Spartacist Canada No. 165
British Reformists in Action
When Militant Ran Liverpool
Down With Executive Offices of the Capitalist State!
The following article is reprinted from Workers Hammer No. 210 (Spring 2010), newspaper of the Spartacist League/Britain, section of the International Communist League. The Militant tendency is the forerunner of Peter Taaffe’s Socialist Party in Britain, and in Canada, the Fightback group, followers of the late Ted Grant.
The Fifth Conference of the International Communist League (ICL) in 2007 adopted the position of opposition in principle to Marxists running for executive office in the capitalist state. Such offices include president, mayor, provincial or state governor as well as cabinet member in Britain. As we noted:
“Communist deputies can, as oppositionists, serve in the U.S. Congress, parliaments and other legislative bodies as revolutionary tribunes of the working class. But assuming executive office or gaining control of a bourgeois legislature or municipal council, either independently or in coalition, requires taking responsibility for the administration of the machinery of the capitalist state. The ICL had previously held that communists could run for executive offices, provided that we declare in advance that we don’t intend to assume such offices. But in re-examining this question, we concluded that standing for election to executive positions carries the implication that one is ready to accept such responsibility, no matter what disclaimer one makes in advance. For self-proclaimed Marxists to engage in such activity only lends legitimacy to prevailing and reformist conceptions of the state.”
—“Down With Executive Offices of the Capitalist State! Marxist Principles and Electoral Tactics,” Spartacist [English edition] No. 61, Spring 2009
When Marxists run candidates and seek election to bourgeois parliaments it is in order to use them as a platform for furthering the goal of proletarian socialist revolution. In the face of the betrayal of the Social Democratic leaders in Germany at the outset of World War I, Karl Liebknecht used his position in parliament to urge the German proletariat to wage revolutionary class struggle against the German bourgeoisie. As Liebknecht put it in his famous rallying cry: “the main enemy is at home.” The Bolshevik Party carried out revolutionary agitation and propaganda work, even in the reactionary tsarist Duma.
Assuming executive office, however, means becoming responsible for administering the capitalist system of oppression and exploitation of the working class. The London mayor is the boss of the city’s Tube [subway] workers, for example, which means carrying out attacks on their wages and conditions. As an example of why communists don’t run for or take executive office, this article will look at the experience of Liverpool City Council from 1983-87, when the deeply Labourite Militant tendency, forerunner of today’s Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal, gained control of the council and administered the bourgeois state at the municipal level.
The Communist International and the Struggle Against Reformism
Our opposition to executive offices flows from the Marxist understanding that the state is not neutral but an organ of class rule. At its core the state consists of armed bodies of men and instruments of coercion—the police, the army, prison officers, the courts, etc.—committed to the defence of the prevailing property forms. In every struggle of the working class the attitude that one takes towards the state is critical. The fundamental counterposition is between the reformist strategy of taking hold of and administering the bourgeois state apparatus and the revolutionaries’ insistence on the need to smash the existing state and replace it with organs of proletarian rule.
Opposition to executive office is a corollary of Lenin’s The State and Revolution and The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, written in 1917 and 1918 respectively. In effect, these are founding documents of Lenin’s struggle to forge a new, revolutionary international following the collapse of the Second (Socialist) International into social chauvinism at the outbreak of WWI in August 1914. With their support for their “own” bourgeoisies many of the official Socialist leaders passed over definitively to the defence of the capitalist order against the working class. In rescuing the revolutionary heritage of Marxism from the reformist betrayers of the proletariat, Lenin had to reassert the fundamental lesson that Marx and Engels drew from the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871, which was, as Marx wrote in The Civil War in France, that: “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.” The experience of the Commune enabled Marx and Engels to codify the revolutionary tasks of the proletariat vis-à-vis the bourgeois state.
