Militant: what went wrong?

By Phil Hearse

Phil Hearse came into politics through the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and subsequently joined the Young Communist League in 1962 at the age of 13. He was expelled in 1963 for being a member of a "Trotskyist-led faction". From 1967, he was for 27 years a member of the British section of the Fourth International, before joining Militant Labour in 1994. After three years he left with a small group to help found Socialist Democracy.

Socialists in many parts of the world looking for alternatives to Stalinism and social democracy will have come across groups affiliated to Trotskyist international groups based in Britain. The two most notable of these groupings are the International Socialists (IS), based on the Socialist Workers Party; and the Committee for a Workers International (CWI), based on the Militant organisation, now known as the Socialist Party (SP). To understand these organisations, it is necessary to look at the way they function on home ground—Britain itself—and at their basic theoretical outlook, invariably forged in Britain.1 The Militant/SP is important to analyse because in the late 1970s and 1980s it became the biggest far left group in Britain, during its period of entrism in the Labour Party. In this period, the Militant tendency played a leading role in the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS) and in the struggles in Liverpool.

Now the Socialist Party, together with its international network, is in terminal crisis and decline.2

This article was originally written for discussion among former members of the organisation in Britain who are attempting to find a new way forward. Thousands of former Militant/SP members remain committed to the socialist transformation of society, but see no perspective in that organisation's retreat into sectarian dogmatism. Millions of pounds and millions of hours of activity have been contributed to building Militant/SP and its international grouplets. That the fruits of these innumerable sacrifices have now been so recklessly squandered by the London leadership of Peter Taaffe and Lynn Walsh is a tragedy.

Even though the international network around Militant is mainly insignificant, the lessons of what went wrong with this organisation touch on many key questions of orientation and organisation which face the whole of the international left. Militant/SP is collapsing because it retreated on the task of facing up to problems of socialist renewal which are unavoidable after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Two important documents by former leaders of the tendency have attempted to analyse these problems.3 The first, by Roger Silverman—a founder of Militant—was published in the SP internal bulletin, and argued that the failure lay in wrong perspectives in the 1980s, especially in relation to the collapse of Stalinism. The second, by Dave Cotterill, former newspaper editor and a leader of the Merseyside organisation, took up a number of issues, but centrally identified a failure to analyse the resilience of modern imperialism, and a consequent consistent overestimation of revolutionary possibilities.

Both these documents contain important insights. However, in my opinion, both fall down in merely analysing perspectives and analyses. In truth, the failures lie in basic theory and methods. Only by going to the roots of the problems can we get a clear picture.

Equally, I don't accept the position of those who say that the problem was that Militant was Leninist and democratic centralist. A key problem was that in some crucial ways it produced—in common with many other Trotskyist organisations which have degenerated in a sectarian direction—a bowdlerised version of democratic centralism which owed much to ideas imported from the Stalinist movement.

Peter Taaffe and Lynn Walsh will shrug off criticisms such as those contained here with the argument that this is the same old stuff we are used to from "the sects", which, ironically, is the way they refer to all other revolutionary tendencies. Anyone who is satisfied with this type of argument is—temporarily—beyond help. As Abraham Lincoln once said, "People who like that kind of thing, will like that kind of thing".

Promise dashed

In 1983 the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled the Militant editorial board. Anyone with eyes to see could tell this was the beginning of a major purge of the Labour Party left, which would go way beyond Militant. Through the 1980s, hundreds of Militant supporters were expelled. This put in question the whole tactic of entrism, and the organisation was faced with redefining its strategy, which in some ways meant redefining its identity. In any case, what were the expelled members to do?

The urgency of this question was in a sense disguised by the turn to the anti-poll tax campaign, proposed by the Scottish leadership. Margaret Thatcher's poll tax, imposed in the mid- and late 1980s, generated huge resistance among both the working and middle classes. In particular, a campaign of non-payment, organised by local community groups, developed. This campaign was an outstanding success, in part because it did not go through the structures of the labour movement and thus did not have to confront, at each stage of the struggle, the sabotage of the Labour and trade union bureaucracy.

The Scottish leadership of Militant were the first on the far left to see the potential of the non-payment campaign; it put the Scottish organisation on the map, particularly through the role of Tommy Sheridan as the best known leader of the whole movement. Through this campaign Militant had found a successful focus of activity outside the Labour Party, although formally it remained an "entrist" organisation.

In the wake of the poll tax campaign, in the early 1990s, a break with entrism was inevitable. But, given the dogmatic training of the organisation, discussed below, a split on the issue was also inevitable. The minority, led by Militant founder Ted Grant and by Alan Woods, were expelled and formed their own organisation—Socialist Appeal.

