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Militant anniversary: 50 years of socialism and workers’ struggle

Peter Taaffe, Socialist Party general secretary

When we started publishing Militant, the Socialist’s predecessor, in October 1964, few of our political opponents expected that we would not only continue publication for 50 years, but become an important factor in subsequent battles of the labour movement.

Over this period we have witnessed and participated in the colossal movements of the working class in some of the greatest events in history. The magnificent 1968 occupation of the factories by ten million workers in France – the greatest general strike in history; the 1970s revolutionary wave of the Portuguese, Spanish and Greek workers who unceremoniously dismantled the brutal dictatorships in their countries.

We joined in the mass demonstrations in London and elsewhere against the Russian Stalinists’ occupation of Czechoslovakia, also in 1968. I and other Young Socialists led contingents of young people demanding workers’ democracy in Czechoslovakia and the arming of the working class.

France

In these events, which we assiduously recorded and analysed in the pages of our paper, the French workers reached out for power. And they could have achieved this. The seemingly ’mighty’, semi-dictatorial regime of President de Gaulle was completely paralysed by the mass action of the working class. But, as with many moments in the history of the mass organisations of the working class, the Communist Party and so called ’socialist’ leaders acted as a huge brake at the decisive moment, which derailed the movement and saved capitalism.

This at a time when the capitalists themselves appeared to have abandoned hope for their system. At one stage, de Gaulle fled France in despair; “Capitalism is dead in Portugal,” wailed the Times newspaper in 1975. In truth, it was almost “dead”, 75% of their wealth and economic power was taken from them through the nationalisation of the banks in the aftermath of the mass mobilisation and defeat of an attempted right-wing coup. This resulted in real political power being concentrated in the hands of the workers in the factories and the radicalised revolutionary soldiers in the barracks.

And it was not just Europe that was affected. The strongest power on the planet, capitalist America, was convulsed and virtually paralysed through the events of the Vietnam War and the resulting rebellion of the conscripted troops. Alongside them were the youth in the mass anti-war movement which, combined with the uprisings of the African-Americans, detonated opposition and demonstrations, resulting in elements of a pre-revolutionary crisis for US imperialism.

These events and many more were recorded and commented on in Militant, which found a ready response amongst a wider and wider audience of youth and workers. This led to the expansion and development of Militant from a monthly to a fortnightly in 1971, to a weekly the next year and eventually a 16-page paper. We were forced to retreat to 12 pages later because of the unfavourable situation following the collapse of Stalinism in 1989-91, but we continued to publish a weekly newspaper and build our forces, sometimes in the most difficult objective situations.

From an organisation largely based at the beginning in a few areas like Liverpool, London, Glasgow and South Wales, we established the framework of a national organisation with a growing base in all regions of Britain. This was followed by the growth of our influence on a world scale through the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), founded in 1974.

What we lacked in size was more than made up for in the enthusiasm of our youthful supporters, the sharpness of our analysis and the explanation of our programme, which reached the more politically developed young people and workers.

In the 1970s, but particularly in the 1980s, we were addressing mass audiences. Militant, in terms of numbers and influence in the labour movement, was the most successful Marxist/Trotskyist organisation in Western Europe since the time of Trotsky’s Left Opposition in the 1930s.

Liverpool

No other Marxist organisation managed to connect with the working class in mass movements as we did in the epic struggle in Liverpool between 1983 and 1987 or in the anti-poll tax struggle. We have written two books (Liverpool, A City that Dared to Fight and The Rise of Militant) dealing with these struggles.

Some have tried to downplay the crucial role that Militant’s leadership and its supporters played in the Liverpool battle, not all of them on the right of the labour movement. George Galloway, a prominent, if erratic left-wing MP, first under the banner of Labour and then as an independent, belatedly chose to attack the strategy of Liverpool City Council and to separate himself from the city’s mass movement. He agreed with Neil Kinnock’s attack on the needs budget which allowed the City Council to force concessions from Thatcher and build thousands of houses, sports centres, parks, etc.

