Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 1


Militant Tendency

Jens-Peter Steffen
Militant Tendency: Trotzkismus in der Labour Party
Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main, 1994, pp. 284, DM79

We present two reviews of this important book, the first by Mike Jones, and the second by Esther Leslie.

THIS BOOK is the product of a decade’s research. It is a revised and drastically shortened version of the author’s dissertation. He has used archive materials, interviews, internal and external publications, books from and about the Trotskyist movement, labour movement studies, newspaper and magazine articles, etc., and the huge source reference indicates just how much effort the author has expended on his subject. Unlike many university products, where sources are a bluff designed to impress, here one feels that the author has genuinely read them. He thanks some of the comrades, past and present, associated with this journal for their kind assistance, although it is quite clear that he does not share their views.

What we have is the most definitive study of the British phenomenon known as the Militant Tendency, from its start to its recent split, going back to its prehistory in British Trotskyism, and an attempt, in turn, to locate that within the tradition of British left wing politics. It is seen through the eyes of a German Social Democrat of the postwar generation, not a working class party or union activist, but somebody examining the movement from without. This is partly a plus, inasmuch as he is more rigorous in tackling theoretical questions, and partly a minus, as he has not succeeded in fully grasping the subject. Never mind; I don’t think that the Trotskyist movement could produce anything better.

The author’s introduction states: ‘Neither the conceptions nor the activity of the British left ... can be understood without considering their relationship with the Labour Party and its links with the trade unions.’ (p. 13) He then introduces us to Trotskyism and British Marxism without ever giving us any definition of the nature of the Labour Party, or what the Marxist attitude should be towards it. Given that Militant developed as a group entrenched in the Labour Party, this is a central problem. In the section of the book devoted to Militant’s doctrine, the author points out that only in the 1970s did it define the Labour Party ‘as a proletarian organisation with a capitalist leadership’, and that studies of Militant itself lack a definition of it. Callaghan devotes just 13 lines to it, whilst Crick sets out no coherent thoughts on it at all (p. 131). The author believes, rightly in my opinion, that the focus of Militant upon the Labour Party developed out of the lack of any other option at the time when it began, hence its theoretical justification was cobbled together post factum.

Those Trotskyist organisations facing up to the ‘Labour Party question’ who do not make do with creating a fantasy alternative labour movement of their own (thus repeating the lunacies of Stalinist ultra-leftism), usually base their orientation on views expounded by Lenin in 1920, when he tried to persuade sectarians in the Communist Party of Great Britain to support affiliation to the Labour Party (his view in 1908 on Labour’s affiliation to the Second International is in the same sense). Trotsky did not go beyond that understanding. Lenin’s view — that the Labour Party is a party of workers with a bourgeois leadership, and only if it had a leadership that saw the world in a similar way to him and acted accordingly, would it be a real workers’ party — has confused more people than it has aided. It seems to me to be a subjective assessment, akin to that describing the Mensheviks as ‘petit-bourgeois’, and the Labour Party as even ‘bourgeois’.

Karl Radek used the term ‘parties resting upon the working class’ for those parties not in the Communist camp. In their time, Marx and Engels condemned views expressed by Lenin et al in respect of the ‘most resolute’ and ‘most advanced’ elements setting up separate parties, and set out an orientation for their supporters which aimed at educating the movement through its own experiences. After all, Communism is not a conspiracy; if the majority of working people do not desire it, then the minority has no right to foist it upon them. To me, it seems that the question of the Labour Party is quite simple. It is the working class party inasmuch as since Socialists and union leaders set it up, the workers have neither broken from it in any significant measure, nor have they set up any party to supersede it (the CPGB was a result of external impulses and bidding, kept going by external finance and instructions, without which it would have collapsed long ago). Almost every Socialist and working class organisation affiliates to the Labour Party. It is the highest expression of the political aspirations of working people. If it is deemed inadequate by some, then this is a view expressed by most Labour Party members, but they seek to change it, not to set up rival bodies. It reflects the maturity of the working class, or its immaturity, but whatever its inadequacies, its membership tries to rectify them from the conclusions they have drawn. Any Marxist not attempting to be a part of that process has obviously failed to assimilate the ABC.