With the shackles of entrism thrown off, there was good reason to be optimistic that the mainstream Militant, now a public revolutionary organisation named Militant Labour, could make a substantial contribution to the British left. Several factors made such a judgment credible. They included: 1) the role of Scottish Militant Labour (SML) as the major force on the Scottish left, with the election of Tommy Sheridan as a Glasgow councillor and an 11% vote in the Glasgow Euro-elections; 2) the building of the militant anti-racist front Youth against Racism in Europe (YRE) in response to a wave of racist violence, including murders, inspired by the fascist British National Party; 3) the role played, for a time, by Panther, the organisation set up by Militant to attract black youth, in the anti-BNP campaign; 4) the role of Militant women in establishing and leading the highly successful Campaign against Domestic Violence (CADV); 5) the start of serious work on lesbian and gay liberation by Militant Labour activists; 6) the establishment of a caucus campaigning on the rights of disabled people and producing the most developed analysis of the fate of disabled people under capitalism generated in Britain; 7) the start of campaigning on the environment, and Militant Labour's role in the linked campaign against the highly repressive Criminal Justice Act, which particularly targeted environmental activists.

All this was, by the mid-1990s, feeding into what appeared to be a new openness to other forces on the left, including at an international level.

That openness was given concrete form by the response of Militant Labour to the 1995 split from the Labour Party which formed the Socialist Labour Party, led by miners union leader Arthur Scargill. Militant proposed to go into the SLP as an organised current, but this was rejected out of hand by Scargill and his entourage.

Almost immediately, the shutters came down, and the Taaffe-Walsh leadership retreated to the bunker. It was at this point that they began to argue that Militant Labour, with no more than 1000 members (and going down) could itself form a "small mass party", a proposal which underlay the idea of changing the name to Socialist Party but which was totally excluded in the mainly unfavourable British political situation. After a limited period of opening up, and of willingness to discuss with other forces on the left in Britain and internationally, sectarianism and dogmatism reasserted themselves. But the roots of the dogmatism and sectarianism go way back.

Theory as dogma

At the basis of Militant theory were a series of highly questionable propositions about socialist strategy and transition which, taken together, give us an insight into fundamental failings.

First was the conception of "entrism"—working as a tendency within the Labour Party and not as a public revolutionary organisation—in the strategic plan of party building. The security precautions of entrism meant that Militant had to use a series of disguised formulae for self-defence. But even putting these aside, there was a one-sided explanation of entrism in forming a revolutionary party.

Entrism tended to be conceived as a strategy, not a tactic, inevitably posing the question of a split if entrism was abandoned. Entrism was a badge of honour, a key point of difference with others on the left. In a fatalistic and mechanical way, the evolution of Militant ("the Marxists") into the dominant force in the Labour Party (or at least the left) was seen as inevitable. When a split came in the Labour Party, it would be the right wing splitting from a radicalised and Marxist-led base.

This was always highly optimistic, given the always dominant role of the Labour and trade union bureaucracy. It was mechanical and formalistic to see mass radicalisation always being channelled into the Labour Party. In fact, the Militant scenario was one variant, one theoretical possibility, in the curve of development, but justified in a way that didn't take account of the profound changes in the relationship between the social democratic parties and the mass of the working class which have taken place since the 1930s. Entrism, at a certain point, was not necessarily wrong—especially in relation to the LPYS. But its explanation and long-term rationale were flawed, generating huge tensions when its abandonment was posed.

Linked to the rationale for entrism was the theory of the Labour Party. Lenin called the Labour party a "bourgeois workers party". By this he meant that it was a bourgeois party politically, but with a working-class base. Trotsky in his writing on Germany called the social democracy "bourgeois through and through" (as opposed to the Communist Party, which at that time he called "a workers party, but badly led"). In the hands of the Grant-Taaffe leadership, Lenin's theory was transformed into the idea that the class character of the Labour Party was contradictory: it was part bourgeois and part proletarian. This easily fed into the idea of a struggle to transform the Labour Party, to resolve its class character.

This in turn was linked to the theory of the Enabling Act. This posited that "at a certain point", a socialist majority in parliament, led by "the Marxists", could pass an Enabling Act nationalising the major banks and monopolies. This again fetishised one possible theoretical variant, elevating it into a dogma. This dogma, far from being unimportant, encapsulated a certain vision of the transition to socialism, downplayingthe role of mass action. Socialist revolution was not seen as primarily the activity of the working class itself; and the nature of the bourgeois state apparatus, and the need to smash it, were downplayed. The notion of socialism coming about as the result of the self-activity of the working class was sidelined in Militant dogma. In a strange way, this was illustrated by Militant's idiosyncratic ideas about the nature of Third World nationalist regimes—so-called "Proletarian Bonapartism".

