The left we have, and the left we need
By Thomas Carolan
The entire far left has either come into existence during the years after Harold Wilson formed his Labour government in 1964, or, where groups like the present Socialist Workers' Party (SWP) and Militant/Socialist Party existed before that, they have been radically reshaped and remoulded, though in different ways, by the experience of Labour in government and by the character of the class struggle against it.
The pre-Thatcher left was boosted and shaped by the struggles against the Heath Tory government after 1970.
What happened in that period? Labour came to office in 1964 and won an overall majority in March 1966. It quickly disappointed its natural supporters. By the late 1960s even the trade union bureaucracy went into opposition when Labour tried to bring in anti-union legislation ('In Place of Strife').
The trade union bureaucracy, which then had great power, had been able to impose itself firmly and almost completely on the labour movement after the defeat of the 1926 General Strike, helping the right control the Labour Party. But, unlike some of the present trade union bureaucrats - untempered college graduates and not ex-militants like many of the old-time bureaucrats were - they defended the Labour Party in their own way. The bureaucracy retained uncontested control until the beginning of a wave of unofficial struggles in the middle 1950s.
With postwar full employment, workers had the possibility of easy gains through local struggles, mainly wildcat strikes, and the trade union bureaucracy was more and more raised above and separated out from much of the process of industrial bargaining. It became even more distanced from the rank and file.
Although the seafarers' strike of 1966 was led by the officials, the first wave of industrial struggle in the mid-60s was largely a rank and file movement. After 1969, in the working-class upsurge which culminated in Tory defeat in 1974, the trade union officials played a leading role, regaining considerable authority.
The TUC had grown used to colluding with governments, both Tory and Labour. The TUC regularly discussed state economic policy with governments, giving its co-operation in return for limited concessions to corporate working class interests. With 'In Place of Strife', for the first time in decades, there was a situation where the trade union bureaucracy was radically at odds not only with the Labour Party, but also with the government, as a government.
Edward Heath's Tories came to power with an initial policy of letting 'lame duck' industries succumb to the laws of the market. Jobs would go. This undercut the customary 'responsible' collaboration between government and the trade union bureaucracy. This development went further still with the Tories' viciously antiunion Industrial Relations Act and the fight against it which the TUC headed after 1970. At the same time the TUC repaired its links to the Parliamentary Labour Party, damaged at the time of 'In Place of Strife', as its society-wide bargaining agent.
The growth of struggle did allow real gains to be made by the working class, and by the big socialist organisations. But the bureaucracy had, by its militancy against Heath, partly rehabilitated itself in the eyes of key militants. The industrially strong CP helped it to do this.
The great wave of working-class struggle of the late '60s and early '70s was stimulated by the trade union bureaucracy's opposition to the Labour government's 'In Place of Strife', and then to the anti-union Tory government who returned to office in 1970.
This role of the bureaucrats was a major factor behind the experience of the 1974-9 Labour government, and then of the incapacity to fight Thatcher. The trade union leaders sustained the Labour government (1974-9) which demobilised and disappointed workers; and then collapsed in a heap before Thatcher.
What specially had shaped the far left during those years, when it grew from virtually nothing to a current many thousands strong?
- Disappointment with the 1964-70 Labour government, and the experience of angry mass working-class resistance to it. The whole revolutionary left was, to one degree or another, involved in the Labour Party and the Labour youth movement in the '50s and '60s. Between 1964 and '68 almost all the groups except Militant left the Labour Party. The pioneers here were the sectarians of the Healy group (Socialist Labour League/WorkersÕ Revolutionary Party). The far left did not coldly and honestly assess their attitude to reformism, the fact that they had had illusions in it (for example the International Socialists/SWP). They just felt disappointed. They did not settle political accounts with reformism, they just abandoned the political labour movement.
- In the late 1960s and 70s they increasingly felt the pull of the widespread industrial direct action, and groups like IS/SWP began to extrapolate one-sided scenarios and quasi-syndicalist perspectives from it. This was where the power of the working class was manifested, time and time again and sometimes spectacularly. Industrial action by the miners in early 1974 pushed the Heath government into an ill-judged election which it lost (February 1974).
