There is much to be learned from the history of the left. But on one condition - that we get the history right, that we study it carefully and accurately. If we rely on lazy generalisations and public-house gossip, we shall not learn much.
So I was not greatly impressed by Eddie Ford’s account of the origins of the Revolutionary Communist Party as “a dissident faction within the Socialist Workers Party (or International Socialists, as it was known then) - calling itself the ‘Revolutionary Opposition’, but quickly dubbed the ‘Right Opposition’ by its IS opponents. They were flung out of the host body in 1972-73 by an increasingly intolerant Tony Cliff” (‘Arise, Lady Fox’, August 6).
I am one of what is now a dwindling band of survivors of the IS national committee which expelled the so-called Right Faction. Now there is always conflict between those who live through events, and the younger generation, like Ford, who try to reconstruct what happened. But there are documentary sources of which Ford appears to be unaware - in particular I would recommend the Will Fancy papers at Senate House Library, London.
The leading members of the Right Faction were expelled by the IS NC in April 1973. Were they “flung out” by “an increasingly intolerant Tony Cliff”? This seems to put an unMarxist stress on Cliff’s personal psychology (was he perhaps suffering from the male menopause?). To treat Cliff as some sort of power-mad pantomime villain hardly aids historical understanding. Cliff certainly made political misjudgements, but these should be analysed seriously, not buried beneath clichés.
The national committee was a 40-person body directly elected by the IS conference a few weeks earlier. Among others, its members included Paul Foot, Steve Jefferys, Nigel Harris and John Palmer - none of whom could be described as unconditional Cliff supporters. As far as I recall, the decision to expel was unanimous - those due to be expelled had speaking rights, but I’m pretty sure no NC member spoke in their defence. Certainly Cliff supported the expulsions, but his role was not particularly significant. The main driving force was the national secretary, Jim Higgins. In later years Higgins (in his 1997 book, More years for the locust) tried to present himself as a defender of IS democracy, but when he was in office he was a keen expeller. Those expelled were subsequently considered by the appeals commission, a body certainly not obedient to the leadership; the expulsions were confirmed.
To understand why people like myself backed the expulsions, it is necessary to look at the political context. The previous years had seen a remarkable rise in working class struggle. Following the biggest general strike in human history (France, 1968) came huge victories for the British working class (Saltley pickets, freeing of the Pentonville Five). It was all too easy to believe that the movement would go forward and that the prospects for revolutionaries were good. Probably we were over-optimistic, naive even, but events did give our perspective a certain plausibility.
In this situation it seemed reasonable to hope that the left might be in process of transformation. Instead of being a set of tiny, marginal sects, each claiming to be the sole possessors of the truth, we aspired to a movement that would be broader, more rooted in real struggles, in which some of the older points of differentiation had become less important.
This was a generous aspiration, but again we were too optimistic. IS in the early 1970s was a lively, open organisation. It was growing rapidly, recruiting students, but also a small number of well-established trade unionists. This was a source of some satisfaction to the members: we took pleasure in our modest, but real achievements.
Unfortunately it made IS a target for those who sought to use its success to build their own projected organisations. The best known example is Sean Matgamna, who joined IS in 1968, but maintained his own organisation - with its own internal discipline, subs-paying and even probationary membership - inside the host organisation. And, when he had recruited enough supporters and was ready to launch his organisation on the world, he provoked expulsion with a document that would ensure his exclusion (See Duncan Hallas, ‘A slanderous attack in IS’, on the Marxist Internet Archive).
Perhaps less well-known is the case of Roy Tearse, who had been active in the Trotskyist movement during World War II and was jailed for his role in a wartime strike. After some years of inactivity he began to attend IS meetings in the 1968 period. He was invited to join, with the promise that someone of his experience and ability would be rapidly drawn into the leadership. (A similar offer was made to another veteran from the 1940s, Duncan Hallas, who accepted and became a key leadership figure for some 25 years.)
