March of Militant – a review of both Crick’s book AND Peter Taaffe’s latest review of it in The Socialist. Part 1
I rarely write about politics these days. I’ve become a semi-recluse – my disengagement and frustration with the left of Britain is the highest it’s ever been. I rarely comment publically, such is my cynicism and despair, yet when I came across a review of the re-issue of Michael Crick’s 1986 classic ‘The rise of Militant’ complete with a post-Corbyn as Labour leader update – I couldn’t resist finally reading it – and now I feel compelled to review both it and Peter Taaffe, the General Secretary of the Socialist Party (formerly Militant)’s response to it and offer my own analysis of the prospects of the left ‘reclaiming’ Labour from the right and the possible future of the socialist left and what role the SP might play in this.
I was a dedicated member of the SP for over 12 years (between 2000 – 2013) and always defended Militant’s record in the Labour Party, even though I’ve never joined the Labour Party and never will. I think one of the main lessons from the experience of Militant in the Labour Party is that despite the impressive achievements of Liverpool Council in defying the Tory government and securing housing etc. (details) the Labour Party as an institution can not be made into a genuine socialist party and that parliament is a hostile, ruling class institution which is fundamentally antagonistic to the interests of the working class.
Left wing politicians in parliament get sucked into the privileged life of representative politics and whilst I respect the integrity of many Militant activists, within the organisation there is a reluctance to acknowledge, let alone address, the ego-driven and self interested personalities of leaders such as Derek Hatton and how the internal ‘democracy’ of the party prevents any accountability of the leadership to both members and the working class as a whole. Of course Crick uses the character of Hatton as a stick to beat Militant with, but it is unsatisfactory in my opinion for Peter Taaffe to refuse to acknowledge the problems and mistakes of both Hatton and the Militant leadership in his recent review of the 2016 edition of Crick’s book. Yes I admire how Militant and the Labour left around them fought so bravely for the working class but this unwillingness to admit fallibility, based on the personality cult of Peter Taaffe himself is unsettling and has pushed many marxist activists, including myself, away from the organisation.
So my perspective on Crick’s book is that of an ex-member who is still hard left and what is more, critical of Trotskyism and the democratic central model. My only current involvement in political organisation is the Cardiff based Marxist discussion group, which was set up by former SP members including myself (prior to this I was a member of Left Unity for approximately two years. I left LU because of their reformist illusions in both Syriza in Greece and then in Corbyn and Labour).
Therefore, although I reject co-operation with the Labour right and privately owned press to critique Militant / SP today, I share some of Crick’s critique of Militant – particularly, the hierarchical structure, the self-perpetuating leadership resulting from the slate system of elections, the unhealthy aspects of mind control and the cultic practices of this party and the sexism / white-male dominance of the party – all of which Crick observed in the 1980s and I can testify remains basically true of the organisation to this day.
BUT – TO REPEAT –
I do not share Crick’s basic political support of the Labour establishment. Indeed I’m even further left to the SP in denouncing both Labour and parliament, even with Corbyn now elected. I refuse to co-operative with the right (e.g. the Progress faction) to attack Militant / SP and since leaving the SP in 2013 I have stuck to my decision to not go to the bourgeois press as a dissident. Instead I have taken my grievances with the SP to the labour, radical feminist and anarchist movement and sought to hold them to account this way – with limited success, I must concede, as the SP’s main self-defence tactic in these cases is to suppress, isolate and ultimately ignore former members and break off groups.
The Labour right’s strategy today and the lessons of Corbyn’s election as leader – what does it signify? Is the class struggle over?
Inevitably, considering Crick’s social position as a senior journalist for various establishment media companies, the book has been reissued as an instruction manual for the Labour right to try and defeat the soft left around Corbyn. This is explicit from the front cover with an endorsement from Tom Watson, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and one of the most prominent right wingers in the shadow cabinet, who is quoted on the 2016 re-issue of ‘Militant on the March’ recommending Crick’s book as ‘an essential must-read for all Labour activists.’ Right wing Labour Party factions such as Progress and Labour First (hypocritically, also ‘parties within parties’ like Militant were previously) were part of the 1980s witch-hunt and they too have praised the new edition. The reason why the right are scrambling to Crick again is because they made a massive miscalculation about Corbyn in the summer and ever since Corbyn’s election they are now determined, of course, to get rid of him as soon as the opportunity presents itself.
This major mistake of the right – who believed their own propaganda that their working class and middle class members and supporters are not left-wing – gave Corbyn’s group an opportunity for leadership they themselves had never thought possible. Support for left wing ideas has grown in response to the actual conditions of capitalist exploitation presented to us in the misleading language of ‘austerity’, ‘balancing the budget deficit’ and ‘unavoidable cuts’. Inevitably, and almost DESPITE the conservatism and incompetence of the left, working class and to some extent the more impoverished sections of the lower middle-class, have been forced to protest the government’s policies because of our increasingly unbearable living conditions (growing but masked unemployment, privatisation of education, benefit cuts, wage stagnation, a growing housing crisis…) . Last summer, hundreds of thousands took part in the People’s Assembly’s and the Labour and trade union aristocracy approved A to B marches against austerity and cuts. As usual, we marched from A to B and then back home again to go to work / stay at home on the dole as if nothing had ever happened the day before. A big march might make the headlines but all of the establishment know that they have nothing to really worry about so long as the left continues in cosy partnership with the parliamentary establishment (by not organising occupations, strikes and developing a clear anti-capitalist mass movement to go outside of the parliamentary paradigm).
