Trotskyism and Stalinism in the Labour Party

Submitted by martin on 7 January, 2020 - 6:17 Author: Daniel Randall
Trotsky and Stalin

A Times article of 21 December reported that Rebecca Long-Bailey had appointed “self-proclaimed Stalinist” Alex Halligan to organise her campaign for the Labour leadership; the article highlighted in particular a badge worn by Halligan appearing to celebrate violence against “Trotskyites”. Then, on 27 December, Owen Hatherley in the Guardian asserted that the anti-Brexit wing of the Labour left is “dominated by members or ex-members of Trotskyist groups”, and referenced Paul Mason's argument that “Stalinists” such as Andrew Murray and Seumas Milne must be “forced out”. Do these terms have any contemporary use? How much of a feature will ideological conflict between Stalinists and Trotskyists be in the unfolding battle for the Labour Party's political future?

Like almost all political labels, especially those associated with the name of an individual, both terms - “Stalinist” and “Trotskyist” - are deeply contested. Although Hatherley is right that Trotskyists were central to the anti-Brexit Labour left (if not quite, in his term, “dominant”), Britain's two largest Trotskyist organisations, the Socialist Party, formerly Militant, and the Socialist Workers Party, are both outside the Labour Party and both strongly pro-Brexit. That political distinction alone tells us that organisations and individuals claiming the label “Trotskyist” might differ politically as much as they converge.

And “Stalinist”? While Hatherley appears dismissive of the idea that it might be an appropriate label for Milne and Murray, anyone serious about accurate political nomenclature must conclude that it has some explanatory value in their cases: both were members of “Straight Left”, the most orthodox of the factions emerging from the collapse of the official Communist Party in the early 1990s, a political heritage neither has ever formally repudiated.

Whatever one makes of his assessments, unlike many commentators on the factional landscape of the Labour left, Hatherley writes as a participant and actually knows the terrain. For most, however, the deployment of terms like “Stalinist” and “Trotskyist” serves principally to provide a sense of political pantomime, casting the Labour left as marginal extremists obsessed with theological squabbles over the writings of “dead Russians” (or, in fact, Georgians and Ukrainians).

Many grassroots Labour members and activists resent the framing of debate within the party in these terms. The vast majority identify with neither label, and reactions along the lines of “why can't we leave these irrelevant ideologies in the past?” are common. But behind the dramatising, there are real issues that will indeed play a substantial role in shaping the debate about Labour's post-Corbyn direction.

It is a fact that there is an ideological fault line on the contemporary Labour left between, broadly, a more top-down, statist wing, more sympathetic to nationalism, or at least prepared to appeal to it; and an internationalist, broadly anti-statist, and more libertarian wing. The former is pro-Brexit, the latter against it. Under Corbyn, the former encouraged a stance of uncritical loyalty to the leadership, playing machine politics in alliance with the bureaucracy of Unite, while the latter attempted to build an insurgent rank-and-file culture, advocating for greater grassroots democracy and frequently criticising the leadership from the left on issues like immigration policy and policing. Like any taxonomy involving human beings, complicated and contradictory as we are, there is some fluidity and blurring at the edges. Some activists may sympathise in general with one bloc, but agree with the other on a particular issue of policy. But in several debates within Labour under Corbyn, it has been this broad conflict within the left, as much as the conflict between left, right and centre, that has been central.

No-one is compelled to use particular labels, and it would be inaccurate to suggest that these broad wings can be seen to any full extent as Stalinist and Trotskyist, as such. But many of the central ideological differences trace their roots to conflicts between partisans and fellow-travellers of the Communist Party tradition on one hand, and its anti-Stalinist opponents on the other.

On Brexit in particular, the pro-Brexit position on the left descends almost directly from the anti-EEC left-nationalism of the Communist Party in the 1970s, which was influential on Bennism, and the accommodation of many would-be Trotskyists to that position descends similarly from the organisational antecedents of the SP and SWP attempting to tail the CP. Conversely, the theoretical underpinnings of the anti-Brexit position, seeing the erosion of borders and national division as progressive, even if it takes place under capitalism, have their origins in the “United States of Europe” position developed by the early-20th century revolutionary left, a development to which Trotsky was central in the period around the First World War.

There have been both Stalinists and Trotskyists in the Labour Party for as long as these terms have meant anything – roughly the early 1930s – so attempts by those on the party's centre and right to paint both as entryist interlopers who should simply be expelled have little historical grip. The debates have to be confronted head on. And the issues involved extend well beyond Brexit.

It is fashionable on some parts of the left to dismiss the question of how one analyses historical or contemporary Stalinist states as a matter of obscure pedantry. But it is not. It is a matter of elementary political morality. If one idealises and hails as progressive totalitarian police states based on brutal hyper-exploitation, that cannot but have some impact on the kind of socialism one aspires to build in the here-and-now, even if they are only held up as sources of historical inspiration rather than models to follow directly.

Such questions also have a bearing on how Labour might intervene in contemporary world politics. Party activists of all hues, and however they feel about the labels “Stalinist” and “Trotskyist”, should ask themselves whether they want people in positions of power and influence within the party who are more inclined to whitewash China's oppression of the Uyghurs, for example, than to oppose it, as the Morning Star has been.

For the right-wing press, Milne and Murray might serve as convenient bogeyman. But debate over their role is perfectly legitimate, and necessary. The issue involved is not merely whether we want apologists for Putin and defenders of Stalinist Russia at the heart of the Labour leadership, but a question of elementary democracy, which also speaks to the fault line within the left. Should a Labour left which aspires to the democratic empowerment of the party membership, and a radical expansion of democracy in society, tolerate a situation where a significant degree of power and influence is wielded by unelected bureaucrats, entirely beyond any recall or direct accountability, paid salaries vastly in excess of the majority of the people Labour aspires to represent?

However we label them, it is these issues that must be made central in the leadership contest, and the wider debate over Labour's future: should the party grassroots be meaningfully empowered, via a properly sovereign conference and open selection of candidates, or should the leader's office, run by unelected staffers, continue to hold sway? Should the party's policy on Europe remain broadly internationalist, advocating as close-as-possible a relationship with EU states and opposing greater barriers, whether via tariffs or border controls, between nations, or should it advocate a statist approach that might be best described as “social-democracy-in-one-country”? Should we respond to a rise in nationalist, anti-migrant feeling by launching a counter-offensive for international working-class solidarity, making a positive case for free movement as a human right, or attempt to triangulate with nationalism? Should Labour be a clear voice for universal human rights, including when they are being trampled by nominally socialist or “anti-imperialist” states, or should apologists for Assad and Putin shape Labour's foreign policy?

Labour activists keen to advance the cause of internationalist socialism within the party should not allow frustration at being labelled a “Trot” distract them from the necessary task of openly pursuing these debates. The future of the left in this country is at stake.

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