Militant Labour perspectives

Party notes

Militant Labour is an organisation under serious strain. During the 1980s it grew substantially, adding 8,000 to its membership between 1981 to 1987, increasing the number of its full-timers to 250 and establishing 15 regional centres.

Disengaging from the Labour Party had traumatic effects. Membership plummeted between the years 1988 and 1992 and remains stagnant today at around 800 to 1,000 dues-paying comrades. More importantly, life outside Labour ruthlessly exposed the political flaws of the ML programme. Powerful centrifugal forces threaten the basic integrity of the organisation, with Scotland having declared UDI and some in the regions bucking against the heavy logistical demands that the ML national centre place on them.

Thus, debates and arguments in ML over the last year or so over ‘democratic centralism’ and the financial split between local and national organisation are not at root technical questions. They express the flaws of ML’s politics, politics which are essentially sectional and bow to reformist spontaneity.

However, those sections of the revolutionary left who talk of today’s ML being “finished” are foolish - especially given their own sects’ record in the struggle and precarious organisational existence. Of course, this is a reactionary period in which many groups could go down. ML has more problems than most. Yet this is an extremely serious workers’ organisation, one which has relatively wide experience in leading mass movements and which has had the gumption to make many of its comrades into something more than dull paper-selling churls. ML has trained mass working class leaders.

What ML is thinking and doing therefore matters to the workers’ movement. Thus, the article by Peter Taaffe, ML general secretary, outlining the organisation’s perspectives for the coming year (Militant January 10), should be studied by all comrades.

It is a disappointing piece. Clearly, ML remains trapped in the sterile, objectivist approach that its founder-leader, Ted Grant, became synonymous with.

First, Taaffe predicts that

“a clampdown on public expenditure, unpostponable because of the booming national debt, will set the scene for the kind of collisions that have already unfolded in Europe. France, in the sense of mass mobilisation of the working class, will come to Britain in the next year or so” (Unless otherwise stated, all quotes from Militant January 10).

He formally concedes that “industrial struggle” and “big radicalised movements” will not “automatically bring socialism back to centre stage” - an important element will be the “conscious intervention of socialist forces”. Yet - for all that - “socialism will inevitably re-emerge”.

First, there is no guarantee that in the “next year or so”, the British class struggle will take on ‘French’ forms. This is formal thinking at its worst. The relationship of the organised workers’ movement to the party of social democracy, the structure, current strength and combativity of the unions after 18 years of Tory assault - all of these things are different in Britain.

Second, Taaffe’s focus is characteristically narrow and economistic. Throughout his article, the “re-emergence of the working class in a mass form” is conceived almost exclusively in terms of trade union struggle. There is some lip service paid to “social conflicts”, but, as ML thinks narrowly in terms of “such a movement” being headed by “the trade union leaders”, its mind-set is fairly clear.

Interesting in this context is the fact that Taaffe does not once mention Scotland and the potentially huge national movement that looms there. Instead, the examples the article cites of the combustible material stored up in British society are all narrowly ‘economic’ - wages, working hours, tax burdens and employment.

This opportunist approach is underlined in an article by Roger Thomas on the prospects for the trade unions in 1997 (Militant January 17). The inevitable “pressure from [trade union] members” actually “ensures that the period ahead will open up enormous conflict and the potential for the renewal of the trade union movement itself” (my emphasis).

Readers may wonder at this. After all, it is ML - or rather, an offshoot of it - that is the hegemonic force in the Scottish Socialist Alliance. ‘North of the border’, it certainly takes the national question seriously and has campaigned on it vigorously.

Clearly, Taaffe’s narrow focus is another expression of ML’s reformist sectionalism. The ‘Scottish question’ becomes an issue for the ‘Scottish organisation’ - Scottish Militant Labour. The organisational schism - or, as it is put, the granting of “autonomy” to SML because of “the growth of a clear and distinct national consciousness” (Peter Taaffe Members Bulletin 16, p6) - expresses ML’s opportunist method. In turn, this finds reflection in the absence of this basic democratic question in the perspectives for ML in England and Wales. Instead, the struggles of the working class of these nationalities appear to be trade union struggles. By implication, workers in Hackney need to concentrate on ‘proletarian’ subjects such as wages and hours and not worry themselves unduly over airy-fairy democratic questions such as the right to self-determination.

Such an approach is inimical to Marxism and should be challenged, not least from within the organisation itself.

One last point. Even accepting the ‘inevitability’ of the re-emergence of mass trade union struggles in the short term, what guarantee is there that ML, shortly to be renamed ‘Socialist Party’, will be “in the vanguard” of such struggles? Taaffe does not even mention the Socialist Labour Party.

Wishing away political opponents in the pages of your newspaper is one thing; the reality of the class struggle may prove to be very different.

Mark Fischer
national organiser