Lost Momentum

Momentum’s first biennial all-member convention was held online last Sunday (March 10). For an organisation that once boasted over 40,000 members, the attendance of just 197 on the Zoom call illustrated its existential crisis: there is no longer a comfort zone where the left can operate inside the Labour Party.

The sorry state of Momentum I described in my article, ‘Under false colours’ (Weekly Worker June 9 2022) has now degenerated further - left activists with no stomach for Starmer’s Labour Party have moved on, leaving just a small cohort of careerist left councillors with any reason to stay.

The convention agenda was devoid of any significant political controversy, and the staffers seemed to be familiar with Zoom technology and its built-in voting tools, so the event should have been a slick affirmation of the atomised click-vote democracy imposed after Lansman’s coup in 2016. However, members struggling with unfamiliar procedures, combined with delays in calling speakers and votes, meant that the undemocratic shortcomings of this format were exposed. Often the pauses between speakers were longer than the 90 seconds allowed for a contribution.

The session on general election strategy was indicative of Momentum’s fish-out-of-water problems: how to campaign for Labour in the election, while really promoting alternative ‘socialist’ policies. Although the motion was the day’s longest (over 700 words), it was a struggle to find anyone willing to speak. One comrade who did highlighted a big issue for activists - all the current Labour publicity material is emblazoned with union jacks! Momentum will be producing its own material - aimed at other campaigners - promoting the ‘socialist’ case for voting Labour, ‘socialist’ policies and the importance of democratising the party. Like all of the policy motions, this one passed without opposition.

However, I noticed that no speakers mentioned the likelihood of left candidates standing in the general election against Labour, possibly including Jeremy Corbyn and some other former members of the Socialist Campaign Group. Perhaps some things are better left unsaid.

The session on constitutional amendments was not for the faint-hearted. The first of these was so controversial that it was defeated. This was a proposal to relax Momentum membership requirements, to allow anyone eligible to join the Labour Party to be a Momentum member, rather than just those who are Labour members. In the debate it emerged that many Momentum members have cancelled their party subscription, so the change was needed just to keep them on board. But others were worried that the change would provide Starmer with an excuse to proscribe Momentum on grounds of being run by outsiders. When the CWU union rep spoke against, the amendment’s fate was sealed - apparently constitutional amendments are subject to a trade union veto!

The second amendment was even stormier. It seemed to be a rekindling of the factional battle from years ago that divided the leadership (not so much the members, who couldn’t tell them apart): ‘Forward Momentum’ versus ‘Momentum Renewal’. The issue was ‘party leader endorsements’ and whether the national coordinating group (NCG - Momentum’s leadership) could engage in backroom deals for these, as happened when Momentum backed Angela Rayner rather than Richard Burgon for the deputy leader position. There was an amendment to the amendment, which appeared to still provide the NCG with some room for dealing, and this passed, as did the amended amendment (with CWU consent too).

Throughout the proceedings there was no mention of the phenomenal Momentum-inspired Labour conference presence, The World Transformed. Was this due to a falling out? Will there be a TWT in 2024? We deserve some answers.

Clive Dean

Clara Zetkin

In this imperialist epoch, when International Women’s Day has been coopted by the reformists in many areas of the world, it’s important to remind those who need reminding: International Women’s Day is a communist holiday, and a major founder of this enduring celebration was Clara Zetkin.

Zetkin deserves a lot of credit for many things - not least that she was influenced by August Bebel, Friedrich Engels, other early Marxists before her, and the socialist ideas of her time. Although she didn’t produce original Marxist theorisation, she was able to skilfully transform socialist ideas into organisational effectiveness; she was widely recognised as the major leader of the international socialist women’s movement and main authority on the woman question.

She understood the meaning of ‘women’s self-organisation’ and sought to organise women of all political backgrounds for the cause of socialism (she believed in the need for women’s socialist autonomy in the German SPD, but the autonomous women’s organisations came to an end in 1908 and she was removed from her leadership position). She was influenced by the contemporaneous bourgeois women’s debates, but took the approach of the ‘clean break’ - an uncompromising separation from the bourgeois women’s movement. This was an idea which had currency at the time; she was aware of the potential political toxicity and political incest of the situation in which socialists lose their independence and become subsumed into bourgeois politics.