The question of ministerialism—the participation of Socialists in bourgeois governments—had been the subject of a major dispute in the Marxist movement as early as 1899, over what became known as Millerandism. The French Socialist leader Alexandre Millerand joined the government of René Waldeck-Rousseau in order to help defuse the deep social crisis that had been raging over the Dreyfus affair. The anti-Semitic witch hunt of this Jewish military officer had polarised the country. Millerand’s entry into the government as minister of commerce was a betrayal which divided French Socialists.
Rosa Luxemburg, the Polish-Jewish revolutionary who played a central role in the struggle against this reformist rot and against ministerialism, wrote: “The entry of a socialist into a bourgeois government is not, as it is thought, a partial conquest of the bourgeois state by the socialists, but a partial conquest of the socialist party by the bourgeois state” (“The Dreyfus Affair and the Millerand Case,” 1899). But the Second International compromised on the key question of socialists entering bourgeois governments. A resolution cooked up by Karl Kautsky proclaimed:
“The entry of an individual socialist into a bourgeois ministry cannot be regarded as the normal beginning of the conquest of political power but can be only a temporary and exceptional makeshift in a predicament.
“Whether in a given case such a predicament exists is a question of tactics and not of principle. Here the Congress shouldn’t decide. But in any case this dangerous experiment can be advantageous only if it is approved by a united party organization and the socialist minister is and remains the mandate-bearer of his party.”
—Internationaler Sozialisten-Kongress zu Paris 1900 [International Socialist Congress in Paris 1900] (Berlin: Expedition der Buchhandlung Vorwärts, 1900) (our translation)
The ICL stands on the resolutions of the first four Congresses of the Communist International (CI) which began the task of clearing out the Augean stables of Social Democratic betrayal and mainly did a good job of reaffirming Marxism on the question of the state. However, we think that the task was not fully completed and we are not uncritical of the CI during this period. In fact our position that communists should not run for executive office is an extension of our criticism of the entry of the German Communist Party (KPD) in October 1923 into the regional governments of Saxony and Thuringia, which were led by so-called “left” Social Democrats. This was a move which helped derail a revolutionary situation (see “A Trotskyist Critique of Germany 1923 and the Comintern,” Spartacist [English edition] No. 56, Spring 2001).
At its Fourth Congress in 1922, the CI incorrectly applied the term “workers government” to the bourgeois governments of Saxony and Thuringia. We understand “workers government” as a popular designation for the dictatorship of the proletariat that follows the smashing of the bourgeois state. In Germany in 1923 the capitalist state was still intact and KPD participation in these governments reinforced prevailing parliamentary prejudices and acted as an obstacle to revolution.
Comintern Ambiguity on Municipalism
An example of unfinished business of the CI on the capitalist state was seen in the “Theses on the Communist Parties and Parliamentarism” at the Second Congress of the Comintern in 1920. The theses make clear that:
“The proletariat’s task is to break up the bourgeoisie’s state machine and to destroy it, and with it parliamentary institutions, whether republican or constitutional-monarchist.”
—Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920 (Pathfinder, 1991)
Thesis 5 unambiguously states what the reformist left often denies, namely that municipal councils are a component of the bourgeois state apparatus which must be smashed by workers revolution:
“It is no different with the bourgeoisie’s institutions of local government. To counterpose them to the organs of the state is theoretically incorrect. They are in reality organizations similar to the mechanism of the bourgeois state, which must be destroyed by the revolutionary proletariat and replaced by local soviets of workers’ deputies.”
However another thesis, number 13, which was added as an amendment, contradicts this understanding. It reads:
“Should Communists hold a majority in institutions of local government, they must (a) organize revolutionary opposition against the central bourgeois government; (b) do everything possible to serve the poorer sectors of the population (economic measures, creating or attempting to create an armed workers’ militia, and so forth); (c) at every opportunity point out how the bourgeois state blocks truly major changes; (d) on this basis develop vigorous revolutionary propaganda, never fearing conflict with the state; (e) under certain conditions, replace municipal governments with local workers’ councils. In other words, all of the Communists’ activity in local government must be a part of the general work of undermining the capitalist system.”