Tearse declined the invitation, preferring to encourage from outside the building of a secret and undeclared faction. (Initially there was no time limit on the existence of factions in IS; it was the destructive activity of factions which led to more restrictive rules.) The fullest account, which should be consulted by any would-be historian, is John Sullivan’s carefully researched article, ‘A secret strategy: Roy Tearse and the Discussion Group, 1971-1988’, published in What Next?
There were in fact three very different currents within the undeclared faction that was expelled in 1973. Firstly the aptly named ‘Discussion Group’, which went on discussing for well over a decade, but never did anything. Secondly the group around David Yaffe, which became Fight Racism, Fight Imperialism. It was incorrigibly Stalinist, but remained firmly anti-imperialist.
And thirdly the Furedi grouping which became the RCP. For years it was quaintly but infuriatingly ultra-left. I recall speaking on nuclear disarmament at the SWP’s Marxism event and being told that disarmers “wanted to stay alive”, as though that were a contemptible aim for a true revolutionary. The anti-racism of front groups like East London Workers Against Racism was irresponsible, since it promised a protection against racist attacks it was quite unable to provide. Eventually the group moved rapidly to the right. It is important to examine not only its motivation, but its finances.
During my 50 years in the IS/SWP I undoubtedly made many mistakes and misjudgements. There is much I still need to rethink. But, as far as expelling the Right Faction is concerned, I have no regrets - absolutely none.
The vast majority of working people have only the vaguest notions about the far left. When one group discredits itself - the Workers Revolutionary Party implosion, the SWP debacle of 2013 or the current antics of the ex-RCP - it does not mean they transfer their favours to a ‘superior’ tendency: we are all damaged. The bell tolls for all of us.
“The difference is that the Yaffe tendency said it was going to be the ‘third world’ and its various leaders who were going to be the revolutionary agency - sub-Maoism in some respects. For the Yaffeites, breaking with orthodox Marxism, the British working class had no revolutionary role to play - it was just a matter of offering up solidarity with the ‘third world’, the anti-apartheid movement acting as an illustration.”
So says Eddie Ford (‘Arise, Lady Fox’, August 6). The Weekly Worker is fond of using labels - a trait it shares with much of the left, which variously describes the Revolutionary Communist Group as Stalinist, neo-Stalinist, crypto-Stalinist, Trotskyist, pseudo-Trotskyist, head cases, headbangers, ultra-left, ultra-Castroists ... and, of course, ‘third-worldist’.
Labels serve a purpose: to suppress political thought or argument. After all, what is Maoism? What is sub-Maoism? What is it with the qualification, “in some respects”? What are these respects? Who knows - and, no, there is no evidence that Ford has a clue either. But then he would have equal difficulty in showing where the RCG ‘breaks with orthodox Marxism’ - where? On what questions? Or proving his claim that we have ever said or implied that “the British working class had no revolutionary role to play” - for the very simple reason that we never have. One could say he is lying, but that would do him an injustice, since he clearly has not bothered to read any of our material from the period.
The issues that underpin the split with those who were to form the Revolutionary Communist Party (after we expelled them, incidentally) were not that of “offering up solidarity with the ‘third world’”, as Ford idly claims, but how to relate to debates that were taking place within that section of the working class which followed the Communist Party of Great Britain at the time. This was when the CPGB was a sizeable organisation with significant influence in the left of the Labour Party as well, not the small sect it is now. The future RCP thought that such engagement was irrelevant and anyway (of course) a capitulation to ‘Stalinism’.
The RCG understood the opposite, seeing it as vital for revolutionaries to intervene where the most advanced working class debates were taking place - ones about key questions, such as the dictatorship of the proletariat, the nature of the Labour Party and so on. It was part of a process the RCG went through, as it retrieved Lenin’s understandings of imperialism, the divisions in the working class and the rights of nations to self-determination - all driven by practical problems faced in building support for the Irish liberation movement. Now, Ford may dismiss this as “sub-Maoism”, but these problems were posed by the existence of an armed working class insurrection in the north of Ireland, on which the left had to take a stance, and overwhelmingly chose not to. Perhaps, then, Marx’s stance on the Fenian movement and the contemporaneous liberation struggle - his view that the English working class could achieve nothing unless it severed the connection with Ireland - was also a very early manifestation of what Ford would 150 years later call ‘sub-Maoism’.