Steffen summarises his argument in Trotskyism and British Marxism, but although he sketches out some worthwhile criticism, such as the stress on the leaders’ ‘betrayals’, which underestimates the factor of consciousness (a common theme of Trotskyism), he falls into some errors. Trotsky did not consider that a ‘capitalist counter-revolution’ in the Soviet Union was ‘only possible through enemy intervention’ (p. 15). As his view of the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union developed, he said that, if not removed by the working class, ‘the bureaucracy, becoming ever more the organ of the world bourgeoisie in the workers’ state, would plunge the country back to capitalism’. Steffen also tries to establish a link between the ‘Anglo-Marxism’ of H.M. Hyndman and Trotskyism. There is a tradition of sectarian propagandism in Britain, and many of the Trotskyist organisations practise it, and although it infected much of the earlier Marxist movement, its manifestations in Trotskyism arise from its own history and that of Bolshevism itself. Summed up, it is circle and not mass politics, the methodology of squabbling intellectuals, the legacy of pre-1914 Russian Social Democracy universalised as a panacea. Moreover, it was not, as Steffen claims, ‘Hyndman’s class against class politics that hindered the collaboration with the liberal-orientated trade unions’ (p. 18), but his failure to assimilate the method of Marx and Engels, in which the Communists do not set up separate parties, etc., but ‘go into any real general working class movement, accept its actual [faktische] starting point as such, and work it gradually up to the theoretical level by pointing out how every mistake made, every reverse suffered, was a necessary consequence of mistaken theoretical views in the original programme’ (Engels’ letter to Florence Kelley-Wischnewetzky, 28 December 1886)

To say that ‘in the 1920s and 1930s the CPGB, because of its links with the USSR, played a visionary rôle far beyond its low membership which, however, the Stalinisation of the party brought to an end’ (p. 20), is to get mixed up. With the onset of the ultra-left line in 1929, which marked the end of the Stalinisation process, the CPGB directed its venom at the Labour Party. After the end of its ultra-left period, the CPGB engaged in wrecking activities inside the Labour Party that were directed against the left, with the aim of ‘liberalising’ the party. The USSR’s existence did play a visionary rôle, inasmuch as Labour Party members tended to see it, whatever its warts, as a beacon, an outpost of Socialism. That was so before the CPGB was even set up. It would be useful to dig out of the CPGB’s archives the wrecking plans it devised for the Independent Labour Party and then the Socialist League, its later infiltration into the Labour Party, and its postwar hostility to the Bevanites. Likewise it is wrong to see the CPGB as part of the ‘hard left’ during the 1980s. On the contrary, the CPGB was still trying to liberalise the Labour Party, and build alliances with wet Tories, the churches, etc. Some of the ‘Tankies’ took up a firmer position, but whereas the Morning Star eulogised the poll tax non-payment campaign, their supporters voted against it whenever it was raised in the trade unions.

There are other errors. The general election of 1935 did not ‘bring Labour into government’ (p. 37). Tom Braddock is confused with Jack Braddock (p. 65), who was not a leading light of Socialist Outlook. To consider the Bevanite left of the 1950s as being ‘without roots in the party structure’ is unserious. A glance at their votes for the Constituency Labour Party section of the party’s Executive illustrates the degree of their support.

When he sketches out the history of British Trotskyism, Steffen is much better. He bases himself largely upon sources known to this journal’s readers, particularly Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson. However, centrism is not just ‘a tendency... on the way to revolutionary politics’ (p. 35), but one moving towards or away from it, or a crystallised formation, and it is necessary to determine the nature of the beast before approaching it.

