Britain: Militant 1964-2004 the socialist

Forty years fighting for socialism

The Independent newspaper, recently commenting on the life of a deceased Olympic athlete, wrote that his critics described him as "the sport’s ’militant tendency’". David Beckham was accused of leading a "millionaire militant tendency" – a contradiction in terms – after England’s football team refused to speak to the press following a recent international match because of what they considered unfair criticism of their previous performances.

These are just two examples out of thousands over the last 40 years of how the terms ’Militant’ and the ’Militant Tendency’ have entered everyday language in Britain. Like ’bolshie’ or ’commie’ in the past, they are now general terms for all those prepared to stand up for the poor, the weak and the exploited against the bosses and authoritarian forces of all kinds.

For the more politically aware workers, ’Militant’ is a symbol also for challenging capitalism, not just in words but in deeds too, linked to the fight for a new socialist society.

It is a source of immense pride for those who participated from the beginning, as well as those who travelled part of the path with us, that we have managed to continue the production of our journal and the work of our paper, its comrades and supporters over this period.

In the very first issue of our paper, commenting on the role of the then Labour leadership – in 1964 – we wrote: "By showing themselves as ’safe and responsible’ leaders, not fundamentally different from the Tories, the Labour leaders have played into the hands of the Tories."

We were a very small force then, producing a monthly paper in black and white only, and subject to the whims of a Polish printer in West London as to even whether the paper was produced or not. Many doubted whether this new ’baby’, ill-clad and lacking in sustenance, would even survive its first few months.

That we were able to do so was because of our boundless faith in the socialist future of the working class. We also had enormously committed supporters, although they only numbered around 40 nationally.

France 1968

ABOVE ALL, Militant was launched at just the right time, in the mid-1960s, when a revival was taking place amongst young people and workers, which culminated in the explosive events of the late 1960s. Prominent amongst these was the mightiest general strike in history in France in May-June 1968, when ten million workers came out on strike and occupied the factories.

We commented at the time that the working class could have taken power but for the perfidious role played by the leaders of the main workers’ organisations in France at that stage, the Communist Party and the forces that later became the French Socialist Party.

We also witnessed and participated in the mass demonstrations which met the Russian Stalinists’ occupation of Czechoslovakia in the same year, with myself and other ’Young Socialists’ leading contingents of young people demanding workers’ democracy in Czechoslovakia and the arming of the working class.

At the same time we built up a powerful position amongst the young people in the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS), eventually gaining a majority in 1970. At that time the Labour Party was entirely different to ’New Labour’ today. It was at bottom a workers’ party, although with a pro-capitalist leadership. It provided great scope for workers, socialists and youth to swing the Labour Party to the left and turn it into more of an instrument for working peoples’ struggles.

Militant had a powerful effect in deliberations at Labour Party conferences. For instance, in 1968 we managed to get three million votes for a resolution demanding the nationalisation of the "top monopolies".

We went one better in 1972 when the famous Shipley resolution was passed in the teeth of ferocious opposition from the right wing. It called for a future Labour government to take into public ownership "the commanding heights of the economy". Many other victories were scored by socialists and Marxists around the Militant throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

Our struggle, however, was not restricted to the Labour Party; we won significant influence within the trade unions. In fact, our trade union work has been one of the most important pillars of Militant over the last 40 years.

For instance, John Macreadie in the Civil and Public Services Association – now the PCS – won the general secretaryship of that union but was debarred from taking this leadership post by manoeuvres and outright undemocratic and dictatorial measures from the right wing, backed by the capitalists and their courts.

Even in the 1970s, particularly after Labour came to power in the February 1974 general election, Militant caught the attention of the capitalists and their media. We were subjected to ferocious attacks, for instance when a young comrade of ours, Andy Bevan, was appointed National Youth Officer of the Labour Party.

However, the real bitter hostility of the capitalists was reserved for Militant when its influence was sharply expressed in the epic Liverpool battle between 1983 and 1987. The Liverpool working class and labour movement, with Militant in its leadership, managed to inflict a serious defeat on Thatcher in 1984.

Growing support

MILITANT GREW by leaps and bounds in this period and indeed throughout the 1980s. This was sometimes expressed in the most unusual fashion. For instance, the now disgraced Jeffrey Archer, in his novel First Amongst Equals, dealt with a mythical Labour MP in Edinburgh, writing: "His General Management Committee, which now included five members of Militant Tendency, tabled a motion of no confidence in its member."