While trying to draw a line against municipalism, this point is ambiguous enough that it leaves the door open for opportunism. For us revolutionaries, it is important to acknowledge the weakness of the early revolutionary CI on municipalism. But unlike the CI, the Militant tendency which ran Liverpool Council had long been a hardened reformist organisation.
The Myth of “Municipal Socialism”
A classic example of opportunist “municipal socialism” is the experience of Poplar Council in the years immediately following WWI. The term “Poplarism” is based on the “Councillors’ Revolt” against the central government, which is upheld to this day by reformists of every stripe as an exemplary “socialist” struggle. In the book Liverpool: A City that Dared to Fight by Peter Taaffe and Tony Mulhearn (Fortress Books, January 1988), Poplar is cited several times as an inspiration for Militant when it ran Liverpool.
In 1919 the Labour council of Poplar in East London, led by mayor George Lansbury, began a struggle with the central government, which at that time was a coalition of the Liberals and Tories. Seeking to force richer London boroughs and the central government to assist with poor relief, the Poplar councillors refused to collect rates [taxes] other than those for the immediate benefit of the impoverished people of Poplar. As the post-WWI economy nosedived, unemployment levels were high, including among London’s dockers. George Lansbury was a left-Labourite—the Tony Benn of his day—in addition to being a Christian Socialist and a pacifist. Among the Labour councillors elected in Poplar were two Communists, Lansbury’s son Edgar and his wife Minnie.
The Poplar Labour councillors acted with considerable courage and were imprisoned for their stubborn campaign on behalf of the poor. However, fundamentally Poplarism revealed the futility of “municipal socialism” to provide any solution to the devastation wrought by the capitalist system of exploitation of the working class. That required workers revolution to rip the means of production out of the hands of the capitalists and a collectivised planned economy in at least a number of advanced capitalist countries. All the Poplar councillors could do was to try to pressure the central authorities to provide money. Noreen Branson recounts in her book Poplarism, 1919-1925 that councillors hung out a placard when the King and Queen visited the borough stating: “Poplar Borough Council expects this day the King will do his duty by calling upon His Majesty’s Government to find work or full maintenance for the unemployed of the nation.”
In contrast to the later example of the Militant in Liverpool, which did not oppose British troops in Northern Ireland and was mired in the imperialists’ campaign against the Soviet Union, Poplar Council did pass resolutions calling for the withdrawal of British troops from Ireland, as well as opposing British imperialist intervention against the Soviet Union. Poplar councillors were among those who, in 1920, stopped the ship the Jolly George from being loaded with munitions bound for Pilsudski’s nationalist forces in Poland for use against the Soviet Army. The action by London dockers against the Jolly George was part of the Hands Off Russia campaign which had been established for working-class action in defence of the fledgling Soviet state against imperialist intervention. (See “‘Hands Off Russia!’ British Labour and the Wars of Intervention 1918-21,” Spartacist Britain No. 36, October 1981.)
Militant’s Record in Liverpool
Militant held executive office in Liverpool in the context where Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government was waging a savage war against the working class and oppressed minorities. The coal miners were the main target but Thatcher took aim against the whole working class and had a particular disdain for former strongholds of the industrial proletariat such as Liverpool, Manchester and South Yorkshire, as well as Scotland and Wales. The Thatcher government cut the Rate Support Grant (central government funding) to cities like Liverpool, which was devastated by unemployment with the decline of shipbuilding and the docks. Militant had taken office on the basis of a programme of public spending. They refused to increase the rates (local taxes) and put pressure on the government to make up the budget deficit. This is the substance of Militant’s much vaunted struggle in Liverpool.
