George’s marvellous medicine
The pro-Brexit Workers Party is a strange amalgam. But asks Paul Demarty, can it make an impact?
Of the many subplots in the drama of British politics at the current time, there is one that stands out for those on the left who came of age during the early 2000s: the picaresque career of George Galloway.
We admired his bravery in the face of Tony Blair’s drive to war in Iraq, which saw him expelled from the Labour Party for calling on British soldiers to disobey orders; and his comedy roast of the US Senate, pausing to swat aside the “drink-sodden, former Trotskyite popinjay” Christopher Hitchens on his way out (“some of which,” Hitchens complained, “was unfair”). We cringed at the salutes to Saddam Hussein, and his furry act with Rula Lenska on Celebrity big brother. We watched the wheels fall off his Respect project; then his shock electoral victory in Bradford; then his bizarre falling out with key members of his staff.
More recently, he backed Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which presumably cut him off from most of his remaining leftwing fandom; which makes his latest vehicle all the more striking.
The Workers Party of Britain appeared out of nowhere at the end of last year, with Galloway as its leader. Its logo, in fetching red, white and blue, might lead one to believe that it was a continuation of the red-brown sort of politics of backing Farage; but the group’s launch statement and 10-point programme paints an altogether different picture. The pitch is to disaffected Corbynites:
Thousands of well-intentioned working class people flocked to the Labour Party, wanting to believe that Corbyn would be different from Blair, Brown and Miliband ... and that, somehow, we would have socialism in Britain. The experience of the last few years alone is enough to demonstrate that one cannot make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.
Given that the Corbyn project is “dead and buried”, and Labour “remains a party committed to capitalism and fully integrated into the workings of the British state - a faithful servant of British imperialism” - a new party is needed that will bring together those “distraught and disillusioned” with Labour membership and those voters “appalled at the undemocratic manoeuvres of the party as it attempts to overturn the democratic mandate of the 2016 Brexit referendum”. Step forward, the WPB, with its fedora-sporting leader, George Galloway.
The WPB calls for “a planned economy”, accusing “free-market fundamentalism” of “castrating [sic!] our society”. That rather striking image feeds into another bugaboo of the comrades:
The Workers Party is unequivocally committed to class politics. Though the fashion of the times is to divide working people along identity lines, we seek to unite them, based on their shared class interest. It is not ‘homophobic’ or ‘racist’ for socialists to focus their attention on those contradictions that concern the whole working class in its struggle for socialism. While being totally opposed to discrimination on grounds of race, sex or sexual proclivity, we declare that obsession with identity politics, including sexual politics, divides the working class.
Given its Brexiteer outlook, the group also opposes the free movement of labour. There is, finally, a block of anti-imperialist statements, which take the WPB into explicitly Stalinist territory: “We defend the achievements of the USSR, China, Cuba, etc”; and “we categorically reject the attempt by the ruling class, its paid agents and the EU imperialist bloc to rewrite history, so as to equate the Soviet Union with Hitlerite Germany” - instead, the “positive historical legacy of the Soviet Union” is commended to readers.
Seasoned George-watchers will know that he is, along with everything else, a sort of political fossil: a member of the layer of people on the Labour soft left with pro-Soviet leanings that existed in the post-war era. Yet this statement was clearly not written by him. The name of his deputy leader, however, will give us a clue - Joti Brar.
Comrade Brar - along with her brother, Ranjeet, and father, Harpal - is best known as a leading member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), an ultra-Stalinist organisation. The CPGB-ML stands in relation to the run-of-the-mill Stalinism of the Morning Star or Monthly Review as the Westboro Baptist Church (of “God hates fags” fame) does to American conservative evangelicals at large: an embarrassment, by dint of ignoring the approved speech codes (in the latter case, the idea that God loves homosexuals so much he will help them repent of their disgusting sins).
So, if you ask a member of the Star’s Communist Party of Britain about the show trials of the 1930s, you will be told that mistakes were made, but the important thing is that the USSR constructed socialism under trying circumstances, gave the Spanish republic its only real chance at survival and defeated Hitler. Ask a Brarite, and you will be told that all the accused were guilty - apart from the innocent victims of secret police chief Nikolai Yezhov, who also turned out to be a traitor, but was caught in the nick of time ...
The CPGB-ML is also notable for - by the usual standards of the far left - having a rather punchy online presence. This is partly down to the morbidly viral nature of its pro-Stalin ‘content’, of course, but it does perhaps go some way to explaining the fact that Galloway thinks putting his name to this stuff is a good idea. The CPGB-ML comrades have energy and talent; George is pragmatic enough to know he cannot do it all on his own; so perhaps it is worth a gamble. Besides which, the CPGB-ML joined Galloway in backing Farage’s outfit.