The evaluation of the exiled German Trotskyists of the two rival British Trotskyist groups existing during the Second World War contains some insights, and we can learn something to help understand later developments. Again, the outsider often sees clearer:

‘Whilst the official section [the Revolutionary Socialist League] shrivelled up, the Workers International League had developed itself well. Its germ-cell — the Paddington group — was a clique of active and willing but not very politically developed comrades. They remained active and willing, but they also remained a clique, which did not, however, spare them the usual personal frictions. Rather, it cost them their theoretical brain, comrade [Raff] Lee. Nevertheless, the group grew, spread out to almost all the important centres of the country, and openly represented the cause of the [Fourth] International, which treated it as a breakaway. The strength of the WIL remained activity and political instinct. Its weakness was the opposite of that; it overestimated ‘activity’ — selling papers — and it depended too much on instinct, and neglected to create a mental life and elaborate a political line (which came already set out from Mexico, and later New York).’ (p. 48)

Vladimir Derer, a member of the WIL during the war, concurs with the IKD’s view of the low theoretical level of the WIL, and adds that its ‘internal life was defined by a Stalinist bureaucratic centralism. Jock Haston alone had been impressive, and in his eyes had developed into one of the major Marxist thinkers in Europe at the time.’ (p. 48)

Over a third of the book covers Militant’s prehistory, until it emerges in the form we know so well, grouped around the organ Militant. The nodal points of postwar British Trotskyism, the groups, factions, personalities, disputes, etc., are set out, as is their relationship to the parent body, the world leadership (Mandel, Pablo, et al.). A lot of this is new to me. Some is based on personal memoirs, unpublished dissertations and letters, as well as internal texts. Steffen has done his readers a big favour here. One weakness, however, is his inability always to distinguish the public from the private views and features of Militant — the core figures used to say nice things in public about Benn, Skinner and other left allies, but run them down internally; everyone else was ‘a load of rubbish’, whilst the thickest Young Socialist was ‘pure gold’ if he had seen the light, a manifestation of the strong sectarianism encouraged by Taaffe, Grant et al.

Steffen says that the dogmatism and the theory had been elaborated by Lenin and Trotsky, and then brought up to date by Grant, who saw himself, and was indeed seen by Militant, as the ‘red thread’ going back to Marx via the first two. The primitive undialectical method by which all politics, as if through laws of nature, lead inevitably from economics, means that Militant can never initiate or be the bearer of revolutionary actions. Although Steffen does give Grant credit for theorising, post factum, the practice of Militant, he has put his finger on a sore point. Left wing Labour activists will recognise this criticism. Steffen sees Militant overcoming this problem by its declaring itself as ‘the left wing of the party’ (p. 117), although the concept of entrism, the ‘party within a party’, the ‘fear for the liquidation of its Trotskyism, always hindered its effective involvement with new social movements and single issue campaigns (p. 117). Steffen correctly sees this sectarian defence of its own principles as the landmark of its own existence, and a refusal to participate in the real movement.

The section The Doctrine of the Militant Tendency gives an evaluation that I would, on the whole, share. He characterises Militant’s use of Marxism as ‘a normative reference system’ (p. 119). He compares it with Kautskyism. Militant’s thinkers see all change as emerging from the laws of capital. In a process that was mapped out decades ago, there is the constant expectation of economic crisis, which, in turn, results in a social crisis, which, in turn, leads to workers flooding into the Labour Party, strengthening its left wing and thus the Marxists (that is to say, Militant). Another schema is tacked onto it describing the next stage, the move to Socialism. This grand plan does not, of course, necessarily clash with reality. Economic crises do occur, but the next, inevitable (to use a favourite Militant word) stage stays away. The perspectives are updated to take this into account, but we are assured that it will occur in the future. Anyone who has studied Marxism — the real thing, that is — can see that what we have here is a religion. History constantly disappoints the drafters of the grand plan, just as left Labour activists often have concerns outside of the plan.

