Derek James of Labour Party Marxists has given us a useful report of the decision of the Labour Party’s national executive committee to proscribe four socialist groups - Labour in Exile Network, Labour Against the Witchhunt, Chris Williamson’s Resist and Socialist Appeal (‘Sir Keir’s road to Brighton’, July 22).
Correctly, the comrade also mentions the “firm response” of rank-and-file members that saw organisations like Jewish Voice for Labour, LAW, LIEN, the Labour Left Alliance, Labour Party Marxists, the Labour Representation Committee, Socialist Appeal and Socialist Resistance move to quickly organise a militant, 200-strong demonstration outside Labour’s London HQ on July 20 - the day the axe was to fall. But there was a particularly odd form of petty sectarianism exhibited by one of the organisations caught up in the Starmer purge - Socialist Appeal.
SA provided a welcome contingent. Their mostly young comrades spoke well and, on a personal basis, were friendly enough. However, it seems to be a political obligation - no doubt stipulated by their leadership - to refuse to take the publications of other political tendencies. Thus, a comrade giving out copies of the Weekly Worker was doing a brisk trade … but ran into a brick wall when he approached SAers.
He described it to me like this. “They didn’t crack. They smiled; they weren’t frothing and aggressive, but they would not talk. They didn’t even want to say anything about the next moves of the action that they were currently on! Although pressed, they offered no ideas on where next for the fight against the expulsions. They smiled, but apparently didn’t have any opinions to offer. Or rather, they were waiting to be told what would happen next.”
I suppose this is marginally better than the Socialist Workers Party’s pathetic hostility to other leftwingers … along with the threat of violence not far beneath the surface. However, if anything the SA’s variant of this sectarian eccentricity is slightly more creepy - their members smile, are polite, but apparently have no ideas of their own to offer. We could dub them the ‘Stepford Trots’, perhaps.
This should be odd on the left, when you think about it. I’m typical of most leftwingers when it comes to marches and other events we organise. I stagger home post-demo weighed down by leaflets, pamphlets and papers - including some that might be regarded as a bit esoteric. Thus, you would think that a cohort of young SA members - still relatively new to the Marxist left - would be positively eager to read, think about and get outraged by the different political tendencies hawking their brands.
Alas, no. Unfortunately, this sort of wilful political ignorance seems to be in the marrow of the SA and similar organisations. It is not, however, anything to do with the true culture of Marxism, let alone the inquisitive, challenging nature of youth. Sadly, this apolitical, dumbed-down sectarianism has been taught to them by their leaders.
A personal example here. I remember being on a demo in the mid-90s, where SA had a decent showing. I was explicitly told by some of the more open and naive SA youngsters I approached with my clutch of Weekly Workers that they had been strongly warned by older cadre not to “waste our time” reading other groups’ material. They relayed this to me in a friendly, relaxed, non-antagonistic way. They simply knew it was right. They were energetic and full of confidence. They didn’t seem to be nervously glancing over their shoulders in case leading SAer Alan Woods was bearing down on them with steam screaming out of his ears and SA orthodoxy out of his mouth. They simply were not interested in any set of ideas.
I’d be interested if other readers have any views on this. I should emphasise that I don’t single Socialist Appeal out as the worst of the offenders. In relative terms, SA is comparatively civilised. Many moons past, I earwigged an SWP hack breathlessly explaining to a few of their young recruits that they should never interact with the Weekly Worker under any circumstances, as we are Stalinists, racists, Islamophobes and likely to be in the pay of the state. With the SWP, these sorts of crude verbal provocations are not infrequently preludes to physical attacks, as many comrades from a wide variety of political backgrounds will testify.
A defining feature of left political sects is the way they confine and regulate the reading/areas of interest of the membership. This doesn’t have to be explicitly censorial in a crude way. Take the SWP’s Alex Callinicos. The rank and file are disciplined by the exhausting imperative of the next crucial demo, the next ‘really, really’ important meeting, etc. If you question for a moment the political content of the work that SWP grunts are undertaking, you become a problem. Indeed, if the intervention is a flop - you become the problem. That is, the person who helped bugger up this hugely important initiative, making you culpable for a new wave of awful things happening in the world.
This culture explains why the SWP has such a dizzy turnover rate and why some of the meekest and mildest of people you will ever meet in our movement have been hounded out of the organisation, pursued by curses and threats.
