As a postscript to my article, ‘Under false colours’ (June 9), I would like to further comment on the recent elections to Momentum’s top body, the national coordinating group (NCG).
I reported that there were two slates contesting the election. In fact there was also a small intervention by a third slate, the ‘Momentum Internationalists’ of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. A brave move, considering the proscription by Labour of their parent body - but these social-imperialists failed to win a seat.
The two slates that shared the 29 seats 15:14 were ‘Momentum Organisers’ and ‘Your Momentum’. The MO slate was a warmed-up version of the slate that lost two years ago as ‘Momentum Renewal’, but, before that, had dominated the NCG when Jon Lansman ran the show. The YM slate previously had a majority on the NCG, having won most seats in 2020 under the ‘Forward Momentum’ label.
Judging by the joy at the result displayed on the MO Facebook page, perhaps we can conclude that, with support from the 10 other unelected members of the NCG, the MO slate is back in control of Momentum once more.
Was I able to identify the political differences between these two slates? No, I have to admit defeat on that score. The differences were purely in the realm of implementation. MO is focussed on winning MP and councillor selection contests, and gaining majorities on Labour Party internal committees. YM wants to support campaigns beyond Labour, and is keen to promote member involvement in Momentum via click-based democracy.
As Labour List reported, both slates were able to parade endorsements from Labour MPs: “The Your Momentum slate was backed by John McDonnell and Nadia Whittome, while Rebecca Long Bailey and Grahame Morris gave their support to Momentum Organisers. Zarah Sultana backed two Momentum Organiser candidates and one Your Momentum candidate.”
Whilst the names of the winners have been published by Momentum, the full details of the nine counts have not been released. Given that the single-transferrable-vote method was used, those details would have been handy. Momentum members were sent an email with photos of the winning 29 and invited to click on a link named ‘Want a full rundown of the results?’ This led to a webpage with ... photos of the winning 29. Labour List managed a few more details: The turnout was 3,380 (down from 8,580 in 2020) and “Momentum Organisers candidates received 1,708 first-preference votes, compared to 1,544 secured by Your Momentum hopefuls.”
So will the new NCG be able to turn around the fortunes of this once formidable Labour pressure group? Or are we looking at a fresh team of soft-left careerists, hoping for a lift up the ladder on their way to that cherished MP selection meeting? (Mind you, having Momentum on your CV just now is like the kiss of death.) I’ll leave it to the reader to decide, but I checked out one of the successful NCGers in my region. Her career so far includes stints in the USA working for the Democrats and six years working in MPs’ offices at Westminster!
For those of us in the Labour Party who seek to transform it into a true party of the working class as part of the struggle to replace capitalism, we have to conclude that the existing left groups (the Labour Representation Committee, Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Momentum) will take us nowhere. They are content to resume their abusive partnership with the Labour right, convinced that small gains - a new councillor elected here, a left MP reselected there; a rule change proposal here, a conference resolution there - will one day lead to another crack at running the party. They refuse to confront the reality of the failure of that strategy provided by the Corbyn experience.
The alternative way forward, promoted by Labour Party Marxists, requires the defeat of the right at all levels in the Labour Party, and looks beyond Labour governments that manage capitalism and participate in Nato wars in the interests of US imperialism.
In part one of Mike Macnair’s ‘Imperialism and the state’ series, he offers a history and prehistory of the Marxist use of the term ‘imperialism’ (March 17 supplement).
I’m writing to make a fairly minor historical point that will fill the gap between the British use of the term in the 1880s and John A Hobson’s 1902 book, which in turn led to the Second International theoretical debates on imperialism, and eventually to Lenin’s well known pamphlet. While the Bernstein-Bax debate is well known as a precedent to the later debates in the Second International, it may surprise readers that in this gap American Marxists also played a role.
The immediate context for the adoption of the term in American politics was the 1898 midterm elections and the Spanish-American, as well as the Filipino-American, wars. US republican ideology had a historical principled stance against territorial expansion (outside of the North American continent, that is). This worked out well enough for the capitalist class, as long as westward expansion could continue, providing raw materials to send back east in exchange for finished goods, but by the end of the 19th century the frontier had become exhausted. American financiers - at least the ones smart enough to see which way the wind was blowing - realigned in the ‘Fourth Party System’ into the Republican Party and looked hungrily towards Cuba, Hawaii, the Philippines and other overseas possessions of the ailing, Spanish-restored Bourbon empire. This coincided with agrarian populist William Jennings Bryan’s capture of the Democratic Party.