In the 1950-80 period, Marxists were faced with the need to analyse all kinds of nationalist regimes, some of them very radical, which emerged out of anti-imperialist struggles in the Third World. Ted Grant devised the notion of Proletarian Bonapartism to explain these regimes: they were a form of sui generis workers states, despite their highly authoritarian, often militarised, state apparatuses and the repression of the working class and peasantry.

In this theory, the nationalisation of the means of production was festishised as the key criterion for establishing the class nature of particular regimes. This was a false method. For example, in Nasser's Egypt in the 1950s, the basic means of production were nationalised, and the bourgeoisie turned into a rentier bourgeoisie, receiving profits as subventions from the state. This was genuine "state capitalism"—nothing to do with Tony Cliff's theory. In such regimes, and many of them were far less radical than Nasser's, the bourgeoisie remained in power and the bourgeois state intact, even if the key form of control of the social surplus, and hence profits, was the role of the state apparatus. All kinds of bourgeois and petty bourgeois nationalist regimes got dubbed "Proletarian Bonapartism" because of the one-sided and partial criterion of nationalisation.

The theory of Proletarian Bonapartism is clearly linked to the idea of the Enabling Act and the role of nationalisation as the key criterion of socialist transition. But this is a wrong—economistic—method. The key criterion is the character of the state, and which set of social relations it historically defends—which is a different question than what percentage of the economy is nationalised. The self-activity of the working class, and its central role in the socialist transition, is also inextricably linked to the destruction of the bourgeois state and the establishment of the working class's own organisations of power. In the Russian case, these were called soviets.

The exact nature of the organisations of working-class power in future revolutions is a matter of speculation and debate. But the necessity for these organisations—and not just a left-dominated parliament carrying out nationalisations—is fundamental to the Marxist conception of the transition to socialism.

The Proletarian Bonapartism idea led to absurdities in analysing Third World revolutions. Countries as diverse as Cuba (the one real post-capitalist state in the list), Mozambique, Afghanistan, Iraq(!) and Burma (!!) all became, in Militant's theory, non-capitalist states. The Militant theory of the Labour Party, nationalisation as the key criterion of the nature of the state, the Enabling Act and Proletarian Bonapartism are all linked by a failure to grasp the centrality of the self-organisation and self-activity of the working class, and an economistic conception of the struggle for power.

`The Marxist tendency'

A failure to understand fully the role of the self-activity and self-organisation of the working class in the transition to socialism naturally goes hand in hand with a suspicion of the mass movements of the oppressed, and a self-proclamatory sectarianism. Militant's self-identity was that of the Marxist tendency, excluding all others from that label, an absurd proposition at the end of the 20th century.

This in turn was reflected in sectarianism and frontism. In the poll tax campaign, Militant was absurdly sectarian to other tendencies and independents, routinely taking over 90% of leading positions on campaign committees. Even in the campaign against the witch-hunt in the Labour Party, Militant was very reluctant to engage in joint activities with other socialists, despite the fact it was often their own comrades who were being defended.

This was all of a piece with the notion of campaigning bodies as being basically front organisations and recruitment forums for the "party"- Militant—itself. Such things reached fiasco when the YRE national committee had to endure a long afternoon's report from Peter Taaffe on his visit to South Africa. More seriously, it resulted in the split in Panther and the loss of most of the black cadre.

All the things touched on here have implications for the conception of the party and its relationship to the self-activity of the working class, the labour movement and the movements of the oppressed as a whole. The type of party you build is deeply connected to your notion of socialist transition. Logically the two cannot be separated.

So far, of course, there has been no successful revolution in the advanced capitalist countries. But provisional answers have to be given on key issues. For example: is the revolution primarily the work of the party, or the self-organised activity of the working class? In many bowdlerised versions of Trotskyism, the very posing of this question would be regarded as semi-anarchist heresy.

Second, given the provisional answer that socialist revolution is by definition the self-activity of the working class, what relationship exists between party organisations and the organisations of struggle of the working class and the oppressed? Whatever the answers provided by (future) history, we can be sure that the mass movement will reject paternalistic, manipulatory and sectarian types of party organisation.

