Peter Sedgwick

The Pretenders

An Answer to R. Emmett

(1 January 1959)

Peter Sedgwick, The Pretenders, An Answer to R. Emmett, Socialist Review, January 1959.
Published in the collection A Socialist Review (1965), pp.163-167.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

No Left-winger doubts that the leadership of the Labour movement is in bungling reformist hands. Some Socialists. though, seem to think that having said this very loudly, in greater or less detail, with the further proviso that their own brand of leadership is the only “correct” one, there is little else to talk about. For such comrades, faulty leadership is the missing sign in the equation that would otherwise add up to Revolution, the gap in the circuit whose closure would electrify the masses into active socialist consciousness.

Follow my leader

Socialists who think and act in these terms may be justly called The Pretenders. The throne of working-class leadership is, on this view, held by a usurper of some kind, of doubtful authenticity and probably bastard petty-bourgeois stock. If the true heir, equipped with the right royal birthmarks of “clarity,” “scientific Socialism,” “Socialist humanism” or whatever, were to occupy his lawful place, all would be well with the movement. The typical behaviour of a Pretender is to try to discredit the credentials of the usurping King (by means, e.g., of close scrutinies of Comintern history, or of plausible scandal-mongering) and to establish his own authority, particularly by tracing a connection of lineage between himself and, e.g., Keir Hardie, William Morris, Rosa Luxemburg, John MacLean or Leon Trotsky.

Pretenders are so pre-occupied with the problem of Kingship (or leadership as they insist on calling it) that they seldom bother to find out the attitudes of their prospective subjects, the working class of this country. Or rather, if they do draw upon the opinions of workers, they do so in such a way as to add to the lustre of their own particular claim to royalty.

Victory for “Socialists”

Very few Socialists are altogether free from Pretender-like faults. Some trends in the movement, however, are especially prone to such vices. Victory For Socialism, to take an example. specializes in establishing a claim by issuing draft edicts which are intended as a counter-blast to the corrupt decrees of the official hierarchy, and by insinuating its friends into positions of favour in the Court (or Parliamentary Labour Party). These drafts, accompanied as they are by very little in the way of agitation and local action, have practically no effect – as can be seen from the voting at the last Labour Party Conference. The dream of “ capturing the machine,” envisaged by certain VFS top-liners, is doomed by the essentially passive role allotted to the workers in the process of social transformation. The function of the masses is seen as one of recogntzing the righteousness of the VFS programme once it has won acceptance at Transport House, and thence of voting its proponents into Westminster at (it is hoped) five yearly intermits. Workers’ control in industry is seen by VFS (in its pamphlet Industry Your Servant) as an afterthought to its general program for public ownership, not as a platform inseparable from any kind of nationalization which is not to be a disguise for State-capitalists.

For VFS, the struggle for Socialism is seen as taking place primarily within the Labour Party machine, not as dependent upon the growth in experience and action of millions of ordinary people. Without this conscious involvement of the majority of the working class, VFS’s program would in fact be as empty as the Left resolutions of the Co-operative Party’s “millions,” even supposing that the Transport House machine could be made to yield. And it is hardly likely that the “machine” would change hands at all, in the absence of a radical and widespread change in working-class consciousness.

Masses and Media

The Pretending ambitions of certain Universities-and-Left-Reviewers are rather more specialized. The “mass media” of television, films, advertising and the popular Press jointly form the Throne now unlawfully occupied, the Machine being driven by the wrong hands. An expose is produced, brilliant, sensitive and often jargonized, of the whole poison of “mass-culture.” Give us the tools, these young men plead, and we can begin the job of spreading the values of socialist humanism. Once again, as with VFS, the appeal falls on no ears but their own. Once again, the part assigned to the working class is one of mute, intuitive approval. In most of the meetings of the ULR Club (though not in most of the ULR magazine) the working class is discussed as the object of social enquiry, or as the recipient of social welfare; never as the subject and the agent of social change.

If only Trotsky ...

The Pretenders who have excited most recent attention in the trade union movement are undoubtedly those from the Newsletter brand of Trotskyism. The Throne to which these comrades lay claim is that occupied by orthodox Communism; hence the somewhat weird self-description of “Bolsheviks” which they are fond of using. Article after article is produced in Labour Review and the Newsletter, replete with minute facts and dates, to the effect that the Communist Party has, for some years, been getting the wrong orders from Moscow. If only Trotsky had been running the Kremlin, one gathers, they would have had the right orders. Strange to say, the whole system of giving and obeying orders from a centralized international office is never challenged. Similarly, the satellite organizations of the CP’s Rightist periods are roundly lambasted. Yet the CP “front” organizations aimed at the working class, such as the Minority Movement, are not only not criticized, but even taken as a model for present action. (If anybody doubts that the Minority Movement was such a “front,” let him ask himself why its existence could be “switched off” so easily in 1929.)