In opposition to the new Republican Party policy, a group of eastern capitalists formed the American Anti-Imperialist League in 1898. Mark Twain was famously a member, but it also included an ex-president (the conservative Democrat, Grover Cleveland), Andrew Carnegie, and the racist craft union leader of the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers. Craft unionists opposed imperialism because they thought it would lead to competition from cheap labour in colonised nations, driving wages down for white workers. The Anti-Imperialist League formulated the traditional republican opposition to colonialism with a ‘Lost Cause’ flare, likening the Republican policies to the British empire and “the mistaken southern policy of the Congressional Radicals during Reconstruction”. As pointed out by Ronald Radosh in a 1964 debate on the early anti-imperialist movement for Science and Society, the comparison likened the two because of their reliance on “large standing armies, a colonial service, a war fleet and increased taxes needed for support of colonial expansion”. While the Anti-Imperialist League had some cultural purchase for a couple of years, most of the capitalists abandoned it in the wake of its endorsement of Bryan in the 1900 election, given his strong advocacy of abandoning the gold standard, and it drifted into irrelevancy.
Unlike Gompers and the Democrats, however, the socialist press paid keen attention to the issue - (sometimes) with an internationalist perspective. Already in 1900, International Socialist Review was covering the economics and politics of imperialism. Unfortunately the first issue came out in July 1900, so we can’t look at its coverage of the topic in 1898 and 1899. However, in the first volume, several articles directly deal with the issue, including serious economic and political analysis. In an article covering the platforms of the Democrats and Republicans for the 1900 election, the socialist vice-presidential candidate, Job Harriaman, excoriates the policy.
The volume includes a two-part article from October and November of that year by HL Boothman entitled ‘The philosophy of imperialism’. Interestingly (from my limited understanding of their arguments), both this article and an editorial by AM Simmons, entitled ‘Expansionism and the Chinese question’, seem to agree with comrade Macnair’s analysis that imperialism was an inevitable result of capitalism rather than a result of a discrete stage stemming from the turn-of-the-century “advent” of monopoly capital. Lucien Sanial, one of Daniel De Leon’s lieutenants in the Socialist Labor Party, also produced a somewhat better-known (but still obscure) pamphlet titled ‘Territorial expansion’ in 1901.
A brief skim of the footnotes in Hobson’s book doesn’t seem to turn up any citations from the socialist press. In 1900, the socialist movement was still extremely marginal, with Debs only receiving half a percentage point in the presidential election. It was only in 1901 that the various social democratic and utopian socialist sects merged to form the SPA that Debs is known for. Yet it’s possible there were socialists in the German movement who were reading the American press and paying attention to these analyses.
The socialist response to US imperialism around the turn of the century was a small section of a wider debate on the US left, which included agrarian populists, yellow labour leaders, and middle class progressives like Hobson and Brooks Adams. It may be an interesting place for further research on the historical development of the Marxist theory of imperialism.
Eddie Ford’s article on Pride takes an overly rosy view of the original UK Gay Liberation Front, and provides a potentially misleading reading of the history of gay activism, as a simple downward trajectory - from the radical politics of gay liberation to the capitalist orgy of contemporary commercialised pride celebrations (‘Take it back from them’, July 7).
The Gay Liberation Front marked a hugely positive break with the pre-existing ‘homophile’ groups like the Homosexual Law Reform Society, which was formed to campaign for the implementation of the recommendations in the Wolfenden report of 1957 (And comrade Ford eloquently exposes the deficiencies of its main legislative project - the 1967 Sexual Offences Act - which still left gay people open to legal discrimination and police harassment). But it was not a complete temporal break. The Committee for Homosexual Equality, which was also focused on legal reform, continued to exist alongside the GLF and became the largest gay organisation in the UK in 1972, the year of the first UK Pride. Nor was the GLF a group without its own considerable organisational and strategic weaknesses, which we should be able to recognise in retrospect.
Comrade Ford laments that “the whole movement for sexual liberation has fragmented into wretched sectionalism”, yet already by February 1972 only four months after the publication of the GLF’s manifesto in October 1971, it suffered a split between women’s and men’s groups.
