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John Sullivan on British Trotskyism

As Soon As This Pub Closes

John Sullivan

As Soon As This Pub Closes

Socialist Organiser

SOCIALIST Organiser is the current name both of the organisation led by John O’Mahoney, which is one of the most enduring features of the British left, and of his weekly journal. Operating for the past generation under a bewildering variety of names, it has at some time or other split and fused with most of the longer-established groups. Although most leaders of longer-established groups are ex-partners of O’Mahoney, they seem unable to make a balanced assessment of his fascinating political odyssey.

As we do not have nearly enough space to describe the long, complicated history of what is currently Socialist Organiser, it would help if we could explain the guiding ideas which have given continuity throughout so many changes of name and partners. Unfortunately this is not possible either, as there are none! That such formidable intransigence and organisational continuity has coexisted with a bewildering variety of positions goes some way to explain his former associates’ fury. For example, when O’Mahoney (then trading under the name of Workers Fight) led an entrist faction in Tony Cliff’s International Socialists, he was strongly anti-Labour Party even to the extent of calling for electoral abstention. Today, Socialist Organiser is extremely loyal to the Labour Party, and reserves most of its spleen for attacks on Militant.

Let us leave accusations of mental instability as the last resort of O’Mahoney’s exasperated former partners, and seek to explain his conduct by its social context. Lenin was fond of quoting Tolstoy’s anecdote of the man who appeared, from the distance, to be making lunatic gestures, and could be seen as deranged. When seen from closer up, the man was engaged in the perfectly rational activity of sharpening a knife on the kerbstone. Those who have been the kerbstone on which O’Mahoney’s political knife was stropped are hardly impartial witnesses. O’Mahoney once believed that Ernest Mandel’s Fourth International was a basically healthy organisation which was cursed with a lousy British section, the IMG, whose leadership included the likes of playboy Tariq Ali. O’Mahoney’s bid for the Fourth International franchise was turned down by Mandel, who is said to have since regretted his decision. Mandel thought that O’Mahoney’s aggressive style was unsuitable for a group which wanted to attract student youth. In fact, intransigence and hardness verging on personal rudeness is an advantage for an organisation which, ideologically, is travelling light.

O’Mahoney’s style, by appealing to other toughies, has sometimes brought him curious allies. For example, in the early 1970s, as mainstream feminism disintegrated, some socialist feminists, repelled by trends towards mysticism and libertarian domesticity, and anxious to stay in the labour movement, chose O’Mahoney. They had come to agree with Mae West that a hard man was good to find. When, under their influence, Socialist Organiser protested that divorce was becoming too easy, we were prompted into a rare unladylike remonstrance. O’Mahoney eventually tired of his unrequited love for Mandel’s Fourth International and tried to set up his own. This required the elaboration of theoretical differences, not a difficult task, given Mandel’s drift away from Marxism. In the Falklands War, O’Mahoney was very much in a minority in resolutely opposing the war, while refusing to support Galtieri, whom the rest of the left saw as a combination of William Tell and Robin Hood. He was of course taking up the orthodox communist tradition of Lenin and Liebknecht, but it inevitably split his group, throwing his then partner Alan Thornett into the arms of Mandel. O’Mahoney knew that, once the Falklands War was over, he would need to find other issues to justify his organisational independence, not any easy task in a Labour Party crowded with entrist groups which were (prior to the publication of this guide) indistinguishable to the average observer.

O’Mahoney needed a good package mix, and unlike some of his more ignorant competitors, he knew that the package could not be assembled from just any old ingredients. We make history in conditions not of our own choosing. The kerbstone and the knife are already there, and we can choose only how to deploy them. O’Mahoney considered – and rejected – attacking the corruption of the GLC and the London boroughs, mainly because the hated SWP had already done so. He did not even consider attacking the Black careerists in the Labour Party because they were allies in the fight against the even more hated Militant. Engels’ position on Gay Lib was examined and quickly discarded as political kamikaze. What was left? Socialist Organiser’s student supporters were fed up at being shouted down by feminists for being men, or members of a male-dominated group if they were women. They launched an attack on the Feminocracy, who denied that there were class differences among women. When that line got a good response from young women, O’Mahoney realised he was on to something. He then looked at the doctrine of uncritical support for the PLO, till then unanimous among left students, and saw a point of attack. He accused the student left, and the SWP in particular, of anti-Semitism. We think this charge is unjustified; SWP students include a fair number of yobbos who are not too delicate in their debating style, but they are, on average, less anti-Semitic than traditional conservatives. Nevertheless, O’Mahoney, who for years had castigated other groups for giving only lukewarm support to the PLO, decided that Israel had a right to exist. O’Mahoney, who can think on his feet, realised that consistency demanded that he extend his argument to maintain that no ethnic group was intrinsically evil, and come out against genocide in principle. Therefore, he next attacked the contention of the IRA and the majority of the British left that the Irish Protestants were intrinsically reactionary. He now argues that Irish reunification should be achieved by a united working class. Where will it end? Is O’Mahoney going to end up as an orthodox Marxist? Many of those who were tongue-lashed by him for suggesting just a fraction of what he now proclaims are bewildered. His enemies (who if got together would be the largest group on the left) say that he is on the way to becoming a fully-fledged Zionist. That is probably not true: what is true is that any position he advances has an organisational reason behind it. In this case, O’Mahoney’s belief that he might be able to recruit from the Jewish Socialist Group, a small group of nice people who get upset at the confusion between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism which prevails in student politics.

There is one exception to O’Mahoney’s distaste for continuity. He has always been a consistent Stalinophobe. That is, he has taken one side of Trotsky’s rich and complex analysis of the Soviet Union and announced that the bureaucratically-run state economies are reactionary. A more common deviation among self-styled Trotskyists has been to treat Stalinism as something in the past and to act as cheerleaders for more recent Stalinist bosses. It is certainly difficult to apply Trotsky’s analysis consistently, and many former Trotskyists such as Max Shachtman and Tony Cliff, have reacted by arguing that it is politically incoherent. Yet, everyone who has ever had to suffer corrupt, drunken and incompetent union leaders, while defending the union against the employers, recognises the validity of Trotsky’s analysis which, admittedly, gives us no formula for instant solutions to new problems. O’Mahoney has, in fact, accepted the thesis, advanced by Shachtman in 1940, that there is no progressive element left in the bureaucratised states. Why then does he not say so? For two reasons: one, he is still disputing the claim for the orthodox Trotskyist market with Mandel and his ilk, so a declaration of Shachtmanism is, as yet, premature. Secondly, the British SWP, which agrees with him on issues such as supporting the Mullahs in Afghanistan and the Pope in Poland, is very much larger than his own group. Agreement with the hated SWP would create problems for the smaller group, so the coming alteration in line must be carefully prepared and will probably not be announced until 1989.

O’Mahoney’s theoretical journal, Workers Liberty, is currently the most stimulating read on the left, and makes one wish that such a keen intelligence could be freed from the constraints of short-term factional and organisational appetites. However, the logic of total immersion in domestic Labour Party matters will soon reduce political discussion to Militant-bashing, so read it while you can, as the journal is unlikely to maintain its present level for long.

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Last updated on 28.7.2007