It is not the first time the Brars have been the last roll of the dice for a celebrated left leader ageing rather more like King Lear than Louis XIV; Harpal was appointed deputy leader of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party back in the early years of this century. Presumably Galloway thinks his personal fame and notoriety will drown out the explicit political positions of his new party, but should they gain any influence at all, we doubt the BBC and Guardian and Daily Mail will let him get away with it.
While it is easy to laugh at those who repeat the big lies of the 1930s four-score years later, when those lies were transparent at the time, and easier still to lament the Sophoclean hubris that has brought Gorgeous George to hang out in such company, there are nonetheless wider reasons why something of the sort may succeed to some extent - perhaps even the WPB itself.
Firstly, it is worth noting that it would hardly be the first resurgence of the Stalinist left in Europe. Notably the Socialist Party in the Netherlands and the Workers Party of Belgium (PTB/PDVA) have taken a near-identical course of political development from 1968er Maoist origins to stable and electorally successful parties running on substantially economist-reformist platforms. Within the small-group milieus of the Anglosphere, meanwhile, variant forms of Stalinism are on the up.
Secondly, the 2019 general election result will have dashed very many dreams against the rocks among the Corbynites. Though many will no doubt simply fall into cynicism and despair, some will find new political homes. Moreover, it is very likely that the next leader of the Labour Party will either be forced into allowing very extensive purges of the left on bogus charges of anti-Semitism, ‘bullying’ and what-not, or will enthusiastically cooperate with such operations (should someone like Kier Starmer win), thus increasing the size of the potential recruit base.
Thirdly, these auspicious circumstances find those groups of broadly Trotskyist extraction at, shall we say, a low ebb. The Socialist Workers Party is now so afraid of its own shadow that it no-platforms anti-Zionist speakers at anti-racism rallies at the beck and call of the Board of Deputies. The Socialist Party in England and Wales, having cheerfully wrecked its own ‘international’, seems likely to learn nothing. Across the pond, the International Socialist Organisation has just winked out of existence. All these groups claim - or claimed - to be more democratic than Stalinist organisations, and (with the exception of the 1930s CPSU so beloved of the Brars) all have failed in this task, often (in the case of the SWP, for example) operating worse internal norms than ‘official communist’ organisations of the past and present.
A bridge too Brar?
Even with all that said, it is difficult to see the WPB benefiting - so long as the CPGB-ML exercises editorial control over everything on the website. It is one thing for a young radical to look at, say, the Venezuelan regime, currently in danger of being snuffed out entirely by CIA destabilisation operations, and want to take a very clear stand on the ‘right’ side, nudging into Stalinist territory. Such a comrade may well find soft-Maoist outfits, or something like the USA’s Party for Socialism and Liberation, attractive. It is quite another thing to throw in your lot with members of the Stalin Society.
Galloway is no fool, however, and, if he can use the Brarites to bootstrap his organisation, he can perhaps build himself another power base to edge them out later on. Or perhaps we radically underestimate how far the appeal of ultra-Stalinism can reach. There is something superficially authentic, after all, about violence - a reality all the more overwhelming, as ‘official’ liberal platitudes give way to a more authoritarian capitalist order, Thomas Friedman shoved aside by Steve Bannon. The romance of the barricade may give way to the romance of prolonged people’s war.
In reality, however, both versions of this - the post-Stalinist left reformism of the Netherlands SP and the like (and Galloway, for that matter) and the obviously absurd ultra-Stalinism of the CPGB-ML - are dead ends. We are perhaps too easily transfixed by the horror of ‘high’ Stalinism in the period of forced collectivisation, gulags and terroristic political purges. We forget that, as well as being a bloody disaster, it was a bloody disaster: that is, that it immanently generated the ‘revisionism’ so despised by the likes of the Brars, and ultimately the collapse of 1989-91. The electoral success of the SP in the Netherlands and the PTB/PVDA must be weighed against that recent experience of electoral victory by similar forces in the form of the Syriza government in Greece, and its rude confrontation with the reality of the internationalisation of production. Were George Galloway to be our next prime minister, he would soon learn a thing or two about how secondary EU membership is to any given country’s subordination to the world system, with an increasingly assertive USA at its summit.
The WPB is a bet on the idea that we are now at the point in the life-cycle of left politics that takes radicals out of the Labour Party and into more consistently oppositional formations. The last thing we need, however, is another turn around this merry-go-round; there is not a difference of principle between the two, so long as we are trapped in the dead-end politics of socialism in a single country - or rather less-than-socialism in one country, as represented by the Labour manifestoes of the Corbyn era.