Lessons of Militant vital for anti-austerity struggles today
Michael Crick’s book ’Militant’ was first published in 1984. Why has it now been re-issued 32 years later? For the very same reason that it was published in the first place: to provide ammunition for attacking the emerging left, specifically the Socialist Party (formerly Militant), and all workers and youth who wish to see the labour movement return to its socialist roots.
This aspiration was symbolised by the Corbyn insurgency and his unprecedented victory during the Labour Party leadership contest.
Tom Watson, current ’centre-right’ deputy leader of theLabour Party who recently described the present left as a ’rabble’, gives the game away on the cover of Crick’s book.
He recommends it as "a must read for Labour activists". He clearly sees it as a handbook for similar action to be taken if necessary against the Corbyn left through a right-wing purge, as in the 1980s. The publisher, ’Biteback’, in its publicity blurb, also admits: "Some in the centre of the party [are] urging its supporters to treat the long unavailable book as a ’war manual’."
The same purpose is served by clearly biased photographs, also on the cover, of Derek Hatton – deputy Labour leader of Liverpool City Council and supporter of Militant at the time – and Tony Mulhearn against the background of banners from the short-lived, rabid and soon-to-be-forgotten so-called ’Liverpool against Militant’.
One reads: "Hitler only destroyed half our city. Hatton tried for the lot".
Why not the far more accurate images of enthusiastic demonstrations and mass meetings of Liverpool workers and their families in fervent support of the immortal Liverpool City Council, which forced the fountainhead of reaction in the 1980s, Thatcher, to retreat and give back the millions stolen from the city?
Why not the pictures of the great gains arising from Liverpool workers’ Militant victory? The expanded local services, the 5,000 newly-built council houses with gardens back and front, that were praised by none other than Lord Reg Underhill himself, former national agent of the Labour Party. He nevertheless still wanted to expel Militant! Why not feature the thousands of new jobs created, the new parks and sports centres that were built?
No, that is not the purpose of this book, which is to seek to slander and demonise Militant and the successful fighting policies pursued in Liverpool and elsewhere.
Watson – in the so-called ’centre’ of Labour – in an alliance with the Blairite right, hopes to dissuade the present generation of Labour ’activists’ from going down the ’Militant road.’ That is, socialist policies used then and applicable now, such as, among other things, ’no-cuts’ budgets. This is the real answer to Osborne’s further £10 billion butchering of council and national services and jobs.
Why not also comment on Militant’s decisive role during the poll tax struggle? It is an incontestable fact that others deserted the field of battle. It was not the disastrous Neil Kinnock and the right-wing Labour leadership that led to victory in this epic struggle.
Nor unfortunately did the trade union leaders and Labour left, let alone left groups like the Socialist Workers Party. The leader of the SWP at the time, Tony Cliff, decreed that not paying the poll tax was like not paying your bus fare! Militant had 34 comrades jailed during this battle, along with many others who fought and sacrificed equally. It was our party that gave the necessary leadership.
It was Militant and the All-Britain Anti Poll Tax Federation which achieved the remarkable feat of organising the 18 million-strong non-payment campaign that smashed the tax and consigned the ’iron lady’, Thatcher, to history!
Reviewing Crick’s latest book, the SWP now unbelievably write: "The lesson of the 1980s should be that focusing on internal battles eventually means giving way to the right."
This is completely false. The internal Labour struggles of the 1980s were not just "internal". The Liverpool struggle resonated widely among trade unionists and workers generally, as did the ’re-selection’ battle – attempts to replace pro-capitalist MPs with real socialist, working-class fighters.
’Reselection’ of pro-capitalist Blairite MPs remains just as important today as a means of decisively changing the Labour Party and cementing Corbyn’s leadership.
The SWP made a major blunder, concluding in 1984 that the Liverpool council outcome meant that workers were "sold down the Mersey"! In Liverpool, workers celebrating their victory treated this claim with bewilderment and disdain.
None of Militant’s achievements are either recognised or explained in Crick’s book because as he, Watson and the weakened Blairites well understand, this would completely vindicate fighting socialist policies for today.
Crick fails to grasp the political reasons why Militant was successful in Liverpool and elsewhere. It is Marxists who are usually falsely accused of a ’conspiratorial’ view of history. Yet Crick’s book crudely exemplifies this approach.
Militant allegedly rose through conspiratorial, secretive methods. Marxism could only find support by disguising our "real revolutionary policies."
How childish! As if a movement which manages to connect to first of all hundreds, then thousands and, on a mass level, hundreds of thousands and millions, can do so through ’secretive’ methods designed to hide its real programme.
There is no economic or real political context to Crick’s analysis of our rise or, for that matter, our supposed subsequent ’isolation’. There is just a passing reference to why we had such success in Liverpool. Crick writes: "If Militant had never existed in Liverpool, a struggle would have been likely between the Liverpool Council and the Thatcher administration… Liverpool suffered particular badly from the successive measures introduced by the government to curb local spending."
It was Militant, together with thousands of politically aware workers, however, which supplied the vital ingredient of programme and leadership which defeated Thatcher.
