Left Unity: Arms and our moderate speaker
Jack Conrad takes issue with Salman Shaheen’s cowardly rejection of the demand for a popular militia
Salman Shaheen, one of Left Unity’s four principal speakers, appeared on the March 28 edition of the BBC’s Daily politics show. It is excellent that Left Unity got itself a mass-media platform - that goes without saying.
Yet, despite his generally smooth performance, the fact is that the comrade bent over backwards to present himself and LU as broad, conventional and safely Labourite. Clearly there is a striving to become the acceptable face of Left Unity. Prompted by Andrew Neil, comrade Shaheen eagerly described himself as a member of our “moderate wing”. Predictably, the Communist Platform was dismissed as the “extreme left” - an appellation we should take pride in.
Comrade Shaheen did everything he could to associate Left Unity with “disaffected” Labour voters, Greens and the current heroes of left reformism: eg, Diane Abbott, Owen Jones and the “late, great” Tony Benn. In that spirit viewers were told that the key aims of Left Unity are to repeal the bedroom tax, save the NHS, renationalise the rail network and take over the energy companies. Nothing objectionable in any of that, of course. Nevertheless, given the exhaustion of the capitalist mode of production, the ecological crisis, the urgent necessity of working class rule and the global transition to communism, mere tinkering.
True, comrade Shaheen made a good case for uniting the existing left in an individual membership organisation: ie, Left Unity. Divided into countless confessional sects and isolated from the mass of workers, the left richly deserves, as he admitted, the Life of Brian jibes. But, instead of fighting for the unity of the left in a Marxist party, instead of fighting to win a mass audience for Marxism, instead of going through the serious business of fashioning a Marxist programme, what comrade Shaheen aspires to is a “broad church” along the lines of the old Independent Labour Party.
An assessment sadly confirmed by comrade Shaheen’s cringingly defensive response to Andrew Neil’s attempt to paint Left Unity as “loony”. The Communist Platform’s motion calling for the “disbanding of the standing army” and the “right of the people to bear arms” reminded Neil of America’s Tea Party. Or so he said. Would Shaheen be voting for this madness at LU’s March 29 Manchester conference? No, replied the comrade. “I disagree ... I will be voting against ... the majority of Left Unity members are disaffected Labour voters.”
Neil is in fact an Americaphile. He has worked in the US and still owns a plush New York apartment. So you would have thought he might have recognised some well-known ideas contained in the Communist Platform motion. It is, after all, basically a reformulation of the second amendment to the US constitution - ratified to popular acclaim in 1791: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”1
Those who made the American revolution, crucially the urban and rural masses, saw a standing army as an existential threat to democracy.2 At great sacrifice they had overthrown the tyranny of George III and were determined to do the same again if an unacceptable government arose in the US. A “popular militia and the constitutional right to bear arms” was a core democratic demand of the masses in America, and naturally the Marxist parties of the 19th and 20th centuries unproblematically included it in their programmes. See the Demands of the Communist Party in Germany, the Erfurt programme, the programme of the French Workers’ Party, the programme of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, etc. As to resisting tyranny, in the 1920s in Germany the Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party both established well-drilled militias. Ditto Austria. Striking workers formed defence corps in Britain during the 1926 General Strike. Then, more recently, there were the miners’ hit squads of 1984-85. Countless other such examples can be cited.
This is the “loony” tradition comrade Shaheen rejects ... and worryingly his BBC appearance triggered a string of approving comments on LU’s website. The general consensus is summed up by Pete McLaren, a national council member, a leading figure in the Independent Socialist Network and a partisan of the now defunct Socialist Platform. He brimmed with praise. Salman dealt with the questions “very well indeed” and as a final ‘well done’ he adds that “I don’t think your views can be described as moderate!”3 Rejecting a militia and the constitutional right to bear arms is obviously common ground.
Many Left Unity moderates want nothing to do with the militia demand because supposedly it presents “a gift” to British state. If we dare advocate arming the people, MI5 will soon be snooping on us - as if they are not already doing that. Left Unity should therefore stick to being a reformist “broad church”. Hence, though a “libertarian republican socialist”, John Tummon, whose contribution also appeared on the LU website, would, like comrade Shaheen, vote against the Communist Platform motion. And, of course, there is the last resort of the Trotskyite reformist: appealing to the existing consciousness of “ordinary people”. A militia, the constitutional right to bear arms - these are premature, because the “overwhelming majority” of the working class is “non-revolutionary” (Mick Hall).