For the Newsletter, the claim of Trotsky to the Marxian mantle must be kept inviolate. Soviet degeneracy must therefore have begun when Trotsky was under attack, not when he shared the dower. The butchery of the Kronstadt rebels, the expulsion of the Workers’ Opposition, the dragooning of the Soviets and unions, the betrayal of the anarchist armies, the creation of the one-Party State, all of which took place in Trotsky’s hey-day, are passed over in silence. All controversy with the CP takes place within the assumptions of Leninist centralism. “The proletariat can take power only through its vanguard ... The Soviets are only the organized form of the tie between the vanguard and the class. A revolutionary content can be given to this form only by the party.” (Trotsky, Stalinism and Bolshevism, 1937.) The ice-pick that smashed through the Old Man’s skull in 1940 was possibly also something of a boomerang.

If only we ...

The Newsletter Marxists are Pretenders in a double sense. Not only do they pretend to the title of Bolshevik leadership; they also have to pretend, to themselves as much as anybody, that the possibility of attaining this title genuinely exists. The workers, we are always being told, are waiting for a revolutionary lead. All that is needed is somebody to stir them up. The British working man prefers the TV set to the TU meeting, not because of full employment, not because of Imperialist prosperity, not because he likes being with his wife and kids, but because the Labour and CP leaders have betrayed his deep militant aspirations. The masses really want to abolish the H-bomb, unilaterally and all, but they would hate to see it done by any other means but direct industrial action. So – “Black The Bomb! Black The Bases!” the cry goes up from the Bolshevik vanguard; to be parroted enthusiastically by Socialist Reviewers, guiltily by ULR types. The result is just about nil.

Again: the workers of Notting Hill are quite obviously dead against the race-riots, and are just waiting for Peter Fryer to tell them to sweep the racialists (Mosley’s boys, of course) off the streets. The Bolshevik vanguard is not slow to oblige: “Form patrols of trade unionists!” The only trouble is that the youthful proletariat seems to have got the slogans mixed up; instead of blacking the bombs at Aldermaston, they went off and bombed the blacks in Notting Hill.

Hysterical materialism

Recent industrial activities of the Newsletter group have been analysed by Robert Emmett in Socialist Review a couple of issues back. Some of his allegations misrepresent the Newsletter’s industrial aims. His implication that the November Rank-and-File Conference “was called to set up a counter-machinery to the union branches is simply untrue. While the claims of the Conference’s sponsors smack of the Hysterical Materialism noted above (“... opened a new chapter ... marked a milestone in British working-class history”), it was obviously tremendously useful as a gathering of militants from all over Britain, and its Charter of Demands is an excellent program indeed. This remains true however much we may criticize several aspects of the running of the Conference: the attempted exclusion of Socialist Review, the enormous platform, the cagey refusal to give the number of organizations represented by delegates, without which information the figure of “500 present” is very vague.

Some responsibility BUT ...

Where Emmett is right is in his careful statement that the Newsletter must accept some responsibility, along with the union bureaucracies and the altogether vicious employers, for the South Bank fiasco. It is quite likely that the AUBTW and other union executives would have let down their workers in any case, even if the Newsletter had not been so prominent in the dispute – we cannot tell. But the presence of the Newsletter in force as an outside Pretending body and the unnecessarily provocative attitude of these outside individuals to the union executives, was bound to draw fire from the bureaucrats concerned, and to line up the wavering South Bank workers with the union officials. Having said that, it still remains the AUBTW official witchhunt against Behan, Maguire and other militants is disgusting and must be combated by every Socialist. I am sure that Robert Emmett would agree; to compare his criticisms with the smears of Fleet Street, as the Newsletter does, is ridiculous. Pretenders are notorious for the game of identifying their particular interest with the cause of righteousness.

The danger of “Pretending”

All the tendencies which have been criticized above have substantial achievements to their credit in the movement. All of them contain in their numbers many Socialists of outstanding calibre, before whose experience and principle any of us must feel humble. Any political formation, like any individual person, possesses not oneself, one “role,” one nature, but many, varying from situation to situation, some good and some bad . The fault that I have called Pretending is only part of the collective personality of these formations. In some circumstances, however, this failing may emerge as a powerful and even decisive influence for ill. In the Bard’s words:

These men –
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect.
Being Nature’s livery or fortune’s star
Their virtues else – be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo –
Shall in the general censure take corruption from that particular fault.

January 1, 1959


Last updated on 21.11.2004