Reflections on the History of the CWI
The recent decision to change the name of the organisation is an appropriate point at which to raise some fundamental issues regarding the history and development of our tendency.
Prior to our emergence as a mass force, it was our tendency's general theoretical clarity in the preparatory years which won us a well-deserved reputation for foresight. Built up painfully over decades, this authority was originally our sole asset. Without unshakeable conviction, none of our miracles of organisation would have been possible. These included, long before the spectacular exploits in Liverpool or the poll tax campaign, feats of fund-raising and administrative genius – apparatus, structure, full timers, headquarters, international interventions, influence in the workers' organisations, mass youth agitation, trade union penetration, etc. – that were to stun our enemies.
Second only to our political confidence was our firm orientation to the Labour Movement, our patient strategy and finely tuned tactics. It was through clear ideas and hard work that our cadres earned influence.
The tendency's momentum was sufficient to carry us well into a period when, beneath the surface, our perspectives were becoming increasingly at odds with reality. There was an imbalance between our political victories throughout the 1980s and our unexpected theoretical failure to anticipate events at the end of the decade.
At the end of the Second World War, the precursors of our tendency had alone had the audacity to challenge the accepted orthodoxies of contemporary Trotskyism, and to modify the perspectives that Trotsky himself had advanced in his last months: the prognosis that the revolutionary wave that was bound to follow the coming war would destroy the traditional parties of the working class; that just as the Second International had collapsed in the First World War, the reformist and Stalinist parties would crumble; and that the Fourth International would become the decisive force on the planet.
In 1940 these prognoses had been justified. But as always, reality had overtaken them. For a whole historical period, on the basis of the economic upswing and of the spread of Stalinism to a number of new countries, both the reformist and the Stalinist parties became on the contrary strengthened. Those former Trotskyist groups which were incapable of drawing up bold fresh perspectives utterly degenerated. The founders of our tendency generally succeeded where others had failed.
THE POSTWAR BALANCE OF FORCES
Simply summarised, our perspectives were based on the changed balance of forces, with a proletariat enormously strengthened by the upswing in contrast with the inter-war period, and with imperialism drastically weakened by the extension of Stalinism and the colonial revolution.
In relation to the advanced capitalist countries, we predicted that the general upswing which began in 1950, with periodic minor dips, would ultimately give way to a succession of deeper and deeper recessions in a general process of downswing. This was graphically borne out in the recessions of 1974-5 and 1979-82. Each successive recession would be deeper than the last, and this would open up huge class struggles, given the growth of the working class during the boom years. Our prognosis of "sharp turns and sudden changes" included the possibility of proletarian uprisings breaking out almost without warning.
This meant that the tendency was not only not taken unawares by such events as the French general strike in 1968, the Portuguese revolution and the overthrow of the Greek dictatorship in 1974, but had even prepared in advance for the upheavals in Spain in 1975-6. Given the perspective of intensifying class struggles, we had prepared our forces within the workers' organisations for impending explosions.
The perspective of radicalisation of the workers' parties – and especially the Socialist Parties, which were at that time more volatile than the Communist Parties – was vindicated in the 1970s by the growth of initially left-reformist and arguably centrist Socialist Parties in France, Spain, Portugal and especially Greece, the growth of the left in the British Labour Party, etc.
In most of the former colonial countries, the tendency argued that there could be no lasting respite, but generally a succession of wars, civil wars, revolutions and counter-revolutions, coups and counter-coups, famine and genocide. Paralysed by the conservatism of the leadership of the workers' parties, the permanent revolution was asserting itself in a peculiar way. In the very weakest links of world capitalism, the tasks of history were being tackled, with gross distortions, by the most improbable petty-bourgeois agencies, through guerrilla wars or military coups. Due to the historical decay of capitalism and the attractive force of Stalinism, capitalism/landlordism was being overthrown, and replaced by bureaucratic regimes in the crude model of Stalinist Moscow and Beijing.
No better analysis was made of the new phenomenon of what we called proletarian bonapartism. Following events in China, Cuba, and elsewhere, the process of spasmodic leaps towards proletarian bonapartism in the colonial world was reaffirmed in 1974-5 by a wave of such events in Vietnam, Cambodia, Angola, Mozambique, and Ethiopia.
