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 the claims are wildly 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.
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. That is inaccurate. In fact, one of the main reasons for Ted’s leaving the Fourth International was a difference in perspectives. As some will be aware, before he was assassinated, Trotsky had predicted that a new period of economic crisis would develop after the end of WW II. Trotsky’s followers were evidently unwilling to think for themselves, and at the end of the war, they stubbornly clung to that perspective, despite the fact that Trotsky was mistaken. 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(of an immediate collapse of capitalism and Stalinism and the creation of a mass Fourth International) had been superseded by the end of the war.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.”
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 untrue. 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; 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.
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. We all 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. 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 the campaign to free a survivor of domestic violence who was serving a life sentence for participating in the non-fatal shooting of her abuser. (That campaign was ultimately successful.)
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 seek 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.
What is so significant in these criticisms is that they give absolutely no recognition to the tremendous role Militant played overall. Thus, it simply comes off as sectarian carping.
I could take up the claims one-by-one, but what is the purpose? The point is that Left Voice (and similar critics) are completely unsuccessful in demonstrating their claim 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?
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 was that? (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.) A more general examination of what happened to revolutionary socialism is also useful
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.
Before closing, I must mention another issue raised by Left Voice. In relation to working in the workers organizations, including the unions, they talk about “independent revolutionary factions”. Are they referring to union opposition caucuses? Are they saying that such caucuses must be “revolutionary” caucuses? If so, this is a sectarian position. (It was the position of the Spartacist League back in the 1970s, and their caucuses failed utterly.) What it’s saying to workers is: “You must join us, you must become revolutionaries, before we work together to make our union really fight for us.”
Categories: socialist movement