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:
If Jeremy and John had known what they were doing these impasses would not have happened. The impression left is that they have created a movement that hates what’s happening in the world and can get really angry about it, but then has not a clue what to do about it. 
If this movement was really visionary that would not be the case. Vision is about having a guiding principle that directs your actions. It is about what you want to achieve. It is positive. It can never be negative. So the Tories know they want to make the market ever friendlier for a limited number of businesses: that is apparent in all their policies, like it or not. All that I have got so far from the Labour left is a message of what it is opposed to. That’s something. But it’s a long way from being enough. Vision is about knowing what goes in something’s place and this is what I cannot see coming from Momentum or supporters like Paul Mason, whose book Post Capitalism in many ways typifies anti-visionary thinking by offering nothing of substance at the end of a long analysis.
And this excellent, long, widely circulated piece by Matt Bolton makes related points (emphasis added):
Corbynism has been (at least up to now) as much of a top-down mediated phenomenon as anything under Blair. It is rather a simulation of a social movement — a form of clicktivism, of gesture politics based on an identification with ‘what Jeremy stands for’. It makes people feel like they are part of a ‘social movement’ without having to engage in the tricky, boring work of actually building one. 
This is why the figure of Corbyn himself is so vital, why his tenacity in holding onto the leadership trumps questions of whether he is actually able to wield it in parliament. Because if Corbynism actually was a social movement that had developed over time and culminated in, rather than started with, Corbyn’s leadership victory — if Momentum really was the rebirth of Militant, with well-organised new members embedded within their local parties, taking up positions of power, standing for office — then the importance of Corbyn himself would be correspondingly reduced. The fact that everything rides on Corbyn staying in power testifies precisely to the lack, the weakness, of the ‘social movement’ of which he is the supposed avatar... 
This leads on to the most fundamental problem facing Corbynism — the difference between ‘extra-parliamentary activism’ and a ‘political party’. The aim of most extra-parliamentary activist groups is not to take control of the state (at present none would be capable of doing so in any case) but to make demands on it — to force it to change laws or provide resources for whatever the particular ends of the group are. The tactics of such groups change according to political persuasion, ranging from direct action to A-to-B marches. The latter form has been the basis of Corbyn’s own political activity throughout his life, particularly in the Stop The War movement. The aims of an organisation like Stop the War are generally to get as many people on the streets on a march or rally as possible, in the hope that eventually sheer quantity of numbers will turn into qualitative change, regardless of who is in power. The belief is that by repeating the same message over and over again, enough people — even if not a majority, or evenly distributed across the country — will be convinced to force the government to accede to their demands.
This is precisely the logic that lies behind the veneration of the hypertrophic growth of Labour membership, and the idea that such growth indicates a ‘groundswell’ of general support for Corbyn amongst the electorate, polls be damned. For a campaign group, 200,000 new members does indeed represent such a groundswell, and will bring them much closer to winning concessions from the state. For a political party, competing for the votes of 40 million people, the enthusiasm of 200,000 geographically unevenly distributed supporters with varying levels of commitment is, unfortunately, nowhere near as important.
If Corbynism was Trotskyism, it would also be marked by the extremely high levels of political literacy typical of Trotskyism. When people become Trotskyists (although this is slightly less true of the more populist, recruitment-oriented SWP and Socialist Party) they go through a political education more rigorous than any university course. Its curriculum includes working class history, the socialist movement, the nature of capitalism, anti-racism, as well as, of course, Marxist theology. That kind of political literacy is desperately needed in the movement, not least in an internet/post-truth age, when all the world's facts (true or not) are available at the click of a finger but few put in the time to flesh out an analysis.

The lack of political literacy is one of the reasons why the Corbyn scene falls so easily into antisemitic memes, conspiracy thinking, crankery, and curtailed forms of anti-capitalism. Shami Chakrabarti hinted at this in her report on antisemitism (see p.6) when she suggested a need to recover the traditions of workers self-education embodied by the Workers Education Associations, the National Council of Labour Colleges, and Ruskin College (and, we should add, by the more militant Plebs League).

In short, perhaps the Corbynite left needs a dose of Trotskyism, even if it could well do without too many Trotskyists.

Also read:



Sarah AB said...

My local Momentum group doesn't seem to have got the memo about the SWP

bob said...

Sarah, I can't see evidence of SWP from that FB page. (But I don't know how to read Facebook!)

Sarah AB said...

It's just the banner picture Bob - the placards.

Alex Ross said...

Yes, agree Corbyn supporters are a diverse Auntie, for example, a lifelong campaigner on Asbestos in schools, and very much a democratic socialist is a great are a number of principled (non-fanatical!!) people in my Unison branch. The online population of Corbyn supporters is far, far less pleasant in my experience...

What I find frustrating is the crude consequentialism of many supporters (often people I know and like). E.g. for me the Milne appointment, the toleration of totalitarians in the StWC and various associations with anti-semites cross red-lines for me. Instead of challenging these attitudes, I'm told to sweep them under the carpet. The unity of the left is apparently more important. The irony is that it is the Corbyn supporters who are being the most divisive....

Waterloo Sunset said...

@ Sarah

Going by my past experience of the SWP, the main thing that's evidence of is that they've turned up with their placards and tried to get to the front of all pictures, not entryism.

It's what they do. There were SWP placards on the old Reclaim the Streets demos. It's fair to say the SWP had absolutely no influence on the direction of the movement.

You can argue that Momentum should have asked them to leave, but that's a very different thing than entryism.

I feel that you've illustrated Bob's point about how people are overblowing all of this. The cobweb left doesn't have a lot of influence in the whole Corbyn thing.

What makes this all even sillier is that the two biggest Trot groups (Socialist Party and SWP) have no interest in entryism these days. They're both keeping the Labour Party at arm's length as a matter of politics.

Who does that leave us with? The AWL probably, although that's open entryism. Socialist Appeal as always. And the CPGB seem to be flirting with the idea.

I'd be surprised if those three groups top 100 people between them.

Although this is still nowhere near as funny as good old Luke Akehurst getting all paranoid about "Anarchists for Corbyn". Despite the fact that seems to be one guy with a Wordpress blog.

Unlikely though it may be that Luke reads this and he wouldn't believe me if he did, I can promise him there is not some super sekrit plan for an anarchist influx into the Labour Party.

The influx of Labour Party members is coming from a new source. A sizeable number of the ones I know are actually too young to remember Trotskyism being even mildly relevant to the body politic.