Saturday, July 23, 2016


Detail from Alun's map of British Trotskyism, 2015, Revolutionary History
A menace is apparently stalking the Labour Party, that of the "Trots":

It is often said, with some justice, that Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters cleave to the politics of the 1970s and 1980s and are still fighting the battles they lost then. However, it seems to me that the Labour right, in fantastically over-emphasising the menace of the "Trots", are similarly fighting old battles, battles they won in the 1980s and 1990s.

In the 1980s, a couple of quite large and well-organised Trotskyist sects, as well as a few smaller ones, did indeed seriously carry out well-disciplined operations to enter and take commanding positions in the Labour movement. (For a very enjoyable history, see John Sullivan's classic As Soon As This Pub Closes.) These included the Militant Tendency (now the Socialist Party, whose electoral front is TUSC) as well as the smaller Socialist Organiser (now the Alliance for Workers Liberty). Such groups managed to get a controlling influence in the Labour Party Young Socialists (where I cut my political teeth in the late 1980s) and municipalities such as Liverpool, before being expelled in the 1980s. Mainstream Labour activists too young to have fought these battles will have encountered the legacy of them in the student union movement (where the full spectrum of Trot sects have grappled for influence), and been inducted there into the Party's collective memory of the "Trot" menace.

The membership of these groups, however, peaked perhaps in five figure numbers, and may barely be close to that now. (Paul Mason, a former member of the Trotskyist groupuscule Workers Power, told the BBC yesterday that there are only 1500 British Trotskyists, but I think that might be a very conservative estimate.)

Now, 250,000 people voted for Jeremy Corbyn's leadership in 2015, including 121,751 actual Labour members - of whom a good many were soft left long-term party members and far from Trotskyist. We have been told that this week alone 180,000 people paid £25 to sign up as registered supporters in order to vote in the leadership election, and a good number (though definitely not all of them) are Corbyn supporters. And then there are members of Momentum who haven't joined up, plus an army of Corbynista keyboard warriors.

Are all of these - perhaps half a million - Trots? Of course not.

It is true that there are a couple of Trotskyists high up in team Corbyn. (Simon Fletcher, who, while working for Ed Miliband, designed the leadership voting system that gave Corbyn his victory, is a veteran of the cult-like Socialist Action, who used to be Trotskyist but have evolved in a Stalinist direction over the years - see Coatesy.) And then there's Seumas Milne, whose roots are in the Stalinist rather than Trotskyist left. But what about at the grassroots, in the party branches?

Reports of pro-Corbyn rallies always mention the presence of SWP banners as proof that his campaign is full of Trots. Anyone who has been to any demo, however, knows that a tiny number of SWP members bring huge numbers of SWP placards along, which they hand to the naive and gullible innocents who like the message and don't think about the brand. The SWP placards are evidence of the foolishness of some of Corbyn's followers, not of their Trotskyism.

As for Momentum, it is clearly quite a heterogeneous formation. Its leaders and organisers include long-term Labour non-Trotskyist left-wingers such as Jon Lansman, as well as new party members like former Green James Schneider, and a few actual Trotskyists such as Jill Mountford. (See this scurrilous "exposé" by Andrew Gilligan, and this more sobre account by John Harris.) It's true that various Trotskyist parties have been reported at local Momentum meetings (including the appalling Socialist Workers Party) - although the Momentum organisers have told them to sling their hooks. Most reports I've heard of Momentum meetings talk about a few Trotskyists, far outnumbered by young socialists relatively new to politics and un-encumbered by any history of sect membership.

In a way, of course, it is a good thing that the menace of the "Trots" is partly a figment of mainstream Labour activists' imagination. Trotskyism - like Leninism in general - is an inherently anti-democratic movement, which subordinates working class self-activity and democratic socialism to the vehicle of the vanguard party. The concept of the vanguard party is one of the core precepts of Trotskyism, and it is a concept incompatible with support for a broad-based, mass, democratic party of labour (which is why Marx always argued that communists should not form ideologically pure vanguard parties). Most rank and file Corbyinists clearly desire (and have an idea that Labour once was) a broad-based, mass, democratic socialist party, not a Leninist vanguard party.

On the other hand, the fact that the Corbynist movement is not Trotskyist also speaks to one of its weaknesses: its ideological eclecticism and incoherence. Beyond a few phrases about fighting austerity and supporting public ownership, Corbynism is a movement that lacks a unifying vision, lacks a concrete sense of how its aims could be achieved, has so far failed to articulate how its vague socialist ethos could be translated into policy ideas.

Two recent articles illuminate this well, in different ways. The radical economist Richard Murphy describes here (h./t Paul C) why he went to work on helping to flesh out "Corbynomics", and why, sadly, it came to nothing: