Positions of influence

Some of Ken Livingstone's key advisors are members of Socialist Action, a small and secretive Stalinoid sect of Trotskyist origins. The position of leading member Redmond O'Neill in the Greater London Authority has given him an important role in the organisation of the European Social Forum. Mike Macnair looks at the group's history and practice

Socialist Action has recently achieved some prominence as a result of the role of its members, ex-members or supporters among Ken Livingstone’s salaried political advisers at the Greater London Authority, and the resulting central role of GLA official and SA leader Redmond O’Neill in organising the London European Social Forum. Perhaps less welcome to SA were the allegations by Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament ex-officer Jimmy Barnes that SA, together with the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, had “taken over” CND as a base from which to exercise influence in the Stop the War Coalition (The Guardian December 1 2003).

In addition to SA’s practical prominence in the organisational preparations for the ESF, its evolution should serve as a warning to Socialist Workers Party members and supporters and, especially, to those of the International Socialist Group/Resistance. The policy these trends are now pursuing in Respect is identical to the policy of SA at an earlier stage in its history. Their destiny, if they do not draw back, is to end up like Socialist Action. The warning should be particularly clear to ISG members since their organisation was founded at least in part by a split from Socialist Action animated by its evolution.

The political ideas of Socialist Action are not easy to discover or decipher. It publishes - or published until 1999 - an occasional magazine, Socialist Action Review, and runs - if you could call it that - a website (last updated in March 2003, with the text of a pamphlet about the Iraq war). SA also runs the left-Labour monthly Socialist Campaign Group News, but this is almost purely a platform for elements of the left in the Parliamentary Labour Party and in the trade union bureaucracies. Similarly, SA members or sympathisers have acquired a series of posts in longstanding campaigns (CND, the National Abortion Campaign, and so on) and in trade union officialdom. In the National Union of Students they have become the primary force animating the Broad Left, which in the 1970s united the old Eurocommunists with Labour elements to control the NUS. Now much smaller, the NUS Broad Left was still able to get one of its members elected to the executive in 2003.

SA supporters’ route to positions of influence has had two elements. In the first place, they are commonly efficient administrators and do not openly differentiate themselves politically from the mainstream opinions in the bureaucracies in which they work. Secondly, they provide the left Labourites and other bureaucrats whom they support with a ‘striking force’ of operators well-versed in the techniques of sectarianism and bureaucratic manipulation and committed to oppose any extension of the influence of the far left. This is a role similar to that of the Stalinists who formed the core of the old semi-secret ‘Operation Icepick’ which drove supporters of the Militant Tendency out of the National Organisation of Labour Students in the 1970s (the name is a reference to the weapon used to assassinate Trotsky). SA gives to the Livingstones, etc “plausible deniability”: they can assert their own democratic character against the far left, the anti-democratic manipulations used in their interest being blamed on SA today, on the ‘official’ Communist Party in the 1970s.

The practices described above are SA’s operative politics - the part which has practical consequences in the real world. Socialist Action Review gave through the 1990s an image of SA’s political ideology - the general political ideas by which it justifies its practices to itself and its contacts. The low practical significance of these ideas to SA is illustrated by the fact that - so far as can be seen from its website - SA Review appeared only annually between 1997 and 1999 and approximately twice a year in 1991-96.

Socialist Action has its origins in the Socialist League (formerly the International Marxist Group), between the late 1960s and mid-1980s the British section of (the Unified Secretariat of) the Fourth International, the major Trotskyist ‘international’. The Socialist League published a paper called Socialist Action.

Naturally, with this background, much of SA Review was devoted to analysis of the international situation. The core of this analysis is that the fall of the Soviet Union was a major defeat for the working class. Therefore, it is argued, the task of the left internationally is to regroup on a much more limited basis, bringing together all those who “stand for the interests of the working class” - by which is meant those who “actually” oppose the concrete attacks of the bourgeoisie.

This turns out to be (mainly) the official left leaders in the imperialist heartlands, the elements of the ‘official’ communist parties that have not suffered complete political collapse everywhere, and “anti-imperialist fighters” - from general Aideed in Somalia, to the “Serbian people” (ie, the supporters of the Milosevic regime) and so on. SA Review has also provided enthusiastic backing for the various attempt of the ‘official communist’ movement to regroup itself internationally.

In British politics, this general policy has two distinctive features. Firstly, SA Review has insisted on opposition to any policy which could separate the hard-core left in the Labour Party from the ‘soft left’ (who, of course, shade into semi-dissident Blairites). The main danger, it argues, is that of isolation. This policy was presumably behind SA’s 1996-98 intervention into the faction fight in the Morning Star-CPB between the Hicks-Rosser group, then in control, and the Griffiths-Haylett faction which replaced them. SA backed the losing side.