However, when it comes to the moderates, the most interesting, the most honest, the most revealing comments come from Patrick Black of Sheffield Left Unity. He too wants to avoid the “loony left” tag. With that end in mind he launched a furious attack on the “small, sad and lonely political ‘sects’ existing within the party”. They are in need of a serious “reality check”, since they do not “appear to possess a shred of common sense”. Naturally, he singles out the Communist Platform for “putting forward crazy motions to disband the British army and create armed people’s militias”. Repeating the kind of slurs flung against Bennism in the 1980s, comrade Black insists that such politics would make Left Unity “a complete laughing stock”.
Inevitably, comrade Black considers himself part of the “sane left”. By contrast, for him, a people’s militia and other such ideas “aren’t serious, coherent ‘left’ politics of any kind”. They are “simply insulting, insane and infantile aberrations”. Indeed, echoing Neil Kinnock in 1985, the comrade clearly envisages a purge of those “sects” who have “wormed their way into Left Unity”. Unless that happens, the comrade fears that the likes of Communist Platform “are capable of seriously damaging and discrediting, sabotaging and derailing the party at every turn, severely limiting and curtailing its appeal and advance”.
When it comes to launching a witch-hunt, comrade Black is, thankfully, part of our moderate minority. Nevertheless, he possesses the great virtue of actually saying what others on the “moderate wing” of Left Unity think: ie, the “right to bear arms” has nothing to do with “reality” and the concerns of “ordinary people”.
A good slice of our elected officers, national council members and regional reps, etc have a background in Trotskyism, and, albeit nowadays in private, many still declare themselves to be adherents of one or another version of Trotskyism (eg, Terry Conway, Tim Nelson, Simon Hardy and Tom Walker). So, and not only for their benefit, it is worth quoting Leon Trotsky himself and his ‘Programme of action for France’ (1936). There is not a trace of cynical evasion, not a trace of flabby pacifism, not a trace of opportunist common sense here.
Point 10 has the defiant title: “Disbanding of the police, political rights for soldiers”.4
Trotsky condemns the police and standing army and shows how they are used to “develop the civil war, but also to prepare the imperialist war”. He demands democratic rights for rank-and-file soldiers and the “execution of police duties by the workers’ militia”.
Further down, under point 15, we find Trotsky putting forward a militant plan for the main workers’ parties and trade union federations to form their own militias and then uniting them “in action” against the growing threat from reaction. In February 1934 French Catholics, royalists and fascists called for a massive demonstration against economic chaos, weak government and political corruption. Armed with razors, clubs and knives, their gangs tried to invade parliament. Fifteen people were killed and 1,435 injured after gendarmes beat them back.
Trotsky, however, warns in point 17 against the delusion - spread by the Socialist Party and the ‘official’ French Communist Party - that the bourgeois police could be relied upon to disarm the reactionary gangs.
His slogan rings clear and loud: “Arming of the proletariat, arming of the poor peasants! People’s anti-fascist militia!” “The exploiters,” he explains, “are but a tiny minority” and will recoil from unleashing a civil war with their non-state fighting formations “only if the workers are armed and lead the masses”.
Trotsky and his co-thinkers were dismissed with the same kind of craven philistinism that today comes from the mouths of comrades Shaheen, Tummon, Black, Hall and other moderates. Trotsky almost effortlessly knocked down the objections one by one in Whither France? Hence we quickly come to his “least serious and honest” opponents: the panic-mongers, who claimed that to “call for the organisation of a militia” was to “engage in provocation”. This is “not an argument, but an insult”, fumes Trotsky.5 Arming the working class flowed from the entire situation in France. Trotsky rhetorically asked if a workers’ militia “provokes” fascist attacks and government repression.
Accusations that we Marxists are engaged in a “provocation” have long been used by timid opportunists. Trotsky recalls that the Mensheviks hurled the charge at the Bolsheviks after their December 1905 uprising in Moscow. Today in Britain, it certainly does not take the call for a “popular militia and the constitutional right to bear arms” to “provoke” MI5 infiltration, spying and wrecking operations, police kettlings, batterings and killings, the sequestration of trade union funds, fascist firebombings, etc.