As far as SA is concerned, however, I think it’s a combination of things: peer pressure; the imperatives of day-to-day work; a deference to a more experienced leadership with a long genealogy to draw on and which projects itself as loyal to the right dead Russians, implacably against the wrong dead Russians, etc. These cultural prohibitions are internalised: members self-censor as a reflection of their loyalty to the ‘party’ (which, in turn, is projected as loyalty to revolutionary continuity, the Russian Revolution, the future of humankind, etc). Put another way, loyalty to the group becomes loyalty to Marxism itself.
This insularity can manifest itself in mildly absurd foolishness, such as the Socialist Appeal comrades being taught that it is a misdemeanour (at least) to read the material of other left political organisations. However, while the SA’s culture is no way as unhealthy as the SWP’s or the (now defunct?) Spartacists, it is still a species of sectarianism. As I mentioned, Socialist Appeal is just one of the four organisations proscribed by the Labour leadership. Yet the statement released by SA condemning Starmer’s attack neglected to name any organisation that had been barred as part of the gathering attack on the left as a whole.
An oversight? Sadly not, I fear. The leaders of the sects that litter our political landscape seem to think if they don’t mention rivals and don’t engage with their ideas in any meaningful way, this makes their sect stronger. In fact, they bring the whole notion of Marxism into disrepute.
I am grateful to Gerry Downing and Jim Nelson for their letters (August 5) in response to mine (July 29).
However, I think both Gerry and Jim miss the significance of my comments on Oleg Khlevniuk’s research and book. The whole ‘Kirov leading a moderate opposition to Stalin’ line was the basis of the counterfactual argument against the central case that the so-called Great Purge 1937-38 was primarily about taking out internal and external enemies prior to the war in 1941. It was adopted wholesale by western Sovietologists, historians and, it seems, Trotskyists as well.
Much to my personal disappointment - as I said, I might have supported such a moderate, democratic, consolidationist opposition - Khlevniuk finds no evidence whatsoever for any of this theory’s key elements. So, if the main accepted ‘explanation’ of the Great Purge falls away, what is left?
Although I reject Khlevniuk’s anti-Sovietism and anti-communism, I am bound, given his research and evidence, to accept his overall conclusion that the Great Purge was brought about precisely because of the deteriorating international situation and the need to take out the Nazi and fascist fifth columns, which had been cultivated prior to the invasion. Yes, Stalin also used this as an opportunity to consolidate his own personal power by purging the upper and middle ranks of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. But we need to separate out the primary purpose of the Great Purge - to root out genuine external and internal enemies - from the secondary purpose used by Stalin to consolidate his power.
Simple fact: there were no fifth columns and limited internal counterrevolutionary opposition by the time Germany invaded in 1941. So, had they never existed, contrary to Nazi German practice on every other single occasion, to weaken from within, soften up, stoke up internal conflict and division, countries targeted for invasion? Or had they in fact been destroyed, as Khlevniuk reluctantly concludes, through the Great Purge?
At the time, there was considerable international acceptance that the Moscow trials in the late 30s were genuine and the defendants guilty as charged. Even Bukharin supported the verdicts and sentences against Kamenev and Zinoviev! There was no evidence that the defendants had been subject to any form of physical abuse, nor drugged, hypnotised or not in full possession of their faculties. Could they have been in any doubt whatsoever that, should they be found guilty of conspiring with the external enemy to overthrow the Soviet regime prior to invasion, they would be sentenced to the supreme penalty? The notion they confessed under promises of clemency is laughable.
Gerry claims there is no evidence of the external conspiracies and the fifth columns in the Soviet files. This is simply not true. As Slava Katamidze writes, “To believe that the majority of those imprisoned or shot by the NKVD in those years are ‘innocent’ is offensive to the memory of the dead, because it downplays the importance of the whole underground movement that had taken place and was growing day by day in Soviet Russia” (Loyal comrades, ruthless killers: the secret services of the USSR 1917-1991 Cheltenham 2003, p52). Opposition to the ruling party and regime took various forms. Besides the political struggle in the party and the soviets, there was collaboration with émigré White forces and cooperation with foreign intelligence services. Sections of the population regarded the Bolsheviks as having “carried out a hostile and cruel occupation of their land and resorted to acts of sabotage and wrecking of industrial and agricultural equipment” (p42). This book utilises precisely officially released Soviet and Russian files, plus extensive interviews with Soviet commanders, western and Soviet spies and first-hand accounts from those involved.