The concept of entrism and its development by Grant is evaluated in depth, using internal texts which show that there have been criticisms from within. The only other concept of entrism considered was that of Brian Biggins (which has the seal of approval of the editor of this journal). In 1960 Biggins thought it impossible to recruit openly to Trotskyism, and saw being in the Labour Party as a means of survival. Trotskyists had to be ‘critical but loyal members ... only in this way would they be accepted ... to recruit individually to the revolutionary organisation was wrong. Instead he sought to organise the left wing through simultaneously building the revolutionary organisation and participating in the class struggle.’ (p. 135) Consequently, Biggins opposed Grant’s schema of the Trotskyists remaining separate from the centrist left which would emerge, and saw some form of transitional formation as the goal, from which the revolutionary party could later develop from whole layers of Social Democratic organisations. Biggins’ concept was apparently rejected. I haven’t read the actual text, but I do wonder if he intended to tell Labour activists what he had in mind for them, or whether it was just another conspiracy carried on behind their backs.

After examining Militant’s doctrines in some detail, Steffen looks at its organisation in all its spheres of practice prior to the split. Internal minutes show that the leadership has hardly changed since 1964. The professional staff, however, grew to some hundreds, and this apparatus became distanced from the rank and file members. Their grasp of reality moved away from the lower cadres’ experiences. Militant became, so to speak, a victim of its own success. Its successes led it out of the Labour Party and into a situation where, in a sort of Stalinisation process, the office manager threw out the founder and brain behind it, and took the group off into the politics of the ‘ultra-left sects’ it had condemned for so long.

As Steffen was finishing his study (which also looks at Militant’s atypical work in Liverpool, where it meshed in with the rest of the ‘broad left’), Militant became Militant Labour, and Grant was left with the rump of the group. Steffen’s study has been in some ways superseded, as the reader can study the texts by Grant et al which describe the ‘Stalinist clique’ which hijacked Militant, the undemocratic regime and even a bit of thuggery. Ted, of course, had no part in building this regime; it came as a shock that a tiny clique around his office manager was running the whole outfit, even extending it across the world... Those who long ago stopped waiting for the tooth fairy can dip into the texts written by those comrades who originally went with Grant, genuinely sought to investigate the causes of Militant’s degeneration, and simultaneously tried to find measures by which it could be avoided in the future. Ted wanted none of this ‘democratitus’, and yearned for the old tried and tested methods, and the Democratic Platform comrades parted company with him. Their texts are a serious attempt to investigate the roots of Militant’s negative features that we all know so well, and to overcome them.

Meanwhile, Steffen’s book gives those in German universities and libraries who study British Trotskyism in the Labour Party an impressive and all-encompassing study, far superior to anything I have seen from the other Trotskyist sects, precisely because it emerged from outside that milieu. All the sects tend to suffer from the same sicknesses, and so are incapable of recognising the symptoms of sectarianism, bureaucracy, dogma, mythology, dishonesty, and even a bit of thuggery, which are so widespread amongst them.

Mike Jones

WHILST RESEARCHING his doctorate, Jens-Peter Steffen left few sources unexamined. Not only did he consult assorted British and German historical analyses of Trotskyism, he also spent time visiting Militant Tendency meetings in London and Liverpool. Such fieldwork was supplemented by delving through archives and by interviewing numerous activists, past and present, from a panoply of left wing groups. The first part of the book comprises an intricate presentation of the ins and outs of the Communist and Trotskyist movements from 1932 to the 1970s, which draws on interviews with participants whose experiences stretch right back into the 1930s. Some of the interviewees have now passed away, lending Steffen’s book something of a testimonial character. This book is a heavily cut version of Steffen’s PhD. The PhD must have been huge, for the book is large enough, covering diverse aspects of Trotskyism and labour movement history.