The journal of the National Union of Journalists fed the impression that Militant was everywhere: "Central TV was filming the pilot of a new comedy series… a large group of actors holding banners and placards were holding a mock demo in the middle of the street when a bloke turned up and tried to sell them copies of Militant."

Even a BBC disc jockey commented at the time: "One of the reasons why Frankie Goes to Hollywood was so successful is the fact that they banned it; rather like the Militant Tendency – you ban it and it gets more popular."

Indeed the expulsion of the five members of the Militant Editorial Board in 1983 – Peter Taaffe, Lynn Walsh, Clare Doyle, Keith Dickinson and Ted Grant – only served to widen the circle of Militant’s supporters and influence. The growth in our support was in all fields, particularly amongst young people and in the trade unions.

For instance, we organised the Broad Left Organising Committee (BLOC) which brought together 20 individual trade union ’broad lefts’ organised on a national scale and some on a regional basis.

BLOC’s national conference took place in March 1984, just as the miners’ strike was beginning and attracted 2,200 delegates who packed out Sheffield’s Octagon Centre. This was the most successful rank-and-file trade union gathering for 10 or 20 years.

Ken Smith, in his excellent recent book, detailed the events of the miners’ strike and the important role that Militant played in this. But it was the role we played in the Liverpool battle that aroused the ire of the British capitalists and its kept press and media.

Liverpool slandered

EVEN NOW it is incredible, looking back at the comments made by the media during the battle over Liverpool, just how far they were prepared to go. They dipped their pens in mad-dog saliva to slander Militant.

The events in Liverpool terrified them in a way that few events before or since have done. Here was a living example of the ideas of Marxism and socialism translated into the language that the working class could understand. This in turn led to mass action that compelled Thatcher, the fountain head of world reaction at the time, to retreat.

Both Militant and the Merseyside working class were never forgiven for inflicting this defeat. Revenge was taken against the councillors, who were fined and banned from office on the most spurious grounds of losing the council income from interest on its money in the bank.

Some of the leading figures in Militant who led this battle were victimised. Right-wing Labour, led by Neil Kinnock, the then Labour leader, pursued a ’scorched earth’ policy which neutered and shattered the Liverpool labour movement, including the Labour Party, which is now a shadow of its former self in the city.

The expulsions of Militant’s leaders and supporters did not, however, cower us. The experience gained in the battle in Liverpool prepared the ground for the poll tax struggle that ultimately brought down Thatcher.

Space does not allow us to elaborate fully here the lessons of this battle – nor has a full account yet been written of these important events – but this was the event that finally finished Thatcher.

As is well known, Militant, through the Anti-Poll Tax Federation, mobilised 18 million people not to pay their poll tax. However, the success of the anti-poll tax struggle was not achieved easily.

Thirty-four Militant supporters were jailed out of hundreds imprisoned nationally. Labour MP and Militant supporter Terry Fields, who was heroic both in the Liverpool battle and in the poll tax struggle – as were Labour MPs Dave Nellist and Pat Wall, the latter tragically dying during this battle – went to jail on behalf of the working class and in defence of this struggle.

The battles in Liverpool and the poll tax struggle were a watershed for Militant and for the labour movement. We warned at the time that the expulsion of the Liverpool Militants and other Militant supporters and members would herald the beginning of the change in the character of the Labour Party. But even we did not envisage how far it was likely to go.

The poll tax struggle showed that the right-wing Labour leadership of Kinnock, followed by John Smith and Blair after that, were hell-bent on driving out anybody who was remotely connected to the struggles of working-class people. It was sufficient to call for non-payment of the poll tax to be expelled from the Labour Party!

Social upheavals

THESE DEVELOPMENTS, together with the shift towards the right within the labour movement generally, compelled Militant to seek to organise workers and socialists outside the Labour Party in the 1990s. Since then, the Labour Party has moved way to the right and is now no different to the Tories or Liberal Democrats.

The 1990s were a very difficult decade for socialists and the labour movement because Stalinism – a planned economy but with no democracy where a bureaucratic clique ruled – collapsed. The demise of Stalinism was used to discredit ’socialism’ and the planned economy and shift the ideological axis to the right.

However, the decade and half since the fall of the Berlin Wall has also shown the bankruptcy of capitalism, with the war in Iraq and the catastrophic consequences flowing from it, and a looming economic downturn. The period we are entering will be markedly different to what has gone before. It will be a period of economic and social upheaval, with hundreds, thousands and, ultimately, millions looking for an alternative.

The last 40 years have shown the colossal effect that Militant has had. But even this will be put in the shade by the effect that we, together with the ideas of socialism and Marxism, will have in the next period.

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales

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October 2004