In relation to the Stalinist states, ours was the only tendency to understand and warn in advance that, at least in the USSR and Eastern Europe, the bureaucracy had reached the limits of its capacity to develop society; that it had become not just a relative drag but an absolute brake on further progress. It predicted convulsions. Now that the productive forces were no longer being developed, the working class could no longer tolerate the burden of bureaucratic repression. Few other observers – left or right – had monitored so closely the hidden data of economic wastage or tapering productivity; predicted so presciently the uprisings of the working class which were later to bring down the regimes in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, etc.; or anticipated the crumbling of the Soviet Union.
We have no reason to apologise for our penetrating analysis of the gathering crisis in the Stalinist states. Our underlying weakness was that the possibility of capitalist restoration was categorically ruled out. It was considered that the historical decay of capitalism had closed off this option for all time. Indeed, the very idea was derided: to turn the clock back to capitalism in Russia was as unthinkable as to return to feudalism in Britain.
These ideas wove together to represent a world view. Radicalisation of the mass workers' parties, successive defeats for imperialism in the colonial world, the impossibility of capitalist restoration in the Stalinist world, were all foundation planks of our perspectives. All were based upon the reality of an instinctive universal appreciation of the historical decadence and bankruptcy of capitalism. This was founded on the mass memory of two imperialist world wars, the Great Depression, the victory of Stalinist Russia in the Second World War, and the colonial revolution which was sweeping the world. It was reflected in student radicalism and the cult of Guevara, etc.; in the US government's "domino theory" justifying its intervention in Vietnam; in de Gaulle's admission to the new US ambassador in 1968 that "the game's up" and "France will go communist"; in the announcement by a headline in The Times at the high point of the Portuguese revolution that "capitalism in Portugal is dead"; in Willy Brandt's resignation statement predicting the end of capitalist liberal democracy; etc. All these events fortified our perspectives.
THE BOOM OF THE 1980s
It feels almost nostalgic to recall these confident certainties today. These perspectives, which had stood the test so well in earlier decades, were becoming hopelessly outdated by the 1980s. It was not, as it first seemed, merely a question of tempo, nuances, accidental conjunctures and extraneous factors. There had been as drastic a superseding of old outlooks as in 1945. Just as Trotsky's perspectives had become inadequate, so now our perspectives too had become overtaken by the new realities.
Sectarian fragments of the Fourth International had been thrown into convulsions in the 1940s and 1950s by such shocks as the organic upswing of the world capitalist economy, the extension of the frontiers of Stalinism, and – for those who had even noticed – their own unaccountable failure to become the "decisive force on the planet". Some refused to concede the slightest modification of Trotsky's schema; others wrote off the "bourgeoisified" working class and discovered new agencies of revolution (students, lumpens, peasants) or current Messiahs (Mao, Tito, Ben Bella, Castro....).
Where their perspectives could hardly be maintained for three weeks, those of our tendency had stood the test again and again over the course of three decades. The irony was that, by a process of ideological inertia not at all unfamiliar in the history of Marxism, these same perspectives were retained basically intact for an entire fourth decade, during which they proved all too fallible. They were becoming manifestly inadequate. To the extent that we clung on to them, our tendency was becoming insulated from the real world.
The sharp right turns within the traditional workers' parties in Britain, Western Europe, Japan, Australia, etc., went far beyond those of the repressive era of Gaitskellism. Many – notably the British Labour Party – are rapidly metamorphosing into openly bourgeois parties. There is no comparison even with events at the time of Ramsay MacDonald (who following his defection left a radicalised Labour Party still intact) or Gaitskell (who had to retract his attempt to drop Clause Four in the teeth of bitter rank-and-file resistance).
In many of the more developed ex-colonial countries, the national bourgeoisie had tried to gain some leverage by playing off the superpowers and leaning partially on the Stalinist states. Now the horrifically intensified squeeze on the colonial world has wrought new convulsions, bringing to a brutal end whatever illusory (or at best marginal) scope had existed earlier for such populist measures. Nevertheless, not a single new proletarian-bonapartist regime has been created since the mid-1970s – not in Grenada, Ghana, nor even Nicaragua, where the process hung in the balance for ten years.