Third question: is there just one version of Marxism, and is there only one Marxist tendency in the world? If the answer to both questions is "no" (which it obviously is), then is it necessarily the case that socialist transition will be carried out in each country with only one revolutionary tendency existing?

Your general approach to these questions will have a large bearing on the type of socialist organisation that you try to build. I go into these questions more below.

An international `made in England'

The Committee for a Workers International (CWI) crystallises many lessons on how not to go about building an international. That the workers and the oppressed need an international socialist organisation, I do not question. But the hypothesis that it will emerge solely around one of the existing international formations—IS, CWI, USFI (United Secretariat of the Fourth International), LIT (International Workers League) etc.—is increasingly improbable.

Only major developments in the international class struggle, leading to the rebuilding and renovation of working-class organisations, and a substantial strengthening of the militant socialist and revolutionary forces internationally, can create the conditions for an international with substantial weight. Such a real international is unlikely to divide over secondary questions of analysis and programmatic codification; and it is likely to include forces from diverse origins. For example, we have to recognise that, especially in the Third World, real revolutionary forces have emerged from Maoist origins—indeed a diverse array of living militant socialist forces have emerged from outside any of the Trotskyist traditions.

The CWI, however, is a grotesque caricature of an international. A real international would imply an ongoing dialogue between different socialist organisations, strongly rooted in the class struggle in their own countries and able to discuss on equal terms. The CWI is the paternalistic organisation of international supporters of the (mainly English) Taaffe-Walsh tendency.

The relationship between the Socialist Party leadership, who are also the leadership of the CWI, and the national sections is politically corrupt and clientelist. For comrades in poor countries, favour with the British leadership is often needed for the allocation of money. Taaffe and Walsh feel free to intervene at will in the affairs of each national section, and troubleshooters are routinely sent worldwide to "sort out" dissidents. The international centre is in the SP office, and generally all but one of the full-timers is British. It is the norm for section leaderships to consult with their allocated international full-timer before leadership meetings. And reports to international leadership meetings have to be approved by Taaffe and Walsh first (cf the hapless queue outside the executive committee corridor the day before IEC (international executive committee) meetings).

Taaffe and Walsh think it's fine to impose tactics from London. This is not international democratic centralism—even if any variant of that is appropriate today—but a corrupt hierarchy of orders and instructions which would have embarrassed even Zinoviev, the first leader of the Communist International to impose such a regime. Naturally, as soon as sections' leaderships start to think for themselves, they run into trouble. If they don't back down, expulsion cannot be far away.

The methods of the London-based leadership have led to repeated problems in the last few years. Most notable is the expulsion of the Labour Party Pakistan, one of the most significant organisations of the CWI. An important part of the US leadership was expelled over political differences, and clashes are looming with others.

The problems with the CWI are the same problems as with the SP in England, but transferred to an international level—where they become even more grotesque. The CWI will fall apart together with the SP, because it is not possible to build a viable international regroupment today on the basis of a single "correct" theory, only one version of Marxism, an all-authoritative English leadership and a high degree of homogeneity on most questions. The political conditions no longer exist for such a structure. Today, international collaboration between revolutionaries has to be on a completely different basis.

The methods of the leadership

A very long document could be written outlining horror stories about the internal functioning of the SP and the behaviour of its leaders. But the important thing is not the quirks of personalities, but structures and norms of functioning that allow political ostracism and bullying to go unchallenged, and indeed to be accepted as normal. The central problem is a conception of leadership which sees it as the work of a couple of "philosopher kings" with a bevy of acolytes around them, rather than an attempt to construct a genuine team leadership, capable of mutual support and mutual criticism.

Constructing a team leadership in a revolutionary organisation means trying to integrate into a collective people with different skills, perspectives and emphases. It means that there will inevitably be secondary—and occasionally major—differences of opinion among members of the team. This is systematically avoided in the SP.

The executive committee for a long period was Taaffe, Walsh and the department heads. Now in some circumstances, department heads will be important people to integrate into a team leadership. But to do it solely that way means to construct a management committee rather than a political committee. The result is an executive of people many of whom are rewarded for selfless loyalty rather than put there for political reasons. The further result is that Taaffe, who chairs every meeting and summarises every point, and Walsh, will 999 times out of 1000 get their way on the EC. When there is not a unanimous vote on the EC, as happened with newspaper editor Nick Wrack over the name change and head of political education Margaret Creear on several issues, there is an explosion.

In the event of differences, Taaffe and Walsh resort to politically brutal methods. The ones I would identify as most blatantly politically immoral are the "kitchen sink" method, political ostracism and the political purge.