Her 1923 anti-fascist speech in the Comintern regarding Germany and the ‘united front’ was a political tour de force; it’s plausible that her ideas were developed at least partially, if not totally, from Leon Trotsky’s opinions and his extensive writings in 1922 on the subject of the united front. John Riddell indicates in his 2014 writing, Clara Zetkin in the lion’s den, that in 1921 Zetkin’s critique of the disastrous, ultra-left ‘March Action’ in Germany, as well as her promotion of a united front, was very astute and powerful. Conversely, Max Schachtman states in 1933 in the socialist newspaper The Militant that she didn’t always “distinguish between the revolutionary left wing and the adventurist or infantile ultra-left”.

Her united front politics were subsequently rejected by the Comintern by 1924 - a disaster for the German proletariat. Zetkin had basically no political significance in this period - she attempted no challenge to Stalin’s counterrevolution; if she had publicly challenged Stalin, she undoubtedly would have become another victim of his paranoid megalomania and that of his subservient epigones who destroyed the crème de la crème of the Bolshevik revolutionaries and thousands of other victims. But being silent - except possibly in the backrooms of the CPSU - and refusing to change course when she saw the Comintern’s slide into degeneration - might have been consistent with what seemed to be an authoritarian streak in her German personality.

Of particular note, she was opposed to Trotsky’s Left Opposition, which is expressed in her 1928 tract entitled ‘Trotsky’s “exile” and social democracy’. Zetkin approved of Trotsky’s banishment to Turkey. Trotsky viewed her as unoriginal, and destructive to proletarian internationalism.

The socialists of Zetkin’s time saw motherhood and participation in waged, public production as the roles to aspire to for proletarian women. Her views had evolved: initially, she was more focused on Engels’ productionist analysis and she didn’t focus on reproduction, but she came to agree with his views on women’s oppression, which specifically dealt with the socialisation of privatised, domestic slavery (otherwise known as housework), and she began to consider ‘woman as woman’ in addition to the class aspect (she realised that economic independence is not enough to free women). She didn’t seek to transcend the prevailing socialist view - for example, to look at the division of sexual roles in the family - except in its economic and social definition.

She was politically to the right of Engels in at least the sense that she was a zealous believer in monogamous marriage (as a duty to the socialist movement). Zetkin was a pro-natalist; she subscribed to the doctrinaire view that proletarian women had an overriding societal function - their interests were subordinate to the interests of humanity - and they should strive to be not just mothers, but mothers of very large families (apparently, the cost was not an issue for her) as a duty and obligation to the movement.

This ideology wouldn’t go over very well in the current historical period - especially, for example, with ‘Queer theory’ and politics which might see Alexandra Kollontai, who surpassed orthodox Marxism (regarding reproductive autonomy, bodily integrity, etc) as more of a political soulmate. But Kollontai as well saw motherhood as a central role of women - meant to support and serve the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Zetkin was opposed to fertility control (contraception) and reproductive rights for both moral and political reasons, which was to the right of where the radical bourgeois feminist movement stood, as well as where many, if not most, socialist women stood, in Germany; Zetkin saw women’s desire for reproductive self-determination as selfish ‘egoism’. This perspective is unfortunate, regardless of whether women’s right to control their own bodies was based in the socialist ideas of the time.

All told, Clara Zetkin was one of the exceptional articulators and leaders of the movement for women’s rights, despite her political limitations, and the legacy of International Women’s Day will forever be associated with her revolutionary socialist contributions and legacy.


Rights of nations

I see the Weekly Worker has published a letter from the loyalist apologist, Louis Shawcross, headed ‘Good old Tommy’, which praised the fascist, Tommy Robinson, for his racist campaign against Muslims and saying he “fought tirelessly to expose the crimes against hundreds of victims/survivors of rape gangs in the north of England”.

It is libertarian nonsense to defend the right to free speech of fascists (as opposed to far rightists and Tories). but is far worse to publish a letter in what is supposed to be a leftwing publication defending a fascist. This follows widespread demands, even within the Tory Party itself, that the whip be removed from Liz Truss, because she spoke in an interview with the far rightist, Steve Bannon, after attending a rally by the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland and did not object to him calling Tommy Robinson “a hero”.