The Militant tendency, led by Ted Grant, was founded in 1964. While falsely purporting to be Trotskyist, they were in fact an organic part of the Labour Party. Contrary to their claim to be winning workers in the Labour Party to Marxism through their “deep entry,” it was Militant who took on the political line of the reformist Labour Party, a classic case of the mask becoming the face. Militant’s entire political perspective was to bring in “socialism” through gaining a majority in Westminster [parliament]. The “What We Stand For” box in their newspaper Militant shows what this organisation was about. In the 27 May 1983 issue they demand:
“Nationalisation of the top 200 monopolies, including the banks and insurance companies which control 80-85 per cent of the economy. This should be done through an Enabling Bill, with compensation based only on proven need.”
This is parliamentary cretinism—the notion that socialism will come not through workers revolution but via the “mother of all parliaments.” Militant infamously upheld the line that cops and prison guards—the armed fist of the capitalist state—are “workers in uniform.” This reformist programme is upheld by the Socialist Party today. In August 2007, when thousands of prison officers staged a strike over pay, most of the reformist left gave gushing support to the strike. The Socialist Party went further, inviting Prison Officers’ Association (POA) leader Brian Caton to address its “Socialism 2007” event. Grotesquely, Caton is today a member of the Socialist Party.
Characteristically, the Taaffe/Mulhearn book extols the 1919 police strike and the “union” of police and prison officers, which it says “was founded in August 1918 to fight for the interests of ‘workers in uniform’.” Having described only pages before the savage police assaults against striking railway workers on St. George’s Plateau in August 1911, Taaffe/Mulhearn declare:
“Many workers in Liverpool had indicated that they would come to the side of the police, which showed their sound proletarian instinct. This was despite many vivid memories of the beatings and shooting they had suffered at the hands of the police in 1911.”
In 1921 these cops carried out a brutal assault on unemployed workers occupying the Walker Art Gallery in which, as Taaffe/Mulhearn describe it, “workers’ blood ran down the steps of the gallery.” This confirms the nature of the police as described by Trotsky in an article about Weimar Germany:
“The fact that the police was originally recruited in large numbers from among Social Democratic workers is absolutely meaningless. Consciousness is determined by environment even in this instance. The worker who becomes a policeman in the service of the capitalist state, is a bourgeois cop, not a worker.”
—“What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat,” January 1932 (The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany)
Labourism and Cold War
Prior to 1983 Liverpool Council was run by the Liberals and Tories, often in coalition. The desperate economic situation however produced a shift and a political vacuum into which Labour, dominated by Militant, was able to move. When Militant assumed office in Liverpool the anti-Soviet Cold War campaign of the imperialists was at its peak over the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 and the rise of Polish Solidarność in the early 1980s. The Trotskyist Spartacist League stood forthrightly for the military defence of the Soviet Union, a bureaucratically degenerated workers state, and the deformed workers states of Eastern Europe against imperialism and internal capitalist counterrevolution, while fighting for proletarian political revolution to oust the Stalinist bureaucracies, whose policies of conciliating imperialism undermined that defence. Today, we uphold the same programme in respect of the remaining deformed workers states—China, Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam. Militant howled along with Thatcher and Reagan in their anti-Communist crusade against the Soviet Union. On 14 October 1982 Militant tendency goons attempted to exclude the Spartacist League from a demonstration in Liverpool against youth unemployment. Incensed by our opposition to counterrevolutionary Solidarność in Poland, after announcing that our banner “had no place on the march” they attempted to tear it down.
At the time the Militant tendency was being witchhunted by the Labour leadership. Under the impact of Reagan and Thatcher’s Cold War drive against the Soviet Union the Labour Party was rent by a bitter struggle between the pro-NATO, pro-CIA right wing, led by Denis Healey, and the Little England reformists around Tony Benn, whose opposition to the siting of American missiles in Britain threatened to make Labour unfit for government in the eyes of the British bourgeoisie. We defended the Militant tendency against Labour’s inquisitors, while noting:
“Just as Healey is proving Labour’s loyalty to the bourgeoisie by witchhunting Militant, so Militant tries by witchhunting the SL to prove its loyalty to anti-Soviet Labourism and its determination to get Labour into Parliament (with or without ‘socialist policies’) above all else.”