The whole formation was incredibly unstable. It had already eschewed any strong, centralised, national structure in imitation of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and experiments in communal living tended to intensify personal enmities between participants as much as point the way forward to a utopian, liberated society. Its collapse after three years shows some of the general weaknesses of the types of movements thrown up by the new left, which often relied too much on the energy of young activists coming out of the radical student movements without much thought for long-term strategy or patient organisational work.
Instead of a good, non-sectional GLF and a bad, sectional, modern corporate LGBT movement, it might be more fruitful to view the history of the LGBT movement since 1970 as one in which two tendencies have coexisted - sometimes peacefully and sometimes with intense hostility between the camps. The first tendency being a movement for legal emancipation within the framework of the existing constitutional state; the second being a movement for social emancipation from the patriarchal family structure and its cultural attendants. These tendencies don’t map exactly onto class divisions, but the former has obviously always been more friendly to capitalism and sought its support primarily from the Labour Party, while the latter is generally anti-capitalist, but not necessarily specifically Marxist. The first tendency tends to attract the passive majority of the community. The second tendency was most ascendant during the halcyon days of the 1970s, but it never completely disappeared.
At Edinburgh Pride (2022) a contingent of hundreds of marchers broke off in protest of the organisers accepting sponsorship from fossil fuel companies, to join the striking RMT workers and protest the Roe vs Wade repeal at the US embassy. This shows that there is still a more militant and radical spirit subsisting in parts of the community.
I think a more fruitful endeavour for Marxists than counterposing class unity and sectionalism in the abstract, or simply lamenting the commercialisation of Pride, would be to engage with the more militant elements of the LGBT movement, as they exist now; attempt to provide an analysis which can make historical and theoretical sense of their struggle; and endeavour to build concrete links of solidarity with other movements. This is the kind of positive engagement the Marxist left mostly failed to provide in the 70s.
There is some interesting theoretical work in the last decade or so, connecting queer perspectives to Marxian social reproduction theory, like the work of Peter Drucker, or some of the authors collected in the ‘Transgender Marxism’ collection from Pluto Press - although the fact that neither Peter Taaffe, Alan Woods nor Alex Callinicos was involved in writing any of this might prevent engagement by the existing Marxist sects.
The capitalist state will aim to, but will never be able to, totally control procreation and completely restrict sexual autonomy in spite of its laws, decrees, intimidation, personal and social stigmas, persecution and political terror, or any form of repression. The spirit of resistance will endure, like life itself.
The black-robed junior Hitlers on the court in the US should be careful what they wish for: in my mind, they’ve created conditions for a revolution by rescinding fundamental and basic democratic rights which the population was accustomed to. Weren’t similar conditions existent in Spain in 1936? There the high expectations of the masses were curtailed, giving rise to an environment that might have contributed to the Spanish revolution, which ultimately failed.
Are we ready for a mass upsurge in the United States? We better be when it happens (and history tells us that it will happen) - for example, the need for a mass political party, a programme, vanguard political direction, etc. Capitalism creates the tools for its own destruction: the working class, restless and oppressed, who haven’t lost hope and dreams for a true democracy - a socialist democracy.
No other force except the working class has the capability and interest to destroy and rebuild what’s necessary; to think otherwise is a dangerous and disarming illusion that leaves us defenceless against what’s bound to come down from the bourgeoisie in trying to maintain its power, once the people move.
Real change in le monde réel can be practical and possible. The working class has proven its power to fulfil its historic mission and destiny, although many revolutions haven’t succeeded for various reasons. But, hopefully, my faith in humanity will be vindicated.
Going, going …
Jack Conrad gave an excellent account last Sunday of Boris Johnson’s approaching exit, along with an analysis and history of what is going on. It took up most, not surprisingly, of his ‘A week in politics’ presentation on July 10.
The mainstream media also devoted a lot of attention to his resignation, but without much in the way of analysis or history.
We have ‘the runners’, the bookies’ odds, allies and opponents and lots of ‘vox pops’, especially in the Tory ‘strongholds’. (Apparently journalists know that, if you ask enough people in the street for their opinion, you will always find some who will say what you want to hear.) So, lots of vapid drivel. Political theatre. And it will keep them going for months now.
