Left to their own devices
The British hard left has been energised by the elevation of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party. But is this really a red dawn? Paul Anderson and Kevin Davey, authors of Moscow Gold: The Soviet Union And The British Left, trace the advances and setbacks of the UK's Leninists since 9/11, and ask if life in the mainstream will make or break revolutionary socialism
1. What is to be done?
By the end of the 1990s, to most observers of the British left, the Leninist era seemed to have come to an end. The Socialist Workers Party, quasi-Trotskyist and owner of a competent offset press in east London, still had some life about it, but not a lot. The Scottish Socialist Party – essentially the renegade Glasgow office of the Trotskyist Militant Tendency, which had been expelled by Labour in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with SWP and independent barnacles hanging on – had some support in urban western Scotland. And the hardline Communist Party of Britain, the main Stalinist splinter from the ‘official’ Communist Party of Great Britain (which had given up the ghost in 1991, 70 years after its launch with a giant subvention from Moscow), was still influential in a few trade unions. The CPB still had a daily paper, the Morning Star, though hardly anyone read it any more.
This is what Leninism had dwindled to, unless you also count the aloof cadre at New Left Review or the machinations of mayor of London Ken Livingstone’s office, in both of which veterans of another Trotskyist outfit, the International Marxist Group, latterly Socialist Action, had key roles. New Left Review a dry bi-monthly theoretical journal, had gone through several changes of tack since its 1960s and 1970s IMG-dominated heyday (if that’s the word), but the onetime followers of the Trotskyist guru Ernest Mandel – most notably Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn, were still very much on board. Livingstone had a later generation of IMGers in key staff positions, among them John Ross as chief economic adviser and Simon Fletcher as chief of staff. Mood music for this embattled rump was provided by the occasional jeremiad in the comment pages of the Guardian and in the London Review of Books.
On the best estimate, the membership of all the Leninist groups at the turn of the millennium totalled no more than 6,000 – of whom perhaps one-third were active.
Most were in the SWP, the CPB or Militant’s successor groups, with a few hundred scattered among more esoteric fractions, some of them crazy but most of them deadly dull: Socialist Action, so deeply embedded in the Labour hard left that even members found it difficult to distinguish themselves from centrist trade-union bureaucrats; the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, previously Socialist Organiser, notable for picking ideological fights on foreign policy with everyone else and then claiming to be victimised; the group that had once been the Revolutionary Communist Party, a slightly unorthodox Trotskyist group, but after a series of baffling changes of political direction under a variety of names was in the process of launching Sp!ked, a website devoted to provocative libertarianism; the Communist Party of Great Britain (Provisional Central Committee), a weird sect that had emerged from a Stalinist fraction in the Turkish Communist Party and had spent most of the 1990s engaged in litigation over former assets of the real CPGB – fighting for flats above chip shops in Dagenham – but had also set up Weekly Worker, an entertaining newspaper, largely online, devoted to left sectarian quibbling.
Few would have predicted any kind of revival for the Leninist fragments. Yet that is what happened in the early years of the new century. The starting point was the creation of an electoral coalition to fight the 2001 general election against Tony Blair’s Labour government, the Socialist Alliance, by the SWP and the English successor-group to Militant, the Socialist Party of England and Wales (the unfortunately acronymed SPEW). Blair, said the comrades, had traded the promise of socialism for a destructive neoliberalism: it was time for a new left initiative. The SA attracted a few independents and started brightly, but got nowhere. All the same, the experience gave the SWP, with John Rees and Lindsey German at the helm, a taste for working with other organisations it not had for more than 20 years – even though they’d decided that SPEW wasn’t exactly an ideal partner.
Then came 9/11 – and everything changed.
