The politics of denial
The editorial Maria Exall criticises in Solidarity 3/100 may have misunderstood and (inadvertently) misrepresented specific details about the Labour Party. But it is a matter of fact, surely, that there is now very little life in the Labour Party? Maria seems to me to be in a state of denial. She uses “nit-picking” facts, alleged facts and “factoids” to destructure and obfuscate the overall picture.
I agree with Maria: 1) The transformation of the Labour Party is not complete, definitive, irreversible; 2) The unions still have much power and they should use it; 3) Trade union members should do all they can in their union to affect its policy in the Labour Party; 4) Union opposition is the only foreseeable way in which a struggle to “reclaim” the Labour Party could be launched.
To the editorial’s “most of the critics have voted with their feet”, Maria replies: “there has never been a majority amongst activists or members”. Polls show that members “support” policies “well to the left” of the government. New Labour’s membership is “overwhelmingly working-class”. Though “many labour movement activists have left”, what remains is not a Blairite party. Thus Maria on point one.
In point two she is a different Maria. Here she insists that Blair’s “ascendancy” in the party rests not on structural changes, in one person one vote or in prime-ministerial power: “Blair’s hold on the party is because of politics [emphasis added], the organisational weakness of the hard left [=?] and the ideological compliance of the centre left [=?] in the party and most crucially, in the trade unions.”
Blair has done things others have not — enlarged his own office and “claimed authority” on important issues over the cabinet (only claimed, Maria? Blair and those he decides to consult decide most things.) But, she says, Blair can do all these things only because he has political power - and yet how does she square this with her description of the political composition of the party in her first point?
Here everything hangs on almost theological, indeed metaphysical, distinctions. Is a “soft left” that “acquiesces” — for a decade or more — to everything Blairite still a soft left, or is it Blairite (with reservations)? Is a “hard left” that is almost non-existent a hard left or a fond memory?
She seeks to define away the problems by equating Blair with the general secretary of a trade union. (She misrepresents the domination of general secretaries as political domination rather than bureaucratic machine domination, but leave that aside.) The difference is that the trade union, if it has not been changed into a company union or a totalitarian state labour front, rests directly on its members, continues to represent and defend their interests — however inadequately, treacherously etc. The Labour Party has no such direct working-class links — except through the unions (and nobody claims that this has changed).
Maria’s piece is riddled with false logic and shifting definitions. Such initiatives as the Socialist Alliance proved abortive? Yes, but that does not prove that working in the Labour Party makes sense!
The Labour leader, for the reasons listed in the editorial, is raised above the party to a degree without precedent in Labour history. The Parliamentary Labour Party is a tightly run and tightly controlled body. It is, nonetheless, the one arena in which enough life remains to produce a number of revolts against government policy. Yet these minority revolts by MPs have been entirely ineffective. The “rebel” MPs — with the exception of McDonnell — have not attempted to organise in the party against Blair. At all times, revolts notwithstanding, the government has had firm control of the PLP.
Labour Party conference, where the unions do retain great weight, is manipulated and controlled as a media showcase for the government. Only episodically, when the unions act up, does it play any of the roles of the old Labour Party conferences.
A consequence of all these things has been to drain life out of the local parties.
It is about structures here, not essentially about government policy. In the old Labour Party, obnoxious Labour government policy would put the party and the country at odds with the government (in 1978-9 for instance). Local parties had a thriving life of their own.
They could organise with other local parties to use conference as a forum for policies and ideas expressed in resolutions (often designed as primarily propaganda for the party).
Socialists should relate to the Labour Party. The question is how. We should support the McDonnell campaign, for instance. But the notion that a small revolutionary socialist group should bury itself in activity in dead and half dead local Labour Parties simply does not make any sense.
Yes, Blair needed the Labour Party. Yes, he still does, for money, tradition, votes etc. That is indeed the tragedy. But Blair has been allowed by the old Labour Party, in the first place by the trade union component of it, to run a Labour government for nearly a decade which is neo-Thatcherite, which keeps anti-union legislation on the statute books. Defeatism? We have to sum up the state of things or rational politics is impossible.