In The Observer of July 10, for instance, about 20 pages out of 64 were devoted to Johnson (in the main news section, that is). There were passing references to more important matters: an article in the ‘Review’ section told of the collapse of the river Po in Italy (the weekend Financial Times had an article headed: ‘Italy’s farmers wilt in worst drought for decades’).
So, the most important ‘story’ is only occasionally touched on by the mainstream media: we get references now to “the hottest day”, yesterday or tomorrow. There are pictures of crowded beaches, or pictures of crowded airport terminals, as people wait, often in vain, to get to such a beach somewhere or other.
Personally, I don’t like this weather. I used to think that we might get three or four heatwaves (by my definition anyway) each summer, which would last three or four days, but it looks as if the current one will be 10 days or a fortnight at least. It didn’t used to be like that. There is a rhyme: “March winds and April showers bring forth May flowers.” The flowers have arrived, but it has seemed to me over the last 20 years or so that the “March winds” have been blowing hard into April, May, June … But at least they can now grow grapes for wine in Kent. Apart from the occasional flood or wildfire, it hasn’t been too bad in the UK - so far. Unless, of course, it’s your house that’s flooded or caught fire.
But what about the rest of the world? In Italy, one of the problems is the collapse of glacial waters - and the collapse of glaciers that led to 11 deaths just a few days ago. In the US the loss of snowfall due to global warming has reduced the Sierra Nevada snowpack and hence the supply of water to northern California. California’s two largest reservoirs are drying out and the southern and western states of the US are facing long-term drought conditions. Northern India and Pakistan are enduring a heatwave and drought that threatens to destroy food crops in vast areas of both countries. The war in Ukraine threatens famine in huge areas of Africa and the Middle East.
Ah, Ukraine! That’s the big story now - albeit one that has gone down the scale, thanks to Johnson’s problems. Even before the current excitement and his resignation Ukraine has been edging its way into the inside pages of the mainstream media. But Ukraine is part of the biggest story: as the US and Nato battle Russia to the last Ukrainian, there may be famine - ie, massive numbers of dead - but that’s just a footnote.
There is plenty to celebrate! Coal is back! New oil wells springing up in the US and the North Sea; the Supreme Court is busy dismantling the Environmental Protection Act; some people are making an awful lot of money - let’s not forget the arms companies.
A few words come to mind, like Tom Lehrer’s song (written about nuclear war, but still …), We will all go together when we go, and the line, “Oh, we will all burn together when we burn.” Another little snippet, and an ancient saying: “Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad”.
Still, Extinction Rebellion is having a big do in September - better than nothing? Maybe. But their first call is for institutions - governments for instance - to tell the truth. What!
We need mass working class parties all over the word to avoid extinction - of humanity and much other life. Wars and Boris Johnsons can be made history thereby too.
Boris Johnson was ‘posh’, but he wasn’t ‘elitist’ - rather like Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, who had an adoring butler and was up against domineering aunts. Perhaps that’s what flummoxed commentators who emphasised what he was (an Etonian), rather than what he stood for.
He always had a nose for his constituency. When he ran for London mayor, he emphasised better buses and flattered the outer boroughs against central London. He appeared on telly and played games; he charmed fellow journalists, even centre-left ones. He often looked a fool, but was considered a ‘good laugh’. What he wasn’t was a ‘sensible’ politician: the type who comes over as entitled and superior. He was even recorded as saying “Fuck business”.
He wanted to be a king, so he appealed to a mass movement, of course. He saw Brexit as the one issue that appealed to voters fed up with bureaucrats and elites (some people underestimated that sentiment). He didn’t mind being thought of as ‘leftwing’ during the pandemic (a supporter of state intervention) or irresponsible, when he didn’t initiate lockdown early enough or closed it too early. Even progressives wanted to relax. He was opportunist and flexible.
No doubt he will be replaced by someone behaving ‘responsibly’ (like Keir Starmer), who will support Nato and Brexit and help British business (even if the latter two may be in contradiction).
Jack Conrad correctly pours scorn on Andrew Northall’s politics, but says he is a “comrade”, as he is “clearly a partisan of the working class” and “a revolutionary Stalinite” - as opposed to the counterrevolutionary Stalinists like (comrade?) Robert Griffiths, it seems. Presumably this applies equally to the Young Communist League with their “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara, Stalin”. So, are the Communist Party of Britain leaders around the Morning Star not partisans of the working class, albeit profoundly misguided comrades, also?
