Political influences no.3: The Spartacist League – Defeat clerical fascism! Down with little England demagoguery! Complete the American revolution!

 A blogger once wrote that there was “a whiff of Spartishness” about me.  He wasn’t completely wrong.

At some point as a precocious and no doubt very irritating kid, I went on some national demo, probably with my parents, probably anti-nuclear. I collected leaflets and other freebies right, left and centre. I was fascinated and mystified by the array of political positions. In an act that I now recognise as almost certainly clinically insane, I wrote to a number of them asking them to explain their unique selling points, and for their views on particular topics.

One of the groups I wrote to was the New Communist Party, a tankie breakaway from the Communist Party which left because the CPGB no longer saw Stalin as a wholly good thing. I was cursed then for years with a weekly visit from a deeply lonely and dysfunctional NCP member who had a geographically very widely dispersed paper round of about three addresses. I never had the heart to tell him that his paper was unimaginably dull and had no resonance with my politics.

I was much luckier with the Sparts.
Maybe they had no cadre anywhere near me to keep an eye on me; maybe my letter revealed I was poor recruiting material even for them. I’ve read somewhere that they only accepted recruits already tempered by having gone through another Trotskyist party. Instead they contented themselves with mailing me an enormous parcel of newspaper back issues and mimeographed pamphlets.

I don't think they had any great impact on me at the time, and even with no examples for comparison it was surely clear that I had stumbled upon one of the most insane of fringe political groups. But I kept the literature, and over the years I would return to it again and again, poring through partly out of a kind of morbid, trainspottery fascination, but partly out of genuine interest. This was long before the internet, when my only access to radical politics was the loner from the NCP and two or three strange books in the local lending library; these inky pamphlets were a window on to a mysterious world that appealed to me on some deep level.

It was probably there that I learned the word “Stalinist”, which much later became (and remains) a key entry in my political lexicon. There were three other things that have also stayed with me from these arcane texts.

The first, most trivially, was a picture of Tony Benn, pipe in mouth, with the caption “little England demagogue”. I found this description initially bizarre. I remember asking my dad what the words meant. How can this most radical of politicians, I thought, be not radical enough for these guys? But over the years, the phrase has stuck in my head, and now seems so apt. Every time I see him or his name, I think “little England demagogue”. And over the years, his smug face, his clenched pipe and his toxic combination of anti-Americanism, Euroscepticism, Israel-hatred and Slavophilia has increasingly come to define for me a certain trend on the indecent left, the inheritors of Henry Hyndman’s National Socialist Party, the Morning Star/Harold Pinter/NO2EU/Neil Clark/Andy Newman/George Galloway/Spokesman Books left – the left, in short, of little England demagoguery.

Secondly, I learnt the term “clerical fascism” from the Sparticists. They used the term for an idiosyncratic axis of evil that included Irish Republicanism, the Polish Solidarity movement, and the Mujahideen. Once I was able to form a view, I completely disagreed with them on Solidarity (although it has transpired to carry the seeds of some of Poland’s reactionary, authoritarian political currents). On Ireland, after escaping my adolescent support for the Republican movement, I had a certain amount of sympathy for its critique (although "clerical fascism" is rather over the top). But on the Mujahideen, you have to admit they were proved all too right. Not that the rest of the left could have made much difference in western Asia by more strenuously opposing the Islamo-fascists of the 1980s, but it is odd to see that the Sparts were on the right side on that battle, while many neoconservatives were on the wrong side.

Third, and more complex, the Sparts had a very strong position on the fact that the 1776 bourgeois revolution in America remained unfulfilled, even after the Civil War and then Civil Rights movements took up its tasks. Following Marx and Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution, they argued that proletariat must take up and defend the heritage of the American revolution and fulfil its historic mission. This meant, among other things, defending Constitutional rights like the right to bear arms. This position, I think, carries a great deal of food for thought, and I continue to hold some version of it, although not with the conviction I once did.

Footnote: John Sullivan on the Sparts (1988):
The Sparts’ complete parasitism on other groups makes them very unpopular on the rest of the Left, so, regrettably, little attempt is made to understand the theory which explains their behaviour. The Sparts’ core belief is that, in the forseeable future, it is impossible for revolutionaries to address themselves to significant sectors of the working class, as anyone open to revolutionary politics is already a supporter of one of the groups which, falsely, claim to be revolutionary. The key task of revolutionaries is, therefore, to win over supporters of these Ostensibly Revolutionary Groups (ORGs), by heckling their meetings and hoping to be thrown out. The Sparts will, in this way, achieve the primitive accumulation of cadres which is a necessary stage to be gone through before proceeding to a direct involvement in class struggle. The belief in the long slow haul is combined with the view that there is not much time left to build the vanguard party before the final struggle between socialism and barbarism. Such a theory may be contradictory but it is necessary if the group is to maintain revolutionary fervour while confining its activity to a propaganda onslaught on the ORGs...