The kitchen sink method is the use of any political argument, about any matter whatever, which happened at any conceivable time in the past, to discredit opponents. Thus, for example, Lynn Walsh, in 1996, in an "information report" on differences in the US section at the national committee, launched a tirade against John Throne, including allegations about what he had done while an international full-timer years ago and when he was in Ireland. These matters were totally irrelevant to the discussion in hand, about which most people present had no information, and when John Throne himself was not present to reply. This in an "information report" with no discussion scheduled! (The most bankrupt argument of this session, one used regularly against opponents was, "We received many complaints about him and had to intervene regularly to defend his position". This poses the question: if he was such a terrible person, why the hell did you "repeatedly" intervene to defend his position?)

Nick Wrack got the same treatment from Taaffe when he resigned as newspaper editor, and Dave Cotterill got the same, apparently, during the expulsions in Merseyside. These are not the methods of loyal debate but of political gangsterism.

Ostracism is the fate of anyone who raises differences; this is especially true for full-timers working at the centre. Paid a pittance, full-timers are particularly vulnerable to the methods of gossip, innuendo and intrigue used by the occupants of the EC corridor, because to raise differences immediately puts you in conflict with other staff members and puts your job in question.

The political purge is the throwing out of full-timers, on any pretext, who have real or imagined differences. Thus the newspaper staff was purged in early 1995 because a majority of the staff supported the conception of a popular, highly agitational, campaigning paper of the type pioneered by Dave Cotterill when he was editor. The issue is not who was right and who was wrong; the issue is whether it is correct to deal with such differences, not by political discussion, but by throwing people out—on the excuse of financial difficulties, the oldest trick in the book. The opportunity for political clarification was lost; the lesson learned was, "Don't have an argument with Taaffe and Walsh or you will be out on your ear".

All this is a pretty unseemly story, and probably a depressingly familiar one to people from some other Trotskyist traditions. Many more examples of these methods in the SP could be outlined. The whole notion of leadership embodied in these methods is fundamentally flawed. A sectarian notion of leadership goes hand in hand with a sectarian notion of the party. As Trotsky noted, the sectarians routinely erect tin-pot dictatorships in their own ranks.

An interrupted revolution

In retrospect, it can be seen that the break from entrism in the early 1990s represented an opportunity for the opening up of the organisation to new methods of work, a more constructive relationship with the mass social movements and others on the left, and a less sectarian and dogmatic theoretical approach. It would have amounted to a cultural revolution, and in some ways the Scottish leadership, in its pioneering poll tax campaigning and its break with Militant's appalling sectarianism on the national question, had already announced a cultural revolution. This trend was deepened above all by the leadership of the women's work, forced to grapple with a whole series of new theoretical questions while building cadv. A completed cultural revolution would have had implications at an international level, which was prefigured by the exchanges with the Fourth International (an exchange of observers at IEC meetings) and the beginning of friendly relations with the Australian Democratic Socialist Party.

Most of these changes were initiated "from below", or at least outside the EC corridor, and subsequently adopted, with good grace or ill, by the central leadership. Most were "add-ons", and not articulated as a generalised change of approach. As mentioned above, the key turning point in going backwards was Militant's exclusion from the SLP, a big error by Scargill and his team. Faced with this rejection, Taaffe and Walsh reached back into their sectarian past and closed the hatches.

At a British level, the organisation has turned inwards to a propaganda routine around an increasingly dire newspaper. Internationally, the CWI went back to its self-imposed isolation, symbolised by the resignation of Lynn Walsh from the editorial board of Links, the international journal of socialist renewal and debate, launched originally by the Australian DSP, to which socialists from many countries and backgrounds have contributed. Having contributed nothing and made no suggestions, Walsh resigned because "it has not been possible to develop any kind of collaboration"!

The results of the sectarian turn have been predictably disastrous. Membership has declined precipitously. The bulk of the Merseyside membership has been expelled. The organisation has lost leaders like Margaret Creear, who was central in founding CADV and developing Militant's position on women's oppression. Tensions with the Scottish leadership have amounted to a "cold split". Tensions now exist with the French leadership. The Pakistanis have been expelled. Further dissidence has apparently emerged in Manchester and other places.4

The Taaffe leadership will say that the crisis is caused by a retreat from "Marxism", including inside the SP and CWI itself. The truth is very different. The real reason for the crisis is the failure of the SP leadership to turn towards the opportunities for socialist renewal and rebuilding in Britain and internationally. The future lies not with retreating to a propaganda rump defending the basics of (a very bowdlerised and dogmatic) Marxism, as if this was the 1950s or the 1930s. The future lies in rebuilding and renewing socialism internationally; in assisting the strengthening of working-class struggle; and addressing the key strategic questions of class independence, self-organisation and political representation which face the whole of the working class and the left internationally.