2. War and peace
The destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center by Islamist terrorists on 11 September 2001 had a disorienting effect on the British left. A brief, shocked silence was rapidly followed by attempts to make sense of the outrage. On the Leninist left and among its sympathisers the narrative that it was payback for American imperialism in the Middle East was quick to emerge. The “root cause” of the attack was not Islamist fanaticism, they argued, but crusader power – US support for Israel, the punitive sanctions imposed on Iraq after the 1991 war against Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, arms sales to Saudi Arabia, exploitation of the region’s oil. The British government was on the side of the imperialists – and it was crucial that the imperialists were defeated. (This is Lenin’s doctrine of "revolutionary defeatism", developed in World War I, according to which the left in any country engaged in an imperialist war should support the defeat of its “own” ruling class in order to bring on the revolution.)
The analysis was simplistic and met deserved scorn from many left and liberal critics, but after Blair’s decision to support US military intervention in Afghanistan, the knee-jerk anti-imperialism of the Leninists gained a wider hearing. The SWP went all-out for the most opportunist popular front ever. The minuscule party – with an unstable membership of less than 2,000 – ditched SPEW and the Socialist Alliance to set up the Stop the War Coalition, with the aim of attracting the mosques to the anti-imperialist cause. It soon became an alliance of Trotskyist and Stalinist Leninists and the Islamists of the Muslim Association of Britain, with a sprinkling of Labour leftists (among them Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell), Greens, anarchists, CND (by now controlled by the hard left), Scottish and Welsh nationalists and Liberal Democrats.
It would be ludicrous to claim that many of the 15 February demonstrators were signed-up Leninists
Opposing the Blair government’s political and military support for the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001-02 was not popular: overturning the Taliban and catching Osama bin Laden were objectives shared by an overwhelming majority of Britons. But opposing Blair’s subsequent backing for the US invasion of Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein was different. The 9/11 link to Saddam was, to say the least, not persuasive – and the official rationale for the invasion shifted suspiciously from Saddam’s support for terror to weapons of mass destruction. Taking out Saddam by force seemed a massive risk. US President George Bush appeared to be preparing for an intervention that was at best opportunist, half-thought-through and dangerous – and Blair seemed to be tagging along uncritically. It was more complex than that, but Stop the War, with the SWP firmly in command and the CPB playing a key supporting role, found itself in the position of being the only organisation in place with the means to mobilise popular opposition to war. Its high point was the 15 February 2003 demonstration in London against intervention in Iraq, which attracted perhaps 1 million people.
It would be ludicrous to claim that many of the 15 February demonstrators were signed-up Leninists. But the Stop the War organisers and spokespeople for the movement for the most part were: Rees and German from the SWP; the organisation’s chair, Andrew Murray, a leading figure in the Stalinist Straight Left fraction of the 1970s and 1980s (a bizarre secretive group that operated both in the CPGB and the Labour Party), who had become a member of the CPB central committee and an official for the train drivers’ union Aslef; the Labour MP George Galloway (expelled from the party in autumn 2003 for bringing Labour into disrepute after calling on British troops to refuse to obey orders); Kate Hudson, chair of CND and a member of the CPB. And they had media support too – most importantly from the comment editor of the Guardian, Seumas Milne, another veteran of Straight Left.
The Leninist-Islamist alliance (minus most of the Labour hard left and the CPB, at least formally, but backed by many conservative Muslims) was subsequently the basis for a new electoral party, Respect (Respect, Equality, Socialism, Peace, Environmentalism, Community, and Trade Unionism). German failed miserably as its candidate against Ken Livingstone in the 2004 London mayoral election; but Galloway won Bethnal Green and Bow on a Respect ticket in the 2005 general election. The Scottish Socialist Party, without Islamist support, also did well in the 2003 Scottish Parliament election, winning six seats.
The Leninist revival was, however, patchy and short-lived. It bore the seeds of its own destruction in the blurring of aspirations required by the anti-war popular front: deference both to Muslim moral conservatism and to Scottish nationalism north of the border.
Despite their organisational zeal and campaigning efforts, the micro-parties recruited fewer new members from Stop the War than they had expected, and the new recruits, though often as ardent and narrow-minded as any “class-against-class” communist of the early 1930s, chafed at the bit of party discipline.