By the time of the 1979 general election, we were able to lead a public campaign against the Labour Party over its criminalisation of the Irish republican struggle, its implementation of immigration controls and its indifference to the police use of ‘sus’ laws to harass black youth. We did this not because we had ‘written off’ the British working class, but precisely the opposite: we could see that black and Irish workers were turning against Labour, disgusted by its racism and imperialism, and organisations such as the Asian Youth Movements were giving expression to this. The RCG now saw the Labour Party as it really was, is and can only be - a racist, imperialist, anti-working class party.
Given Ford’s appreciation of Revolutionary Communist Papers (“quite interesting”, he writes) he would have had access to an internal RCG discussion document, which appeared in the first issue. It is very underdeveloped, compared to what we were able to say a short time later: for instance, in the editorial to Revolutionary Communist No9. But it does argue against the CPGB’s unjustifiable belief that “the Labour Party can be won away from rightwing capitalist influence towards progressive policies” (RCP No1, p56). Presumably for Ford this would be an example of our “increasing prostration” before the ‘official’ CPGB (‘He who pays the piper’ Weekly Worker December 13 2018) - or was it an example of our constant battle against the CPGB’s reactionary position on Ireland?
Fast forward more than 40 years and what do we read? The current CPGB’s Jack Conrad saying: “… if the Labour Party and the trade unions are to be transformed into vehicles for socialism, then we need a mass Communist Party” (‘Marxists and the Labour Party’, April 9 2020). The more things change, the more it seems they stay the same. The thesis that Labour can become a vehicle for socialism or social progress is as reactionary now as it ever has been. Maintaining this position as the crisis deepens will inevitably force its adherents to cross class lines.
The use of the single transferrable vote (STV) for the Labour Party national executive committee elections in October has caused a great deal of confusion amongst members, many of whom are unfamiliar with this method. This confusion is being exploited by influential backers of the Centre Left Grassroots Alliance (CLGA) slate in an attempt to deny support to other leftwing candidates.
Nobody was surprised when the right won both seats in the NEC by-election earlier this year. There were at least six left candidates and, because that election used the familiar first-past-the-post system (FPTP), the left’s votes were scattered, guaranteeing defeat.
The switch from FPTP to STV for the October vote removes this problem totally. Transfers guarantee that votes for losing candidates are not wasted, and the nine elected will broadly represent the relative strengths of the left and right within the party. STV means that the slate discipline of old is no longer required, and provides the opportunity for genuine leftwingers to stand against soft-left careerists without fear of letting in the right.
The traditional left caucusing organisations like Momentum, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and the Labour Representation Committee responded to the by-election defeat by burying the hatchet and resurrecting the infamous CLGA to impose a slate on the left. This mysterious body is a hangover from when slates were selected in smoke-filled rooms and deals were brokered in the gents. Nothing much has changed. There was no membership input into the selection of the CLGA slate this time, nor are there published minutes of the deliberations. How can they expect this contempt for democracy to be acceptable amongst socialists?
But it gets worse. When they realised that STV facilitates candidates to the left of their ‘safe six’, with members free to prioritise as they choose, supporters of the CLGA resorted to misinformation to keep the sheep together. Hence Diane Abbott tweeted: “Make sure you vote for the left slate … Anything else is just handing seats on the NEC to the right.”
The Labour Left Alliance has produced a chart that lists the various left candidates in the NEC election, and indicates where they stand on key issues, such as supporting open selection of MPs and rejecting the IHRA misdefinition of anti-Semitism. It can be viewed at the website, labourleft.org. This makes it easy for leftwing voters to prioritise the best candidates, when ordering their preferences. The publication of this chart has incensed those behind the CLGA slate, whose candidates failed to respond to the LLA’s questions and stayed away from their online hustings. Instead they hope to corral support for the ‘safe six’ by pandering to ignorance regarding the voting system.
