Illusions of Power part 3: Why did they fail?

Submitted by AWL on 7 November, 2008 - 2:51 Author: Mick O'Sullivan and Martin Thomas

Why did all the promises and good intentions of the new left come to naught in this way?

Some were duped by (or even went in for} left-faking: resounding campaigns for general militant action which left crucial practical conclusions undefined and thus collapsed when it came to the decisive moment.

The continual round of meetings and discussions on the administration of the council - with permanent officials, with other councillors, and with council trade union leaders - provided a norm, a routine, which destroyed an overview. It led many into "pragmatic realism" - "getting something done" in the corridors and committee-rooms.

When the trade-union officials - predictably-tried to sabotage campaigns, the Labour left had no cohesive sister-grouping in the trade unions to provide an alternative leadership.

A serious fight back in the vast arena of local government - toe to toe with the government, involving trade unionists Labour Parties tenants -needed a coherent political leadership.

But the new leftists were where they were precisely because they hoped to skip, or had given up on the painful task of demarcating, educating, ideologically clarifying, and organising such a coherent group of Marxists.

Disillusioned - sometimes very understandably so - with the organised Marxist groups, they had opted to be 'non-aligned' activists in the Labour Party in order to find a broader arena and 'get something done without sectarian disputations'.

But those who do not build an ‘alignment' themselves consciously, will find themselves willy-nilly pulled behind someone else's 'alignment'.

Many of the new left, taking the claims by the WRP and SWP to be 'Leninist' as good coin, had concluded that Leninism -'vanguardism' - was inherently bureaucratic. They hoped instead to opt for no 'vanguard'. The pressures of political life lined them up behind a very bureaucratic 'vanguard' indeed - the local government machine.

The new left rejected traditional reformism. But they also rejected the task of working out and organising around a sharp, comprehensive alternative. Ken Livingstone's philosophy, as he explained it in an interview with Socialist Organiser in April 1981, was fairly typical.

"The problem isn't so much what your notional policies are, but whether you'll fight to implement them.

"The policies of the independent Tribunite people who provide the majority of the London Labour Party may not be ideologically perfect, but they have a strong commitment to make sure they're implemented - while some more theoretical tendencies are unwilling to take on the leadership of the Labour Party at any level...

"You can't jump from the Callaghan government to a perfect revolutionary position. You've got to go through a spectrum of left wing opinion".

In other words, he wanted something halfway between reformism and clear-cut revolutionary politics.

With such a half-way perspective council leaders were easy prey when the routines and norms and pressures of the local government machine started narrowing their vision.

A fighting perspective depended on trade union action. Labour leftists who were individuals, not part of a coherent grouping which operated both in the Labour Party and the unions, thus found themselves shackled to and confined by the existing trade union leadership, which was often conservative.

Councillors who did not have a coherent alternative to the council leaders' politics were dragged in behind the leaders. Ordinary Labour activists who had no worked-out alternative to the councillors' politics were pulled along behind them.

At every stage, the logic of 'getting something done' or 'holding on to what we've got'-for example sticking to council office at the price of capitulation in struggle - won out.

The local government left 'party-within-a-party' is not a Stalinist monolith. It embraces doubters, grumblers, semi-oppositionists at every level. But it educates, disciplines, organises its members-essentially, pulling them from half-formed revolutionary ideas towards reformism.

Local government, historically has had the same corrupting effect on Labour activists as trade union bureaucracy has had on industrial activists. And the experience of the Labour Party new left has close parallels with that of militant tradeunionists in the mid-'70s.

In the '60s and early '70s, as rank and file struggles went outside the control of the union bureaucracy, militancy without any clear-cut political dimension was sufficient to win. When the flood tide receded the stewards were not equipped to fight against the bureaucracy and found that the left leaders they had elected were now their jailers.

The great wave of industrial struggle in 1972-4 which crippled the Tory government found no alternative to the Tories but the miserable official Labourism of Wilson. In 1975, when the left trade union leaders called on workers to make sacrifices in the economic crisis, the stewards were ill-equipped to put forward a political alternative.

It was not all mechanically determined in advance.

In every case, the left councils went into office with no perspective for fighting, or at best with a fudged, half-measures perspective. This political inadequacy was not something i posed on the labour movement from above by this or that clique but a reflection of the movement's general ideological condition.

Two possibilities then existed.

The inadequacy could have been remedied -no doubt gradually and falteringly -through the enlightening effects of experience and discussion. Struggles could have led to greater confidence and clarity, and that confidence and clarity to more successful struggles. Over time a large segment of the new left could haye become an educating, organising inspiring force capable of substantially transforming the whole labour movement.

