Stan Keable of Labour Party Marxists reports on Socialist Appeal’s third Marxist summer school
Like Labour Party Marxists, the Socialist Appeal group (the remnant of the Militant Tendency which chose to remain in the Labour Party) is an affiliate of the Labour Representation Committee. When LPM was launched in June 2011 in response to Peter Hain’s Refounding Labour consultation document,1 we affiliated to LRC and, although I did not come across any SA comrades in London, I was aware that they were playing their part in trying to build the organisation, setting up local LRCs elsewhere – and they were always represented at national committee meetings.
Not so today, unfortunately. An LRC national committee member told me recently that they had made a decision to go elsewhere about 18 months ago. This seems to be something of an exaggeration, however. A young activist at the group’s summer school explained that SA had put the LRC “on the back burner”, as it “didn’t seem to be going anywhere”, and was torn by “sectarian strife”. SA seems to have shied away from the conflicts which erupted in the LRC in 2012 in the form of its merger with Labour Briefing, which turned out to be a split at the top of both Briefing and the LRC itself, with the loss of Labour Party national executive member Christine Shawcroft, and the publication of two competing versions of the journal.
At the summer school, held at University of London College Union, over the weekend of June 28-30, I was not surprised to learn that this reluctance to engage in a real conflict within the revolutionary and socialist left is entrenched in SA’s proclaimed “anti-sectarianism”. Marxist unity is “impractical”, because the “sectarians” always split hairs and use up all their energy in pointless arguments – “We don’t want to waste time in endless debate with sectarians.” When the class moves, it will choose which ‘Marxists’ to follow.
Nevertheless, I was made very welcome by the participants and speakers, all of whom were friendly, and I was able to intervene freely in all of the sessions I attended. In each I noticed that, after the opening lecture, the first person in discussion seemed to give a prepared supportative intervention rather than raising any differences, and very few people challenged the speakers’ views. The only other political group represented, as far as I could see, was the Socialist Party in England and Wales, whose comrade had nothing to say except that the Labour Party was “an out-and-out capitalist party”, and quoted the Falkirk candidate selection row to prove it. So I enjoyed the role of fall guy for the ‘sectarian left’, and having my views ‘corrected’ by a succession of naive students (most of those attending were students).
Several told me that they read the Weekly Worker, usually online, and were fascinated by the goings-on in the various groups of the revolutionary left, especially the Socialist Workers Party, which the WW seemed to concentrate on. They also remarked on how accurate the paper was in detailing their politics. But why on earth bother? What is the point? Some told me how, in joining SA, they had escaped the “noise” of sectarian left arguments and been directed to the more beneficial systematic study of Marxist classics – including, of course, the “legacy of Ted Grant”, upholder of “the unbroken thread of Marxism”, and “the leading theoretician of Marxism” since World War II.
I was hoping to attend the session on ‘The rise and fall of the Militant Tendency’ on the Saturday evening, but the timetable had been changed so I had missed it. As I arrived, the group’s leader, Alan Woods, was telling a lecture-theatre full of nearly 100 mostly younger comrades about “the real Lenin and Trotsky”. Fred Weston stood in for Socialist Appeal editor Rob Sewell, who was off sick, and on the Sunday I attended comrade Weston’s presentations on ‘Marxism and the Labour Party’ and ‘History of the Fourth International’.
It was only after Lenin’s death that Zinoviev, when he was siding with Stalin, coined the term ‘Trotskyism’, explained comrade Woods. “We are Leninists,” he told his young followers. “Trotsky said nothing that Lenin had not already said” – but, somehow, “in 1905, only Trotsky had the theory of permanent revolution: that the Russian proles can come to power before the Germans or the French.” However, before 1917 Trotsky had been a “unity-monger” – comrade Woods’s shibboleth against seeking Marxist unity today.
I was pleased to hear comrade Woods decry bureaucratic centralism and claim to uphold democratic centralism, freedom of expression and the right to form factions – but, unfortunately, there were always compromising caveats. “Freedom of discussion” leads to “clarity of ideas”; but this was undermined by what we might call the Callinicos principle: “We make a decision and move on”. For the Bolsheviks, “there was always freedom of factions”. But Bolshevism was “always a school of internal discussions”, and the right to form factions should apply “in certain circumstances”. Mixed messages.
Comrade Woods evidently misses the fundamental point that, for Lenin, Trotsky and both the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, political differences – including factional struggles – had to be fought out in public, not internally, so that everyone can learn. This misconception underpins his repetition of the myth that “the Bolshevik faction” of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party “transformed itself into the Bolshevik Party in 1912”. The logical implication, of course, unspoken by comrade Woods, is that the party allegedly formed in 1912 was monolithic, and that the revolution was led by a party without factions.