—“Witchhunted Witchhunt,” Spartacist Britain No. 45, November 1982
Like Benn, Militant truly believed that the Labour Party was a “broad church” which should function as a “party of the whole class.” We sought to exacerbate this split in the Labour Party by driving out the pro-CIA Healey wing, to place Benn in a position where his reformist politics could be exposed as a central obstacle to building a revolutionary party. Among our slogans that enraged Militant were “Kick out CIA/NATO-lover Healey!” and “Labour can betray without the CIA connection!” More than a decade later, following the defeat of the miners and counterrevolution in the Soviet Union, Tony Blair began the project of seeking to transform the Labour Party from a “bourgeois workers party”—having a mass working-class base, but saddled with a pro-capitalist leadership and programme—into an outright bourgeois party, by severing all links to the trade-union movement. This process is unfinished but Labour is now moribund as a reformist party of the working class.
Militant and the Miners Strike
Peter Taaffe, today’s Socialist Party leader who was a leader of the Militant tendency with the late Ted Grant, equates Militant’s stewardship of Liverpool Council with the heroic year-long miners strike of 1984-85. The first paragraph of the preface to Taaffe and Mulhearn’s book says:
“Since 1979 the conditions and rights of working people appear to have been crushed by the Thatcher juggernaut. In reality, the working class has put up ferocious opposition to the Tory government. This reached its height in the titanic year-long miners’ strike of 1984-5 and in the stand of the Liverpool City Council between 1983-7.”
Ludicrously placing the most significant class struggle in Britain since the 1926 General Strike on the same plane as Militant’s pleading with Thatcher for more money for Liverpool shows Taaffe’s miserable parliamentary cretinism. Although the book is 500 pages long there are only a few passing references to the miners strike. Thatcher deployed the full weight of the capitalist state—thousands of riot cops, MI5 spies, court sequestrators, etc.—against the NUM [National Union of Mine Workers], which was dubbed the “enemy within.” As Taaffe/Mulhearn acknowledge: “the miners’ strike had to be ‘seen off’ and this was not to take place until March 1985.” Thus, in July 1984, four months into the miners strike, Thatcher’s minister Patrick Jenkin made a deal with the Militant-led council whereby the Tory government in Westminster would give Liverpool Council £30 million in exchange for a rates rise of 17 per cent. In his book Inside Left: The Story So Far, published in 1988, former Militant deputy council leader Derek Hatton recounts being told by Tory MP Teddy Taylor that “we had to tell Patrick to give you the money. At this stage we want [miners union leader Arthur] Scargill. He’s our priority. But we’ll come for you later.”
We called for spreading the miners strike to other strategic industries, particularly the railways and the docks, which would have shut down the country. This would have immediately raised the question of state power, of which class shall rule. Taaffe/Mulhearn say that: “Like other councils, Liverpool City Council was heavily involved in support for the miners” and cite the facilities provided by the council “for collecting cash to buy food which was delivered to the mining areas by the lorry-load.” But Militant’s perspective was above all to get a Labour government elected. The Labour Party at that time was led by Neil Kinnock, who was despised by militant miners, especially for his denunciations of the strikers as “violent” while they were under massive police assault. Kinnock infuriated the miners not least with his call for a ballot, which became the rallying cry of all those who sought to defeat the strike, including Thatcher and the TUC [Trades Union Congress] misleaders, and was echoed by much of the so-called “far left.” Not surprisingly, in their book, Taaffe and Mulhearn repeat this strike-breaking call, stating:
“Yet as Militant has consistently pointed out, one of the fundamental weaknesses of the miners’ strike was the failure of the leadership to hold a ballot which would have resulted in an overwhelming majority confirming the strike action which was in progress. The idea that the actions of a ‘determined minority’ can bulldoze other workers to come out on strike without discussion and a democratic vote is absolutely false.”
