Left Voice has published a critique of the history of the CWI and why it recently split. Oaklandsocialist has also published a critique largely based on our own personal experience in the CWI. Although our critique presents a radically different view from that of Left Voice (LV), it does not directly answer the claims that LV has made. We do so here, not simply because many of the claims are inaccurate, but more important because they help give a view into what happened in the Trotskyist movement in those post war years, all the way up to the turn of the century.
That view helps build an understanding of the situation of the majority of the Trotskyist/socialist left today.
LV claims that the original sin, in effect, of Ted Grant and of Militant and the CWI was Ted’s decision to enter into the Labour Party.
In fact, they claim that that decision was the reason for Ted’s leaving the Fourth International.
This claim in effect repeats the main left attacks on Militant and the CWI from back in the 1970s and ‘80s. Entering the Labour Party was considered as capitulation to the social democratic leaders. This view stemmed from a mistaken understanding of the position of Lenin right after the Russian Revolution (1917). At that time, the existence of the first workers state in world history acted as a powerful pole of attraction to workers all around the world. In effect, the newly born Third International had a real alternative to offer many millions of workers.
With the betrayals of Stalinism, that was less the case. Trotsky, however, still represented the glow of the Russian Revolution to many workers. Moreover, he expected that after WW II there would be a renewed capitalist economic crisis and consequently a revolutionary upsurge. It was on these bases that he predicted the Fourth International would become a mass, workers international.
Clearly, his economic perspectives were mistaken. In fact, one of the main reasons for Ted’s leaving the Fourth International was a difference over exactly that – the post war economic perspectives. Roger Silverman, one of the earliest members of Militant and a long time member of the CWI’s International Secretariat, explains:
“Ted alone understood how far the perspectives that Trotsky had foreseen (of an immediate collapse of capitalism and Stalinism and the creation of a mass Fourth International) had been superseded by the end of the war. Ted predicted that there would be a temporary reinforcement both of reformism, due to the prospect of a period of stable capitalist growth postwar reconstruction and on the basis of new technology, and of Stalinism due to the conquest of Eastern Europe by Russia and the victory of Mao’s guerrillas in China. These developments had all kinds of strategic and tactical consequences also. The immediate confusion of these people extended also to the colonial world. They were soon clutching at straws and supporting a series of imagined saviours like Tito, Mao, Ben Bella, etc. Remember that the relics of the FI soon split into fragments anyway. It’s a pity that Ted was unable to show the same boldness and vision and courage in abandoning outworn formulae when history took yet another swerve three or four decades later. But that doesn’t detract from his earlier achievements.”
So, despite the huge difference in the objective situation between 1917 and 1950 or so, most of the Trotskyist left continued to cling to that position of Lenin – leave the mass social democratic workers parties. It was on that basis that they attacked Militant for working inside the Labour Party.
LV then claims that Militant made a number of reformist mistakes in order to stay inside the Labour Party. Before dealing with that, I should say that in my 15 years of involvement with the CWI, I never once heard anybody from the top leadership down to the rank and file members express any view that they should water down their politics in order to stay in the Labour Party. What they constantly did emphasize was the need to make a link with the consciousness of some sector of the working class rather than playing up to some left sect or another. As somebody who became involved in the CWI out of my activism in the Carpenters Union, I agreed with that and I still do. It is true that Militant was careful not to say it was its own, distinct organization, but that was and is not a matter of principle. The claimed “revisions” were:
1) That Militant preached that socialism could be achieved along a parliamentary road, that is to say, by just electing members of parliament. That is inaccurate. Militant always said that such elections would have to be backed up by a movement of workers in the streets.
2) LV criticizes Militant for not calling for the defeat of British imperialism in the war with Argentina over the Falklands/Malvinas Islands. I am open to revisiting the formulations that Militant used, but I also think that the great majority of the socialist left simply refused to consider two issues. These are: One, the fact that a victory of the Galtieri military junta in Argentina would strengthen that dictatorship. (In fact, its defeat in that war was what brought Galtieri down!); and, two, the fact that the overwhelming majority of those living on those islands did not want to live under Argentine rule, especially not under a military dictatorship. Did and do they not have some rights?
3) LV says that Militant and the CWI called for community control of the police. I don’t remember what Militant called for in those days, but here in the United States we explicitly did not make that call. Instead, we called for publicly elected worker/community patrols for public safety. (In later years, after those who were most determined to oppose the union bureaucracy, and as it turned out also the Democrats, were expelled, that changed.)