Most spectacular of all were the definitive events of 1989, which ushered in a process of capitalist restoration throughout the former USSR and Eastern Europe.
All these perspectives had foundered on an inadequate characterisation of the world economy during the 1980s. The general truism that capitalism has long been historically reactionary and decadent, and for all its temporary successes can ultimately offer only wars, slumps and barbarism, is not enough: that is not how it presents itself today in popular consciousness.
Our tendency rightly explained the unexpectedly prolonged and substantial boom of the 1980s on the basis of artificial measures taken by the US government, notably arms expenditure, and on the intensified exploitation of the colonial world. But only very belatedly did we come round to an appreciation that what had begun as an artificial boom had become genuine, with a real organic expansion of the economy, and spectacularly so in microelectronics, where capitalism was (and is) still manifestly revolutionising a major sector of the productive forces. In spite of continuing high levels of unemployment and drastic cuts in the social wage, the actual expansion of the economy had a profound effect on general perceptions.
By the late 1980s, workers compared apparently almost uninterrupted growth in the West against the rotting of the economy and culture in the Stalinist states. It appeared that there had been a huge and unprecedented economic upswing which had revolutionised the productive forces in the advanced capitalist countries almost continuously since the end of the Second World War, throughout the living memory of almost two generations. The couple of freak interruptions in the 1970s could plausibly be attributed to unexpected fluctuations in oil prices, due to peculiar extraneous accidents (the OPEC cartel, the Iranian revolution....)
THE COLLAPSE OF STALINISM
By contrast, the Stalinist states presented an aspect of monolithic stagnation, corruption, wastage, repression and bureaucratic decay, sanctified by a tired liturgy of half-hearted cynical political dogma.
Thus there came a monstrous inversion of the consciousness that had existed in earlier decades, when the meteoric successes of the USSR in industrialisation and in raising productivity had brilliantly offset the capitalist horrors of the Great Depression, Fascism and World War. It was now socialism which appeared discredited, while illusions in capitalism soared. Even in the ex-colonial countries, with their hated parasitic local capitalists, illusions in the capitalist system grew. The mass of youth dreamed of migration to the West or even the Arabian countries, and foreign investment was peddled as the panacea which would modernise these economies.
In the turbulent and paradoxical period that has opened up, there has been a blurring of the boundaries between the formerly clearly demarcated sectors of the world; a partial merging of the neat and convenient trilateral arrangement that existed formerly. Workers in the "metropolitan" countries face the rapid erosion of the material and social gains accumulated over previous decades, and loss of their jobs to former "third-world" countries. The masses in the ex-colonial world, in a position vis-a-vis imperialism more abject than ever, strain against all the odds for some respite. And the former Stalinist states are facing quasi-colonial pauperisation under the encroachments of restorationist capitalism.
Prior to the 1980s, capitalist restoration in the Stalinist states was unthinkable. The tendency was right in demonstrating that the workers, most classically in Hungary in 1956, but also in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and in Poland in 1970-1, were pursuing the programme of the political revolution for workers' democracy. In the 1960s, there was still genuine popular pride at the technological progress of the USSR, symbolised most graphically in its space exploits. Khrushchev could still plausibly boast of overtaking the USA, and even of "achieving communism", by 1980.
In insisting that there could be no prospect of capitalist restoration in these countries, we had frankly modified Trotsky's formula: either the political revolution to cleanse the state of bureaucratism, or social counter-revolution. Trotsky had argued that without the political revolution, restoration would ultimately triumph, as the higher productivity of the advanced capitalist economies prevailed.
In the '50s and '60s, this bold revision of Trotsky's prognosis was perfectly justified. We exposed the lie that Soviet tanks were the last defence against restorationist threats, and convincingly refuted Stalinist justifications for military intervention in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, etc. Clearly, in 1956, all that stood in the way of the political revolution in Hungary was the absence of the subjective factor. But we still maintained this position unchanged right up to the end of 1989. Here again our perspectives had become fossilised.
Our earlier oft-repeated assertions that "twenty cadres" could have transformed the situation could no longer be seriously sustained. Twenty cadres in Russia in 1991 might well have been able to win hundreds or even thousands of adherents – but they could not have withstood the historical tide and changed the course of events. By now there was an objective basis for reaction.