- Generally petty-bourgeois in composition, the revolutionary left had been influenced by the guerrilla, insurrectionary, and sometimes terrorist third world - and Irish - struggles, especially the Vietnamese struggle against the USA. Vast numbers of students across the Western world were radicalised, and tens of thousands of them became revolutionaries because of that experience.
- The left was greatly influenced by the 'confrontation now' spirit of student politics. This spirit was partly a mimicry of and an extrapolation from third world struggle. But, fundamentally, it expressed the short lifespan of student radicalism. The labour movement, the ground of serious revolutionary political action, was not merely a different world to them - the idea of a long haul to transform it belonged to a different class outlook. Yet shortlife revolutionary students streamed into the revolutionary groups after 1967 like the alluvial flood over a desert.
- The sheer paucity of revolutionary cadres with any sort of political education, experience, or tempering, allowed an extraordinary luxuriance of left fads and experimental ideas, most of them of an ultraleft character, to develop and continue for a long time. The weakness of any stable, tempered, viable, realistic, revolutionary tradition had the same effect, as did the habitual chameleon-like willingness to adapt to its environment of the various currents of official postTrotsky "Trotskyism", especially its international core group, the United Secretariat of the Fourth International. They acted in various degrees as importation agencies for revolutionary fads and fashions from the Third World, and from the petty bourgeoisie, some of them wildly at odds with both the revolutionary tradition, from Marx to Trotsky, and with the needs of workingclass revolutionary politics - urban guerrilla movements, student power and 'red bases' in the universities, black power separatism. Among other things, their politics helped create layers of Deutscherites, academic Marxists in the colleges who identified progress with Stalinism, which they wanted to liberalise. Most of them were not workingclass oriented revolutionaries.
- The women's movement gave a valuable dimension to the post'68 left, bringing forward issues that had for decades been part of the far left only in the sense that there were pages on it in important old books (for example, the chapter on women, youth and the family in Trotsky's Revolution Betrayed). At the same time, it added to the pressures which pushed the left away from the political labour movement - for that movement congealed, in its practices and attitudes, everything oppressive of women and restrictive of the drive for women's equality in capitalist society.
- Large chunks of the left were influenced by lifestyle-ism. Revolutionary politics was not about - or only about - changing society or building socialism, but about living your life in an alternative way, about better "relationships" and better, healthier eating, or better or more numerous orgasms. It was an early, "revolutionary" anticipation of mememeism which we saw later in Yuppyism, and of the Thatcherite denial of society.
Many lifestyle ex-leftists found it easy to come to terms with Thatcher's 1980s Britain. Lifestylism fed into the liquidationist Communist Party (CP) current around Marxism Today.
The toxic increase in both official state racism and of freelance and organised fascist racism, after the Labour government slammed the door on Asian passport holders from Kenya in 1968, generated drives for the selforganisation of black people in parallel to the labour movement. That too exerted pressure on the left, who rightly involved themselves in the fight against racism, away from the labour movement, similar to the pressures generated by the women's movement. It helped generate a current of middle-class moralising antiracism that separated the struggle against racism from the struggle against the conditions that make working-class people - including working-class, industrial militants - susceptible to racism. It easily flowed - as did other morality tinged championing of oppressed "minorities" - like women - into a hostility to, and contempt for, the existing working class and its movement.
Because the Trotskyist left consisted mainly of bureaucratised - and, with the WRP, very crazy - sects, all of whom required what healthy revolutionary organisations would also require, self-disciplined and purposeful activity, there had been a continual fallout from them into an all-receiving Labourleft that reemerged in the early '70s and would continue for 15 or 20 years. This current of ex-Trotskyists gave its political and ideological colouration to the broader Labour left, which tended politically to be an eclectic and very catholic bog of undifferentiated, often contradictory, ideas and individuals to which almost any cause or concern could attach itself. Much was unbalanced and out of proportion, and sometimes grotesquely faddish and "petitbourgeois". This current's other main characteristic was a lack of sharpness and incisiveness, an incapacity to draw practical conclusions from its own words, and a tendency to lose sight of the working class in the midst of its many and varied all equally important concerns.