In fact what happened, mostly, is that the inadequacy became a spreading infection. The left, having got into council positions, adapted itself to the limits of the established structures (because it had no clear idea of how to fight them), and then became a force trying to educate the rest of the labour movement to accept those limits.

We-those who argued for a fighting policy - 'lost the argument'. It was not because the rate-raisers and administrators had the better of us intellectually. As chronicled above the broad conferences which debated the issues between June 1979 and January 1981 showed a steady shift towards our views.

But so long as the rate-raisers and administrators kept the upper hand the defeats caused by their wrong policy became a factor in sustaining their position. The fighting policy could 'win the argument' only when the mood was confident; and the defeats destroyed confidence.

A decisive factor in the outcome -as usually in such rnatters -was the role of the 'ideologists', the people who came into the whole business with strategic ideas more or less worked out in advance.

The SCLV and SO were an attempt to reassemble the new Labour left round a class struggle programme. The founding statement of the SCLV in July 1978 declared that we aimed to organise militants so that they would be able to "reinvigorate the labour movement, shake it up, radically rearm it and organise it for a struggle against capitalism".

By the time of the election in May 1979 the SCLV had grouped a sizeable number of activists around it particularly in London. Four CLPs affiliated. During the election campaign it issued leaflets on trade union rights, racism, jobs, housing, women and Ireland, which were used both by individuals and by sympathetic CLPs. 30,000 SCLV leaflets were put out in Hackney North.

After the Tories' victory the SCLV/ SO came under strain. Many people were daunted by Thatcher's triumph and pessirnistic about the possibilities for immediate struggle.

With Labour in opposition, a struggle developed around reforming structures and contesting official positions. The SO majority saw the importance of this struggle and threw our weight into it (we initiated the broad-left alliance of the Rank and File Mobilising Committee for Labour Democracy, in 1980. Others submerged themselves in it, forgetting broader politics.

And increasing numbers of the new left became councillors, or acquired more prominent positions within councils. There was a pressure on them to become administrators rather than fighters.

Throughout the second half of 1979, the battle between different perspectives was fought out in SO principally around the issue of rate rises. In early 1980 a large section finally hived off from SO.

On their behalf, Mike Davis and Geoff Bender argued that "The conception of the SCLV as a broad alliance of tendencies and individuals... rather than a revolutionary sect... has been rejected... Many leading SCLV activists seem to be motivated by the view that we're... a finished revolutionary grouping imbued with the idea that it has all the political answers while the rest of the left wanders about clueless, waiting for us to rope them in..."

But a revolutionary grouping can develop usefully - never mind about being 'finished' -only if it tries to formulate and fight for its ideas as precisely as possible. That does not means rejecting dialogue, or supposing that you possess all wisdom: SO carried open debate on rate rises and on many other issues.

But, we pointed out, "Mike Davis and his co-thinkers [were] - certainly in effect, if not intentionally - trying to appeal to the general, more or less confused and more or less passive broad left" against any attempt to hold SO to a clear classstruggle policy. That approach could only pull people backwards politically, not forwards.

And so it proved. The organised core of those who hived off gathered round Briefing. Their philosophy was clearly expressed in a polemic over the GLC fares climbdown in 1982.

"I accept", wrote Chris Knight of Briefing, "[that] the editorial [in Briefing] was not half hard enough on Ken Livingstone... [But] what I think you inadequately understand is that we are engaged in a struggle not just for propaganda points, but for power.

"It is the realities of power which are the problem, not 'incorrect ideas' in Ken Livingstone's (or anyone else's) head.

"If we had full state power in our hands, we wouldn't have to make difficult choices between almost equally unsatisfactory alternatives... To the extent that we lack full power, however, things aren't so asy...

"The only circumstances in which it would be right to disengage would be those in which we would have more power out of office than in...

"It is obvious that the disengagement tactic presupposes a very high state of class consciousness in the population.

"The moment of disengagement then becomes a signal for massive near-insurrectionary, upheavals... It would have been nice if that had been the case this spring in connection with the Fares Fair fight, but unfortunately, it wasn't." (SO 1 8.3.82).

In other words: so long as left councillors can do even marginally positive things in office {and that's practically always), that office gives them a bit of 'power' which should be cherished and preserved. You can confront the government - that is, run the risk of losing office -only when the situation is ripe for a full revolutionary struggle for power.

The practical conclusion is much the same as the most ordinary municipal reformism: do the best you can within the system. The shortcomings of that reformism are acknowledged - but are attributed to "not 'incorrect ideas' in Ken Livingstone's head" but insufficient quantities of 'power'. The answer is not to dispute the "ideas in Ken Livingstone's head" but to get more power, i.e. in practice, more municipal offices for the left.