While the high-ups in the SWP and CPB engaged in the Stop the War love-in with Islamists, pacifists, Greens, the Scottish National Party and the traditional Labour hard left, undermining their own arguments for a distinctive revolutionary party, the narcissism of small differences disorganised the movement on the ground – where it was amplified by articulate (if hardly independent-minded) novices radicalised by campus identity politics.
The Leninists’ embrace of Islamism was particularly problematic: if everyone could agree that Islamophobia was bad and it was easy enough for Galloway and leftist intellectuals to declare anti-imperialist solidarity with Islamists, the culture clash between Leninist and Islamist anti-imperialisms could not be avoided in campaigning activity, particularly where the rights of women and gay people were at stake. Meanwhile, in Scotland, the Leninist left could not find a narrative to rival that of the SNP.
In Scotland, the SSP’s Tommy Sheridan never got into bed with Galloway and Respect – in part because there was little in the way of Muslim radicalism in Scotland with which to ally – but the News of the World reported in 2006 that he had taken part in orgies at a dodgy sex club in Manchester. He sued the paper for libel and won damages, but his account of his actions was at odds with what he had told his SSP comrades, and he was soon charged with perjury for lying in court. Sheridan’s economy with the truth led to the SSP imploding: it lost all representation in Holyrood in 2007 as its followers transferred their support to the SNP, which became for the first time the largest party in the Scottish parliament. Sheridan was convicted of perjury and jailed in 2010.
In England and Wales, growing tensions between Galloway and the SWP – largely over the role of Islamists – led to a spectacular split in RESPECT. Rees and German were off-loaded by the SWP in 2009-10 and set up a website in lieu of a party, Counterfire, which adopted political positions barely distinguishable from those of the traditional Labour hard left except for its empathy for radical Islam, Iran and Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
By then, only train-spotters could tell they remained Trotskyists, so deeply had they subsumed their identity in that of Labour’s hard left
Galloway, who made a fool of himself in the reality-TV Celebrity Big Brother in early 2006, abandoned Bethnal Green and Bow and then failed to become the MP for Poplar and Limehouse in 2010. SPEW, the CPB and the RMT railworkers’ union set up No2EU as a left-Eurosceptic electoral alliance for the 2009 European Parliament elections: it secured less than 1 per cent of the vote. SPEW’s next initiative, the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (supported by the SWP and RMT but not the CPB), stood in the 2010 general election but lost all its deposits with a similar, stubbornly insignificant, share of the vote.
Meanwhile, the Trotskyists in Ken Livingstone’s office received big pay-offs after he lost the London mayoral election in 2008. By then, only train-spotters could tell they remained Trotskyists, so deeply had they subsumed their identity in that of Labour’s hard left and Livingstone’s enthusiasm for attracting inward investment by giant global corporations.
Things got little better for the groupuscules after Labour’s general election defeat in 2010. Galloway made a spectacular comeback to win a by-election victory as a Respect candidate in Bradford West in 2012. But he did this without much Leninist support: his electoral base in Bradford was almost entirely Muslim, communal and largely conservative. The SWP went into meltdown when the leadership mishandled allegations of rape against one of their number, a nasty affair that lost the party nearly all of the members it had recruited during the Stop the War campaign.
The film-maker Ken Loach and others – many of them, like him, formerly of the Workers Revolutionary Party, once the biggest Trotskyist group in Britain but utterly discredited in the mid-1980s when its leader, Gerry Healy, was accused of serial sexual assaults – set up Left Unity, a supposedly new party which was not explicitly Leninist, though most of the members it attracted were old-left Leninist has-beens. Unsurprisingly, it failed to get off the ground.
TUSC staggered on, failing to win local council seats, and No2EU did even worse in the 2014 European elections than it had in 2009. Slightly more in tune with the times, Counterfire, the CPB and others opened a second popular front – the People’s Assembly Against Austerity – bringing together Labour, Green and trade union leftists, among them Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. Despite its large meetings and occasional demonstrations, it had little public impact.