Renewing class struggle, rebuilding socialism

Nothing shows the failure of the Taaffe-Walsh approach more than the debate with the Scottish leadership. The Scottish Militant Labour comrades correctly capitalised on their work from the poll tax onwards to build the Scottish Socialist Alliance, a broad coalition of socialist forces. Once the alliance became successful, and conducted joint campaigns and electoral interventions, the question of forming the Scottish Socialist Party was inevitably posed. Taaffe and Walsh instead proposed to break the alliance (which would have been disastrous) and change the name of SML to Scottish Socialist Party—which would have been seen as an outrageous sectarian stunt by all of SML's closest collaborators.

This issue encapsulates both socialist renewal and class independence. With the Labour Party now widely seen as an openly bourgeois party, the question of a new mass workers party, a new socialist party, is posed directly. In Scotland, where the relationship of forces is much more advanced than in the rest of Britain, intermediate steps towards the resolution of the question of the political representation of the working class are immediately possible. The SSP cannot immediately be a mass party, but it can have an echo in sections of the masses and be looked to as a real potential mass leadership by sections of the workers and youth.

This is not possible by the SML working on its own; only a socialist formation with broad appeal can do this, and that means working with other forces. Undoubtedly, this poses big problems for the SML. How do you put together building the SSP and recruiting to the Marxist current at the same time? This is a problem far from unique to Scotland, and in my opinion there are two thoroughly incorrect answers to this conundrum.

The first is to say, like Taaffe and Walsh, the key thing is to "build the revolutionary party", and so solve the problem by suppressing it. Get out of the SSP, build the SML, put off or ignore the question of class independence and the political representation of the working class. This sectarian course would be posing an organisational solution to a real political problem. The dilemma of how to build a broad socialist organisation (in countries where that is posed and possible), and at the same time build a Marxist leadership current, is a dilemma which exists in reality, not in abstract schemas. The Scottish comrades have both to build the broad party and to win people to Marxism within it, just as Marxists inside Italian Communist Refoundation (RC) have to carry out a dual tactic. Complex tactics like this, full of dangers, are imposed by the state of the workers movement internationally—as well as the state of the revolutionary left.

The second incorrect solution would be to say: build the broad socialist party, give up on building the Marxist current. All the current debates about Leninism and democratic centralism have to start with this issue: is the specific and separate organisation of Marxism, of the forces won to the Marxist program, necessary or not? This means, in effect, does Marxism have anything specific to say, any program to propose, different from that advocated by broad (and very heterogeneous) organisations like the RC in Italy or the United Left in Spain? I think the answer is obviously "yes". And if so, then the Marxists have to organise themselves in a more or less formal current.

Debates about labels are secondary. The key thing is the tasks. Inside a broad formation, the tasks are heavily ideological and propagandistic: yes, to be the leaders and organisers of activity and win respect on that basis, but also to have a membership that is highly ideological, highly versed in Marxism and able to explain Marxist ideas.

All the broad left and socialist formations in Europe are "only" transitional steps towards the formation of new mass parties of the class. They are thus transitory and temporary steps. The program of Marxism, however, is only transitory and temporary in a world-historic sense. Or to put that point in English, the Marxist current has to survive, build and go on, whatever happens to these broad currents and recomposition parties.

I have taken the Scottish example to demonstrate a more general point. Above I argued that socialism can come about only as a result of the self-activity of the working class, and that this has to be reflected in our concept of socialist organisation. But it really is anarchist primitivism to counterpose the self-activity of the working class and the necessarily drawn-out process of renewing working-class struggle and self-confidence, to the task of building socialist political parties.

Let us take an example I know quite well: the contemporary situation in Mexico. The Mexican workers, rural workers, indigenous people and popular movements have not experienced defeats like those in Europe. They are incredibly combative and active. Every day brings new strikes and demonstrations. The students are massively mobilised at this time, as are electricity workers, teachers and other sectors.

But there is a problem—political leadership, which does not emerge spontaneously out of the struggles. The radical-nationalist populist party, the Revolutionary Democratic Party, PRD, has a near monopoly of electoral representation of the left—despite being explicitly not a socialist or in any way anti-capitalist party. The Zapatistas, although very important for the overall development of the struggle—and very popular with the youth and other radical sectors—have a program only for "democracy" and the indigenous peoples. They cannot, and do not wish to, provide an overall leadership and anti-capitalist perspective for the Mexican workers.

