Marxism, Trotskyism and The Labour Party Have Far More In Common Than You Might Think

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Having secured for him his victory as Deputy Leader, Tom Watson has now warned everybody about the arm-twisting Trotskyist entryists in the Labour Party. Apparently the irony escaped him that the only other person in history to have complained about Trotskyist infiltration to this extent was Joseph Stalin.

Yes, there are Marxists and Trotskyists in the Labour Party. Why the attention? Guardian commentator, John Harris, suggests “a great deal of the current fuss goes back to Militant…whose people began to join the Labour party in the early 1960s.”

Actually, the history of the influence of Trotskyists and their theory, Marxism, in the Labour Movement and Party goes back a lot further than that.

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The world’s original trade union movement were the Chartists in Liverpool. Two participants were Marx and Engels, the German philosophers who analysed the experience of the Chartists and developed the theory of Marxism. However, for much of the 19th Century, the leaders of the trade unions tended not to come from the working class that they represented and were perfectly happy to wine and dine in the company of their fellow “comrades”, the Lords and MPs of the Liberal Party. That all changed with the 1880s New Unionism movement, led by Marxists Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling.

This movement pointed out that the labour movement needed its own independent party that would represent the trade union struggle in parliament. The Labour Party was thus formed in 1900 but not on a particularly socialist platform. It was only in the 1920s/30s, having been inspired by the Russian Revolution (Trotsky being a major player in that event), that the Labour Party went through a manifesto tack to the left. This resulted in the 1931 split. The right-wing left to form a hated national government with the Conservative Party, the left-wing laid the path for Attlee’s success in 1945.

The Militant Tendency did not rise as an evil spectre in the 1960s but was a successor of the Marxist movement in the British working class. Its members were working class activists who aimed to provide hope for people let down by the socioeconomic crisis of the 1970s/1980s. It got a lot of support for this. Militant Labour councillors in Liverpool won seats off the Liberal Party and the SDP in 1983, increasing the majority in 1984. 3 Labour MPs came from Militant. One of them, Terry Fields, was the only Labour MP to win a seat off the Conservatives in the 1983 general election – the party lost 51 seats overall.

A Militant rally in support of Liverpool City Council, 1985.
A Militant rally in support of Liverpool City Council, 1985.

Paul Mason describes Militant members as “robotic cadres…wearing kipper ties”. Yet not only was Labour’s Young Socialist group controlled by Militant – suggesting an appeal for its ideas in the youth of the party – but under Militant it grew to its largest ever size with 600 branches. Through this, Militant got the first black woman elected onto Labour’s National Executive Committee, Linda Douglas.

It was not unelectability of the Militant MPs’ radical left platform that led to their demise. Dave Nellist and Terry Fields went on to win a second election each. Whilst Pat Wall died in office, the other two were deselected by Labour’s NEC (that very process the Labour MPs are complaining about now) and expelled from the party.

Why were Trotskyists so successful? Their policy programme and proving they could deliver it. The Militant Liverpool council built 4,000 council homes illegally in defiance of the Tory government’s horrendous welfare programme, it settled redundancy pay to council workers that the previous council had laid off and refused to pay. It also began a programme of community work that provided things such as child care and education for the deprived local population.

Even once Militant was expelled, it single-handedly ran a campaign against the poll tax (a flat tax that every UK household would be forced to pay), which they won, inspiring 18 million people to boycott the tax collection. The success of the anti-Poll tax campaign forced Margaret Thatcher out of office. The workers who formed the Labour Party would see far more eye-to-eye with these policies than they would with disastrous imperialist wars, calling to undemocratically override a vote against the establishment and calling for the Tory government to crush striking unions.

Rather than vilifying the Militant for all eternity, perhaps Labour should consider that, despite its faults (over-stretching of small group’s resources resulting in a leadership clique forming), the Militant’s tactics and achievements may hold answers for Labour’s crisis today. The history of the Militant is a story of the radical left turfing Tories out, winning campaigns involving millions of people and being an effective opposition that brings down a Prime Minister. It answers questions Owen Jones is yet to even consider.

Blaming Trotskyists for Labour’s situation is lost in fantasy. It’s one in a long list of justifications for the Labour coup. Every time a justification is discredited, it gets discarded and a new one found. Does anybody remember the days when the coup was just about Corbyn’s supposed failure in the EU referendum?

Members of parties that stand against the Labour Party are forbidden from joining the Labour Party or Momentum. In the last 9 months, the Labour bureaucracy has systematically purged the Labour Party of members belonging to accepted socialist groups within the Party or even for being vocal in expressing socialist ideas, despite the party’s rules clearly stating that this is no reason for expulsion. It’s pretty hard for Trotskyists already within the party to stay, never mind for entryists to join.

León-Trotsky
Leon Trotsky, Russian Revolutionary and Marxist.

It’s a wonder if these Labour MPs speak to their rank and file constituency members; perhaps then they would find that Marxists and Trotskyists exist in the Labour Party today as they have done for years, and are not isolated to “old hands” but often the younger generation. They would also find an already radicalised membership horrified by the right-wing bureaucracy’s purges and stifling political discussion in CLP meetings. This makes the recent worried comments from Labour MPs speculating that they will be purged themselves and have their political input disregarded seem incredibly out of touch.

On top of this, 100,000s of fed-up people have been forced into politics due to the failures of society around them. If Labour wants to truly target the radical voice in its party, it would have to drown out 100,000s of members’ voices, especially the new intake. In fact, this is exactly what they have done.

With every insult thrown at the membership, their political consciousness develops. Ironically, as Lenin points out in the following quote, it’s exactly this failure in the right-wing’s tactics that allowed the Bolsheviks to gain so much momentum in 1917. Perhaps Tom Watson should spend less time playing Stalin and more time reading Lenin.

“When the Russian Cadets and Kerensky began furiously to hound the Bolsheviks—especially since April 1917, and more particularly in June and July 1917—they overdid things. Millions of copies of bourgeois papers, clamouring in every key against the Bolsheviks, helped the masses to make an appraisal of Bolshevism; apart from the newspapers, all public life was full of discussions about Bolshevism, as a result of the bourgeoisie’s “zeal”. Today the millionaires of all countries are behaving on an international scale in a way that deserves our heartiest thanks. They are hounding Bolshevism with the same zeal as Kerensky and Co. did; they, too, are overdoing things and helping us just as Kerensky did…the British bourgeoisie—the most “solid” in the world—makes incredible blunders, founds richly endowed “anti-Bolshevik societies”, creates a special literature on Bolshevism, and recruits an extra number of scientists, agitators and clergymen to combat it, we must salute and thank the capitalists. They are working for us. They are helping us to get the masses interested in the essence and significance of Bolshevism, and they cannot do otherwise, for they have already failed to ignore Bolshevism and stifle it.”

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We are an active society at the University of Southampton that hold weekly discussion sessions with a left wing point of view. We try to provide a good balance of theoretical discussion and analysis of current events. Whilst most speakers we invite to talk will be Marxists everyone is invited to come along and join in with the discussion afterwards.

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