No, those who court respectability in the eyes of the inherently biased capitalist media, those who want to present themselves as sensible Keyenesians, those who are committed to play by the unfair rules of the British constitution, will eventually seek to reconcile themselves with the existing political and economic order. For, if only the masses stay within the safe confines of the law, do not irresponsibly take to the streets, do not stage disruptive strikes, do not fight for a radically different society, the forces of the state would not be obliged to beat them. This, says Trotsky, is the “philosophy of Tolstoy and Gandhi, but never that of Marx and Lenin”.6
Then there is the hoary old assertion that “arming of the workers is only relevant in a revolutionary situation”. Trotsky pours scorn on this: it means, he says, that the workers must permit themselves to be “slaughtered until the situation becomes revolutionary”. A peaceful, normal and democratic situation can suddenly give way to storms, crises and unstable conditions, which “can transform itself into a revolutionary, as well as a counterrevolutionary, situation”.
Revolutionary situations do not fall from the skies. They take form, mature and find direction in no small measure because of the long and patient preparatory work done by the Communist Party, including popularising the idea of “a popular militia and the constitutional right to bear arms”.
In common parlance what comrades Shaheen, Tummon, Black, Hall, et al, advocate is the so-called ‘art of the possible’. The communist method is entirely different. We begin not by asking what “new recruits”, “disaffected Labour voters”, “the overwhelming majority”, etc, are supposed to think and then bring out our principles from the closet, as mass support is gained in one election contest after another.
No, the communist method begins with firm principles and then goes to the masses: “In our intransigent attitude lies our whole strength. It is this attitude that earns us the fear and respect of the enemy and the trust and support of the people” - so runs Rosa Luxemburg’s famous rebuttal of the revisionists in the German Social Democratic Party.7 Our aim is to win the majority to the principles of communism through an unremitting political struggle in the teeth of bourgeois mockery, hatred and slander. Necessarily, that must include taking on and overcoming the forces of opportunism within our ranks. Put another way, the ideological influence of the bourgeoisie, as filtered through the prism of the sect leaders, trade union officialdom and would-be career politicians, has to be defeated ... that or we face disaster.
As an exercise, let us imagine, for one moment, that under Kate Hudson, Terry Conway, Andrew Burgin and Salman Shaheen Left Unity gets a majority in parliament. Are the courts, MI5, the armed forces and the police going to be loyal to parliament, or powerless to act contrary to the new government’s wishes, because of the results of a general election? Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, etc rightly branded such simple-minded politics as “parliamentary cretinism”.
Our ‘moderate’ Left Unity government would rid Britain of the bedroom tax, save the NHS, renationalise the rails and take over the energy companies. That is true. At least that is the promise. However, in the name of moderation it would leave in place the British armed forces. Frankly, an open invitation for a British version of Augusto Pinochet to launch a bloody counterrevolution. In Chile thousands of leftwingers were slaughtered after the 1973 army coup which overthrew the Socialist Party-Communist Party Popular Unity reformist government under president Salvador Allende.
Why trust the thoroughly undemocratic British army? An institution which relies on inculcating unthinking military discipline in its ranks. An institution run by an upper-middle class and aristocratic officer caste, which is trained to command from public school to Sandhurst, as if by right of birth. And, of course, the British army swears to loyally serve the crown - believe it, more than harmless tradition. The monarch and the monarchy function as a potent symbol, an ever-present excuse for a legal coup.
Why trust the British army, which has fought countless imperial and colonial wars, up to and including the latest strung-out disaster in Afghanistan? A British army that has been used when necessary to intimidate, threaten and crush the ‘enemy within’?
No, instead, let us put our trust in a “well regulated militia” and the “right of the people to keep and bear arms”.
2. Note, in purely legal terms, the ideologues of the American revolution - Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay et al - based their legal defence of the right to bear arms on English law, not least article 61 of the 1215 version of the Magna Carta. So there is nothing alien, nothing foreign, nothing crazy about the right to bear arms.
4. L Trotsky Writings 1934-35 New York 1974, pp26-27.
5. L Trotsky Whither France? New York 1968, p26.
6. Ibid p26.
7. www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1898/09/ 30.htm.