Secondly, is the concept of a “hegemonic policy”. Drawn (in the terms used) from Gramsci, this starts from the correct understanding that the working class cannot simply fight on economic issues, but has to aim to take power away from the capitalist class and hence to offer a policy for the whole of society. When, however, this is coupled with the previous idea that “those who actually fight” amount to the class movement or the left, the result is a collapse into the identity politics beloved of the Eurocommunists in the 1980s. The ‘actual fighters’ - ie, the feminist groups and the black caucuses in NUS and, more recently, the “community organisations” of, for example, muslims - are to have the right to determine policy. The “hegemonic policy” of the workers’ movement is then merely to support the demands raised by these movements.

SA’s analysis that the practical consequences of the fall of the USSR amounted to a defeat for the workers’ movement in its existing form was perfectly correct and has been borne out by the increasingly open attacks of the capitalists on the working class internationally over the last 15 years. The question of the class character of the Stalinist regimes does not (with all due respect to Alliance for Workers’ Liberty comrades) have any bearing on this: whatever their class character, too much of the strategy, policy and organisations of the workers’ movement internationally had been built round the idea of these regimes as the ‘socialist rearguard’ for them to fall without severe adverse consequences for the workers’ movement.

However, the conclusion SA draws does not logically follow from this analysis. This can be seen transparently from the fact that SA was already arguing for the recomposition of the workers’ movement based on “those who fight” before the fall of the Stalinist regimes and in periods when it considered the working class to be on the offensive (around the Nicaraguan revolution and the South African movement in the early 1980s); the tendency from which SA originates - the faction led by John Ross in the old IMG - was pursuing the basic elements of its current policy, under different names, when everyone considered the working class to be on the offensive (in 1973-75).

Conversely, when a project goes badly wrong, it is normal to try and work out why in order to avoid making the same mistake in future. The fall of the USSR is a pretty clear example of a project which failed catastrophically. The subsequent fates of semi-Stalinoid nationalisms (Yugoslavia, Iraq) rather confirms the obvious conclusion that bureaucratic dictatorship, nationalism and autarkic economic projects are not a strategic route to defeating imperialism. SA Review’s strategic response - “unify everyone who actually fights” - precisely proposes unity on the terms of those people who refuse to draw any lessons, but want to go on in the old way as if the USSR had never fallen.

Within Britain, the effect of SA Review’s policy (were SA’s advice taken) in the Labour Party would be to give the ‘soft left’ a veto over the actions and arguments of revolutionaries. Since the soft left is precisely defined by unwillingness to make a sharp break with the Blairites, that in turn would give the Blairites a veto over what are acceptable terms of opposition in the Labour Party, and let them set the terms of the political agenda. Within the Gramscian terms of which SA is so fond, this is a “corporative” strategy - one that merely opposes - rather than a potentially “hegemonic” one - one that puts forward an alternative.

Rather similar problems affect SA Review’s “hegemonic policy” in relation to identity politics. The problem with identity politics, as became transparent to almost everyone in the course of the 1980s, is that the common experience of oppression (as a woman, as a black person, as a gay man or lesbian, as a Jew) does not in fact and cannot produce a potentially “hegemonic” policy. On the contrary, all the groups of the oppressed are divided - by class and political and religious choices, and by the cross-cutting effects of other personal oppressions (black women and white women have different experiences, and so on to an infinity of particulars which ends with every individual being able to speak only for themselves). It is only class politics which has the potential to construct a “hegemonic” alternative which can draw together the oppressed. In the 1980s this became apparent in the rise of Cosatu in South Africa, in the Brazilian Workers Party, in the Korean trade union movement, and in Britain - for a brief moment - in the mass mobilisation round the 1984-85 miners’ strike.

SA therefore cannot construct a “hegemonic” policy out of unifying “those who fight”. What it has elected to do instead is to privilege the race question and to characterise as racist any criticism of the dominant political-religious trends among people of colour. SA has thus become a true ideological inheritor of the ‘anti-imperialist’ Maoism of the 1970s student movement.

Ideologies are distinct from scientific theory in two ways. The first is that ideologies persist after they have been clearly falsified by evidence. The second, which explains why they do so, is that ideologies are not guides to action. They are justifications of the types of action the ideology-users are already pursuing for other reasons. Multiple ideologies may therefore back the same course of action:

“The accursed power that stands on Privilege
And goes with women, and champagne, and Bridge
Broke: and Democracy resumed her reign
Which goes with Bridge, and women, and champagne”
(Edgell Rickword).

In the case of SA this is exemplified by way the Ross faction argued in 1973-75, on grounds connected with the powerful offensive of the class, for a “priority united-front axis towards the left social democratic organising cadre of the class” - ie, tailing the Labour lefts and the ‘official’ Communist Party. In the 1980s and 90s we find the same tendency arguing, on the basis of serious defeat of the class, for “recomposing the left” on the minimal basis of “those who fight”: ie, tailing the less radical element of the Labour lefts and the Morning Star’s CPB.