Steffen’s study incorporates a survey of the Militant Tendency from its beginnings in the 1960s to its – for Steffen’s chronicling purposes – rather convenient end, of sorts, in 1992. A glance at the chapter headings divulges the broad historical and theoretical scope of this work. Chapter One, Introduction, comprises a study of Trotsky’s relationship to the British labour movement, as well as a consideration of the New Left’s analyses of the formation of British capitalism and the peculiarities of the British political order; Chapter Two, The Revolutionary Continuity of the Militant Tendency, encompasses an investigation of pre-war and post-war Trotskyism; Chapter Three, The Doctrine of the Militant Tendency, is a study of Militant’s programme; Chapter Four, The Organisation, Activities and Representation of the Militant Tendency, includes a special section on Militant in power in Liverpool; and Chapter Five, Supplementary and Concluding Reflections, provides general reflections on Militant’s legacy and the split. Also included is a list of archives and their contents, and an extensive bibliography of relevant periodicals, dissertations, articles and books.

Two particular questions directed the author’s research. What are the qualities of an anti-Stalinist revolutionary tendency which remains anchored in reformism over a long period? Does entrism exist as a political translation of the recognition that anti-capitalist politics in the postwar period can no longer be conceived according to the mutually exclusive couplet of reform or revolution? The second question intimates Steffen’s own political standpoint. Whilst the Labour Party and other campaigning groupings are seen to have adapted to a new reality of changed class composition and an agenda of new political priorities in a remoulded political landscape, Militant continued into the 1990s to adhere to old leftist certainties. Steffen’s criticisms of the Militant Tendency are in the main fairly familiar accusations voiced against revolutionary groups. Militant is economistic, subordinating political struggles to economic struggles; workerist, ignoring other oppressed groups; and mechanistic. The Militant Tendency is a typical product of ‘Anglo-Marxism’, simultaneously determinist (from Henry Hyndman), and apocalyptic (from Daniel De Leon). Ignorant of ‘post-Fordist’ analyses, the Militant Tendency disregards the structural alterations in British and world capitalism over the last 40 years, in order to promote the permanent myth of capitalism’s terminal crisis and imminent collapse. Militant has to ignore the death of the industrial proletariat and its replacement by technology, in order to hold onto the ‘myth of the revolutionary proletariat’. The notion of Militant as an organisation which strongly promoted Ted Grant as ‘the revolutionary guru’, inheritor of the genuine Trotskyist line, and the assessment of Militant’s rôle in encouraging ‘a myth of revolution’ and ‘a myth of the revolutionary proletariat’, recur in Steffen’s analysis. Steffen regards Grant as Militant’s necessary projected ideal of an authentic class fighter who exists to give the lead on how to live the true proletarian life. Grant’s own sense of his centrality for British Trotskyism is highlighted. In an interview with Sam Bornstein, Grant once cited himself as one of the very few postwar Trotskyist theorists. For Steffen, such theoretical centralisation is symptomatic of a party which suffers from a qualitative and quantitative poverty of theory.

Steffen’s book sets out to expose Militant’s ‘doctrine’, a set of ideas which encourage sectarian isolation, as well as establishing a confident sense of being part of the authentic Trotskyist tradition. Such a doctrine is seen to lead to an arrogant elitism amongst cadres, a trait which intensified through the 1980s, when an increasing split between the leadership and the membership developed. It is clear that whilst Steffen’s book is largely concerned with tracing the fate of the Militant Tendency, its analyses are to be applied generally to the whole revolutionary left, who operate according to what Steffen regards as an irreconcilable contradiction between democracy and centralism. Steffen inclines more towards what he perceives as Marx’s model of a radical democratic mass organisation with a high degree of intellectual and political liberalism. Marx’s vision is seen to contrast with the Leninist model of a strict, hierarchical, vanguardist party dedicated to violent political overthrow. Trotskyism vainly attempts to reconcile both models, relying on both mass self-activity and the vanguard party, which substitutes for the backwardness of the masses. Trotskyist maxims – class against class, revolutionary outbreak as natural law, the proletariat as sole bearer of social emancipation, the avant-guard rôle of the revolutionary party – elicit little sympathy from Steffen. The Trotskyist left is charged with indulging in a ‘mystification of the proletariat’. The erroneousness of the myth of the proletariat occasions Militant’s own political crisis. Ultimately, Militant failed to win popular support in Liverpool because the city is composed not of opposing classes, but of communities, identified with race and local traditions. The Anti-Poll Tax Union succeeded precisely because as an issue-based campaign, its basis was in the various communities, rather than the workplace, the left’s traditional focus for political campaigning. The community-based APTU finally led to Militant’s fission, because its political concepts could not be reconciled with the notion of the revolutionary working class party. Steffen makes Militant’s obstinate workerist policies responsible for its split, rather than finding the witch-hunting activities of the Labour Party to be at least partly to blame.