It had long been the tendency's position that the Soviet bureaucracy had become more and more an absolute fetter on any further progress of these societies. Once its dead hand had brought productivity growth to a standstill, it had become historically doomed.
But the full implications of this accurate assessment had not been sufficiently thought through. The analogy was repeatedly made of a "race" between the social revolution in the West and the political revolution in the East. But, while world capitalism still appeared to be developing society, and the social revolution consequently lagged behind in this "race", what guarantee could there be that the collapse of the bureaucracy would lead to the political revolution? The pressure of events would inevitably strain towards restoration.
This was a collective mistake of the tendency, no matter what tentative challenges were raised behind closed doors. The author of this article freely admits to insisting as late as 1988 that there was no question of capitalist restoration in Burma, let alone the USSR. This admission is made not for purposes of apology but in order to lay bare the roots of what was after all a major mistake.
The reaction of what was to become the minority faction was to shut its eyes to reality. It clung to its perspective of the re-establishment of a Stalinist regime resting on the planned economy (for instance, following the abortive Yanaev coup). Such an outcome would have restored, along with Stalinism, their own old reassuringly familiar world perspectives.
To its honour, the majority recognised past mistakes. To pose the theoretical possibility of a bourgeois counter-revolution unfolding in the Stalinist states took political courage and imagination, and was in itself ample justification for supporting the majority against the minority in the political struggle that was soon afterwards to break out within the tendency.
Nevertheless, none of what actually transpired had been anticipated before the event. Where in the past the tendency could triumphantly republish its old perspectives documents, it was now reduced to improvising perfectly plausible arguments...ex-post-facto.
Insufficient attention was given to the sharp decline that had taken place in the workers' consciousness during the 1980s. In Poland, much stress was rightly laid on the fact that Solidarity had emerged as the first independent workers' mobilisation outside the aegis of the Communist Party. (In 1956 and again in 1971 the workers' movement had been successfully diverted by the appointment of alternative factions of the bureaucracy.) But there had also been a degeneration of the workers' political outlook compared with those movements. In relation to China, too, the tendency rapidly moved from a position that the political revolution was not imminent because the bureaucracy had not yet exhausted its role, to acclamation of the political revolution in 1989. More regard should have been given to such clear warning signs as the adulation of the Pope in Poland, and the erection of a replica of the Statue of Liberty in Tienanmen Square.
This tendency of ours to underestimate the strength of reaction can also be noted in relation to other features of the period, nationally and internationally. Events were soon to compel a brutal reappraisal of perspectives, and provoke a crisis within the tendency. But meanwhile, great achievements had transformed our role.
THE RISE OF MILITANT
Our tendency enjoyed not only enormous reserves of political capital accumulated over three decades, but also confidence, youth, élan, experience, virtuoso presentational and organisational skills, and strong roots in the Labour Movement. So, paradoxically, by a curious twist of timing, our greatest practical glories came in the 1980s, a period when our theoretical heritage was already failing. Our ideological weaknesses were not to be exposed until the historic shocks of the end of the decade.
During the '60s and '70s, the tendency's theoretical confidence had enabled us to train a generation of capable cadres. By necessity we were largely confined to the role of passive bystanders in history, making the most acute and penetrating vicarious commentaries on great events, but usually helpless to intervene. Most of our commentaries were necessarily written in a grammatical tense which became a hallmark: the past conditional. ("If we had had members" in France in 1968, in Poland in 1970, in Chile in 1970-3...) We were reduced to writing excellent articles criticising the mistakes of those who had.
The 1980s marked the point where, in Britain at least, we were able to cross the barrier between passivity and intervention, where we became a factor and even a crucial factor in the objective situation, winning sometimes quite spectacular victories. It is no exaggeration to say that the tendency entered into the calculations, strategies, tactics, and the nightmares, not only of the Labour bureaucracy, but of the ruling class too.
It was during this period that the tendency achieved its most spectacular successes. Three of our members were elected as Labour MPs, all known Marxists and proud Militant supporters. The propaganda slogan "a workers' MP on a workers' wage" – and still more so its actual practice – brilliantly and irrefutably proved the difference between Militant and all other currents. We won control of the biggest civil service union, the CPSA. In the course of our massive intervention in the miners' strike of 1984-5, hundreds of miners were won to our ranks.
