September 1985: Liverpool Militant members mobilise tens of thousands. Now Taaffe purges them

Micawber militants

The first sentence of the weak, apolitical statement from the former Merseyside committee of the Socialist Party (see back page) is truly remarkable. Apparently, over “the last few years”, an important section of our movement has been debating “differences” on questions such as the “perspectives for capitalism worldwide, trade union issues and how to build a new workers’/socialist party” and not one whisper of any of this has seen the light of day in publications of the Socialist Party in England and Wales.

These are hardly issues that have no interest to the rest of the left. Yet - incredibly - even now that the crap has hit the fan, neither side in the dispute has given us a substantial exposition of the political reasons for the parting of the ways. This underlines an important point about the Socialist Party as a whole, not simply the quarrel between the executive committee and Merseyside.

The organisational integrity of SPEW is now extremely fragile. The Merseysiders touch on an important point when they write that “the only thing that has held the party together has been loyalty and the continual demand to raise more and more money on the streets”. I am sure that this view is slightly jaundiced, given the current state of relations between the two sides. Nevertheless it contains an important truth.

Politically, Taaffe’s organisation has been utterly befuddled by the world for quite some time. Ted Grant - the founder of the organisation - had a dubious definition of Marxism as the “science of prediction”. SPEW leaders’ predictions over the last 15 years or so have more in common with Micawberism than Marxism - ‘something - anything - will turn up’.

Thus, the Merseyside dissidents’ statement reminds Taaffe that “at the end of the 1980s” - as the bureaucratic regimes in Eastern Europe collapsed, ushering in a period of profound ideological reaction worldwide - “we predicted the red 1990s!” Thus, the Liverpool comrades appear to have strained to maintain an apparatus designed to service a much larger organisation during a livelier period, as they were “still expecting things to change in the near future” (my emphasis).

The rationale for this impending upturn appears to have been the “continual emphasis on the ensuing collapse of the economy worldwide” (Merseyside statement). The SPEW executive committee actually boasts of its prescience in predicting economic trouble for capitalism in their response to Merseyside.

They write that “the leadership of the party … virtually alone, predicted the economic turmoil of world capitalism. This has prepared members and cadres of the party for the present and future situation” (Weekly Worker November 19). Which is basically like saying a stopped clock is bound to be right at least twice a day. A “continual emphasis” on the “ensuing collapse” of world capitalism will eventually receive some sort of corroboration from the global economy. This is simply in the nature of capitalism. Marxism - on the other hand - is a tad more subtle than this.

The fact that the leadership of SPEW appears to have little else to recommend itself to the membership other than its supposed perceptive prediction of economic troubles is truly pathetic. Apart from anything else, the mechanical assumption that any economic crash will automatically translate into mass political advances for the left is simply inane. The possibilities are far more varied - and dangerous.

As we have reported, the Merseyside comrades appear to have been genuinely shocked at the violent reaction of the SPEW leadership. They cite the fact that many SPEW branches have set up websites. Yet the idea that Liverpool should start to publish a journal - even one that would be “based on the present programme of our party” - precipitated a shocking reaction from the EC. “What is the difference?” they rather plaintively ask.

Clearly, they are right to say that, as a bureaucratic and beleaguered clique, the leadership of SPEW see “ideas as a threat”. Of course, this sensitivity has been exacerbated by the split with Scotland. It is this disaster for Taaffe and his leadership faction that explains the sudden move against the Liverpool critics. It is Taaffe’s substitute for open theoretical struggle - organisational amputation.

Instructive in this context is the first open statement by the SPEW EC on the Scottish crisis, which appears in The Socialist of November 20. While the fact that the organisation’s leadership has at last broken its public silence on such a crucial issue is welcome, readers looking for a break with the mealy-mouthed, technocratic obfuscation that has characterised the internal polemic between Scotland and the SP leaders so far will be disappointed by this piece of diplomatic pap.

The statement reports that an “intense discussion” has been taking place over the proposals of the Scottish comrades - although the only place you could have read it is in the pages of the Weekly Worker. The EC goes on to characterise the new Scottish Socialist Party as a “hybrid”. It “has not been organised as a broad socialist party, on united front lines. Nor is it a clearly defined revolutionary Marxist organisation”. Now, one might expect that this is another example of “the kind of liquidationist trend represented by the suspended Merseyside comrades”, an opportunist deviation “overwhelmingly opposed” by the majority of SPers and their co-thinkers internationally (SPEW EC statement Weekly Worker November 19).

Yet this November 20 EC statement on Scotland - which they sickeningly decide to place on their ‘international news’ page - ends by offering critical support to the SSP! “In spite of our opposition to the underlying political strategy, we hope that the SSP will succeed in attracting new socialist forces,” the SPEW leadership wheedles.

The inconsistency of its responses to Scotland and Liverpool underlines the fact that what decides its attitude to any political development is not political principle, despite its ‘hard’ posturing against liquidationism in Merseyside. What comes first is the organisational integrity and narrow concerns of SPEW.

Future generations of Marxists will look back on the primeval sectarian swamp the left currently inhabits with some degree of wonder … and revulsion, we suggest.

Mark Fischer