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John Sullivan on British Trotskyism

Go Fourth and Multiply

John Sullivan

Go Fourth and Multiply

Part II: The Ex-Left

The Chartists

Cooling Out – Or Return Of The Prodigal

THE Chartists split from the IMG in 1968, urging a turn to the labour movement rather than the FI’s line of tagging along with the new mass vanguard (that is, the student revolt). Their founding documents make an extremely cogent criticism of the student vanguard theories which were fashionable at the time. The Chartists soon evolved two distinctive views:

  1. The Labour Party wasn’t a party really, but a Soviet. The LP, unlike Continental Social Democracies, had no real ideology or discipline, being rather a meeting ground of all tendencies in the labour movement. Therefore it could fairly easily be transformed into a revolutionary party.
  2. The final crisis was near, and there was little time left to build the Revolutionary Party, that is, the Chartists, before it came.

These twin theories gave the Chartists their distinctive character. Catastrophism and a commitment to the labour movement.

They did some good work trying to organise troops into a union (work in this delicate area was made even more difficult by the illusions which they shared with all of the middle-class English left about Irish Nationalism).

Six years hard work didn’t get the Chartists very far. The LP hasn’t become a revolutionary party, whatever the Daily Telegraph says. The world economic crisis did develop, but the workers didn’t flock to the Chartist banner, so the cadre became rather demoralised. The Portuguese revolution of 1974 gave the Chartists a fillip, and encouraged them to abandon their belief in the working class which had first led them to abandon the IMG. (The attraction of the dashing officer is like a virus. The Chartists seemed resistant to it in 1968, only to succumb in 1974, when the epidemic was on the wane elsewhere.) The Chartists were also smitten by the Eurocommunist bug, so the decline of Eurocommunism left them rather at a loss. The group evolved to a traditional middle-class leftist posture; making a great deal of their commitment to democracy and rejection of ‘authoritarian’ Bolshevik models. (Those who objected were expelled in the ruthless manner which you would expect.)

They still exist, but it’s not clear why. Their ideas are the accepted wisdom of the moderate middle-class left with a touch of Gramscian sauce to add spice to the traditional insipid menu. If the New Statesman or the New Left Review won’t print your articles, send them to the Chartist. OK – it’s a bit down-market, but beggars can’t be choosers.

(not the Independent Labour Party)

THE Independent Labour Party, founded by Keir Hardy in 1893, was the main British socialist party before 1918, when the Labour Party became a membership organisation.

In 1932, the ILP split from the Labour Party after the disaster of the Ramsay MacDonald government. It was able until 1947 to maintain a space to the left of the Labour Party.

The 1945 Labour government’s reforms removed the ILP’s constituency. Most members went into the Labour Party, and the remainder, understandably, reacted defensively, conserved the organisation, but had no real idea where to go. They were afraid of takeover bids, as the ILP’s considerable financial resources and control of the National Labour Press were very tempting.

Fear of being taken over had made them so cautious that they were unable to replace their dying members, so the party ran into Catch 22. The smaller it got the more vulnerable it was to takeover bids, although by the 1950s the ILP ceased to attract the attention of most left groups. However, after 1956, ructions inside the Communist Party and Young Communist League produced new political entrepreneurs, and the ILP was again plagued by entrism.

The entrists moved slowly at first. The Esperanto column wasn’t phased out till the late 1960s. We all like to think that history is on our side, but there was no doubt that History and his accomplice, Death, performed sterling work for the ILP entrists during the 1960s and 1970s, when Death’s scythe cut down the old ILPers like corn at harvest time. Well, we’ve all got to go some time. Younger readers will have to take my word for it that whatever those old comrades’ theoretical shortcomings, their commitment, generosity and tolerance made them a joy to know.

In 1978, a coup transformed the ILP (Independent Labour Party) into ILP (Independent Labour Publications) (the retention of the initials meant the outside world didn’t twig, but some of the old members resigned). The controlling junta turned the new ILP into a pressure group inside the Labour Party. But which way should they pull? The group adopted the Eurocommunist ideas of the mid-1970s, making some people think a CP takeover had finally succeeded after failing in 1921, 1932 and later during the Popular Front.