As always with Labour, nothing is straightforward. The FPTP method is still being used in the nominations phase of the election, which is underway now. Constituency Labour Parties are holding online meetings to make nominations for the nine places. Each candidate will require five CLP nominations to make it through to the actual ballot. So for these meetings it is still possible that too many left candidates could allow the right to win all nine nominations. Depending on local circumstances, it may be necessary for comrades to promote just three non-CLGA left candidates. The important thing for now is to get genuine leftwingers onto the ballot paper in October.
As an independent Marxist commentator, I can well understand Dave Vincent’s pessimism and demoralisation after retiring following 35 years’ service as a PCS union branch secretary.
Being a civil servant and member of the PCS is a bit like being a police officer and member of the Police Federation - one has to be very careful what one says and does because of the constraints and straitjacket associated with being an employee of the state. My experience of the civil service, the health service and local government is that - counter-intuitively - most long-term permanent employees of the state are Tory voters, given their job security and financial security, not to mention their pensions.
Dave is demoralised that so many former Corbyn supporters are now supporters of Sir Keir Starmer. This is no surprise to me. My experience of the former Corbynistas and now Starmerites in Fenland is that most of them are just middle class liberals, not socialists. Dave concludes his letter with the call for a new workers’ party, in which its parliamentary candidates are selected by constituencies, not party HQ, and that they stand for a socialist programme and will live, if elected, on a workers’ wage. I agree wholeheartedly.
Where will such a workers’ party come from though? I think the spark for such a party will come from a split from the Labour Party, led by a former Labour MP or small group of Labour MPs who have had the whip taken away from them. The experience of the split of the Independent Labour Party in 1931 from the Labour Party has a wealth of lessons for Marxists today. The ILP split at the wrong time and for the wrong reason, but it did take 30,000 Labour Party members with it.
At the time, some Trotskyists did not see the importance of the split. It was only after the ‘French turn’, where Trotskyists were advised by Trotsky to enter the French Socialist Party, that some in Britain entered the ILP. The Trotskyists were too late entering the ILP and too few to affect its direction, which was wavering between revolution and left reformism - commonly known by Marxists as ‘centrism’. However, the Stalinists of the CPGB had no qualms about entering the ILP and, following the popular front line of Stalin, stopped it from moving in a revolutionary direction. This led eventually to the gradual decline and death of the ILP.
The Canary website has recently quoted unnamed sources that, once the Equality and Human Rights Commission publishes its report into anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer will withdraw the whip from Jeremy Corbyn. There are many socialists in and out the Labour Party who would join a new leftwing party. They will be joined by expelled socialists, Chris Williamson, Jackie Walker, Marc Wadsworth, Tony Greenstein, Ken Livingston, and others, who are currently in the political wilderness.
The above thesis contrasts with the thinking of the CPGB PCC, which sees the Labour Party as a united front of a special kind - a bit like a trade union - that can be won to a Marxist leadership. This idea - given the experience of Corbynism - is like living in cloud-cuckoo land. Instead, the CPGB PCC and Labour Party Marxists should be preparing for and working for a split from the Labour Party on similar lines to the Independent Labour Party in 1931. The tipping point will be the removal of the whip from Jeremy Corbyn by Starmer.
Larry Elliott, economics editor of The Guardian, wrote in The Observer (August 2) an article asking why the Tories are still ahead in the polls and why Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour is not doing better, given the mass redundancies coming along the track. This can easily be explained by looking at the performance of social democratic parties in Europe. The French Socialist Party and the Greek Pasok and the German Social Democrats are imploding, because they are reformist parties without reforms.
In Britain, Starmer, just like the trade union leaders, has gone to sleep. In seeking to be a ‘loyal opposition’ and stooge of US imperialism, Starmer just agrees with everything that Boris Johnson does - apart from minor criticism, which does not cost too much. Whereas opinion poll after opinion poll show that 70% of people want a wealth tax on the rich and super-rich to pay for the Covid-19 bailouts and borrowing, Starmer and his shadow cabinet have set the Labour Party against it. Sir Keir’s ‘long game’ will not pay off. Labour’s refusal to support a second referendum in Scotland means that north of the border Labour is toast. Similarly, Labour now has little support outside London and the university cities.