In the mid-eighties, we were leading the population of Liverpool in a five-year struggle against the Thatcher government. We formed the leadership of the Liverpool labour movement and of the City Council, establishing a record of unprecedented and model achievements for a local council, and organising general strikes of thirty thousand workers. The Government threatened to send in the troops, and eventually had to use the law courts to throw out of office most of Liverpool's popular and democratically elected councillors.
This struggle, already perhaps the biggest movement led by Trotskyism since 1917, was immediately followed by an even bigger achievement: the struggle against the hated poll tax. We were the sole left tendency to understand in advance that the tax could be defeated by direct action. Our comrades had the courage to play the decisive role in launching a mass civil disobedience campaign.
In the course of this movement, dozens of our activists were jailed. Eighteen million people were emboldened to refuse payment. A quarter of a million people were mobilised for one of the biggest demonstrations in British history. And within two or three years, the campaign achieved total victory, with the scrapping of the tax and the overthrow of Mrs Thatcher personally - the world's most enduring symbol of reaction.
Our achievements struck alarm in the bourgeoisie, and rightly so. For the first time since the Russian revolution, Trotskyism had been established as a vital force within the Labour Movement. We had formed an important contingent among the shock troops in the miners' strike, led Britain's fifth city in a prolonged struggle against the Tory government, mobilised 18 million people in one of the biggest civil-disobedience campaigns in history, and overthrown a Prime Minister. For good measure, within the space of a decade or so we had built an autonomous revolutionary youth movement under the auspices of the Labour Party, built a strong base in several trade unions, mobilised 40,000 youth on a Europe-wide demonstration against racism, established the foundation for a new International, and much else besides.
We entered into the psyche of society. To this day, repeated invocations in BBC reports and broadsheet articles remind us that the memory of that period still haunts the Establishment. Shivers ran down the capitalists' backs when Pat Wall gave an honest warning of the danger of civil war, when Tommy Sheridan won an election from a prison cell, when Terry Fields MP was jailed, along with dozens more activists, by poll-tax courts. Derek Hatton was cleared of all charges after an operation involving 280 police officers.
Mrs Thatcher shrilly denounced Militant in Parliament. Kinnock called our supporters "maggots" and made his despicable attack on us the centrepiece of his election campaign. Hundreds were expelled in the first mass purge of the Labour Party in decades. The High Court intervened to disqualify elected Militant councillors and overturn the election of Militant trade union leaders. The very name became a household word, figuring in popular parlance, in crosswords and game shows.
Our record still also attracts the bile of dilettantes and slanderous gossips; but it is thanks to Militant that hundreds of working-class families in Liverpool now have decent houses, or in Scotland have protected their possessions from impoundment by bailiffs.
These achievements represented an accumulation of decades of patient work within the Labour Movement – which had itself transformed the environment in which we were working. The situation was far removed from the days when supporters of the tendency were humbly peddling a monthly paper in little Labour Party ward meetings up and down the country. Now the witch-hunt was in full swing, with a wave of expulsions amounting to a mass purge. The Labour bureaucracy became so terrified at the threat of Marxism that it consciously decided to wreck the party itself as a living forum of working-class political life. The necessity of an urgent shift in tactics to meet the new situation precipitated the first political conflict in the growing polarisation within the tendency.
THE SPLIT IN THE CWI
What was to become the minority was patently incapable of adapting to the new situation, theoretically, strategically, tactically. As is argued below, the main cause of the split that was about to break was the fact that the tendency's perspectives had become too brittle. But the most immediate and furious controversy arose over the correct and courageous decision to stand a Militant candidate in the Walton by-election. The minority insisted upon an almost obsessive repetition of the exact methods of Labour Party work of 40 years previously, ignoring all its intervening successes, and the bureaucracy's subsequent annihilation of first the youth section and then the Party organisation itself. For them, even tactics – which require flexibility, ingenuity and improvisation – had been turned into a fetish.