But it was not just Liverpool but Britain as a whole that was suffering from the crisis of capitalism in general and the special crisis of British capitalism evident throughout the 1970s. This was symbolised in the complete collapse of manufacturing in Liverpool, leading to poverty and unemployment.
This naturally generated working-class opposition to the system and its direct representatives, the Tories and Liberals. It was the major factor in swinging the great majority of the labour movement towards the left and, with it, a dramatic increase in support for Militant.
At one stage, the 1,200 supporters of Militant in Liverpool produced a weekly supplement of our national weekly paper. We argued for the programme and the policies which ensured the Liverpool victory and the later poll tax triumph.
None of this is explained by Crick, who falls back on the hackneyed right-wing ’organisational’ explanation for our growth. Our success throughout the 1970s and 80s was primarily political, of course married to effective organisation.
It was our correct explanation of how events were likely to develop and our programme for victory of the working people against capitalism and its pro-capitalist agents in the labour movement which enthused workers and young people, drawing them to our banner.
The same factors are at work today as capitalism once more heads for the rocks, wrecking the lives of millions in the process. Moreover, we never vanished from the political arena, as our opponents hoped and predicted. Instead we have been able to survive and grow, despite the ideological backlash against ’socialism’ arising from the collapse of Stalinism and, with it, the planned economy.
This allowed us to maintain our party and to exercise a major influence in the changed situation following Corbyn’s Labour leadership victory.
We and the labour movement initially succeeded in Liverpool and were only defeated because of the desertion, by the likes of David Blunkett and Ken Livingstone, from the common struggle of 22 councils taking a ’no-cuts’ stance against the Tory government.
Only Liverpool and Lambeth held out against Thatcher.
It was this, combined with the defeat of the miners and the coalescing with the first beginnings of neoliberalism, which provided the material base for the beginnings of the triumph of the right, first through Kinnock, followed by John Smith and succeeded by the outright neoliberal political counterrevolution within the Labour Party of Tony Blair.
But that cycle has exhausted itself as a new and perhaps even more devastating world economic crisis looms which will severely impact on Britain, which is now much more economically exposed than in the 1970s or 80s.
It is unquestionable that mass resistance will flow from this. The problem is will the leadership be there – as it was in Liverpool – that can lead the forces of the working class and the labour movement to victory?
The fact that the working masses are striving to create such a leadership was shown by the anti-austerity revolt symbolised in Corbyn’s emergence as Labour leader and Bernie Sanders in the US.
All of this is a closed book to Crick. Kinnock possessed the necessary previous ’left credentials’, which he unscrupulously used to lead the charge towards the right at the top in the latter part of the 1980s. He justified his Stalinist-style purge of Labour, while some alleged lefts’ unbelievably accommodated themselves to this, as the "necessary price for a Labour victory"! Yet Baron Kinnock, as he subsequently became for his priceless service to capitalism, was the architect of devastating election defeats in 1987 and 1992.
What a contrast to Liverpool under the political sway of the much maligned Militant!
The highest Labour vote ever in local elections in the city was achieved in 1987 when the Liverpool Labour group and movement were still under the political influence of Militant!
Electoral decline set in with Kinnock’s disastrous reign as Labour leader while the purge of Militant and the left was carried through. In fact, the process of dismantling Labour as a working class party at bottom began with our expulsion, as we predicted at the time.
Thatcher recognised – according to her partner in crime, Norman Tebbit – that her greatest achievement was the establishment of New Labour through Tony Blair! To his credit, Jeremy Corbyn, as Crick records, opposed the witch-hunt against Militant and has defended his decision since becoming Labour leader.
Crick and all those capitalist forces who feared the growing influence of the left and Militant in particular ascribe our success to ’sinister’ and ’underhand’ methods. Horror upon horror, our success was due to the fact we were ’organised’, something that we have never denied in writing, on radio or in TV debates watched by millions.
We were organised just as the right was at the time through the right-wing organisation ’Solidarity’ and the left in the movement behind Tony Benn and the Tribune newspaper.
As to being a ’party within a party’ – so is the Co-op Party. Paul Mason has also recognised, in effect, that the Labour Party will have to be organised on federal lines. This could draw in all genuine socialist forces, particularly the new generation who are repelled by the top-down intolerant methods and structures of even some of the current Labour left groupings.
Our real crime was to be better organised than our opponents. Moreover, our political programme was capable of reaching hundreds of thousands and even millions of workers. This was shown in Liverpool, the poll tax battle, the miners’ strike – when we assembled 500 miners in our ranks – and in innumerable struggles that unfolded in the 1970s and 80s.
Militant was the most successful Marxist/Trotskyist organisation in Britain and, to some extent, in Western Europe.
Like no other left, Marxist force at the time or since, we were able to connect to mass working class audiences with our programme, which linked their day-to-day problems with the idea of transforming society in a socialist direction. We describe this in great detail in ’The Rise of Militant’ and also in a forthcoming history of our role since the mid-1990s.
This, and many other lessons from that period, can be better learned in preparation for today’s battles through our books than the one-sided biased work of Michael Crick.