Anatomy of Militant Labour

In the aftermath of the liquidation of the Communist Party in 1991, a number of organisations on the left sensed that their time had come. They looked forward to filling the vacuum left by this influential party.

For most, this is a hopeless dream. Their congenital sectarianism ensures that they will never be in a position to create a layer of genuine working class leaders, an organic vanguard of the class.

The partial exception has been Militant Labour, of course. This group has real achievements to its name, most importantly the anti-poll tax movement that embraced millions of working people and defeated the Thatcher government.

Yet since decanting from the Labour Party in the early 1990s, ML has suffered a precipitive decline in membership (rumoured to be from over 8,000 in 1987 to around 2,000 today). The organisation today is clearly in the early stages of some sort of pre-crisis. This is reflecting itself financially, in the need to retrench after the income loss produced by membership haemorrhage. More importantly however, the fault lines of a political split are starting to become discernible in the edifice of the organisation.

None of this is reflected in the pages of ML’s open publications, of course. Despite the welcome ‘opening up’ over the last few years or so, it still regards political differences as a matter of organisational conspiracy (see the letter from Bruce Wallace of Dundee Scottish Militant Labour in last week’s paper and my reply in this week’s ‘Party Notes’ on page 2). Notwithstanding this, in the course of our work with ML over the last few years, plus the many formal and informal debates that have gone hand in hand with it, the main lines of political demarcation inside the organisation have become clear.

First, the left. This is by far the smallest and least coherent section. There is talk of this layer forming an organised opposition tendency, yet is remains the least politically articulate. The issue that has prompted the left to start organising itself appears to be ML’s projected name change to the ‘Socialist Party’, a move viewed by these comrades as an attempt to distance the organisation from even a formal adherence to revolutionary politics.

The right in contrast is large and more politically coherent, although this does not express itself programmatically yet. These comrades could be dubbed the ‘activist’ wing of the party. Their brand of opportunism tends to localism, adaptation to campaignism and a certain philistine hostility to the traditions of Bolshevism, an impatience with the irrelevance of all of this ‘abstract’ theory to the day-to-day practice of the group.

Between these two wings, there is an influential political centre, consisting of the national leadership and its supporters. At the moment, this tendency is preoccupied with the attempt to ward off implicit challenges from the right: the left appears to be largely irrelevant to the current internal discussions and tussles. The cause of the right/centre scuffle beginning to flare up is the question of democratic centralism.

What is the content of the right’s implied challenge? There is no expressly political or theoretical assault on the programme of ML yet. Rather, there has been opposition from these elements to the need to assert the centralism of the organisation.

The drop in revenue from a depleted membership has meant that ML centre has had to readjust financial arrangements with branches and districts to ensure that a higher percentage goes to the centre. This has prompted protests from the right-leaning activists in the localities and even a threat from some to boycott the organisation’s finances. The leadership has responded by criticising this tendency towards “localism” or “parochialism”.

Essentially, the threat of the right is encapsulated by the embryonic slogan on the lips of many ML ‘activists’ - “Scotland shows the way”. SML is a financially and organisationally autonomous organisation. But the leadership points out that, if generalised, such a structure would effectively kill ML as a centralised national organisation and replace it with a heterogeneous network of loosely linked groups.

It is claimed that autonomy was justified in Scotland because the growth of national sentiment there made necessary a change in the form of organisation of ML. Of course, this is a very weak and potentially dangerous argument that is unlikely to satisfy the right of the organisation.

If the form of organisation of the revolutionary Party is dependent on the shifts in consciousness of sections of the class, then the dissolution of the Party is inevitably posed. The Party is meant to be the concrete expression of the revolutionary unity of the working class. That revolutionary unity is forged to do battle with the state that confronts us as our main enemy - the constitutional monarchy of the United Kingdom.

If the unity of the revolutionary organisation is contingent on the sectionalist ideology spontaneously generated amongst any layer of the class - be it nationalism, black separatism, feminism, sexual politics or whatever - the Party is faced with inevitable fragmentation and destruction.

The leadership has timidly conceded to Scottish national feeling in the organisation instead of fighting it - even at the expense of losing comrades. Now, we are beginning to see the poisonous effects of this type of narrow sectionalist politics in other layers of ML. The ML leadership is starting to conduct a rearguard action against these centrifugal forces, yet it simply does not have the politics to solve the looming crisis.

The responsibility devolves to the left of the organisation, to those comrades who regard themselves as Leninists and who see the need to organise themselves. An important debate is emerging on the question of democratic centralism. This is not a technical question of the percentage of levy paid to centre. Democratic centralism is the process of achieving unity around a revolutionary programme.

The danger to the organisational integrity of ML stems from the organisation’s opportunist programme. In this sense, today’s ML could never simply step into the shoes of the old Communist Party organisationally, but it could replicate its fate of opportunist disintegration. The failure of the CPGB was a failure of opportunist programme: ML’s growing tensions reflect precisely the same disintegrative political process. This - not name changes - is the key question the left must address.

Mark Fischer