Turning to the CPGB’s Communist University Spring 2024, it was very disappointing, because it contained so many outright rejections of Marxism, Leninism and the Russian Revolution itself - from guest speaker Marc Mulholland, and CPGB leaders Mike Macnair and Jack Conrad.

The first CU speaker was Oxford professor Mulholland on ‘Marxism and revolutionary defeatism’. One of his themes was the politics of Brendan Clifford’s red-brown British and Irish Communist Organisation (BICO) and Stalin’s definition of what constituted a nation. At first, I thought he was citing this to show how wrong and one-sided the latter was, until I realised that he was defending it - and, via this definition, the existence of two nations in Ireland. “A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life and psychological make-up, manifested in a common culture,” Stalin wrote in 1913.

This definition conveniently allows the Ulster loyalists, the Ukrainian far right after the February 2014 US-organised fascist coup, the Zionist state of Israel (but not Jews before the 1948 Nakba and founding of the state of Israel), the French colons in Algeria and the US Confederate states before the civil war to be designated as nations. So they should have the right to self-determination and, as far-right supremacists, the right to oppress as second-class citizens the Irish nationalists, the ethnic Russians, the Palestinians, the Arab majority in Algeria and their own black slaves in the USA.

This is opposed to Lenin’s 1914 polemic, The right of nations to self-determination against Rosa Luxemburg and later his final struggle in 1921-22 against Stalin over Georgia and Ukraine, in which he correctly designated the Georgian Stalin as a Great Russian chauvinist against his own nation. Stalin accused Lenin of ‘national liberalism’ in a letter to the politburo in September 1922, because he defended the rights of oppressed nations to self-determination regardless of the politics of its existing leadership.

BICO, which was known on the left as “the Peking branch of the Orange Order”, counted amongst its admirers and enthusiastic readers of its press the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, and Enoch Powell, who dubbed them “nice, comfortable unionist Marxists”. They supported the 1974 Ulster Workers Council strike against the Sunningdale Agreement, because it was soft on the nationalists, and the 1981 Falklands war against Argentina in defence of the British colonial settlers on Argentina’s islands.

Are we seeing a rerun of the liberal Northern Ireland prime minister, Terence O’Neill, vs far-right, supremacist loyalist bigot Ian Paisley in the late 1960s, where the supremacists defeated the liberal unionists. Is a BICO-type red-brown rationale emerging to defend the union and the material interests of the British empire against Irish reunification posing the threat of socialist revolution in alliance with advanced sections of the British working class? In a letter in the Irish Daily Mail published on February 20, Louis Shawcross says: “One has to look beyond the rage and thunder to see it for what it is. We’re blessed for having the present leadership in the north - all sides”. Both Michelle O’Neill and Sir Jeffrey Donaldson are well pleased with this Weekly Worker correspondent, we must assume.

As for the anti-imperialist united front, it is obviously a tactical orientation and not a strategic one, as Macnair dubbed it. It does not oblige you to put your head in the lion’s mouth or dissolve communist forces into the bourgeois or petty bourgeois group. This is what Stalin and the Comintern did, resulting in the massacre of the Shanghai Commune in April 1927 and the further massacre in Wuhan, when Stalin tried again with the ‘left’ Kuomintang. Mao was not so foolish as to put his head back in that lion’s mouth, as Stalin instructed him; he made a pragmatic decision to save himself, but was later to advise the Communist Party in Indonesia to do just that - which resulted in the1965-66 massacre of between half a million and one million of not only CP members, but communist sympathisers, trade unionists and all leftists in general.

At CU Mike Macnair gave us his long-held view that modern imperialism has always existed historically and is simply nations attacking and oppressing other nations. This is the view of all capitalist defenders, as promoted so strongly by the Telegraph, The Sun, the Mail and the Express. He argues that Karl Marx always held this view and Lenin was wrong to see anything unique in modern imperialism. He rejects Lenin’s theories in his 1916 book, Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, as simply copying bourgeois historians. Here Lenin analyses modern imperialism since the last quarter of the 19th century as capitalism marked by monopolies, cartels, the role of banks as monopolists of finance capital, and a new colonial policy centred around the struggle for raw materials and capital exports.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels began their famous ‘Irish turn’ in 1856, following Engels’ visit to the west of Ireland and the absolute devastation he saw there after the Great Famine - or genocide, as it is more properly termed. Previously they had seen colonialism as progressive in transferring advanced technologies, industries and railways to these colonies. Now Engels saw the brutal reality, and he and Marx went on to give unconditional support to the Fenians - always trying to unite them in struggle with the English radicalising workers.