In other words, the problem is not the level of struggle, but its lack of perspective and where it ends up politically. The need to build a new party of the workers and oppressed is obvious in a country where the masses are fighting back, but where the collapse of the Soviet Union has pushed socialist consciousness back.

Who is going to build it? Will it emerge, phoenix-like, from repeated strikes and popular struggles? Not at all. Popular radicalism and struggle, without the conscious intervention of revolutionary forces, will end up in support for Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas, leader of the PRD—or worse. The only people who will fight for a new mass socialist formation are the forces of the revolutionary left, many of whom come from Maoist traditions.

Small, perfectly formed and brain-dead sectarian propagandist groups will never win anyone or build anything of significance in Mexico. Only by a dialogue with the workers and popular movements, actively engaging in struggles, recognising that revolutionaries are not just your own tendency, organisational collaboration and debates on the left, having an ongoing united front and united action approach—only by using the tools of intelligent Marxism can progress be made.

The Socialist Party, however, is anything but a mechanism for the application of intelligent Marxism. The way forward is now the fight for a new socialist party in England and Wales that will work with the comrades in Scotland to forge a new political representation of the working class. Inside a new party, the forces of organised Marxism will be irreplaceable. The Socialist Party will not.

British Trotskyism and sectarian propagandism

Despite the wonderful work done by many Militant members, particularly in the Liverpool struggle, CADV and Scotland, the Socialist Party is now a further example of the sectarian propagandist type of organisation that has dominated the British Trotskyist movement. The SWP is today the supreme example of this type of approach (despite having rejected it in its previous history).

The key characteristics of these organisations are a propaganda rhythm divorced from, and independent of, the struggles of the wider movements of the workers and the oppressed; a fetishisation of an authoritarian internal regime in the name of a totally mystified and historically inaccurate version of "Leninism"; the elevation of certain theoretical positions (in the case of the SWP, state capitalism) into dogmas which are meant to be—but are obviously not—key dividing lines from the rest of the militant left; and a linked overestimation of the significance of certain theoretical and programmatic codifications as opposed to participation in living struggles.

This is nothing new in Britain. In the 1950s, and the first half of the 1960s, the dominant far left organisation was Gerry Healy's Socialist Labour League (later renamed the Workers Revolutionary Party). The SLL/WRP was a caricature of dogmatic sectarianism, with an internal regime occasionally characterised by physical violence—also sometimes used against opponents on the left. Among many other absurdities, the SLL/WRP refused to accept that Cuba was a workers state because it was not created by a "Bolshevik' (i.e. Trotskyist) party; refused to participate in the Vietnam movement because it was a "diversion" from the task of building the party; and totally refused all joint action with others on the left. Today's swp and Militant/SP are nowhere so extreme in their sectarianism, and of course do not use physical violence. But they are organisations of the same basic type.

While this type of organisation is not unique to Britain, the British far left has been particularly dominated by them. Why? In my opinion there are two basic reasons.

The first is the whole history of the formation of the British left. When the British Communist Party was founded in 1919, its component organisations, of which the BSP (British Socialist Party) was easily the largest, were mainly of this sectarian-propagandist type. The reason for this was the isolation of Marxism, which never in Britain achieved the position it reached in France, Germany or Italy. That isolation was caused by the strength of British imperialism, and the consequent weight of the labour aristocracy. Isolation from the workers movement is the seedbed of propagandism and sectarianism.

In the late 1880s, when Marxism began to find a small echo in Britain, British imperialism, although beginning its long relative decline, was still immensely powerful. The craft trade unions, the pro-imperialist labour aristocracy and the Liberal Party, exercised nearly total dominance over those workers who thought politically. Since the defeat of the radical working class Chartist movement in the 1850s, the workers had lacked an independent voice. The first British Marxist organisation, the Social Democratic Federation (from which the BSP emerged), and its leader Henry Hyndman, were openly pro-imperialist and very theoretically weak. Almost total isolation led to Marxist organisations—the Socialist Party of Great Britain, the SLP and the SDF—whose stock in trade was street corner speeches, socialist Sunday schools and newspaper sales—all of which had their place but are no substitute for active participation in a broader movement, which in the 1880-1910 period did not exist.

The radicalisation in the years 1910-20, caused by economic recession and the world war, in the absence of a strong Marxist tradition, led to an upsurge of anti-political syndicalism. When Lenin and the Bolsheviks sought to help build a Communist Party in Britain after the Russian Revolution, it was with ultra-left syndicalists (like Sylvia Pankhurst's SDF) and people from these isolated propagandistic groups they had to work.