These false starts and falterings are not the whole story. The Leninist micro-parties may have got nowhere in 2010-15, but after the collapse of the SSP and RESPECT many individual Leninists, drawing on the hard-left networks in which they had embedded themselves, did much better in the trade union bureaucracies.
4. Part of the union
Assisted by the apathy of members and the complacency of their opponents – while building on the alliances forged in Stop the War and local campaigns – the hard left won several key positions, elected and appointed, on top of the handful it already held. The most important victory came in 2010. Unite, the giant general union born of a series of mergers with the TGWU, elected Len McCluskey as general secretary on a 15 per cent turnout. McCluskey, a self-declared former-supporter of Militant in Liverpool (although he was never a member and is much more a product of the 1970s CPGB union machine than of Trotskyism), won against a candidate supported by the SWP and other Leninists. He appointed Andrew Murray of the CPB and Stop the War as his chief of staff.
Over the next five years the hard left in the unions huffed and puffed, complaining that Ed Miliband, who they’d backed in 2010 for the Labour leadership, was a great disappointment. In 2013 there was a major falling-out between Miliband and McCluskey after complaints that Unite was trying to fix the Labour parliamentary selection in Falkirk. Miliband’s response to the unions throwing their weight around in internal Labour politics was a change to the party’s leadership election rules. In 2014, he eliminated the formal role of trade unions in the electoral college that had chosen Labour leaders since 1983: members of Labour-affiliated unions and registered supporters were given a vote in party leadership elections with the same weight as that of a standard full member.
Hardly anyone objected. The commentariat saw the move as Miliband taking on the union bosses in a new drive for “modernisation”. But Unite and others saw the change as an opportunity – and in 2015, after Labour lost the general election, the chickens came home to roost.
Unite and Leninist-influenced hard left networks in the unions played a significant role in the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. Their intervention was mostly indirect. Unions in which the hard left was dominant splashed cash for propaganda and funded phone banks. Unite in particular invested heavily in the Corbyn campaign.
This support was contested and appears to have been grudging – McCluskey wanted to back Andy Burnham but was overturned by his executive. Corbyn’s leadership campaign director was Simon Fletcher, a longtime Socialist Action stalwart who had served as Ken Livingstone’s chief of staff before taking up a similar role with Corbyn. Activists from the People’s Assembly Against Austerity played an important part in organising public meetings for the Corbyn campaign, as did the Labour Representation Committee, a parallel initiative set up in 2004 that brought together the remnants of the Leninist left in the Labour Party and the unions that had survived two decades of expulsions of entryists.
As far as anyone knows, Corbyn himself never joined one of the Leninist groups, but throughout his political life he has drawn on their support and ideas
Both the People’s Assembly Against Austerity and the LRC consider that Leninist parties should be allowed to operate freely inside Labour, and members of both – along with activists from TUSC and other far-left operations – have enthusiastically signed up to Momentum, the continuity Corbyn leadership campaign set up by his campaign manager Jon Lansman, a veteran of the early-1980s Bennite left who is a key player in the LRC.
As far as anyone knows, Corbyn himself never joined one of the Leninist groups, but throughout his political life he has drawn on their support and ideas. He basked in the political milieu they dominated, and was heavily involved in campaigns in which Stalinists and Trotskyists played major if not defining roles – the Chile Solidarity Campaign, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the Anti-Apartheid Movement, the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, Liberation, Labour CND, Stop the War, the Labour Representation Committee and many more.
5. Imperial lather
More importantly, Leninist anti-imperialism continues to play a central role in shaping his thinking on foreign affairs: if there’s any guiding principle to Corbynism, it’s that the west – in other words, the US and the other “imperialist powers” – is always wrong. The west is by definition imperialist, whatever the aims or impact of its policies, from humanitarian intervention to regime change, from economic development to trade agreement, from the extension of democracy and human rights to formal alliances between states.