Not until the Irish Turn of 1867 and the Fenian uprising did Marx recognise the progressive dynamic of the struggles of oppressed peoples. Marx did not develop his 1850 permanent revolution until 1871, when he understood the great revolutionary significance of the Paris Commune, as Lenin did later. He and later Engels recognised the plight of the poor oppressed Jews fleeing from the tsar’s pogroms in a far better way that Marx did in his pamphlet The Jewish question of 1843.

In 2006 Mike Macnair wrote in the Weekly Worker: “This tyrannous character reflects the decision of the Bolsheviks (a) to create Bonapartist centralism within their party and (b) to use state repression (the ban on factions, etc) to resist the natural tendency of the party to split within the framework of the common party identification created by the new state form. Behind these decisions, as I argued before, is the fact that the Russian party-state created in 1918-21 was socially based on the peasantry” (‘The minimum platform and extreme democracy’, May 17 2006).

In this scenario Mike Macnair describes Kautsky’s reformist parliamentary road to socialism, as endorsed by Joe Stalin in the British road to socialism in 1951. We were unsure if he was endorsing it too, until we came to his assertion that this was “Kautsky in his most revolutionary phase”, who “had broken from the democratic republicanism of Marx’s writings on the Commune and Critique of the Gotha programme and Engels’ arguments in Can Europe disarm?

Of course, as we have seen above, in Marx’s writing on the Commune he did the exact opposite: he had broken from his previous emphasis on defeating the old feudal state in alliance with a section of the bourgeoisie to emphasise the permanent revolution after 1848, the need to smash the bourgeois state and the defence of Ireland’s (and by extension all colonies’) right to self-determination after he completed the famous ‘Irish turn’ in 1870. In 1870 Karl Marx analysed this phenomenon and suggested a solution:

“After studying the Irish question for many years, I have come to the conclusion that the decisive blow against the English ruling classes (and it will be decisive for the workers’ movement all over the world) cannot be delivered in England, but only in Ireland.”

Gerry Downing
Socialist Fight

Don’t fight back

Last week on Channel Four news Krishnan Guru-Murthy interviewed a leader of Hamas about what was going on in Gaza and at one stage he was very insistent on trying to get the chap to admit that if it wasn’t for the events of October 7 then 30,000 plus Palestinian civilians would not have been killed by the Israelis.

This is a common attack by the mainstream media: ie, to suggest that October 7 was the kicking-off point of the current ‘conflict’. This is, of course, to dismiss the decades of occupation, along with the regular massacres and destruction inflicted on the Palestinians inside Gaza and out. ‘Mowing the lawn’, for instance - after all, these are warm, friendly people who have to defend themselves through mass murder!

I wondered after watching this interview what Guru-Murthy thought about the Mau Mau in Kenya, bringing down the wrath of the British state on to their people. If the Vietcong had not fought against first the French and then the Americans, would they have been spared My Lai and so many other atrocities? Did the indigenous inhabitants of America bring about their own destruction? We have the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto, the Algerian fight against the French, and so on and so on.

Indeed, if Neville Chamberlain had been a bit more cautious, might Britain have been spared the blitz? One can only ponder over the content of any interview that Guru-Murthy might have with Volodymyr Zelensky one day - we might guess what questions will not be asked!

The message? If you are oppressed or occupied by a force of much greater might than you, don’t fight back. Accept your oppression or you’ll regret it.

Jim Nelson

And Scotland?

In an otherwise quite sensible analysis on the challenges for the far left of entering the electoral arena, Edmund Griffiths, like so many other commentators, shows he is ‘Scotland blind’, notwithstanding the very brief mention of Scottish Militant Labour (‘How we should contest’, March 7).

The Scottish Socialist Party did scale the foothills of parliamentary democracy to win six members of the Scottish parliament (MSPs) in May 2003, after having secured its first representative there in the figure of Tommy Sheridan in May 1999.

The SSP had emerged out of the Scottish Socialist Alliance - an amalgam of radical left forces in support of independence, of which the key one was Scottish Militant Labour. Many will now recall how the SSP imploded from late 2004 onwards as a result of the crisis around Tommy Sheridan’s personal life.