The left beyond the CP, at the beginning of the Thatcher-Major era, looked something like this. There was the Socialist Workers Party, with perhaps four thousand members. It still did some trade union work, mainly though not exclusively in white collar unions; and it made propaganda for 'building the party' as the way to win socialism. The party was the only thing that supposedly linked the day-to-day trade union routines and struggles with socialism and, indeed, with politics. It was both an eclectic organisation and one whose leadership had few scruples about shedding political positions, or picking them up, in the interests of recruitment - that is, serving the prime goal of building the party. For example, in the early '70s they did a complete about turn on the European Community (EC), and for nakedly "organisational" and opportunist reasons.
Their Anti-Nazi League representative Kim Gordon said, and probably meant: "Yes, we'll have Winston Churchill, if he's still alive" on their "antiNazi platform". (But, by 1980, they'd even shut the AntiNazi League down.) They, extreme antiStalinists in theory, courted and lauded Italian and Portuguese semiMaoists, etc.
Insisting that Labour was dead and Parliament irrelevant, they still called for a Labour victory in elections because it would be unpopular not to. Central was the pretence that reformism was a spent force. Their "strategy", their only strategic conception, was to "build the Party". The Labour Party was only a possible source of recruits. There was a heavy undertone of 'giving up for now' in this approach. For example, resistance to Thatcher had to be undertaken by or with the existing labour movement or not at all. Time was short. Defeatism had become predominant in the SWP by 1980.
They believed nothing could be done, and had shut down much of their trade union work, keeping the remnant ticking over. On the eve of a long NHS workers' strike in 1982, they closed down their health workers' group. They did student work. They picked up the defeatism of the CPGB (Eric Hobsbawm's thesis about "The Forward March of Labour Halted") and made it their own as "The Downturn". They were a dead weight in the struggle to rouse the labour movement and the working class to respond to Thatcherism. They argued that the Bennite Labour Party reform movement was "too leftwing" for the masses. So defeatist did they become that it took them six months to engage in support work - other than selling Socialist Worker and a bit of collecting - during the 19845 miners' strike.
There was Militant (now the Socialist Party), 2,000 or more strong, in control of the Labour Party youth movement (and thus in receipt of financial subsidies from the Labour Party!), making passive propaganda in the Labour Party and in the unions, in some of which, such as the CPSA, it was very strong.
There was the Mandelite International Marxist Group, 700 strong and politically very unstable.
Round Socialist Organiser a tendency had developed which was active on a revolutionary basis in both the trade unions and the Labour Party, attempting to build a Marxist tendency in both.
Launched in 1978, Socialist Organiser was the journal of a very broad current, some of whom would soon control the Greater London Council. Socialist Organiser would divide in the period ahead.
Then there was Alan Thornett's Workers' Socialist League, and beyond that an enormous galaxy of political meteorites and cosmic political dust.*
Essentially this fragmentation was a result of the fact that, first, the SLL/WRP and, then, the SWP had become tightlycontrolled and bureaucratic organisations scattering bits at every turn.
The dominant trait of this "far left" was that, for reasons and in ways already listed, much of it had taken shape apart from the labour movement and sometimes in antagonism to it and, therefore, apart from the working class insofar as it had yet organised itself as a social or political force in Britain. In many cases it stood apart from real work in the unions; in its majority, it stood apart from, and counterposed itself organisationally to, the workers' political movement, the Labour Party, though, as we have seen, exercising indirect influences there by way of its politically unreconstructed exmembers. Paradoxically even many of the Labour left activists around 1980 had elements of such essentially sectarian attitudes. It was one reason why so much of it - for example, the local government left - could quickly "forget" about the working class.
The post'68 radical left had differentiated fundamentally on the issue of whether or not to have a working class orientation; but even those, the ISSWP (including at the time Workers' Fight, Workers' Liberty's predecessor), who opted for such an orientation, opted for a purely trade unionist, syndicalist definition of what they recognised as the workers' movement.
Militant, apparently the opposite of the extraLabour Party left, was in fact moulded negatively by the same experiences. Confronted in 19656 by a reactionary Labour government, and the first stirrings of working class reaction against it, Militant abandoned struggle against the bureaucracy and retreated up the ladder of propagandist abstraction, domiciling itself in loyal citizenship in the Labour Party and Labour Party Young Socialists - which it could, controlling it, have made into a mass campaigning youth force in British politics but did not - as a technique of peaceful coexistence with the Labour bureaucracy. In the unions it engaged in a low level - "we need nationalisation" - propagandist routine and in machine politics. It abstained from solidarity movements like that on Vietnam and, a sectarian, negative caricature of the faddists, disregarded issues such as gay rights and ignored the women's movement. At every point, politically and organisationally, it had adapted, accommodating to the existing movement that the others were repelled by. The accommodation would show in multifariously backward manifestations when Militant took control of Liverpool's Labour Party and then of Liverpool council in the early 1980s.