LV claims that there was a “homophobic climate in Militant” and they link to an interview with a gay member of Militant from that time as evidence. Aside from the fact that the comrade did not say exactly that, I have to say that that is not what I experienced. It’s true that we did not sufficiently understand the importance of this issue, but let’s remember that this was the 1980s. Those of us who were around in those days have learned a lot since then, I hope.
It is also untrue that Militant opposed special structures for women. In fact, there was a woman’s bureau led by a very dynamic and strong woman. Nor did Militant neglect the issue of women in general. One of the biggest campaigns Militant ran for several years was a campaign against domestic violence. We in the United States also took up that issue, and we originated an ultimately successful campaign to free a survivor of domestic violence who was serving a life sentence for participating in the non-fatal shooting of her abuser. We were one of the first on the left to see domestic violence as a political rather than simply a personal issue.
In the early 1980s, Militant led a Labour Party takeover of the Liverpool city council. While there were several left city councils in that time, Liverpool was the only one that stood up to Thatcher and actually hired more workers and built more council housing. The rest of the left had not a word to say about the capitulation of the other city councils nor a word to say about the tremendous fight that Liverpool waged, largely successfully for several years. Instead, they sought to attack Militant because that was the only socialist group that was actually leading a fight. The claim that they abandoned the miners is simply false. That city council and Militant in general put tremendous efforts into supporting the miners. And where was he rest of the left in supporting the struggle against Thatcher in Liverpool? You want to talk about abandonment, it was the rest of the left that abandoned Liverpool!
The other great accomplishment of Militant in those years was the successful campaign they organized and led to bring down Thatcher’s poll tax. That campaign ultimately also brought down Thatcher herself. Yes, mistakes were made in that campaign, just as they were in the Liverpool campaign. One of those mistakes was a statement of a leader of the Poll Tax movement that they would “name names” of agent provocateurs and adventurers who initiated a fight with the cops at a mass Poll Tax protest. That statement was quickly disavowed by Militant. It should not have been made and it was correct to criticize the comrade for having said that. But an equal mistake is to sum up Militant’s role in that historic battle simply by pointing to that one issue. That is sectarianism.
I could take up the claims one-by-one, but what is the purpose? The point is that Left Voice (and similar critics) are mistaken in claiming that Militant was forced to capitulate to the Labour Party leadership by being inside the Labour Party. If they did so, then how explain the vicious assault of the capitalist media agains Militant? How explain the attacks of that very Labour Party leadership? Why was it that that very leadership so strenuously opposed Militant’s role in Liverpool as well as their organizing and leading the Poll Tax campaign? In fact, I believe what happened is that so much of the left started with the position that Lenin had taken nearly 50 years earlier and then worked backwards from there, trying to find reasons to justify their opposition to being inside the Labour Party.
Far from the claim that Taaffe removed Militant from the Labour Party, Militant members were expelled from the Party in droves. If they capitulated, then why were they expelled? Why were they so viciously attacked in the capitalist media, unlike any of the other socialist groups, who were ignored? (I still have a copy of a paper from those days with the headline “Militant Maggots Inside the Labour Party”.) The general picture of what happened in Militant and in the CWI runs contrary to my own experiences and the actual facts as depicted here and here.
It is ironic that two of the most serious blunders of Taaffe in recent years go unmentioned by Left Voice. They are the support for Brexit and the utter confusion about what was happening in the Labour Party during and since the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. Again, those two issues are discussed further in my piece in the above link.
This whole debate about having been inside the Labour Party is directly relevant to the central question of perspectives and, therefore, of strategy facing Trotskyists today. I think that the great majority of Trotskyist groups are either overtly or covertly seeking to build along the lines raised by Trotsky in 1938. If 2019 is not 1919, neither is it 1938. A new mass workers’ international will not be built as Trotsky sought to build the Fourth International – around clear perspectives, program, strategy and tactics, which means around a single revolutionary world view and organization. Instead, it will spring for the workers movement itself, meaning in a much more confused and chaotic fashion. It will be much more like the First than the Third or Fourth Internationals. It will contain straight-up union militants and other working class fighters, anarchists, syndicalists, left social democrats, and Marxists/revolutionary socialists. The task of revolutionary socialists is to help build such a mass, international workers movement by explaining the necessary longer term path along with the workers movement must develop and the next necessary and possible steps to be taken along that path. That cannot be done without actually participating in the movement and understanding that we will be learning and developing along with the rest of the workers movement. Flowing from these perspectives, I think it makes much more sense to try to build a network of revolutionary socialists than a hard core “democratic centralist” organization that pictures itself as being the future revolutionary leadership.
I look forward to being able to discuss and work with comrades in Left Voice and other serious, working class socialist groups and individuals, along these lines.
Categories: socialist movement