Liverpool Broad Left councillors who, after being expelled from the party, successfully retained their seats in opposition to Kinnock’s stooges. Following the death of Eric Heffer MP, supporter Lesley Mahmood was nominated to stand against Labour’s official candidate, Peter Kilfoyle.

It is a tactic which is certain to lead to the expulsion of those supporting Mahmood. Already Militant supporters in Liverpool are signing people up to an organisation called “Walton Real Labour Party”. Militant remains silent about the perspective it offers those who support Mahmood, but there can be no doubt that they are toying with the idea of a split from the Labour Party, or at least the creation of an independent organisation alongside their supporters’ work in the Labour Party.

This trajectory invalidates most of the arguments Militant has used to brand revolutionary socialists who refused to bury themselves in the Labour Party as “sectarians”. It demonstrates the complete falsification of Militant’s previous perspectives and its leadership’s utter lack of direction.

Militant’s roots can be traced to the strand of Trotskyism which supported Michel Pablo in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Pablo’s perspective was characterised by economic catastrophism. Capitalism was on the brink of destruction, yet there were no mass revolutionary parties to lead its revolutionary overthrow. In this situation workers would pour into their traditional organisations—the Communist and Socialist Parties—pushing them leftwards and transforming them into tools of revolutionary change.

The task of Trotskyists was to remain within these parties until this influx happened.

Militant, under the leadership of Ted Grant, added to this perspective three unique features. First, they refused simply to dissolve themselves into the Labour left as, for example, Healy had done in the 1950s. They maintained a distinct and separate programme and publication within the Labour Party.

Secondly their programme involved an open adaptation to the reformist consciousness of Labourite workers. In Peter Taaffe’s words:

“We have proclaimed hundreds, if not thousands of times that we believe that, armed with a clear programme and perspective the labour movement in Britain could effect a peaceful socialist transformation.”

Finally, Militant’s attachment to work within the Labour Party proved to be strategic when, during the mass radicalisations of the late 1960s and the breakaway of thousands of youth towards other “revolutionary” organisations, Militant virtually alone remained inside the party.

On the basis of these politics Militant evolved a perspective which was a complete departure from Marxism as a “science of perspectives”. Every one of their predictions was categoric and one sided and could be summed up in Militant’s famous assertion in 1983 that:

“The objective situation is moving in the direction of Marxism and the subjective situation as well.” (British Perspectives)

Militant used to argue that the left in the Labour Party would go “from strength to strength”. They predicted that their experience in winning the majority of the LPYS would be repeated in the adult party in the future.

The advance of the Labour left in the early 1980s seemed to confirm this. Militant International Review (MIR) argued in July 1981 that the likeliest scenario for the future was that the left would take over the Labour Party. While Workers Power pointed out the continuing hold of the right wing, and the left’s propensity to make deals with the party leaders, Militant argued that “as events develop the right wing as an organised force will be shattered.”

When the consolidation of the right received clear expression at the 1983 conference with the election of the Kinnock/Hattersley “dream ticket”, Militant kept their heads buried deep in the sand. They wrote, “In reality Labour’s old right wing is shattered”. (MIR, November 1983)

This “analysis” was based not on a careful assessment of the situation, but on an established schema of the Militant leadership, namely that:

“The old Labour right is finished because, in a historical sense, their role is played out.”

For Militant, right wing Labourite reformism only had an historical role in the period of the post-war boom, when social reforms could be won from the capitalists who were enjoying unheard of prosperity and expansion. Militant maintained that, with the end of the post-war boom, as the bosses turned to clawing back the gains won by the working class, the right wing would be left with no concrete role. As the 1981 MIR special put it:

“The effect of decades of reformism in a period when reforms could actually be gained on the basis of the upswing of capitalism are being swept away on the basis of the downswing of capitalism which is now developing. All the muck and encrustations on the trade unions and the Labour Party which have brought the neanderthal men to the fore will be dissolved and washed away as a result of the crisis of British and world capitalism.”

This prediction was based on a misunderstanding of the very nature of reformism. The Labour Party does secure reforms, to a lesser or greater extent, depending on the period. But this is not its only or even its decisive characteristic. In Lenin’s words, Labour is a bourgeois workers’ party. It rests on working class support but is thoroughly pro-capitalist in its politics. It is led by a bureaucracy who have far more in common with the bosses than they do with working people.

The historic role of the Labour right wing (and its traditional left) does not depend on the availability of crumbs from the capitalists’ table. It depends on the ability of the Labour and trade union bureaucracy to deliver up the working class to the capitalists, to betray workers’ struggles and to use their remaining prestige to sell the bosses’ policies to their worker base.