These traditions thus marked the early Communist Party, despite its attempts to assimilate Bolshevik theory. Theoretical weakness meant that the British Communist Party was one of the first to succumb to Stalinism.

Secondly, when opposition to Stalinism appeared in the form of Trotskyism in the late 1920s and early 1930s, it was always politically and organisationally weak, until the crisis in the CP in 1956, caused by Khrushchev's secret speech and the anti-Stalinist political revolution in Hungary, began to open up new opportunities. This is not to denigrate the efforts of thousands of British militant socialists over the decades, many of whom achieved the best that was possible in the circumstances, and laid down a tradition of leftist defiance. But often their fate was to be isolated or marginal in the developments of the British labour movement, dominated by the dead hand of the labour bureaucracy on the one hand, and by the Stalinists on the other.

Despite itself, the Trotskyist movement in Britain was heavily pressured by the traditions of Stalinism—albeit of a more "third period" than popular front type—especially in its notion of "democratic centralism". To break out of this syndrome, a century long, the British left needs to utilise the resources of discussion with the international socialist movement, rather than adopt any type of imperialist arrogance that sees the font of all socialist wisdom as being Trotskyist headquarters, invariably situated in the seedier parts of east London.


1. However, the founders of these two grouping, Ted Grant (Militant) and Tony Cliff (SWP) both originally came from South Africa in the 1930s. Cliff then spent a number of years in Palestine before moving to Britain.

2. See the article by John Bulaitis in the British journal Socialist Democracy, February 1999, for up-to-date details. To order a copy contact <>.

3. Readers who want copies of these documents should contact Socialist Democracy at

4. For a fuller account, see the article by John Bulaitis referred to above.


Thank you for a informative article. I have similarly become disenchanted with the Socialist Party.
When did my disillusionment begin?
There was Tony Sanois, who is or was somebody important in the CWI on the good and sufficient grounds of being an old friend of Peter Taaffe, who described the democratically elected Sandinista government as a 'regime' Now I know that Daniel Ortega is far from perfect but he did get a couple of million Nicaraguans to vote for him several times. As far as I know only two people have ever voted for Tony Sanois; Lynn Walsh and Peter Taaffe.
Then there was the strange Zen-buddhist-like formulation of the 'small mass party'. I'm no Einstein but I'm not a complete moron and for the life of me I could never grasp this concept. If something small then it is not massive. And vice versa. A 'small mass party' could no more exist than a 'short tall person'. Yet somehow we were all expected to swallow this whole. Militant Labour/The Socialist Party was simply a small party with aspirations, nothing more. There was nothing 'mass' about it.
Then there was Lynn Walsh's view of the Euro. I asked him at a conference if we were for or against the Euro. (This was a year or so before the Euro was launched.) He explained to me as though talking to a simpleton that we were not for or against the Euro as it simply wasn't going to happen. Hmm, I thought.
Anyway, I am a sadder but wiser man now. There are many wonderful people in the party but overall I do not wish the organisation well. The sooner it crumbles and the good people find better organisations the better for all concerned.


Some time in the 90s the then Pakistan section of the CWI, a growing and vibrant organisation, wanted to call itself the Labour Party Pakistan. Lynn Walsh and his cronies (The International Secretariat of the CWI) disagreed and expelled this section, preferring the tiny minority section which would go along with Lynn Walsh's mad perspective. Now the expelled ex-CWI majority section, the Labour Party Pakistan, goes from strength (some 3000 members and growing) while the Official CWI Section is five men and a dog. Naturally ordinary members of CWI had no say in this travesty. (I think the dog might have left now.)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)


Oh, how I love those expelled from the CWI trying to explain their expulsions with non-political reasons...

"The LPP was expelled for very sound reasons, namely the corruption of the leadership of the LPP, which accepted funds from NGOs, and still does, from the pro-capitalist Swedish social democracy that used this to maintain control. The CWI could quite easily have ignored this fact but acted precisely because we are a principled organisation."

And here, our dear sectarian, is our Pakistani section:…. They are awesome. Definitely not 'five men and a dog'.

With love, from Russia

Haven't read this piece yet but wanted to say that Tony Cliff had nothing to do with South Africa. He was a Jew, born in Palestine and moved to Britain at the age of 30 in 1947. Ted Grant (also with Jewish background on her mother's side) was born in Johannesburg. Her mother's family were among thousands of Lithuanian Jews who are an important community in South Africa and from whom also arose many of the leaders of SACP like Joe Slovo and Ruth First.