It was, in sum, a gloomy picture. Yet much had been achieved in the 15 years before Thatcher. Many thousands of people had been acquainted with the ideas of revolutionary Marxism. Ideas about socialism, knowledge of the real history of the modern socialist movement, of Trotsky's fight against Stalinism for example, were very widespread. The literature of Marxism, much of it out of print for decades, had been made widely available. Numerically the forces of revolutionary Marxism were potentially very powerful already. If the forces of the left could reorientate to the working class and the real working class movement, they still might achieve much. Thatcher might have been beaten.
The roots of the tragedy that followed - the left's incapacity to help the labour movement rouse itself to fight Thatcher - lay in this: the experiences of the '60s and '70s, which allowed the far left to reach an unprecedented level of growth, combined with the disgust caused by Labour in power, had, by creating a very widespread sectarianism, ensured that these revolutionaries were badly equipped to do the first work of revolutionaries - to reach and mesh with the existing working class and labour movement and help it towards selfemancipation from bourgeois ideas and, ultimately, from the bourgeoisie.
That made it very difficult for them to reorientate after 1974, when Labour returned to power on the crest of a mass movement of industrial militancy. That, in turn, had a fundamental importance for the state of the left which had to face the Thatcherite offensive, ensuring that it was fragmented and much of it politically abstentionist. The revolutionary left had in the main failed to learn the lessons of the experience in 1974 of mass working class direct action resulting only in a Labour government, and then in the Tory election victory of 1979.
Yet, after 1974, it was a to-be-or-not-to-be question for serious socialists to face certain conclusions:
- In addition to supporting militancy, revolutionary socialists must also challenge the 'reformist' bureaucrats on the level of mass, workingclass politics.
- Direct action was not enough, even for working-class self-defence; and, short of general strike, it had no possibility of generating the necessary societywide alternative to the bourgeoisie. Even then, the outcome would be shaped by the struggle of different political perspectives and of workingclass tendencies.
The reformist leaders of the Labour Party and trade unions were able to derail the movement of the '70s, and kept political dominance. Despite its attempt at antiunion legislation (1969) and wretched performances in government in the '60s and '70s, the Labour Party was far from being a spent force in working class politics, as, for a while, it might have seemed to be in 1969, and as it deserved to be. It became necessary to understand that a 'revolutionary movement' like the SWP, built outside the real workers' political movement, was a white elephant, a stupid repetition of the sectarian mistakes of the SLL/WRP in the '60s, and of the CP earlier. It was in fact not a revolutionary movement at all, but a caricature of one - 'toytown Bolshevism'.
Most of the revolutionary left failed to make the necessary reassessment. Their selfrighteousness against the Labour Party had been reinforced by the experience of the 19749 Labour government and they lost sight of the underlying realities of the political labour movement.
In terms of numbers, the major reorientation by far left forces in the years before Thatcher was the one made by the separate individuals going into the Labour Party, cumulatively creating the "Labour left" described above.
The movement after Labour's 1979 defeat, for Labour democracy, and the lifeanddeath urgency of a labour movement response to the post'79 Thatcherite challenge, was the proof that the toy town 'Bolsheviks' had gone off at a tangent. Instead of the Labour Party being irrevocably discredited, as most of the organised far left had, with good reason, said it was, the flexibility of the movement and the organic Labour Partytrade union links allowed a powerful campaign to develop for political renewal and reclamation by socialists of the political wing of the movement.
More to the point, this was the only force that could conceivably organise the political dimensions of the urgent and irreplaceable fight against Thatcher.
It could - using local government positions to fight the Tories, for example - have helped trigger into action the "big battalions" of industrial militancy which the passive, sectarian propagandists could only hope for and wait for, like a farmer waiting for crops to grow.