Dave Vincent is right to warn of the danger of a new far-right party led by a charismatic populist leader, which would sweep up working class support from those angry about mass Covid-19 unemployment, evictions, food banks, homelessness and the level of benefits. In addition to the fallout from Covid-19 mass redundancies, we have a no-deal Brexit coming along the track on December 31 this year. There are also 250,000 families at immediate risk of homelessness due to being evicted for Covid-19 rent arrears.
Mass poverty, unemployment, homelessness, a no-deal Brexit, together with the prospect of 100,000 dying in a second Covid-19 wave, is a toxic mix. This is why, as Dave Vincent points out, we need a new workers’ party - a communist party.
Readers will have seen the gut-wrenching film of the small explosion and huge flames, followed by a further massive explosion that seemed to engulf the whole city of Beirut on August 4. We then had the heart-rending stories of the survivors and relatives. As the facts came out, it was almost unbelievable: about 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse for six years - and then stored alongside a quantity of fireworks! This looks at first sight like stupidity on an epic scale.
Further, the authorities (who seem to be fighting to stay nameless) were warned continuously by port workers of the danger the explosives posed. And the crowds on the streets were blaming not stupidity, but corruption - and they know their government. There were days of protest that shut down the country in October last year.
A couple of years ago Robert Fisk, The Independent journalist who writes much about the country, described the “destruction of entire mountains” in Lebanon. They were being reduced or cleared, largely for quarrying. Nobody around wanted this to happen, but there was nothing they could do about it: even if quarrying was illegal there was nobody to stop it and, as he wrote at the time, “Greed, corruption, poverty and a shameful, selfish, confessional government are to blame.” The poverty, by the way, was of those who just needed work - any work - to survive. But the greed and corruption seemed to be pretty much universal.
When the Maltese journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, was blown up in 2017, I thought, this is one of the smallest countries in the world and she was murdered for pursuing corruption in her government. I wondered, is there any country in the world whose leaders are not mired in corruption? There are those whose names have come up for decades or more in this vein: Italy, Mexico and Nigeria spring to mind - there are plenty more.
But, what about the UK? Empty mansions in the most exclusive parts of the capital are witness to the role of the UK in both laundering and holding the proceeds of crooks and oligarchs (or is that just crooks?) from all over the world. And the USA? Nicholas Shaxson’s Treasure islands: tax havens and the men who stole the world (2011) is an exploration of tax and wealth havens around the globe. The Cayman Islands are notorious, but there are plenty more.
Shaxson is informed, as he tells us in the first chapter of the book, that “the most important tax haven in the world is an island” and he goes on: “The name of the island is Manhattan”. Further, while we’re on the subject, “the second most-important tax haven in the world is located on an island. It is a city called London in the United Kingdom.” So, the world is not short of corrupt governments.
But, the world’s hegemon, the USA, is never satisfied that there are enough. One of the most recent victims of this never-ending greed and corruption is Bolivia. A fake challenge to an honest election and the winner is driven out of the country, to be replaced by the military and an oh-so-honest neoliberal, rightwing, religious nutter - heaven sent for late capitalism.
Some months ago, The Guardian had a series of articles on, as they called it, the “new populism”. It was, in my view, a pretty pathetic performance, but they looked at Trump, Erdoğan, Orbán, Berlusconi and others and at just how ‘populist’ their speeches were. Readers will be relieved to note that Tony Blair wasn’t populist at all in this survey. They told us that “Populists tend to frame politics as a battle between the virtuous ‘ordinary’ masses and a nefarious or corrupt elite - and insist that the general will of the people must always triumph.”
So we have “virtuous ‘ordinary’ masses” on one side and, on the other “a nefarious or corrupt elite” in this new, and disturbing, political bifurcation. Clearly it is this sort of delusion that leads to Trump, Bolsonaro, Johnson and co. There was even some attempt to quantify the ‘populism’ of the speeches of political leaders. One thing missing in the whole series, as far as I could make out, was any attempt to quantify or order the actual, real corruption in any of the countries examined.