The end of the boom did not mean the withering away of the right wing. The “neanderthal men” were replaced by the slick thirtysomethings of the Kinnock clique. They have succeeded in bringing the party policy into line with the needs of the bosses in the 1990s, abandoning support for nationalisation, accepting the Tory anti-union laws and guaranteeing that many of Thatcher‘s gains over the working class will remain intact.

The notion of the automatic decline of the right wing went hand in hand with the notion of an inevitable flood of workers into the Labour Party, pushing the party to the left. The autumn 1985 edition of MIR stated boldly:

“The movement of workers into the Labour Party will be a reflection of the struggles in society as a whole. It is an inevitable process, that when the working class is thwarted politically, as in 1983, it turns onto the plane of industrial action, but equally when a period of struggle on an industrial level fails to lead to a fundamental transformation of the situation, workers will draw political conclusions again, first of all seeking a return of a Labour government but at a later stage in more actively participating in the party itself. From this point of view the right wing are already living on borrowed time.”

This extraordinarily crude and wooden schema elaborated by Militant was already being falsified at the time it was published. The defeat of the industrial struggle, epitomised by the miners’ strike of 1984-85, has not yet shown signs of pushing ever more workers into the Labour Party. Quite the opposite. It greatly encouraged and strengthened the right wing who have set out to prevent constituency activists playing any significant role in the party’s internal life. Many wards are shrunken and moribund. The direct link between the trade unions and Labour Party conference via affiliated membership and the block vote is being consciously weakened by both sides.

Added to this the repeated betrayals of Labour, combined with the effects of defeat in atomising the advanced layers of workers, have led to a situation where automatic working class identification with the Labour Party is shrinking, not growing.

The consequences of these errors for Militant’s strategy and tactics are grave indeed. If the party will inevitably move to the left, if the right wing are living on borrowed time, if a mass influx of worker members is not far off, and above all if the party can be transformed into a socialist party then the conclusion is simple: stay in the party at all costs.

This completely false analysis informed Militant’s tactics in all of the major internal party struggles in the 1980s. Time and again, the Labour leadership overruled democratically selected candidates and imposed stooges. On each occasion, whether in the Knowsley North by-election, or in Nottingham or Vauxhall, when left wing candidates were overruled, Workers Power argued that the properly selected left wing candidate should have refused to give in and should have stood against Kinnock’s impostors.

Our arguments were rejected by Labour lefts who were afraid of the consequences of such a direct challenge to Kinnock. The labour left, including Militant, all argued that our proposals were “sectarian”, that they would split the vote, that we were playing into the hands of the right wing.

It could be argued that in refusing to fight at least the left got to stay in the party for longer. Certainly that was how Militant used to argue, and it is being raised today by the Militant supporters who object to the tendency’s tactical turn. But it is a wrong argument, a deeply opportunist argument. For socialists, the very idea of being tolerated only when we abandon a fight should be anathema. The only unity preserved in this way is the unity of silence and submission, not the unity of working class struggle. The right wing will always be able to present socialists with a choice: stop fighting for your ideas in the class struggle, or be excluded from the party.

Militant used to claim that “whatever measures of reaction that develop, whatever undemocratic actions are undertaken by the right wing in the Labour Party and the trade unions could not separate Marxism [i.e. Militant] from the Labour Party”. (MIR Special, 1981)

This masks the fact that undemocratic measures can succeed if they are not challenged through organised rank and file defiance. And it obscures a fundamental truth about the Labour Party that Militant has always sought to deny, namely that the right wing will take whatever bureaucratic steps they feel are necessary to stop the advance of the left in the party. It cannot be transformed. Rather revolutionaries must participate in its internal battles in order to break the vanguard away from labourism and to the fight for a new party.

Some Militant supporters have opposed the tactic of standing Lesley Mahmood. It is no secret that Militant Liverpool councillors were bounced into standing by other Broad Left councillors who were not supporters of the Militant. Now, with Mahmood’s candidacy and the threat it would pose to all Militant’s positions in the party, some are asking is this the tendency’s “July Days” (referring to July 1917 when the Petrograd workers forced the Bolsheviks to take part in a premature uprising and brought down a wave of reaction on the revolutionary party).

They are wrong, but it is understandable. After all, they draw their arguments from Militant’s old position.

During each successive wave of witch-hunts, Workers Power demanded that wards and constituencies should uphold expelled members’ rights, even in the face of threats to disaffiliate the constituency. When the leadership reduced the age limit of the LPYS and banned its conference we called for a national unofficial conference to organise defiance against Kinnock and to win the widest possible support from local parties and unions. Where democratically selected candidates for councillor or MP were overruled by Kinnock we argued that they should rally their local parties to stand against the stooge candidate. Militant was against all this because, they claimed, we were “playing into the hands of the right wing”, we were “sectarian”.