This was the "far-left" that, against a background of continuing though weakening industrial militancy and a strong "Bennite" leftwing backlash against the Labour Party performance in government, faced a life or death struggle when the Thatcherites went on the offensive immediately on taking office. What needed to be done? Organise the left in and around the trade unions' political party, the Labour Party; fight for trade union democracy; build a trade union rank and file movement to coordinate action and fight the bureaucrats; build a coherent nonsectarian Marxist organisation on a basis democratic enough to allow the coexistence of different Marxist tendencies.
If we had achieved this, could Thatcher have been beaten? Surely the scope of the labour movement's defeat proves that our failure or success wouldn't have made much difference, that Thatcher's victory had deeper causes? That Thatcher's victory was inevitable?
No! Thatcher could have been beaten. As late as the 1984 miners' strike, the Tories could have been crushed. Proof?
The revolutionary left inhabited a world with the following important characteristics:
- The working class was undefeated in industry - the same working class that had in 1972-4, by industrial direct action, pitched Edward Heath out of office (February 1974) and battered open the doors of Parliament for the Labour Party. There had been no crushing defeat.
- Unemployment had risen to the postwar record of 1 million under Labour. But it had not yet damped down the class, or thrown a large part of it on the dole - including a whole generation of young people.
- A powerful network of militant shop stewards existed all across industry.
- The Labour Party was a powerful grassroots political force. In its conferences and branches, the Labour Party had been a vigorous critic of the Labour government, from the left. The local Labour Parties had real life in them; between them and their affiliated local trade unions there were organic ties and a free flow of membership. If the Labour Party membership was often heavily middleclass, they were on the party's left.
The general idea and mood then was expressed in the title of a collection of essays, edited by Ken Coates in 1980: "Never again!" Never again a Labour government out of tune with the labour movement and ruling against what the movement saw as its interests. Never again a Labour Party that would run capitalism for the capitalists at the expense of the workers. Never again a rightwing Labour Party.
To some it seemed as if the political labour movement was being refounded and reshaped on a new militant socialist basis. Tony Benn talked enthusiastically of the work the left was doing as "refounding the Labour Representation Committee" - the original seed of the trade unionbased Labour Party.
Others of us thought that this could be made to happen. It required an organised body of Marxists who knew what needed to be done and could organise for it in the Labour Party and the trade unions. But there were massive anomalies and contradictions.
In the heady days of 198081 the strange spectacle was seen of trade union leaders - Moss Evans, General Secretary of the T&G, then Britain's biggest union, to take one example - whose own unions left a great deal to be desired in terms of democracy, lining up their block votes with the left in a campaign to make the Labour Party "more democratic and more accountable"! It was a contradiction that ultimately boomeranged on the left, and - as those of us who simultaneously campaigned for militancy and democracy in the unions argued it might - cut its head off. These bureaucrats abandoned the left to go along with Kinnock and then Blair. And the trade union rank and file could not stop them, because they had not been organised as an independent political force.
But, for a while, the Labour left swept everything in the Labour Party before it. The system was established of electing the Labour leader in such a way that the labour movement and not the Parliamentary Labour Party would have the major voice in choosing the next Labour Prime Minister. When exPrime Minister James Callaghan resigned as Labour leader, Michael Foot, for long the face of the left in Parliament, replaced him. By this time, Foot was tarnished and politically and emotionally gutted by years of ministerial responsibility and of wheeling and dealing with the dirtiest of them in Parliament. But Foot's victory was undoubtedly a victory for the left. Successful leftwing socialist policies were like daisies in a summer field on Labour Party conference agenda books. And just as Callaghan moved out of Downing Street and Thatcher moved in, the left - beginning with the leftwing takeover of Lambeth council in 1979 - began to win a series of victories in local government that by the early '80s saw the left in power in some of the key cities, from Greater London up to Manchester and Sheffield.
The prospect seemed good of refounding the political labour movement on a better model, in the crucible of the class struggles that seemed certain to erupt as the labour movement resisted the ruling class offensive. But, in fact, the labour movement collapsed on every front, and so did organised working class resistance.
The Tories constitutionally achieved everything the ruling class could have wanted, legally reducing the trade unions to the condition recently described by Tony Blair as "the most repressive trade union legislation in the western world". What were the features of this collapse? Why were we defeated? What happened, and why? To what extent and in what ways was the left described above responsible for failure and defeat?