The commission of the CPSU central committee set up by Mikhail Gorbachev with the intention of finding Bukharin innocent was unable to find any evidence of innocence at all. The February 1988 decree of the Soviet supreme court which declared Bukharin innocent, including the claim that he had been forced to make a false confession, has never been published and remains secret to this day. Surely if the commission had found no evidence either of guilt or innocence, this would have been published? Why the continued secrecy?
Gerry quotes a long diatribe against Grover Furr. So what? Did I mention Furr? I am not a fan of Furr and have only read one of his many books, Khrushchev lied. I first heard Khrushchev’s speech as a young boy and recall being shocked by the devastating facts: eg, that “of the 139 members and candidates of the central committee who were elected at the 17th Congress, 98 persons - ie, 70% - were arrested and shot (mostly in 1937-1938). The same fate met not only central committee members, but also the majority of the delegates to the 17th Party Congress. Of 1,966 delegates with either voting or advisory rights, 1,108 persons were arrested on charges of anti-revolutionary crimes.” I naively thought Furr, as claimed in the cover, would disprove all of Khrushchev’s allegations, but he just accepts all this was factual.
For me, this was Stalin’s personal power grab carried out on the back of the centralised operations targeted at the enemies of Soviet power. The Great Purge was deliberately back-drafted into the party and this was the genuinely tragic part of the whole episode. The coup d’état was never completed, however. I think Stalin never intended to remove the CPSU - just make it subordinate to his personal will. His plans to purge the older leadership through the creation of a much larger political bureau at the 19th CPSU Congress in 1952 showed he still worked within the party. Khrushchev’s ultimate rise to personal power was on the back of his position as first secretary of the party against the other military, security and industrial power centres, which one might have assumed were dominant.
Gerry quotes Stalin’s interview in 1936. So Mr Stalin in an interview with the western press did not openly declare he was in favour of the overthrow of ‘their’ imperialism and capitalism! Devastating … not! He would have been pretty foolish and reckless to have done so, neither of which Stalin was. Plus, he had a very wry sense of humour. Remember the comment about British socialism being possible under the head of a hereditary feudal/aristocratic monarchy? Oh, sorry, Gerry, you think he was serious!
Boris and miners
Given the destruction and virtual proscription of the coal industry and the end of the National Union of Mineworkers as a functioning union, Boris doubtless thought he could get away with a quick dance on our graves without comeback.
What the buffoon didn’t realise is that the coal communities are still there and form the bedrock of many former industrial areas of the north, and Wales and Scotland. These communities are the most impoverished and neglected communities of the entire country - and that entirely due to the 10 years of pit closures launched by Thatcher and Major. The struggles against those closures and in defence of the community and trade unionism are still very much alive in the coalfield areas, the attacks on miners being the most important part of many people’s legacy, which lives on in the deprivation of children and even grandchildren. So, claiming the industrial genocide of the Thatcher period as a victory for ecology and a greener necessary step to a brave new world was always going to be explosive.
But this was no ‘easy kep’ for Labour, who have tried like hell to put as much clear green water between where they stand now on industry, coal, steel, manufacture and all that dirty stuff and where they purported to back then. I’m surprised they didn’t respond by saying, ‘But we closed more pits than you, and we did nothing to save them in 13 years and have blocked the sole endeavour to reopen one.’ So they confined themselves to the ‘insensitivity’ of boasting about the closures, not questioning the logic or necessity of that programme. Instead, they challenged the fact that Maggie’s war on the miners was purely against trade unionism and nothing to do with green agendas. But is that true?
In 1974 a Tory think tank had sat down to draw up a strategy of disarming and taming the NUM (Labour did the same, but that is another, if related, story). The result was the Ridley plan of 1978. The relevant part of that programme was to recognise that something in the order of 90% of the power grid was coal-powered, and that coal power was mined and supplied by 100% militant union miners. Breaking the power of the miners as strategic suppliers of power to all industry was crucial. At the time the only alternative to coal power, was (and to large extent still is) nuclear energy. But nuclear was deeply unpopular. It seems unbelievable now, but Greenpeace and the Green Party stood in alliance with the NUM in supporting coal power - albeit our plans for clean coal power against nuclear energy. We had a joint organisation which was pro coal and anti-nuke called ‘Energy 2000’.