This rather humdrum policy is given a mystical revolutionary glow by being dubbed a "struggle for power", to be followed at some future-always future-moment by the full revolutionary battle on the streets.

A similar strange blend of ultraleftism with un-militant immediate conclusions was promoted from November 1980 by the Workers Revolutionary Party.


While stridently demanding general strikes, soviets (under the name 'community councils'), etc., they also dropped their opposition to councils raising rates and selling houses. They endorsed what Ted Knight did in Lambeth.

The WRP denounced those like SO, who called for a more militant line in Lambeth, as 'revisionists' if not secret Tory agents.

"The revisionists wan t the Tory commissioners in Lambeth. They are now calling for rent and rate strikes in the borough with the aim of deliberately destabilising the council and forcing it into bankruptcy...

"In other words, behind their fake 'left' words and their talk of a 'militant stand' against the Tories, they are in fact hell bent on getting Labour out of Lambeth and the Tories in" (Newsline).

The WRP, stars of stage, screen and libel courts, had decided that they wanted to get back into mainstream Labour politics. Principle never being a problem, they were prepared to support the right wing- in this case Knight and his rate rises -in order to do it.

They renewed their links with Knight - who had been a leading member of the WRP's predecessor groups in the '5Os and early '60s, when they were a serious tendency, albeit sectarian and politically primitive. From that base the WRP made new connections, fQr example with Ken Livingstone. They broadly supported Livingstone's policy at the GLC until March 1985.

The WRP used its considerable and difficult-to-explain wealth to cement this alliance.

In September 1981 Knight and Livingstone launched Labour Herald. Put together by an associate of the WRP, Steven Miller, this was also printed by the WRP press on terms favourable enough to enable the full colour paper to survive with no visible network of sellers.

The WRP's ranting, thankfully, made relatively little impact. But there were also much more sophisticated arguments to bolster a new municipal reformism.

Cynthia Cockburn coined the phrase 'the local state' in a very influential book of that title published in 1977. It was an interesting and highly critical study of Lambeth council in the mid-'70s (the pre-Knight regime). "The [council] leadership", it concluded, "is inexorably caught up in the procedures of the state and the management of the economy".

Everything the council did, even the apparently beneficial services, was part of the process of capitalist reproduction. Everything was 'the local state'. The implication was that "the council structure presents a zero-sum game: to achieve significant change in policy one must be in power, once in power one is by definition part of an apparatus of state and a manager of public affairs..."

This sweeping conclusion, like some other too-tidy analyses of the all-embracing nature of the modern capitalist state, leads to a choice of either no activity beyond the most localised, temporary, unstructured forms of working-class struggle, or getting involved in 'the state'. And so the ultra-radicalism tends to turn itself inside out: you get involved in administering the state and trying to modify its forms and methods, because there is very little else you can do beyond the most marginal activity.

Arguments of a similar sort seem to have rallied a lot of left-wing intellectuals behind the GLC, including people who considered that joining the Labour Party was wrong because reformist.

They persuaded themselves that the GLC's funding of women's groups, or its rather small-scale attempts through a municipal bank the GLC's funding of women's groups, or its rather small-scale attempts through a municipal bank (the g Greater London Enterprise Board) to save jobs and to encourage equal opportunities and 'enterprise planning', opened up revolutionary new dimensions in politics, different from fuddy-duddy Labourism. In fact none of these GLC policies went outside the bounds of radical liberalism.

The editors of Briefing were sincere about their talk of revolution. Their arguments, however, could easily be. adapted by others to the purposes of straightforward careerism. Ken Livingstone has certainly graduated from the school of Briefing to a very un-mystical view of 'the struggle for power'. Running for parliamentary selection, he blandly told Brent East Labour Party that he wanted a safe parliamentary seat as a good base for an attempt to become prime minister.

Briefing's theories also helped to reconcile some of the better GLC left wingers to the game of power politics. Valerie Wise explained to 'Time Out' (May 30 1985): "That is one thing no-one can take away from Ken Livingstone: he gave us the power and let this happen..."


Another rationalisation of careerism was constructed by adapting, in decayed form, ideas from the women's movement. "The personal is political" - therefore a woman, for example, could shamelessly preach careerism for herself as encapsulating the cause of womankind. Confront the government and risk penalties? Women with children could not do such a thing, therefore to propose it was an anti-feminist move by childless males.

And so on. In the US, the decay of the late-'60s radicalisation produced the 'me-generation': people who were no longer willing to dedicate themselves to the revolution, and instead dedicated themselves to themselves. In Italy, a similar sort of decay was expressed, among middle-class leftists, with the slogan ‘we won't wait until the revolution'. In Britain, local government politics has been allowed to become the framework for the same thing.

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