The previous labour upsurge had been on a directaction, objectively syndicalist, basis, even when it was fighting for political objectives, and even when, for lack of an alternative, it looked to Labour in 1974. It was a product of the long years of full employment. This direct action, which was so powerful that it was able to smash the offensive of the Tory government, was not armed with a programme which came to grips with the political reality. It was not led by a revolutionary Marxist organisation.
The Labour government that came to power in the wake of the miners' strike in 1974 was elected on a basis of left talk about a "fundamental shift in the balance of wealth" and promises by Shadow Chancellor Denis Healy to "squeeze and pound the rich 'til the pips squeak", and on a real class upsurge. This was the time of the drastic world slump of 19745, the worst downturn since the 1930s. Both inflation and unemployment were ballooning. But the Labour government had no means of dealing with the capitalist crisis other than according to the laws of capitalism. The Labour Party was committed to capitalism; the government couldn't have broken with it.
Much of the limited, previously active, labour movement socialist consciousness, summed up in Clause Four, had been eroded as 'socialist' projects for nationalisation were realised by the post'45 Labour government as state capitalist reorganisation of industry, leading to disappointment and - for many workers in those and other industries - proof that nationalisation wasn't necessarily in their interest. The 19749 Labour government carried through considerable nationalisation measures - and Tony Benn had large numbers of requests from shop stewards' committees to nationalise their industry - with the same disillusioning effect: partial nationalisation could not create an alternative - socialist - system, but remained within the anarchy of the capitalist market system.
The then influential Tribunite Labour left's best idea of a socialist alternative to Wilson and Callaghan was modelled on the experience of wartime controls. It was, in fact, the worst kind of sectarian schemamongering; but that was the nearest thing to a 'socialist' set of proposals available in the broad movement. The result was that the 'left' was politically disarmed in face of the capitalist systemserving Labour leadership.
The labour movement that had proved strong enough in 1972 to win a mini1926, defeating the government and forcing it to release five dockers jailed for illegal picketing, was politically disarmed after the mid'70s. It had no policy to answer the capitalist crisis.
The direct action of the early '70s could not on its own allow workers to get to grips with the overall realities of capitalist crisis, or spontaneously generate a plan to deal with it. In sum, the industrial militancy proved itself inadequate, and what had passed for a socialist alternative had not too much credibility left.
The industrial militancy collapsed after 1975.
Wide layers of the working class were soon thrown on the streets by the slump that developed in 1980. The Tories deliberately used and intensified the effects of the slump to help them in their war against the labour movement and, indeed, against the working class.
They waged social war on the militant working class. They laid waste whole areas of the country. They destroyed whole working-class communities in the name of their god, "market forces", and with its help. The deliberate destruction of the mining industry in the 1980s, the single most militant and most powerful segment of the working class and labour movement in the 1970s, is the best known example.
The trade union leaders did not fight back seriously, including the left trade union leaders - Jones, Scanlon, etc. - who, tragically, had great and inhibiting authority with the rank and file, and close connections with the CPorganised Broad Lefts. There was no independent rank and file movement worth speaking of, no alternative leading centre in the unions. The rank and file movements that existed, such as they were, were CP and Militantinfluenced and tied to the 'left' trade union leaders. The SWP 'rank and file movement' had been brutally stamped out by "the Party" at the end of the '70s.
One of the first acts of the Thatcher government and its first decisive victory over the labour movement was their success in bringing in the first layer of antiunion laws (1980/1) - and making them stick. Afterwards the unions were inhibited and at a great disadvantage, though they were not actually used much before the print struggle in Warrington in 1983. The fatal role played here by first the trade union leaders and then the "leftwing" Labour Party leaders - such as Foot and Kinnock - and all those who did not fight can not be exaggerated. This was the first - the failure of the local government left was the second and the betrayal of the miners' strike the third - turning on the road to the labour movement's present situation.