None other than the ’Iron Lady’ herself, Margaret Thatcher, indirectly demolished Galloway’s criticisms of Militant and the immortal 47 councillors who stood up to and ultimately defeated her. The unpublished speech that she intended to make at the 1984 Tory party conference, which was overtaken by the IRA bombing of her hotel (see last week’s issue of the Socialist), ranked Liverpool and the ’Militant tendency’ alongside the miners as “the enemy within” – comparable to General Galtieri, who ’she’ defeated in the Falklands war.

The representatives of the ruling class, through habit and tradition, are trained to be relentless in the class war. Although Thatcher came from a lower-middle class background – the daughter of a shopkeeper – she embodied these traits, particularly when she concentrated the reins of power in her hands.

Miners

She was defeated by the miners in 1981, when she temporarily shelved the pit closure programme. But, together with her coterie like Norman Tebbit, “a semi-housetrained polecat”, she used massive stockpiles of coal to inflict a defeat on the miners. But this was not without the connivance of the right-wing trade union leadership.

She pursued the same tactics in relation to Liverpool; first retreating when the relationship of forces was against her, then when Liverpool was isolated by the capitulation of other ’left-wing’ councils – led by David Blunkett in Sheffield and Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council – she took revenge. Assisted by the unspeakable Neil Kinnock, the Labour leader, she removed the Liverpool councillors from office through the courts.

Kinnock then compounded the blow by expelling the leaders of the struggle, Derek Hatton, Tony Mulhearn and others from the party. Tom Sawyer, a full-time officer of the National Union of Public Employees, which part founded Unison, said at the National Executive of the Labour Party in February 1986: “I defy anyone to tell me how you can go to Liverpool and defeat Militant by argument.”

Poll tax

However, Thatcher more than met her match in the anti-poll tax battle. Militant, through the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation, mobilised 18 million people not to pay the tax: “Can’t pay, won’t pay”. However, victory was not achieved easily. 34 Militant supporters were jailed out of hundreds imprisoned nationally.

The late great Terry Fields, Labour MP and Militant supporter was lionised by the working class, both nationally and particularly in Liverpool, as were his fellow Militant MPs Dave Nellist and Pat Wall. Dave and Terry refused to pay the poll tax – Pat unfortunately passed away as the campaign picked up – and Terry was jailed. This, unbelievably, was then used by the revengeful right-wing leadership of the Labour Party to expel him.

Yet Terry Fields and hundreds like him who were jailed and victimised managed to achieve what the trade union leaders and the increasingly discredited tops of the Labour Party signally failed to do. The non-payment campaign defied the government’s poll tax and in the process brought down Thatcher, reducing the ’Iron Lady’ to filings.

This was a watershed in the development of Militant. We grew by leaps and bounds throughout the 1980s. This was reflected sometimes in the most unusual fashion. For instance, the now disgraced Jeffrey Archer, in his novel ’First Amongst Equals’, dealt with an imaginary Labour MP under threat from the left: “His General Management Committee, which now included five supporters of Militant tendency, tabled a motion of no-confidence in its member.”

The National Union of Journalists in its monthly publication at this time also fed the impression that Militant was everywhere: “Central TV was filming the pilot of a new comedy series – a large group of actors holding banners and placards were holding a mock demo in the middle of the streets when a bloke turned up and tried to sell them copies of ’Militant’”!

Expulsions

Every attack on us, whether from the right wing of the Labour Party or from the poisonous capitalist press and other media outlets, just served to widen our support and influence. The expulsion from the Labour Party of the five members of the Militant Editorial Board in 1983 – Peter Taaffe, Lynn Walsh, Clare Doyle, Keith Dickinson and Ted Grant – just created even more interest in our ideas, contacts and influence.

These five were amongst the leading supporters of Militant at this stage. Others, like Alan Woods, have recently claimed to have played a central role in the founding of Militant (see ’Militant’s Real History’ at Marxist.net). This is intended to boost his reputation as a key participant in the work of Militant, Liverpool, the poll tax, etc. He played no role in these major events when Militant grew spectacularly to almost 8,000 supporters, spending most of his time outside of Britain, in Spain, where he did play a part in building the Spanish section of the CWI.