Trotsky in the 1930s had proposed entrism as one imaginative initiative among a kaleidoscopic variety of daring devices to draw new recruits to Marxism. In view of the slower and more drawn-out tempo of post-war events, our tendency had been correct to extend and prolong its practise. Despite some mistaken formulations, however, it had never been elevated from a tactic to a "strategy". For the minority, the episodic tactics of earlier decades remain to this day a sacrosanct principle.
To resist the temptation of adventuristic gestures that might result in premature expulsion from the Labour Party was one thing: but to retreat from a principled battle in the futile hope of clinging on to a Party card for its own sake would have been disastrous. It would have been, precisely, a "betrayal of 40 years' work".
Our tendency had always prided itself, and with justification, that we had never suffered a major split or even a major difference within our ranks. We used to ridicule the sects, who were continually splitting because they were incapable of building a durable foundation or making a consistent analysis. They had a succession of contradictory positions. Their fragmentation was due to the fact that their analysis, slogans and orientation were wrong. The first sign of their petit-bourgeois character was that they were incapable either of coherent ideas or stable formations.
Before 1991, we had enjoyed a reputation for almost monolithic consistency. Occasional nuances of difference naturally arose, but there was no crystallisation of entrenched oppositions as was the happy norm in the fantasy world of the sects. Our tendency remained stable while our perspectives, strategy and tactics were at least generally correct.
The storm which suddenly opened up in 1991, catching the entire tendency unawares, began on apparently trivial issues. But Marxists do not mistake the accident which sparks off such clashes with the real underlying cause. Behind these incidental frictions lay major differences, as was soon to become clear.
The shock struck along certain clearly identifiable political fault lines. The split represented an assertion of real and objectively based doubts over what had over the decades hardened into a reflexive dogma. The majority was counterpoising, not just alternative ideas, but also a plea for some flexibility – a "conditionality", in the current jargon. While in periods of stability, it was necessary to insist firmly and "categorically" upon well-proven principles, in these times of flux, it was vital to encourage imagination and experimentation. There was a yearning for fresh air.
At the same time, this was also a confrontation between two sharply differentiated styles inherited from two contrasting stages of development. The long habits of painstaking theoretical preparation and meticulous cadre building in an earlier era had ill conditioned a more mature generation for the new tasks of mass agitation and audacious initiatives. The split had a dual nature: slow methods of preparation belonged together with sure time-tested perspectives in a neatly demarcated world; flair and daring, in deed and thought, with a world in flux.
To imply that the split had arisen primarily from personal factors would be to miss the crucial point. After all, at this level, the minority too was able to make some accurate criticisms. Why not? In any faction fight, both sides will obviously bring into play the best available arguments. But that is not the issue. The split cannot be ascribed primarily to the peccadilloes of individuals. Even Ted Grant’s “dogmatism” and “stubbornness”, so inappropriate and even dangerous during a period of sudden flux, had in earlier decades manifested themselves as those very traits of consistency and resilience that had uniquely carried us through the difficult decades of the post-war upswing.
The crisis in the tendency arose from the conservative pressures holding it back from accomplishing the same task in 1989 as had been done so effectively by Grant in 1945. It sprang from the renewed need to challenge outmoded perspectives, and launch a free and uninhibited discussion to illuminate the new global balance of forces.
The minority's condition was a classic case of the well-known affliction of "revolutionary conservatism" diagnosed so penetratingly by Trotsky, for instance in the history of Bolshevism. Tragically, a mistake, persisted in long enough, becomes a tendency. The split became a necessity, the only alternative to theoretical fossilisation, a sine qua non for regaining the flexibility, openness and energy needed by a living revolutionary current.
It was the majority in this dispute that were the first to become sensitive to the anomalies created by the old dogmas. But precisely at such moments of polemic and split, it is necessary to review the lessons, and balance what was positive and what negative about the old traditions. We did not open up a sufficiently comprehensive review of the theoretical and political foundations of the split.
The many apparently incidental issues where differences arose between what were to become the opposing wings of the tendency (the 1987 Wall Street crash, South Africa, the Gulf War, the 1991 coup in Russia, etc.) were all linked together. What had gone wrong was not that mistakes of interpretation had suddenly been made over this or that. An entire world view – unique and irrefutable for an entire epoch – had become redundant. Old prognoses began to hang, stale and malodorous, in the air. On nearly all the issues mentioned, the minority were clinging to ossified perspectives.