Therefore the Potential exists for mass mobilisation of working class again – the problem is that there is no mass organisation of the working class committed to building organised opposition to cuts and the bosses and capitalism outright. For Labour to adopt this programme (limited as it is) would require the ejection of the right / some kind of split on pro-capitalist / pro – socialist lines. The reality is that Labour – despite the election of Corbyn – is still the ‘second eleven’ of the establishment. Labour councils are actively pursuing anti-working class policies throughout the country. Now we are told – by many of the left including The People’s Assembly – to go begging once again to the Labour politicians who sell us out again and again because they believe gaining power is about propping up the existing system and helping the bosses out whilst making families and young people homeless. Soft left phrases are empty when in the council you vote for the same as the Tories and Liberals. Furthermore Labour have been selling out strikes and independent working class action pretty much since they first came to power in coalition with the Tories back in the 1920s!
Despite this, some socialist groupings (including splits from the two main Trotskyist groups) are fervent Corbyn supporters and advocate re-entry into Labour to defend Corbyn and the left and as part of a mission to finally achieve the ‘reclamation’ of the Labour Party as a mass workers party with some kind of limited socialist programme, to be achieved through the ballot box. The SP and their main rival, the Socialist Workers Party, publicly but critically support Corbyn but are adopting a ‘wait and see’ sort of approach – aware perhaps that attempted re-entry into Labour is difficult because:
- For the SP – to advocate re-entry now means abandoning the position held by them for over 20 years and which led to the split with the Grantites in the first place.
- The Labour Party right –are not going to let Militant or any other ‘Trotskyist / communist / hard-left’ types re-enter. They are actively trying to learn from their mistakes with Militant in the 70s and 80s.
- To maintain credibility on the hard-left. The SP are a declared revolutionary party so to retain outwardly Marxian credentials, they must distance themselves from the parliamentarism and outright reformism of Momentum.
- The SP will never let go of their organisational and political model to appease either their right-wing or ‘soft’left critics in Labour. Taaffe / the SP favour a federal type model -and interestingly, Taaffe, in his review of Crick’s book, also notes that the federal social democratic model is also supported by Paul Mason(!):http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/22604k).
The Labour right are not giving up their party (and therefore their places in parliament) to mild lefts like Corbyn, without a fight. Yet Corbyn and his supporters are weak and conciliatory, attempting to ‘unite’ the party – a doomed strategy. Although Corbyn has recently defended his past of supporting Militant during the 80s witch hunt, his concessionary approach to the right so far indicates that he is unlikely to risk their wrath by encouraging the SP to re-join.
However, according to the rabidly right-wing Telegraph in just Feb this year, in a typically hysterical headline: ‘Labour civil war: Momentum’s ‘Militant-style’ blueprint for gaining influence for Jeremy Corbyn’ a leaked Momentum document includes plans for 20,000 members, eight paid time staff (all of which is perfectly within the factional traditions of the party – the Labour right only have problems with left factions, unsurprisingly) and (sic in particular) the proposal that “the National Committee may decide by resolution to admit into membership any person whom it believes has been unfairly excluded from membership of the Labour Party,” (as quoted by The Telegraph).
If Momentum were to be successful in achieving any of the above (which is unlikely given the undemocratic structures of the party and more to the point, the absolute conviction of the Labour right and in reality many of its ‘soft’ left, that Labour must be a ‘responsible party of government’ which means in practice setting cuts budgets and maintaining the status quo), this could be the potential basis for current Socialist Party or indeed any other ‘hard lefts’ (including myself if I was so inclined – which I am not) to re-join. Indeed, a number of socialist lefts, including the Independent Socialist Network (previously a ‘faction’ of the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition) are committed to this entryist work in the Labour Party and talk up such ‘opportunities’.
The problem, however, is that despite the fears of the right wing media establishment and the Blairites, Momentum is weak and lacks the stomach and convictions to fight for their limited reformist programme. – in reality, their decision to stay with Labour during the Blair and Brown years reflects their devotion to parliament and willingness not to rock the boat enough to get kicked out of the party). As the SP itself has acknowledged in its newspaper, Corbyn and Momentum are not succeeding in stopping Labour implementing cuts and have no serious strategy to kick out the right (for example, http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/22197). Momentum public meetings have so far – predictably, I might add – have manoeuvred and blocked any SP intervention in meetings to determine policy, including adopting a no cuts policy at council-level.
End of Part 1
In Part 2 of this review / comment piece, I will address why I left the party and how Crick is accurate about the cultic and atheistic religious type practices of Militant / the Socialist Party today and what mass socialist party / organisation I advocate instead and how I imagine such an organisation might work with present Socialist Party members today.