In this world, any opposition to the west that arises on the ground is understandable whatever form it takes, and is mostly viewed sympathetically. From the IRA to Hamas, from Cuba to Hezbollah, from North Korea to Venezuela, “anti-imperialists” are “friends” usually deserving solidarity – and a blind eye has to be turned to most of their flaws and their crimes.
As leader, Corbyn has appointed people from the Leninist periphery of hard-left Labour politics who share this worldview – let’s call them Leninoids, as they retain no formal relationship to organised groups – to key positions in the Labour Party, most importantly John McDonnell as shadow chancellor and Seumas Milne as chief spin-doctor. Back in the 1980s, McDonnell, along with Ken Livingstone, was part of the Labour Herald crew that was kept afloat by the Workers Revolutionary Party. Milne’s political sympathies have always been much more towards J V Stalin.
This left raised only a finger in protest at Putin’s cynical support of Bashar al-Assad in Syria
One of the strangest and most shocking characteristics of this boilerplate ‘anti-imperialism’ is a deeply ingrained deference to the Leninists’ old flame, Moscow. The hard left defended Vladimir Putin’s military intervention in Georgia in 2008 and excused Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its subsequent bloody interference in Ukraine. This left raised only a finger in protest at Putin’s cynical support of Bashar al-Assad in Syria – and its leading protagonists have long been favoured talking heads on Moscow’s international propaganda TV channel, RT. That Russia might itself harbour imperialist ambitions remains unthinkable for the last Leninists standing. Their crude anti-imperialist reflex gives Moscow a pass, just as it did for Saddam, and just as it continues to do for Iran and China.
It would be wrong to describe the elevation of a few backward-looking fossils as a Leninist revival. It is certainly not a Leninist takeover of Labour. Corbyn’s mindset is indebted to Leninism, but the Labour Party members and supporters who voted for him were and are people who wanted a change of tack on austerity and foreign military intervention. What they’ve got isn’t what they wanted. Putting it crudely, a handful of Leninists past and present have been given key bureaucratic positions by a hard-left Leninist-fellow-travelling leadership. Or to frame it differently: in choosing his team, Corbyn took a leaf out of Livingstone’s book and co-opted Leninist organisational talent for reforming and social-democratic ends.
6. Corbynismo o muerte?
It’s not the wisest move an aspiring prime minister could make, nor has it united the party, so the future of Corbyn’s fragile and fractious project is unpredictable. One thing is clear, however. Corbyn’s leadership of Labour is unlikely to regenerate the CPB, the SWP or any of the other micro-parties. It is much more probable that the sharp left turn for Labour that his leadership represents will deny Leninists their most potent recruiting argument, that Labour is selling out socialism and the working class. The more successful he is, the more difficult it will be to differentiate their brand – and if he sinks, their close association with him makes it likely that they go down with him.
Sadly, another Leninist mini-revival cannot be ruled out. The organisations are still there, ageing, battered and bruised, and there are plausible scenarios that they could exploit to their advantage. But nearly a century of experience suggests that Britain’s Leninists are on their last legs and going nowhere.
British Leninism today a tawdry political re-enactment society
The best hope for the left in electoral politics remains Labour – even if there is a mountain to climb by 2020 and Corbyn fails to enthuse the voters. The party is easy to join and it is a movement for change. Most of its members are sane democratic socialists with no illusions about the scale of the challenge facing them. If you want thrills and spills in the here-and-now and Labour doesn’t appeal, you’re better-off doing your politics yourself than joining one of the self-appointed vanguard parties. You might get nowhere, you might win meaningful victories, but you won’t find yourself dragged into cadre servitude by a central committee that treats new recruits as expendable extras in a misconceived historical movie.
Because that is what British Leninism is today: a tawdry political re-enactment society. They can grow Lenin beards and pretend to be hipsters, or dye their hair red like Rosa Luxemburg’s. But it’s not a politics for today. It isn’t going to find the way forward. The raison d’etre of Leninism is to mislead, to misrepresent and to divide the left. It’s time to let 1917 go.