Because many of the Sparts’ formal positions are more acceptable to labour movement activists than the lunacies peddled by their competitors, there is the danger that people outside the radical middle class milieu will want to join them. To prevent the inevitable tensions which would result from recruiting working class militants, reasonable positions are expressed in an intolerably harsh manner that works quite well. American ex-Sparts describe a very Healyite organisation where Robertson sits behind a steadily growing pile of empty beer cans carrying on a rambling drunken harangue interspersed with senile laughter, yet we have found Robertson charming on his visits to London. It is true that many of the leading Sparts go in for a macho-man image of guns and swords. The perfectly reasonable call for the abolition of the licensing hours is elevated to a central demand, and there are signs of a flirtation with Scots nationalism. As befits its American origin, the Sparts are individually competitive. New ideas are floated, and if successful their originators get promoted, while if the idea is found to be revisionist they are demoted. If you believe that she who lives by the sword will die by the sword, you have probably guessed the Sparts’ destiny. In the early eighties a group of veteran Sparts in the Bay Area of California, where they had their only toe-hold in the labour movement, defected. The renegades, who originally called themselves the External Tendency, had absorbed their Spart training well. They reclassified their parent group as an ORG and turned up to intervene at its meetings, carefully restraining themselves against attempts to goad them into violence. Innocents in Bootle or Lyon can hardly be expected to understand that the main purpose of all Spart literature is to discredit that tiny group in California.

For the rest of the series, click here.


modernity said…

Small world eh?

I remember a long conversation with a Spart at Hyde Park corner (of course, it could have been short but just seemed long....), and to nearly all of my questions about what to do, he replied "General Strike".

It was 30+ years ago, and I never "cottoned" to them...

I suppose I am lucky?
darren redstar said…
for all their lunacy, the sparts were always there, outside the ulu during marxism. I picked up a copy of one of their 'hate trotskyism, hate the spartacists!' series of pamphlets there and later ordered the complete run.
I then endured a weekly phone call every monday night for about two years from 'Debbie from the spartacist league' who would talk through the entire episode of northern exposure usually about how I was personally responsible for the entire catalogue of the crimes of the Cliffites over the previous half century.
eventually she asked if she and another comrade who were visiting the North to see contacts could pop round for a chat.
they brought beer and talked at me for about 2 hours whilst I drank it.
eventually I had drank all the beer and threw them out.
however when Babara Slaughter and the ICP came round they did not bring beer
modernity said…

Still you got your money's worth :)
Waterloo Sunset said…
however when Babara Slaughter and the ICP

When was Barbara Slaughter in Insane Clown Posse?

I'll get me coat.
A large part of being 'on the left' - and not just on the far left - is about hating other left-wingers, and the Sparts were world champions of feeling the most extreme, unadulterated hatred for other left-wingers. And indeed for other people in general - you could feel their hatred whenever they tried to sell you a newspaper.

But they did have a catchy marching rhyme that stuck in my head from about 1991: 'Ireland, Falklands, Afghanistan, Irack ! Labour Party supports imperialist attack !'
Michael Ezra said…
Marko is accurate. The Sparts did specialise in attacking other left wing groups. I thank him for the catchy rhyme. I have written my own post on Harry's Place where I enclosed a song attacking Workers Power that was published in Workers Hammer. I found it quite amusing. I also wrote a post and copied the text of one of my favourite pieces of ephemera: a leaflet from Spartacist League entitled, "SWP THUGS ASSAULT TROTSKYISTS." As well as commenting on SWP violence, it attacks them for their position on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It includes the memorable line:

"SWP members had better recognise before it’s too late that their ‘third camp’ politics are taking them at a breakneck pace down the road to becoming Jimmy Carter and Maggie Thatcher’s bootboys."
mikeovswinton said…
I think the poster concerned was referring to Dave Sopart in the Private Eye, and not the Spartacist League. Nice post, though.
Bella said…
Ah, yes, The Spartacist League: The Groupuscule's Groupuscule.
two or three strange books in the local lending library

John Callaghan's "The Far Left in British Politics", something by Livingstone (always, always with a slip from the SPGB tucked inside it "99% of politics is crap!", in the days when "crap" was a BAD WORD, demanding I take out a free trial sub to the Socialist Standard, Trotsky's "My Life" in an edition from the 1930s (tucked away in the store room), dodgy propaganda booklets from Novosti "by" Brezhnev (and from the GDR on the wonders of their sporting system), a hatched-job book on the Militant, but nothing as strange as this http://www.amazon.co.uk/Militant-Tendency-Supporters-Sheridan-Matgamna/dp/1155370074/ref=sr_1_54?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1287209678&sr=1-54 I assume it's strange, it could be good literature.