Comrade Woods had not mentioned the ban on factions imposed in 1921 by the 10th party congress, so I brought it up in discussion time, and challenged the misconception of the 1912 Bolshevik party, pointing out that it was the liquidators, not the Menshevik faction, who had been excluded in 1912, and that the chair of that congress was in fact a Menshevik.
Opening the Sunday morning session on ‘Marxism and the Labour Party’, Fred Weston described the party, like the trade unions, as a mass organisation of the working class, but underlined that “joining does not mean supporting its bourgeois leaders”.
SA’s ‘What we stand for’ column includes “Labour to power on a bold socialist programme”, and “Trade unions must reclaim the Labour Party!” As Weekly Worker readers will know, Labour Party Marxists prefers the term “transform” to “reclaim”, because: “From the beginning the party has been dominated by the labour bureaucracy and the ideas of reformism.”2 But, happily, comrade Weston made that point himself: “Labour has always been reformist” – so SA is not pining for an imagined golden age when Labour was a socialist party. It is “democratic fighting trade unions” which must reclaim the party, with “election of all trade union officials, with the right of recall” and the wage of “the average skilled worker”.
Comrade Weston castigated SPEW for splitting Militant Tendency by choosing to leave the Labour Party. The pitiful votes obtained by SPEW’s Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition showed the folly of its attempt to find a short cut to mass support outside Labour. Militant had not been forced out of that party, he insisted. With a claimed membership of 8,000, only 200 or so had been expelled when Peter Taaffe and co decided to jump ship (a couple of older comrades told how they had been victims of Neil Kinnock’s witch-hunt). Although a ‘star chamber’ team of witch-hunters had travelled the country picking off Militant activists, they were only expelled where their local constituency party allowed it. Some had followed bad advice not to turn up at the disciplinary hearing and fight their corner. Later, after a couple of years, they were able to rejoin online without a problem.
What is SA’s perspective for Labour? Ed Miliband “does not want to win outright” in 2015, but would prefer a Lib-Lab coalition. We will probably get a Labour government continuing Tory policies, and intensified class struggle. Labour is rooted in the working class, and “will be changed by the radicalisation of the class”. When it, inevitably, fights back, the class “will try to use the trade unions to fight” and this will move the unions left, as it did in the 1970s. That in turn will move the party left, as happened in the 1980s. That is why the bourgeoisie fear Labour’s trade union link, explained comrade Weston. (Militant Tendency benefited from this leftward shift in Labour, not because it had defeated the other revolutionary left groups in argument, but simply because it was the ‘last man standing’ within Labour. Others had pulled out round about 1968.)
In a “downswing” period, like the present, participation in the movement is low, and the bureaucracy moves rightwards. But SA has “absolute faith in the working class”, which will, sooner or later, fight back. A “mass revolutionary party” will be achieved through patient work in the mass organisations (which comrade Weston counterposed to Marxist rapprochement). We have no crystal ball, said comrade Weston. Maybe we will win Labour, maybe splits will occur, to the right and/or to the left. If a mass left split occurs, we should go with it, and win them for Marxism. The Marxist party that arose would be in a position to win over the masses.
Fred Weston again substituted for the absent Rob Sewell in the session on the Fourth International. He said that Trotsky analysed the failure of the Russian Revolution, and did his most important theoretical work in the 1930s, struggling against the distortion of Marxism. Comrade Weston took us quickly through the Left Opposition; the International Left Opposition, which called itself an “expelled faction” of Comintern; Trotsky’s estimation, when Hitler was elected to power in 1933, that the communist parties were “dead for revolution”; and the formation of the International Communist League.
In truth, said comrade Weston, the Fourth International “had not taken off”. Strangely, he did not mention its 1938 programme, The death agony of capitalism. After World War II, the Fourth International was disorientated, and collapsed “because of its crisis predictions”. In 1946, Ernest Mandel and Gerry Healy were predicting “worldwide crisis”, and that the Soviet Union was “on the verge of collapse”. In 1951, Pierre Frank (France) and James Cannon (USA) were predicting “the coming World War III”, and some were claiming World War II “had not ended”. Even today, said Weston, the Lambertists claim that “capitalism has not developed the productive forces beyond their 1938 level”, desperately trying to defend the 1938 programme as dogma.
Until 1938, said comrade Weston, Trotskyism had a clean banner. Since World War II it has had a stinking banner, and we must cleanse it. And who better than the upholders of “the unbroken thread of Marxism” to do that?
1. For the LPM response see http://labourpartymarxists.org.uk/refound-labour-as-a-real-party-of-labour.