But, with the SSP being founded 25 years ago this February, this should not blind us to the lessons that can be learnt from how it was built and grew into a force of around 3,000 members at its peak. This is even so, given that the elections to the Scottish parliament use a proportional representation mechanism for the regional ‘list’ seats.

These lessons can be read about in my (unauthorised) biography of Sheridan called Tommy Sheridan: from hero to zero? A political biography (Welsh Academic Press, 2012).

Gregor Gall

Trans ideology

Andy P’s remarks on Trans rights contained the familiar unsubstantiated allegations of ‘hatred’ and opposition to undefined ‘trans rights’ (Letters, March 7). He does, however, raise a point about stepping out of “the rigid social boundaries of gender”, which is worth addressing, as trans ideology - a particularly virulent form of identity ideology - has nothing liberatory or progressive about it.

Gender ideology has taken on much of the language of previous radical politics, whilst changing its meaning. The charge of ‘biological essentialism’ within feminism, including socialist feminism, once referred to the essentialising of sex stereotypes, but now involves denying the material reality of biology and its role in social reproduction, or in practice offering an often misogynistic mapping of sex stereotypes onto the other sex.

For feminism, the meaning of gender involved socialising individuals into a social structure, which for historical reasons asserted the superiority of men over women and subjugated women to specific roles. Some feminists believed this benefitted all men and disadvantaged all women in equal measure, and drew the conclusion that patriarchy, rather than social class, was the major fault line in society. Others attempted to combine a critique of gender with social class, but, generally speaking, all of them wanted to stop putting people into pink and blue boxes.

Trans ideology, on the other hand, asserts that gender is not socially constructed, but internal and innate. This theoretically confused and politically debilitating notion is now unfortunately uncritically accepted by much, although certainly not all, of the left. As the political philosopher, Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, has pointed out in her perceptive observations of this phenomenon, this identity ideology accepts the gender categorisations of capitalism, and, rather than wanting to tear down the stereotypes, asserts that there are more than just the two boxes.

This relies upon and encourages no collective challenge to gender oppression, but instead embraces a personalised neoliberal entrepreneurialism, where we simply reinvent ourselves. So some declare themselves ‘trans’, a select few are ‘non-binary’, while the majority remain ‘cis-gender’. A smaller handful might opt out of the gender spectrum altogether, declaring themselves ‘agender’ or ‘pangender’. This is why capitalism has no issue with embracing identity ideology, as it does not in any way challenge structural oppression or exploitation. As Reilly-Cooper observes, no amount of calling themselves ‘agender’ or insisting on their own pronouns would prevent employers seeing them as women and potential baby-makers, and discriminating against them on that basis.

Trans ideology, like all contemporary identity politics, has nothing to offer collective movements for social change. It has succeeded in becoming a mainstream narrative because of the retreat of social movements and a working class left. If it is embraced more wholeheartedly in North America than in Britain, that is largely because the retreat and weakness of the left is even more pronounced there.

Ben Rust

Warmonger poet

Regarding the discussion in the CPGB’s Spring Communist University on the poet, Bertran de Born, those interested can pursue the topic via Wikipedia, whose article looks like an excellent summary of the current scholarship.

Bertran’s poem, ‘It pleases me, gay Easter-tide’, is a paean of praise of warfare, and as such has no obvious connection with any particular historical event in mediaeval Aquitaine or Limousin - the region of Bertran’s castle, Hautefort - although that is certainly possible. Richard Coeur de Lion, being Henry II’s third son, was not expected to succeed his father, but, together with his elder brothers, had no scruple about challenging him militarily, especially in the years 1180 to 1183 CE. His elder brother, Henry, died in 1182 and Richard therefore inherited his father’s dominions.

Whatever the details, Bertran is an example of a baron delighting in the use of warfare as an instrument of policy and as a means to gain control of land - a typical feudal practice. The end of the poem illustrates this, where he writes (and gives instructions to his jongleur, Papiol, to deliver his message to Richard, whom he calls ‘Yea and Nay’, as follows:

Barons! put in pawn castles and towns and cities, before anyone makes war on us.

Papiol, be glad to go speedily to ‘Yea and Nay’, and tell him there’s too much peace about.

Chris Gray