PROBLEMS OF PERSPECTIVE
The paradox is that, in missing the opportunity for a thorough discussion of the theoretical foundations of the split, in part we remained conditioned, implicitly and unwittingly, by these same inadequate perspectives. Our remarkable successes were interpreted as harbingers of a new epoch of mass struggles, led in those cases where we were strong enough by the tendency itself. The reality was that the titanic struggles of the miners and of Liverpool turned out to be, not the first skirmishes of the coming "red '90s", but the last battles of the '70s, undermining the strongest fortresses of proletarian power amassed in the post-war period. The defeats, first of the miners and the print workers and then of Liverpool, opened up a long, slow stagnation, a period not unlike that following the defeat of the 1926 general strike.
This should not have been unexpected. The tendency had made prophetic warnings of the dire consequences of a defeat for the miners and print workers, etc. That these warnings were subsequently underplayed after the defeat of these strikes, and later even derided as pessimism, falsely depreciates their validity.
That the tendency had inherited a drastically wrong perspective on these events is clearly demonstrated by the following passage from a Militant special on the lessons of the miners' strike:
“This is not 1926 when the miners suffered a crushing defeat. That was the end of two decades of struggle. Today the miners and the trade union movement retain enormous strength and the strike marks a decisive milestone - the beginning of a whole new era of intensified class struggle." (8th March 1985).
The tendency's slowness to acknowledge the extent of the defeat represented by the crushing of the NUM clearly arises from our general failure to assess the new and less favourable balance of forces that had emerged by the 1980s – a failure that in other manifestations was to precipitate the split.
We failed to incorporate into our perspectives our own regular token admissions that events would not develop in a straight line, that there would be setbacks, defeats, and even "periods of despair".
We failed to incorporate into our perspectives our own regular token admissions that events would not develop in a straight line, that there would be setbacks, defeats, and even "periods of despair".
The role played by the tendency in the poll tax campaign was nothing short of heroic. However, the whole phenomenon can be seen in retrospect as something of an anomaly, attributable to the personal stubbornness and gross miscalculations of Thatcher, who had overridden the warnings of her class and her own Cabinet. This battle did not have the historical inevitability of the conflicts with the miners and with Liverpool. Once the Conservative Party had summoned up the courage to make the necessary corrections, for all its growing splits and crises, the mass movement that had taken such a frightening form was quickly dissipated.
Instead of soberly assimilating the lessons of our experiences, we have tended to persist in seeking new causes around which to relive our past glories. We were disappointed in our hope that Militant Labour in Britain as a whole would take off as it had in Scotland, despite some very creditable election results. For all our comrades' magnificent efforts and partial successes, we were similarly disappointed in our attempts to build stable mass youth or black movements, or to launch sustained campaigns against racism, to resist the Criminal Justice Bill, to withhold VAT on fuel bills, or other issues. Our most successful achievement has been our campaign against domestic violence.
Faced with the effects of a largely quiescent labour movement, and an inevitable relative isolation, we have organised lobbies against false convictions and joined demonstrations for gay rights, animal rights, road protest campaigns, etc. The tendency's earlier inflexible "fundamentalist" stance on such issues may have been pompous and prudish. But our implacable emphasis on the primacy of the organised labour movement was absolutely right. In those days of class struggle, the espousal of these issues by trendy radicals was a deliberate diversion from the real tasks in hand. In default of decisive battles on the part of the heavy battalions, it is necessary to participate in campaigns over any generally worthy causes; but today's flourishing of youth activism around them is a token of the inertia of the organised working class.
Militant Labour was launched in England and Wales in 1993. In the especially favourable conditions north of the border, Scottish Militant Labour had achieved outstanding successes. No Marxist could seriously dispute that there was no alternative but to disengage from Labour Party work. If anything, this step was already belated. But what were the strategy and perspectives for this organisation? Was Militant Labour to be compared to the Revolutionary Communist Party, formed during the Second World War when the Labour Party was not functioning, and which later became a powerful influence within Labour Party ranks? Was it conceived as an alternative leadership? A temporary detour? A new party? The foundation of an open organisation was long overdue by 1993. But what was earnestly presented as a "detour" then is now defined in retrospect as a definitive break.