Thatcher was alive to the new global catastrophe of CO2 and global warming theories, which were starting to emerge. She saw in these the way to beat coal and crank up if not a love of, then an acceptance of, nuclear energy as a bright, clean energy source, which incidentally would break the near monopoly of coal power and with it the power of the NUM. They haven’t looked back, with leading greens becoming the new disciples of nuclear and the great enemies of all things coal. The irony was that, while the public attack on the coal industry was largely based around some dubious economic evaluations about ‘unprofitable’ coal mines, the cost of nuclear energy was never a consideration - nor was the environmental cost and potential for mass disaster.
The Greens rapidly targeted coal as public enemy number one, and when we now demonstrate for the revival of at least essntial steel coal mines, it is invariably the Greens we find demonstrating against the mines and miners’ jobs. We chant about them being “Maggie Thatcher’s fan club”. So in short the link is there. It’s just that its an embarrassment for Labour, who have now embraced the whole climate CO2 anti-industry formulae and don’t wish to see their energy policy linked to Thatcher. But it is.
This comes at a time when Boris has just rejected the all-party parliamentary committee findings on the government theft of £4.4 billion of the miners pension fund and decided that, whatever he thinks of the miners, he loves the pension money that should belong to us.
So how will this play out in his ‘red wall’ seats? Not well. Already there are screams from the new wave of Tory MPs in coalfield and industrial seats. This traditional ‘Stamp on the workers’, ‘Bash the miners’ stuff has revived old hatreds, which in reality never went away. Only the most anti-working class, liberal cretin thinks that those fools who voted Tory last time actually had become Tories or supported them in any way. The working class vote for the Tories was in fact a vote against ‘remain’ Labour and a second referendum, which the liberals and the Blairites had imposed on the party and the election programme. It sent Jeremy to certain political death - and maybe in part that was its intention. The idea was to ditch the traditional working class horny-handed sons and daughters of toil and industry and concentrate on a new, liberal middle class, ‘remain’, woke constituency.
In theory after this debacle Labour could have far more raw class war meat to stir up the traditional areas, but could they sustain it, while expelling the members and tendencies of the left with any sincerity or conviction? Doubtful.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has, of course, just hoyed another log on the fire of man-made climate change, so maybe Maggie will be seen even more as a visionary. What is certain in my view is that if you wish to reduce CO2 emissions, it cannot and will not be done by stopping coal production and consumption. Coal is the goose that lays the golden eggs of social and economic development for billions of impoverished and underdeveloped peoples and countries. China, India, Indochina, Africa ... So the only solution to that conundrum is clean-coal technology and carbon capture and storage (CCS).
The Don Valley plan for Hatfield Main colliery had the capacity to generate the cheapest power in the country with coal and a CCS system which removed 100% of CO2 emissions plus 90% of all others. The Chinese were very interested in adopting this technology and the result of that would have been a virtual end to the problem. But the Tories pulled the plug on it and walked away.
Clean coal is still coal, and it would be mined by union miners and that was and is the target: not so much CO2.
David John Douglass
Keep ’em out
In a gushing letter Pete McLaren exhibits a big virtue signal (August 5). Apparently Rugby Trade Unionist and Socialist Alliance - what, all six of them? - deplore Rugby council’s decision not to welcome ‘asylum-seekers’ with open arms. The overwhelming majority of these people are not asylum-seekers in any meaningful way - the current influx of boaters from France, for instance. Only in the mind of the regressive left can France be deemed an unsafe environment.
In Leicester a long-term national scandal is the garment industry, mainly controlled by organised crime, where workers are being paid as little as £1.50 an hour. Nail bars and car wash businesses are also notorious for paying ludicrously low wages. A problem here is that many of these outfits are owned by immigrants and critics do not want to be called ‘racist’. Shades of the Muslim rape gang scandal.
Whether he likes it or not McLaren is acting as an apologist for people-traffickers, drug-dealers and ruthless organised crime. Instead of his Potemkin Village Tusc he needs to start thinking about the consequences of his words. Allowing in yet more immigrants will reduce wages even further.