In the post-split Workers Revolutionary Party the leadership around Cliff Slaughter defended one Dave Smith, a Yorkshire miner, who said at a conference in 1987: “Stalinism is the most counterrevolutionary force on the planet.” I pointed out that this was wrong: imperialism is the most counterrevolutionary force on the planet. Stalinism was its agent, as was social democracy/Labourism. These were “two counterrevolutionary internationals” (Trotsky), but both were still part of the working class. I was hit by a hysterical blizzard of demonisation led by the top table. Cyril Smith (not the Liberal Democrat) admitted to Dave Bruce that I was right, but explained his gross opportunism by: “The point was to get Downing”.
We must oppose the Stalinophobia of the self-declared Trotskyists of the WRP and others, but also avoid the Stalinophilia of Michel Pablo, Ernest Mandel and comrade Conrad. Trotsky put it thus:
“The general historic role of the Stalinist bureaucracy and their Comintern is counterrevolutionary. But through their military and other interests they can be forced to support progressive movements. Even Ludendorff felt himself forced to give Lenin a train - a very progressive action - and Lenin accepted. We must keep our eyes open to discern the progressive acts of the Stalinists, support them independently, foresee in time the danger, the betrayals, warn the masses and gain their confidence” (Letter on India, 1939-40).
Also, in the debate about the British road to socialism comrade Conrad correctly attacks comrade Northall, “while the CPB’s constantly ‘updated’ Britain’s road to socialism is marginally to the left of Eurocommunism, the old paradigm basically remains the same. There is a national road to socialism, there is a constitutional road to socialism …” But then he presents an almost equally confused solution.
Let us recall how the original 1951 version put it:
“The enemies of communism accuse the Communist Party of aiming to introduce Soviet power in Britain and abolish parliament. This is a slanderous misrepresentation of our policy … Britain will reach socialism by her own road. Just as the Russian people realised political power by the soviet road, which was dictated by their historical conditions and background of tsarist rule, and the working people in the People’s Democracies and China won political power in their own way in their historical conditions, so the British communists declare that the people of Britain can transform capitalist democracy into a real People’s Democracy, transforming parliament, the product of Britain’s historic struggle for democracy, into the democratic instrument of the will of the vast majority of her people. The path forward for the British people will be to establish a People’s Government on the basis of a parliament truly representative of the people” (our emphasis).
Comrade Conrad sets out his programme, which sounds quite ‘transitional’ in many ways - at least it is one min-max effort and not two: “Supreme power in the state will be a single popular assembly composed of delegates who are elected and recallable at any time.” But where are these “delegates” from, how are they to be elected? Is it the model of the democratic All-Russian Congress of Soviets of 1917-24, the Constituent Assembly of 1917-18 or some amalgam of both? If the delegates are elected from local soviets/workers’ councils in local assemblies, this is genuine workers’ democracy, diametrically opposed to bourgeois democracy, which Joe Stalin dictated for Britain and everywhere else around 1951. Comrade Conrad’s “Local organs of government must have a wide degree of autonomy” does not sound much better than more democracy for local councils today, which have no measure of workers’ control at all.
At the end of his list of democratic (transitional?) demands, comrade Conrad concludes: “… in short the character of the revolution is profoundly democratic; it is prepared to use physical force, but prefers peaceful means; it involves a rupture in class rule, but seeks to combine this with gradualism.”
Serious Marxists know that the counterrevolution will inevitably emerge; comrade Northall is right to post that picture of Allende in 1973 as an example of what will happen if you do not prepare for it. So ‘For or against the revolution’ in the dictatorship of the proletariat will be the byword, not ‘extreme democracy’. Full workers’ control of industry via local soviets; no ‘democracy’ for the counterrevolution; no rights for the Tory Party or the fascists to stand for election or produce their propaganda.
The Bolsheviks were correct to scatter the assembly on January 19 1918: it was the seat of counterrevolution against the All-Russian Congress of Soviets. The latter was abolished by Stalin and replaced by the pseudo-bourgeois parliament, the Supreme Soviet, in 1936. Revolutions do not work through extreme democracy.