Illusion, fantasy, incapacity to register how things actually stand are no basis for effective politics.
Can the Labour Party be reclaimed? Asking this is an essential element of rational politics. The editorial concluded, as Maria does, that an a priori answer to that question is not decisive. Fight and see! Back the McDonnell campaign and see how it does in the unions.
Even according to Maria’s own exposition, political activity in the unions is the decisive arena in which we now can hope to contribute to the work of recreating a functional old-style Labour Party (or something better). No we do not exist to take trade union policy into the Labour Party. We take socialist policies into both the trade unions and, where appropriate, into the Labour Party.
For us the McDonnell campaign will be primarily a campaign in the unions too.
No union support for veil
I approved of Solidarity’s coverage of the issue of reactionary ideas in schools in the last two issues. 3/100 with the headline “Yes to secularism, No to racism” distinguished itself from the outcry by the cultural relativist left by refusing to call for the re-reinstatement or a tribunal victory for the teaching assistant sacked for refusing to remove the veil while at school.
I know some may baulk at this refusal to support a sacked worker; the noticeable lack of any call by Solidarity for education unions to support the right of a teaching assistant to wear the veil at work. I was waiting for some members of the AWL to raise this demand in the next edition of Solidarity but as this has not happened I hope this signals a sobering up of those who in recent debates have claimed the veil as no different from a hoody.
The increasingly aggressive attempts of reactionary religion to demand the unilateral right to police “their own” women and children means that if we give an inch they will take a mile. The recent case of the teaching assistant is the logical extension of the British campaign in opposition to the French ban on the veil in schools.
Mark Sandell, Brighton
Someone should defend Trotsky from Eric Lee (Georgia: echoes of 21?, letter, last Solidarity).
Eric is right, of course, that Georgian independence should be defended against Putin’s Russian state. With qualifications, Eric is also right to think that the Soviet state was wrong to invade Georgia in 1921. The qualifications are not insignificant, in that Eric’s position rests, in good part, on his sympathy for the Georgian Menshivik regime that the Red Army deposed, and on his hostility to the Bolsheviks.
Nevertheless, from a working-class, Trotsykist, standpoint, there were no issues that were sufficiently serious to make an invasion of Georgia justifiable. None.
So how should we understand this “mistake” of invading Georgia? The 1921 invasion should be seen as one of the initial rounds in the fight between the emerging Stalinist class and the Marxist opposition to Stalinism.
This is where we hit a second problem with Eric’s explanation of the events of ‘21.
If we trust Eric’s account Trotsky was simply in favour of this adventure: He writes, “Trotskyists in particular used to know a great deal about Georgia in part because probably the best known book justifying that invasion was written by Trotsky himself.”
Indeed it is true that Trotsky did write a justification of the invasion, after the event. However, readers should know that the Bolshevik government had recognised Georgian independence in May 1920 and, before invasion, Trotsky opposed military intervention (together with others, such as Karl Radek).
It seems that Stalin’s ally, Ordzhonikidze, organised an attack on Georgian military posts on 11-12 February 1921. When this ‘uprising’ looked as if it would be defeated the Bolshevik Central Committee supported the use of the Red Army (14 February), stating they were “inclined” to give support.
As Eric notes, “It is clear that Trotsky, then commanding the Red Army, did not order the attack.” What Eric might have added is that the CC was held without Trotsky’s knowledge; that Trotsky was so alarmed by the events he demanded a commission of inquiry (he didn’t get it).
Moreover, the subsequent history is also important. In the period after the invasion an increasingly bitter struggle took place between an incapacitated, dying Lenin and the Stalinists over the question of Georgia. Lenin was deeply alarmed by Stalin’s drive to stamp out manifestations of Georgian autonomy.
Which side was Trotsky on? Lenin’s.
Mark Osborn, London