In the early '80s, as we have seen, the Labour left took control in a range of councils up and down the country. Local government could have been made a stronghold of the left and used as a basis for broad mobilisation against Tory policies, especially Tory cuts. But that was done nowhere, though a noisy pretence of it was made in Liverpool and Lambeth. Large sections of this leftwing in local government, being as described above, were not seriously committed to class struggle socialism and, often, were radically out of contact with the working class, absorbed in their own concerns and shibboleths. Many of them had political contempt for the working class. That made them unable to conceive of a fight.
Instead of defying and resisting the Tories, turning local government into fortresses of the left, the mainstream left ducked the issue. Instead of mobilising against the Tory cuts, they passed them on to those they should have mobilised in the form of higher local taxes (rates).
This local government left was ostentatiously not a class-struggle left! In 198081 the forces around Socialist Organiser split on this issue. Those who advocated classstruggle politics then are now in Workers' Liberty. The other side is personified - in Parliament - today, as then, by Ken Livingstone, onetime leader of the GLC.
The Labour Party, led by onetime left winger Michael Foot until 1983 and then by onetime left winger Neil Kinnock, reneged on an early public promise by Michael Foot to "raise a storm of indignation" against mass unemployment, and the destruction of the hopes for a decent life of a whole generation of working class young people in northern England. Failing to mobilise on the streets, the Labour left had nothing to do but engage in electoral competition with the Tories. Most of them had, while still talking left, recently learned reformist "realism" and submissiveness in local government. In 1982, with an election looming the following year, the long march to the right began: everything had to focus on getting the Tories out. To do it, Tory policies were, as the '80s drew on, mimicked and assimilated. The softleft slowly fumed into the right. By the time New Labour finally did beat the Conservatives in the 1997 general election, New Labour was politically one of the heirs of Margaret Thatcher.
The sole outright working-class challenge to Thatcherism, the great miners' strike came late and was fought without the class solidarity that could have made it the spearhead of a successful working class offensive. The miners' strike saw the final great betrayal of working class politics, and of the working class, by the local government left. The most important betrayal was perpetrated, it will bear repeating and emphasising, by people calling themselves Marxists. In Liverpool, Militant (now the Socialist Party) chose to do a shortterm deal with the Tories rather than go into a confrontation with the government that would have linked up with the miners, and might have made the difference between victory and defeat.
These are the experiences that shaped and reshaped the left that now confronts the New Labour government and the Blairite challenge to the survival of mass working class politics.
To the question whether an economic slump (or boom) stimulates or depresses working class militancy, Leon Trotsky replied simply that it depends on what has gone before. The great slump after 1929 depressed the British labour movement because it had recently suffered the defeat of the General Strike. The same slump triggered the American working class into organising the modern mass trade unions of the CIO. They had had no great defeat, but had had great prosperity in the '20s. So it is with the left. Just as it was a working class militancy formed in the years of full employment that collapsed when faced with the radically changed conditions of the '80s, so it was the left already described that faced the experiences and challenges sketched out above. It was a left characterised above all by sectarianism and unrealism and by 'revolutionary' political ideas that had often been petrified into fetishes. The prime sectarian fetish was the universal sectarian fetish - the fetish of "building the party" as a goal in itself, separable and apart from the working class and the labour movement. The point is that the revolutionary party cannot be a revolutionary party if it is so separated - and so built.
The result is that the world in which the far left in Britain now operates looks like this.
Industrial militancy was stamped out by unemployment, the destruction of traditional industries and the operation of the "least liberal trade union laws in the western world". The politics of the working class who remained outside the fold of Thatcher's Tory populism became by the late '80s the politics of waiting for the Tories to be kicked out. Labour movement people tolerated everything Kinnock did and said, in the hope that the Tories could be kicked out. They have tolerated Blair too. The Labour left has withered to very little. Many of the former left leaders are Blairites, or their prisoners. There is very little life in the Labour Party though that may change in the euphoria of Tory defeat. Outside the Labour Party, the CP collapsed with the collapse of the Soviet Union - having in the 1980s played the role of rightwing think tank for the Kinnockites.
How does the far-left look? What remains - there has been a very great shrinkage in terms of absolute numbers - looks roughly like this.