Some surprise was shown when the pamphlet John Macnair’s Spanish Diary, by a former General Secretary of the ILP, was published not by the ILP but by its dissident Manchester branch. The pamphlet was bitterly critical of the CP’s role in the Spanish Civil War.

Why did it fail?

The ILP was by the late 1970s just one of a number of pressure groups active in the inner Labour Party struggle. In fact, this ground became rather crowded, and the ILP in 1981 moved decisively to the right in accordance with Kaur’s Law [1], became sharply critical of Benn, and lost its left sympathisers. As time-served entrists, they feel well qualified to witch-hunt more recent arrivals.

Now, like an Irish priest walking the narrow tightrope between vice and virtue, the ILP tries to keep a balance between Benn and Hattersley.

The old members? They died. It’s been a long time since the 1932 split and a lot of younger members had left to join the Labour Party from the 1930s to the 1950s. The controlling junta has finally taken control after more than 20 years of patient entry work. But what to do with the machine? No, definitely not the Independent Labour Party.

Strength: ILP members, old 40, new 30

National Labour Press Assets – not available

Conclusion – What Went Wrong?

BACK in the 1960s in the LPYS we sang:

We joined the British Pabloites
To set the workers free
But that rascal Pablo sold us out
To the Arab bourgeoisie.

But our explanations weren’t really good enough. The movement was in a bad way long before Michel Raptis joined Ben Bella’s government.

Everyone knows that a blow from Ramon Mercador’s ice-pick stopped Trotsky’s brain from working. But what stopped his followers’ brains from functioning? A tricky question. Doctors are supposed to recognise a corpse when they see one, but it’s difficult to fix the date when British Trotskyism died and the bizarre Trotskyoid vendors of panaceas for the troubled middle classes replaced it. Certainly by 1953 all of the groups had abandoned the essentials of revolutionary Marxism.

The Market: Capitalism turns everything into commodities. The sad fate of left groups which set out to overthrow capitalism has a cruel irony. They have ended up selling a commodity and searching for a market, just as other entrepreneurs sell newspapers or plastic buckets.

Few groups started out with their present miserable commercial ambitions; they didn’t want to sell a product, but make a revolution. The leaders of the newer groups aren’t yet aware that they have sold out. The leaders of the older groups are in a rather different position. Some of them have pursued so many different contradictory policies that there is no possibility of them believing their own propaganda.

How did they degenerate? The groups adapted to their environment. After 1968 this meant adapting to the concepts and lifestyles of the balding generation of 1968, who were themselves becoming strongly influenced by well-established English middle-class traditions of personal fulfilment, vegetarianism, self-help, and rejection of industrialism and the modern world.

The left has become parasitic on this milieu.

As a standard text on the invertebrates puts it: ‘the effects of parasitism on the parasite are ever more marked … it becomes so completely adapted to its peculiar environment that it usually loses many of the characteristics of its free-living relatives…’ (Buchsbaum, quoted by Duncan Hallas in the Socialist Register 1977)

Most of the left groups’ capitulation to this milieu was pretty complete. It didn’t end their differences with each other on such questions as the class nature of the Russian state, but traditional theoretical differences now look very minor among groups who have wholeheartedly embraced Feminism and life-stylism. Consequently, unity manoeuvres are in the air and we may well get a reduction in the number of groups.

Does it matter? Time will tell whether a rising tide of class struggle will revive the groups’ radical impulses or leave them stranded.

Editor’s Note: Many readers have pointed out that the first edition isn’t comprehensive. Some groups aren’t included. The same is true of the present edition, in spite of the devoted assistance of Mo Klonsky and Chas Aguirre. A really comprehensive survey is too much for a few people. It has to be a collective effort. Help fill the gaps by sending in your entry for inclusion in future editions.

Part 1


1. Kaur’s Law states that where there is an idiocy unvoiced a left group will step into the vacuum.

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Last updated on 28.7.2007