Immigration will be a major issue immune to the cackling of the ‘left’ about open borders. It is quite obvious that within a perhaps shorter period than we might imagine we will experience mass internal migration, as global warming makes many parts of Britain uninhabitable. Will these people be given priority over external immigrants?! Whole countries may literally disappear, creating many millions of climate refugees. Is the plan to allow all of these people into Europe, thereby destroying the continent itself, or will at least some of us be able to face up to reality? The ‘Love and peace, we love everybody’ message is fine for the vacuous celebrities, but in the real world just will not cut it.
It seems that comrade Eddie Ford has gone over to a climate change version of the ‘abandon ship’ theory (‘At the tipping point’, August 5). I have previously argued that, “barring nuclear war, the coming energy crisis will force the ruling class to begin the process of abandoning capitalism, in the same way that people abandon a sinking ship which cannot be saved” (Letters, September 4 2020). And now comrade Ford asks, can the bourgeoisie be forced to adopt climate socialism?
These are important questions. Whether the bourgeoisie are forced to break with capitalism because of an energy crisis, as I suggest in the abandon ship theory, or whether it is a climate crisis which forces the break is actually a secondary question. The important thing to remember is that there are no laws of history which say that the bourgeoisie, or the elite, can’t break with capitalism and go over to socialism of one sort or another.
Ford argues that the ruling class have no problem with state intervention, and points to the “war socialism” of the German high command in 1916, and Britain’s version of it during World War II, when Labour members of the National Government exercised tremendous powers on the home front to intervene in the economy. This point is important, because an energy or climate crisis would lead to a wartime-like situation, especially in the case of the former.
The ‘abandon ship’ theory is based on Marx’s argument in the Communist manifesto that during a serious crisis of the system a small section of the ruling class turns left and joins the revolutionary class. However, writing in the 19th century, Marx wasn’t aware that capitalism could face a serious energy or climate crisis, which would force the supporters of capitalism and the free market to abandon the system. What the theory does is to turn Marx’s argument about a small section of the ruling class breaking from capitalism into its opposite: most will break from it.
If we treat Marxism as a religion rather than as a product of dialectical reasoning, it may be hard for some to envisage the bourgeoisie breaking from capitalism and adopting socialism. The bourgeoisie, like everything else, is also subject to dialectical laws: ie, contradiction and the transformation of something into its opposite. This is how it’s possible to envisage the bourgeoisie breaking with capitalism and going over to socialism if the situation is serious and protracted enough.
I would argue that if it is possible for the bourgeoisie to abandon capitalism, this would change the relationship between the working class and the bourgeoisie - from an antagonistic contradiction, as Mao would say, to a relationship which becomes a non-antagonistic contradiction. But class collaboration is nothing new and can take either a negative or positive form. For instance, we had class collaboration in Britain to see off the Nazi threat, and rightly so - although no doubt there would have been some ultra-leftists preaching a plague on both your houses: ie, ‘revolutionary defeatism’.
What we can say for certain is that the system is due to face the greatest crisis since the industrial revolution. The choice facing the bourgeoisie will be either to progressively abandon capitalism or face societal collapse. This is unlikely to be like the French revolution, where reforms started quite peacefully, but soon faced increasing resistance from the aristocracy, thus triggering the violence and bloodshed which followed. Which class today is going to defend private ownership of the means of production, when it no longer works?
If the ‘abandon ship’ theory works, we will face a reform-revolution process and the British road to socialism is likely to be through parliamentary democracy, with the Labour Party playing the key role. Thus winning this party and the general population to support democratic socialism is the most important task. In the case of the working class we are pushing against an open door, which Lenin realised when he wrote in What is to be done?: it is spontaneously social democratic (ie, socialist).
The problem for the left is that socialism, like society as a whole, contains two basic tendencies: a totalitarian, bureaucratic tendency and a democratic tendency. This is the main contradiction and in every socialist revolution these two tendencies fight for ascendancy, with the bureaucratic tendency usually winning the struggle for various reasons, including the lack of a democratic tradition in the society concerned. What we need to remember is that if events force the bourgeoisie to break from capitalism, this class may well serve to reinforce the bureaucratic tendency, which already exists within socialism.
This makes it even more important for communists to argue the case for a democratic socialist society, because the only alternative is a totalitarian, bureaucratic form of socialism - the point Orwell was making in 1984. In that book the totalitarian tendency won, but the totalitarianism in Orwell’s novel is a small fare compared to what is possible now with the advance of technology.
For a Democratic Socialist Society