What therefore fails to be explained is the Ross faction/SA’s orientation in practice, as opposed to its formal ideology. Where did the practice of gaining “influence” by playing the role of organisers and hit-men for various bureaucrats, left social-democrats and Stalinists come from?

SA originated as a faction (misleadingly called a ‘tendency’ in Fourth-International-speak) in the old IMG. This organisation was characterised by two sharp internal contradictions in its ideas and those of the Fourth International of which it was part.

First, it was committed to programmatic documents based more or less directly on the Transitional programme written by Trotsky and adopted as the founding programme of the Fourth International in 1938. Large chunks of this programme were until the 1980s routinely repeated in programmatic documents issued by the world congresses of the Fourth International. In particular, the struggle for workers’ democracy against both Stalinist bureaucratism and its Trot-sect imitators was a constant theme of IMG propaganda and of its limited agitation in the trade unions, etc. However, the actual overthrows of capitalism by Stalinist parties had led the Fourth International in practice to the conclusion that its programme was not actually necessary to achieve a revolutionary policy. The Cuban revolution in particular had led to a ‘refoundation’ of the Fourth International on the basis of critical support to Castro and hostility to those Trotskyists, etc who rejected this approach. The same attitude was to be adopted in relation to the Vietnamese Communist Party, the ‘cultural revolution’ in China, and so on.

Secondly and relatedly, the IMG had been from its beginnings in the 1960s a group which advocated regroupment of the far left - initially within the Labour Party and from 1967-68 outside it. But the actually existing far left groups in Britain did not share the Fourth International/IMG’s attitude to Cuba, Vietnam, and so on. Paradoxically, they also objected to the IMG’s ‘democratism’ and its willingness to support the movements of black people, women and lesbians, and gay men, which began to emerge in the 1960s. Regroupment was thus a seriously tough problem. This, of course, remains true, even if the particular issues have shifted.

These contradictions crystallised in 1973-76 into two approaches to the IMG’s political work. To simplify grossly, the majority led by John Ross argued for a “priority united-front axis towards the left social democratic organising cadre of the class” round “punctual” initiatives (single demonstrations, local and national conferences, etc). Getting the official lefts onside would make possible broad mobilisations. Since the class was moving forward, these broad mobilisations would allow the IMG to recruit directly from newly radicalising militants and thus outgrow the rest of the far left. The principal minority faction, which had a rather more diffuse leadership, argued for building long-term structured lefts in the unions and campaigns, based on fighting initially for united action of the far left, which could draw in the official lefts more on the far left’s terms; these processes would set in motion a dynamic towards regroupment.

In 1975-76 it became clear that the official lefts would no longer play ball. In 1976-79 the IMG experimented with the minority’s perspective, with some limited success in the trade unions and campaigns, but none on the electoral front. This failure, together with international developments, drove successive ‘turns’ - first sending militants to work in factories, then full entry in the Labour Party. Within Labour, in the early 1980s the old Rossite perspective of ‘first get the official lefts on board, then recruit’ resurfaced as the orientation to the so-called “Benn-Scargill-Livingstone tendency”. It is from this approach that today’s SA descends. In other words, the core practices of SA developed out of a concept of the united front substantially identical to that currently used by the SWP.

There is also a social basis to this practice. The Ross tendency always had its main voting base in the IMG/Socialist League’s student work. Its leaders mainly were drawn ‘upwards’ by cooption of successful student union activists, who thus passed from full-time student union posts to full-time posts for the IMG-SL. They had their political training - and the same is true of the large majority of the leaders of today’s SWP and AWL - in the deeply cynical and manipulative world of NUS politics.

The NUS is not a trade union. Students, after all, normally cease to be students and pass on to managerial or professional employment. They are engaged in student politics usually for at most two and a half years. A new generation follows them. The result is that student politics has three marked features. The first is that mistakes do not matter. They will be forgotten and repeated, as new generations enter student politics. The second, and related, is that in student politics it is really true that a group leadership can take the view that ‘the membership has failed us: we must elect a new membership’. The third is that since the 1960s student politics has been a principal training ground for professional bourgeois politics: old Broad Left and Labour Student activists become MPs. In their NUS politics they are learning to play the parliamentary game. Since the 1980s former student politicians have also furnished an increasing part of the supply of trade union full-time officials. Careerism is thus normal, and so is cynical manipulations of procedural rules for slight advantages.

It is thus natural for a tendency whose leaders are drawn from student activists and which has for any length of time recruited mainly from student politics to acquire a bureaucrat’s eye view of the world. But this is in flat contradiction with the traditional programmatic ideas of the far left about ‘socialism from below’, workers’ democracy and so on. One aspect or another of the politics must give. Socialist Action, with its overt collapse into Stalinist politics, is merely an extreme example of political ideas adapting themselves to the leadership’s bureaucracy.