- There is the SWP, claiming 10,000 members - very loosely defined - and disposing of considerable material resources. Politically it has gone through an astonishing series of zigzags, even dipping into the third worldism and populism it used to despise. In the '80s it turned itself into a beleaguered, bankeddown organisation, hibernating against the cold winds of the world around it, and has drawn some benefits from this. It does some very unambitious trade union work. Its essential politics are the politics of selfpromotion and "building the party". It is a very undemocratic organisation, with little internal life and a cult of its octogenarian prophet, Tony Cliff, who is both organisational monarch and doctrinal pontiff. It has, despite zigzags, learned and unlearned little since 1968: its leading layer is stuck in a state of arrested development centred on or around the events of that year. Hostility to Israel is one of its central political principles.
- There is Militant. Most Trotskyist groups have never had the chance to play a decisive part in the class struggle: in Britain only Militant has. In Liverpool it reproduced a caricature of the Second International - "building the revolutionary party" as a bureaucratic apparatus and buckling under the threat posed to that apparatus 'party' by confrontation with the Tories - choosing to try - vainly - to preserve that apparatus and leave the striking miners in the lurch, when the aid Liverpool council could have given might have proved decisive in the class struggle. It was built as a big tendency in protected territory, in the Labour Party Young Socialists, which it controlled after 1969 for 16 or 17 years. In all that time, until the Kinnockites demolished it in the aftermath of the tendency's failure and fiasco in Liverpool, it never seriously clashed with the Labour bureaucracy.
It took shape around certain mechanical "perspectives", with more of the Meccanoset than dialectical Marxism in them. The Labour Party was inexorably evolving towards becoming a mass leftwing force and would, beyond that, soon elevate "the Marxists" - Militant - into leadership of the labour movement; the world was evolving towards socialism, with progressive Stalinism showing the way. They have been very badly shaken by the collapse of Stalinism and by their own late '80s expulsion from the Labour Party. All their certainties have gone - as has Ted Grant, the founder of the group - and they are now typical "kitschTrotskyist", eclectic socialists. They have built a respectworthy base of local government activity in Glasgow. Recently, this 60year old tendency was rebaptised as the Socialist Party. In terms of numbers it has greatly declined. Outside of Glasgow, none of its candidates in the general election, except former Labour MP Dave Nellist in Coventry, rose much above the figure achieved by "Monster Raving Loony" and other joke candidates.
- There is the tendency around Workers' Liberty.
Beyond that there are a large number of fragments - Socialist Outlook, Socialist Action, the (Castroite) Communist League and others - from the former Mandelite organisation; splinters from the SWP and Militant; fragments of the Healyite WRP, which shattered into at least 10 pieces in the mid'80s. There are fragments of the old CP, some of which have made their way to something like revolutionary politics.
It is a cluster in marked intellectual decline and decay. Where there were - in Militant, for example - wrong but coherent ideas, there is now anchorless eclecticism. Where there were politics that were at least clear, if mistaken, such as the demand for Britain to leave the European Community, or to pull out of Northern Ireland immediately, there is now only the remnants of these policies, expressed in positions which imply what has gone, but no longer have the courage or the energy to state it. Thus, Opposition to Maastricht now takes the place of opposition to the EC, and unthinking support for the Provisional IRA demand that Britain should "persuade" the Protestants takes the place of the old position on Ireland, Troops Out.
This is a left in a process of continued decay. Its lurch into sectarianism visavis mass working class politics is probably fundamental to it.
To reconstruct a serious, Marxist left, politically renovated, a clearing of accounts with the history of this old movement is necessary - work such as we undertake in Workers' Liberty.
Today, the working class may well react to the experience of finally kicking out the Tories in a very positive way. There is a feeling that a great oppression has been removed. New Labour's leaders may well find that they face a harder, coarser, revived militancy in postThatcher Britain.
In politics now, the central dividing line separating the sectarians from the serious left - the left that aspires to build in the actually existing labour movement because it seriously aspires to lead the working class towards the making of a socialist revolution - is expressed in this question: it is agreed that Marxists must organise as a distinct formation, but beyond that do we build sects, or do we exist to develop mass working class politics? If the Labour Party is dead or about to become dead as a workers' party on even a minimal level, do we shout, "build the revolutionary party" or - while building an organisation of Marxists - campaign in the trade unions and the working class for the perspective of a mass trade unionbased workers' party? The left will develop and reshape around the axes of conflicting answers to this question and in the struggles which the Labour victory in the general election, and the return of hope that has accompanied it, will help generate.