Ted Grant did play an historical role as continuer of a Marxist tradition which helped to successfully orientate the new layer of workers and youth who came into our orbit in the late 1960s and 70s.

However, his dogmatic approach brought him into collision with the overwhelming majority of those who built Militant, and continued to do so after he broke from us in 1992 over the issue of the Labour Party.

His supporters managed to win just 7% support at a national conference for their ideas. We argued that it was necessary to temporarily work outside the Labour Party in order to win the best, fighting layers of the youth in particular. Workers were being expelled from the Labour Party for the ’crime’ of fighting the poll tax!

Labour

In opposition to this, Ted Grant and Woods dogmatically asserted that this was breaking with a “forty-year tradition” – their own one-sided perception of Militant’s approach – that the masses in Britain would turn “again and again” to the Labour Party to transform it. Over 20 years later we are still waiting for their prognosis to be borne out. One thing we do know is that the Labour Party lost nearly 5 million votes between 1997 and 2010, and politically and organisationally is now an empty shell. So much so that this small group don’t even mention the “need to transform” Labour in their written material now!

We refuted this arid approach in theory, but life and events prove it even more so. Indeed, following the recent Scottish referendum they concluded that Labour in Scotland was ’finished’ and now they work in an ’open’ fashion. They are dishonestly hiding the fact that they have been compelled to change their position completely.

In the very first issue of our paper, commenting on the role of the Labour leadership in 1964, we wrote: “By showing themselves as ’safe and responsible’ leaders, not fundamentally different from the Tories, the Labour leaders have played into the hands of the Tories.” This is a thousand times more the case today, with Miliband and Balls slavishly imitating everything, including savage cuts, that Cameron and Osborne put forward in a ’me too’ fashion.

The labour movement in Britain has been subject to the same pressures of capitalism in crisis as Europe and the world. We built a powerful position based on young people in Liverpool, through the apprentices’ strikes of 1960 and 1964, and also in the Labour Party itself through its Young Socialist section.

At that stage, the Labour Party still provided great scope for workers, socialists and youth to swing the Labour Party to the left, particularly at local level. In this way, it became an instrument, in some areas at least, for working people in struggle. And, as a consequence of patient and consistent work, we built an important position within it.

However, the general shift towards the right within the labour movement compelled Militant to seek to organise workers and socialists outside the Labour Party. Even when it became obvious that this was the case, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we still mistakenly encouraged the notion that we could possibly return to the Labour Party when it was filled out by workers moving into struggle. But under the baton of Blair and then Brown, followed by Miliband, the Labour Party has moved way to the right and is now no different to the Tories or Liberal Democrats. It is a British version of the Democrats in the US, firmly wedded to a two-party capitalist system.

There is very little expectation that Labour will be any different if it should manage to sneak back to power, and even that is not guaranteed. Hence the need for us to raise the idea of a new mass party of the working class, which was roundly condemned by those who stubbornly insist on clinging to the battered remnants of the Labour Party.

Militant owed its successes not to a rigid interpretation of Marxist ideas. Yes, we steadfastly defend the general ideas and methods of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, but we have always displayed extreme flexibility in tactics.

New convulsions

The 1990s, after the collapse of Stalinism, was an immensely difficult time for socialists and the labour movement generally. This was used to discredit ’socialism’ and the planned economy and shift the ideological axis to the right. However, since the collapse of the Berlin Wall we have seen the bankruptcy of capitalism, together with the seemingly endless wars – the Middle East, the Balkans, etc. – combined with the ongoing and devastating world economic crisis. These prepared the way for the convulsions that we saw in the Egyptian revolution and elsewhere.

The economic crisis is so severe in Britain that even “younger Labour wants to lose the election”[Evening Standard, 2 October 2014]. Right-wing Labour is now afraid of power, of inheriting the ’poisoned chalice’ after next May’s general election. This, they claim, could discredit “Labour for a generation”. However it is already discredited in the eyes of millions of workers.

As in the past, the Socialist Party alone in Britain has successfully applied the methods of Marxism and successfully charted out the road to be taken. The direction of travel is clearly towards a new mass workers’ party, which in turn can prepare the forces that can realise the goal of socialism in Britain.