One would have thought that this might be quite important. The ‘people’ think that the ‘elite’ is corrupt. Well, are they right? I would suggest that, yes, they are. Trouble is, voting for ‘populists’ is only going to make things worse. Mind you, choosing between the ‘populist’ Trump and the ‘unpopulist’ Biden might be a hard one.
The streets of Beirut have erupted in wholly justified rage and the government has resigned already. There may be some sacrificial victims among politicians or officials, but, without a mass movement of the working class in the whole region, we must fear the dead-end conclusion of, for instance, the ‘Arab spring’ in Egypt.
There is plenty of rage, and it’s all over the world, but we still need the organisation and leadership that alone can make change happen.
I seek to challenge one of the historical shibboleths of the Marxist left from the perspective of a paleoconservative libertarian, if I may be so bold.
We must nationalise the commanding heights of the economy, proclaims the Marxist. We must take into public ownership the leading corporations that have strategic control over the productive sectors of the economy. As the evidential basis has identified through economic crisis after economic crisis, the need for wholesale nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy is a theoretical and practical absurdity that has no methodology in rational thought.
The decision to nationalise the Bank of England in 1948 by the post-war Labour government spearheaded by Clement Attlee continues to pinpoint the actual problems that the British economy faces even today. Since the development of the modern economy in the Victorian times, if not before, it has been the banking system and its control by unaccountable private bankers that has had the biggest influence over the direction of the British economy. I will direct Weekly Worker readers to the 1844 Bank Charter Act that enshrined the sovereign right of the Bank of England to issue banknotes.
The fundamental flaw of that act was the failure to include within the parameters of regulation the creation of bank deposits through bookkeeping entries being made in the bank ledger. Since the electronic and digitalisation of the banking system the creation of debt through fractional reserve lending has created the long-standing problem of boom and bust that has destabilised the economic fortunes of every single individual citizen in our country.
According to the Bank of England’s monetary analysis directorate, “In the modern economy, most money takes the form of bank deposits. But how those bank deposits are created is often misunderstood: the principal way is through commercial banks making loans. Whenever a bank makes a loan, it simultaneously creates a matching deposit in the borrower’s bank account, thereby creating new money.”
Lenin wrote: “This raising of prices involves a new chaotic increase in the issuing of paper money, a further increase in the cost of living, increased financial disorganisation and the approach of financial collapse. Everybody admits that the issuing of paper money constitutes the worst form of compulsory loan, that it most of all affects the conditions of the workers, of the poorest section of the population, and that it is the chief evil engendered by financial disorder.”
Now that the central instrument of economic disorder has been identified - the banking system - can we at last dispense with the illusionary premise that nationalisation is a policy priority for the proletariat, when in fact it is the control over money and the creation of money through the banking system that must be brought under effective democratic control.
The regulation of the ability of banking institutions to create new money through bank deposits electronically is the only real policy that must be implemented. A theoretical and practical solution to the problem of the boom-and-bust business cycle that leading economists of the libertarian right, such as Friedrich Von Hayek, Milton Friedman and Murray Rothbard have supported, as well as Marxist theoreticians over many decades.
The technical lack of knowledge about who controls the economy has been one of the theoretical and practical failures that has long bugged paleoconservative libertarians like myself who are also opposed to international capitalism and the control over national governments and national economies by a cabal of international bankers, who use the flaws in parliamentary legislation to create and profit from the boom-and-bust cycle.
Instead of taxing the profits of private banks, why doesn’t the government just tax them less on profits and simply sell them the raw materials in the first place? It would have collected far more revenue if this policy had been in operation since the nationalisation of the Bank of England. It can be done, and similar policies have been advocated by those economists known as free marketers, such as Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard and Friedrich Von Hayek.
Let the anti-capitalist left and the anti-monopoly capitalist libertarian right join forces to dismantle the corrupt influence of big government and big banking that has wrecked the economic fortunes of the ordinary citizen through disturbing the day-to-day economy of the proletariat.
I welcome, as always, responsive dialogue from Weekly Worker correspondents.