According to Steffen, Britain’s leftist political traditions are precisely too traditional. He concurs with the Anderson-Nairn-Hobsbawm thesis of a backward ‘feudal’ Britain, which, lacking a ‘proper’ bourgeois revolution, remains insufficiently democratic and conservative in tendency. It is such a conservatism which in encouraging quiescence in the lower orders, acts to make a revolution impossible, but also forges a hybrid conservative-revolutionary politics. For Steffen, Militant never breaks free of labourism, at least in part, because of the inherent cautiousness of the British left, inherited from a non-revolutionary bourgeoisie. The tradition of labourism exerts a powerful force on the British revolutionary left. Militant, claims Steffen, is always dogged by its relationship with labourism: its policies of nationalisation are shown to resemble those of the Labour left of the 1930s and 1940s (including those on the issue of compensation, which resemble Labour’s position rather than Trotsky’s), and also, curiously enough, the notion of the vote. Ultimately, Militant finds itself, just like the Social Democratic left, fetishising elections.

Steffen also finds similarities between the Militant Tendency and E.P. Thompson’s descriptions of English religious sects with all their backward-looking traditionalism and their utopian faiths. Militant is seen to promote a politics based on old-fashioned, romantic myths of class and class struggle. Such perceived traditionalism provides the underpinning to Steffen’s psychological portrait of Militant members. His psychologising interpretation insists that the appeal of Militant lies in its fulfilment of a nostalgic wish for secure old models of class struggle and class identification. The restructuring of capitalism in the postwar period has brought about the death of the social, economic and cultural unity of the working class, and, in that context, the visions promoted by Trotskyist organisations offer a compensatory and comforting vision of an old-style working class and the prospect of revolution.

Conservatism in the revolutionary party is seen to be apparent on yet another level. According to Steffen, it is in the nature of Trotskyist groups to become dogmatic in their claims to faithfulness to Trotsky’s analyses. Militant’s strategy of entrism is seen to evolve from a tactic, espoused by Trotsky in the 1930s, into a principle. Objectively, Militant is seen to collapse because of its inflexible faith in revolution in post-revolutionary days. Entrism is seen as a half-recognition of the end of revolutionary possibilities. It is analysed by Steffen as a doomed attempt to revive dead revolutionary working class politics in post-revolutionary days. Militant is scuppered subjectively by the impossibility of combining long-term entrism with the building of an hierarchical revolutionary party, and by the inadequacy of its theory when matched against reality.

In this book, Steffen hints quite insightfully at reasons for Militant’s recent difficulties, concentrating more on the problems of long-term entrism, and the burn-out and isolation of cadres, and less on the devastating impact of a militantly wrathful Labour Party. But his critique is largely that of someone who regards the revolutionary left as historically superseded and politically bankrupt. Some key issues are avoided. There is little analysis of the effect of historical events on Militant; importantly, for example, the crushing impact of the revolutions in the Eastern Bloc in 1989 upon Militant’s deformed and degenerated workers’ state analysis. And there is little in-depth critical discussion of the chief defining feature of Militant’s politics – the Tendency’s unclear view of the form and content of the revolutionary party, which allowed it to attempt to recruit members to a revolutionary party covertly. The trouble with Militant may not have been that it had too much faith in the revolutionary party, but too little.

Esther Leslie

Updated by ETOL: 28.9.2011