Otherwise, as a ridiculous kid I not only read the Morning Star on the way to school, but was also a subscriber to the WRP News Line, which came by post.

While the Star was staid and contained small ads for CPB jumble sales, the NCP, and Maoists distributing free Mao Bibles (they still write to me occasionally at my childhood address - but why are they based in Old Compton Street? Hardly a typical address for a tiny grouplet of two (and about 2 million Little Red Books), and lots of articles about how wonderful North Korea and/or East Germany was/is, the News Line was clearly barmy and an enjoyment to read.

Full colour, all the sport, TV listings and culture. And regularly the (sub-)headline "Demand the TUC call a General Strike Now". And on New Year's Eve, always, the headline "Revolution in (insert number of next year)!". And some poor sod turned up from Baghad, or Tripoli, or more probably the Peckham/London Bridge area, to convince me, presumably a "contact" due to me not only spending a tenner a month or so on their ridiculous but amusingly lunatic paper, but also as I was brought up in current shorthand for "proletarianland" and "Bob Hoskins encourages women workers to strip for a political point", that I should join them, on New Year's Day.

On New Year's effing day. Luckily I only returned home in a vomit-covered drunken stupor about an hour after the old, old man had been and gone. So my mum said "oh the WRP were there for you and left you a copy of 'Their Morals and Ours' and this paper called "Revolution in 1996", as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

Well the SWP did pester me on the phone for once a week for about 3 years, so it must have seemed fairly normal. I went upstairs and continued to puke.
bob said…
Thanks Darren and KMS for sharing your memories, and for making me feel like less of a weirdo than I thought! I think young 'uns today, in the age of the internet, must have no idea what it was like even a short while ago trying to find out about radical politics, between the arbitrary collections of local libraries and chance encounters with left sects. Anyone else's similar memories more than welcome!
Andrew Coates said…
When I was at Warwick in the late 70s the Sparts made an effort to build a base there.

One of my friends questioned them about their famous lack of humour.

Comes the reply, hard-as-nails, "We do have a sense of humour - we sit around and laugh at what a bunch of cripples the rest of the left are."
Larry Gambone said…
There was a party worse than the Sparts here in Canada. That was the CPC-ML or the Bainsites. Now the Sparts only heckled but the CPCML used to attack other leftists with clubs.

I notice you refer to Tony Benn as "anti-American and "anti-Israel" This is neo-con rhetoric. While some people are admittedly "anti-Israel" no one is "Anti-American" People are only opposed to their corporate state, not the people, who are in fact its victims...
bob said…
Thanks Larry, for the visit and the comment. I think the UK fraternal party of the CPC-ML was the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist), which was so ridiculous as to be the stuff almost of legend, although I don't think they shared the CPC-ML's practices of physical violence.

On anti-Americanism: While I that there is such a thing as criticism of the US corporate state, which should not be labelled "anti-Americanism", I also think that there is such a thing as "anti-Americanism" in European political discourse, and that Benn is an example of this.

With Benn (and the other examples I mentioned: the Morning Star/Harold Pinter/NO2EU/Neil Clark/Andy Newman/George Galloway/Spokesman Books), the hatred of the state is intertwined with a cultural distaste for the American people. I think Benn is a fairly mild, not particularly malignant case of this, certainly compared to the other examples I gave, but it's there.

When he talks about the American state, he uses the phrase "the Americans", much as Cold War anti-Communists would talk about "the Russians". Take this: "Then we have this “special relationship” which the Americans don’t recognise – I mean we talk about it but you have to remind everybody including the President. The special relationship now is they lend us nuclear weapons... And if Blair tried to press the button on our bombs they would go up and go down again because the Americans control the satellite system. In return for that, the Americans demand access to British intelligence... So if Blair had stood out against the war, Bush could have removed our nuclear weapons. All they could do to the French was to turn French Fries into Freedom Fries." Here, the "they" blurs, between Bush, the US state and the American people - I mean, did the US state legislate the term "freedom fries"?

He also engages in the kind of hyperbole about the American state that seriously undermines serious anti-capitalism, as in this statement: "Well I mean what’s the difference between [Jihadist] desire for a Caliphate and the Project For The New American Century which is Full-Spectrum Dominance – America is going to dominate the world in “space, land, sea, air and information.” Bloody hell, I mean that is the capitalist American imperialist Caliphate."
Ross Wolfe said…
I like the new layout. Coming a bit late to this post, but I always appreciate a Spart influence.