It is true that "New Labour's" abandonment even of traditional reformist policies, its rejection of Clause Four, the reduced role of the trade unions, and its open plans to completely sever the link with the trade unions, have gone a long way towards changing the party's class character. Just as, at the time of Noske and Scheidemann, it was necessary to work towards the creation of a new workers' party (the USPD), so today it is necessary to recognise the qualitative change in the Labour Party since the accession of Blair, and to call for the creation of a Socialist Party.
Nevertheless, the question cannot be left there. Even without trade-union affiliations, let alone a socialist clause in its constitution, the SPD did later once again become the main workers' party of Germany. It is significant that, by virtually renaming the Party "New Labour", Blair has implicitly proclaimed a unilateral split. The giant of organised labour is still to move back on stage. In their battles with a future Blair Government, surely the trade unions must either succeed in reclaiming the Labour Party, or (more probably) they will have to create a new one.
The name Militant Labour carries echoes of a fine and clean tradition, and connotations of a united and combative working class. It might be thought an attractive banner in this kind of future scenario. But now the tendency is to be re-launched once again under a new name, on the questionable grounds of Militant's allegedly unfavourable association with terrorism and fundamentalism, and the unattractiveness of Labour to youth.
Is it not an indication of a certain weakness of perspective that today, only three or four years since the launch of Militant Labour, yet another change in name and tactics is being undertaken? In the same way, we appeared at first to hold out exaggerated hopes in the Socialist Labour Party, before renouncing them. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that, rather than anticipating events, we are reacting to them, improvising ideas on the wing, seeking panaceas.
The time-tested Marxist method is to begin with a scientific analysis; flowing from this, to work out perspectives, strategy and tactics ... and last of all, to decide such details as a name. Even though the order appears to have been reversed in the recent debate, then provided it results in a thoroughgoing review of perspectives, then that is welcome.
Under conditions of widespread disorientation, however, even our tendency is not immune from the dangers of disproportion and self-delusion. It has become almost a rule for sectarian groups that once their membership drops below a certain point, they proclaim themselves "parties". What is unique about our tendency is that over the years it earned the authority to claim leadership. If we were ever to succumb to the temptation of the easy option so futilely adopted by countless sects of simply proclaiming our right to lead the working class, that would be a tragic irony.
If we did not declare itself a party when we were leading an entire city in defiance of the government, or when Mrs Thatcher was denouncing us in Parliament for leading millions in a mass movement which was soon to bring her down, then surely we should be doubly cautious now – when, sadly, we have largely faded from public recognition – before arrogating to ourselves the name of that mass workers' party which has still to be created?
The temporary loss of our previous influence is the result of objective factors over which we had no control: the long stagnation of the labour movement, the erosion of industrial concentrations and proletarian communities, the aftermath of confusion from events in Russia, etc. But it is precisely at such times that theory becomes paramount. If the times do not allow for razor-sharp perspectives, then at the very least what is needed is a ruthlessly honest appraisal of the balance of forces. To refuse to recognise a setback can turn it into a rout.
The current period has ample precedent in the history of the working class. Albeit on a much smaller scale, in some respects it can be compared with the period that followed the defeat of the 1905 revolution in Russia. The Bolsheviks remain the most revolutionary party in history; and yet they were virtually annihilated in the years 1907 to 1912. Their ranks were afflicted with despair, adventurism and mysticism. They entered the decisive year 1917 ill prepared for the supreme test of impending events. They still had seriously flawed perspectives for the tasks of the revolution (their formula was still the "democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry"); and in line with these perspectives, initially disastrous policies and slogans. The overthrow of the Tsar took them unawares. And yet Trotsky wrote:
"To the question 'Who led the February revolution?', we can answer definitely enough: conscious and tempered workers, educated for the most part by the party of Lenin."
Our tendency is in incomparably better condition today. And clearly, the first breakthroughs towards the future revolution in Britain will be led largely by workers who were first awakened to political life by Militant. As with the Bolsheviks in 1917, however, it is only then that the real test will begin. All our work now is a preparation for those events.
3rd January 1997