Militant could have led defiance of the witch-hunt before Kinnock had inflicted such powerful defeats on the Labour left. A challenge in the mid-1980s, when the witch-hunts and expulsions began, could have laid the basis for winning whole wards and constituencies to the fight for a new political party on a revolutionary socialist programme. But Militant’s whole perspective prevented it from seeing this.

As Militant leaders Peter Taaffe and Tony Mulhearn revealed in their book Liverpool: The City that Dared to Fight, Derek Hatton and some of his supporters raised the question of a split based around the Liverpool District Labour Party (DLP) in 1985. The Militant Editorial Board opposed this:

“An ‘independent’ DLP would undoubtedly meet with initial success, [the Militant Editorial Board] argued, in the short term, but would have undermined the long term struggle to transform the Labour Party in a leftward direction . . . They argued that for one worker who had supported the ‘independent’ DLP, there would be another five, ten and perhaps one hundred at a later stage who would move into the official Labour Party. These workers would be denied contact with the best fighters who would have constituted themselves into an ‘independent’ DLP.”

Nothing demonstrates better how Militant’s old perspective is now in tatters, and how it caused them to miss the best opportunity to regroup the forces for revolutionary socialism in struggle. For while there is certainly support for Mahmood within the Walton working class, and particularly from those council workers facing redundancy, the left in Liverpool is nothing like as strong as the 10,000 Taaffe and Mulhearn predicted could be won to a DLP-based split in 1985.

With that perspective falsified, Militant’s leadership has begun flailing around for solutions in exactly the manner Trotsky attributed to centrist organisations.

They certainly fear being outflanked from the left by those able to work free of Labour Party legality. The fact that after two years of mass work around the Poll Tax by Militant, it was the SWP which grew rapidly after March 1990, alerted them to the danger.

At the same time it has become clear that Militant’s much vaunted MPs Nellist and Fields were themselves slipping further into the left reformist quagmire. This has been confirmed by neither Nellist nor Fields being prepared to risk withdrawal of the Labour whip in Parliament by openly backing Mahmood.

To stand Mahmood means to face the possibility of a substantial split. Those who support the campaign will inevitably be victimised, expelled, disaffiliated. What should revolutionaries do then? Do we simply say to them “give up and leave”? No. As long as the Labour Party remains a party with millions of affiliated members through union political levies then part of our work has to be a fight within it for revolutionary politics. We need to organise all those who see themselves as consistent fighters against capitalism into a revolutionary tendency in the Labour Party.

Of course such a tendency could not co-exist for long with the Labour leaders. It would find itself the target of expulsions and witch hunts. But the fight to place demands on the Labour leaders, through whatever remains of the democratic structure of the Party, will remain an important tactic for revolutionaries for as long as masses of workers continue to hold illusions in Labour.

Lesley Mahmood is standing as the “Real Labour” candidate. Unfortunately many workers have learnt by bitter experience that the “real” Labour Party is the party of sell-outs, of spending cuts, of cringing before the bosses and international bankers, of sending working class youth off to do the killing for British imperialism.

Any attempt to regroup workers around a revolutionary banner will flounder if it peddles the myth that Labour is “really” or “essentially” a socialist party. It will rebound on those who split as workers ask: why abandon Labour if in essence it is a real socialist party, if the dominance of the Kinnockites is only a momentary blip?

Militant’s tactic in Walton, therefore, is a compromise. It is playing with the possibility of a split whilst presenting that possibility as a localised and tactical question, caused by extraordinary events in Liverpool. It is facing the possibility of existence outside the Labour Party without giving a political rationalisation for the separate existence of a revolutionary party.

The thousands of workers prepared to vote Mahmood, strike against a Labour council, read and discuss left wing papers, don’t need to be told that Mahmood represents the “real” spirit of Labour. They need a clear call for a revolutionary organisation: a party of class fighters armed with a programme which spells out the inevitability of an armed uprising and soviets during the overthrow of capitalism.

The danger is that Militant’s leadership will emerge from the Walton campaign with sore heads, saying “never again”. Others may want to repeat the experience of Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League in the 1960s and provoke a split, setting up a carbon copy of Healy’s sectarian organisation on the basis of the economic catastrophism which has always been a feature of Militant’s perspectives.

Instead of these twin dead ends we say to all Militant supporters: join us in the fight for a new perspective, a new set of tactics for work both within and outside the Labour Party. Fight for a programme which refuses to hide what should be ABC for Marxists: we need a revolution to get socialism in Britain and a revolutionary party to organise it.n