Militant/Socialist Party: Labourite Social Chauvinism
As a city, Liverpool was built on the slave trade. The City Hall from which Militant conducted their business is decorated with stone representations of slavery; city streets are named after those who got very rich in the trafficking of black human flesh, including numerous mayors of the city such as Foster Cunliffe, Joseph Bird and George Campbell.
In 1981, rampant police brutality against minority youth sparked riots in Toxteth [in Liverpool]. As we wrote in Workers Hammer No. 109 (September 1989):
“Unemployment in the heavily black Toxteth area can reach up to 80 per cent. In some areas, according to another report in the Independent (15 October 1988) unemployment among black youth is as high as 90 per cent. ‘Nowhere else in Britain are blacks so exposed to threats, taunts, and abuse if they leave an area of the city’ (Guardian, 19 July).”
A Marxist revolutionary should strive to be, in Lenin’s words, “not a trade union secretary but a tribune of the people.” In other words, we fight against all manifestations of oppression in capitalist society and seek to lead the multiethnic working class in a struggle against racism in all its forms, against women’s oppression, against the oppression of homosexuals, etc. The Militant tendency is a far cry from a “tribune of the people.”
A furious row developed when Sampson Bond, a Militant supporter from London, was appointed as Principal Race Relations Advisor to the Liverpool Council. Taaffe/Mulhearn claim:
“Two entirely different philosophies, reflecting diametrically opposed class forces, clashed on the issue of his appointment as Principal Race Relations Officer to the Liverpool City Council. On the one side stood the class conscious approach of the labour movement. On the other side stood the race relations industry, feeling threatened to the very marrow of their being by the appointment of just one Marxist to such a potentially important position.”
Militant’s so-called “class conscious approach” was nothing other than Labourite chauvinist indifference to special oppression. In Inside Left Derek Hatton states that Militant’s position “has always been that while accepting there is discrimination, the problems of the black community are part of the overall struggle. It is a class problem, and a Socialist problem, and must be solved within that wide framework.” He continues, “To do otherwise is to alienate many white working-class people from identifying with the struggle.”
Hatton’s fear of “alienating white working-class people” is an expression of Militant’s pandering to backward consciousness, including racism. Their indifference to racial oppression is of a piece with their refusal to call for British troops out of Northern Ireland and their refusal to defend the Catholic population against national oppression at the hands of the British imperialists and the Orange state. This crass Labourite social chauvinism is exemplified by an article in the 6 January 1984 Militant titled “Northern Ireland: Labour Must Combat Sectarianism.” Militant says, “the Labour Party in Britain can and must play a significant part in helping Northern Irish workers come together in common struggle for socialist change.” This is the same pro-imperialist Labour Party which led the cheering in Parliament at the execution of James Connolly; which sent British troops into Northern Ireland in 1969 and which introduced the first draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act in 1974. Of course Militant’s leaders are past masters at disguising their Labourite opportunism in the language of pseudo-Marxism, claiming that they’re fighting for “working-class unity.”
Once the Thatcher government had defeated the miners—who were betrayed by the misleaders of the working class—Thatcher turned her attention to Liverpool. The city councillors were made personally liable for the refusal to set a rate. A total of 47 councillors were surcharged [charged a penalty], while the council tried to raise money from the Swiss banks. But in the meantime, with the money running out in a matter of weeks, Militant famously issued redundancy [layoff] notices to the council workers. As described by Taaffe/Mulhearn:
“The Labour group decided on the ‘tactic’ of issuing 90-day redundancy notices to the 30,000 strong workforce to gain that period as a breathing space in order to build the campaign. It was absurd to suggest, as the press and to their shame the national trade-union leaders subsequently did, that 30,000 workers were to be sacked.”
They conclude, however, that “the issuing of ‘redundancy notices’ turned out to be a major tactical error.” Derek Hatton, in Inside Left, unwittingly captures the miserable spectacle of self-proclaimed “Marxists” administering capitalism against the workers:
“We argued, that by issuing redundancy notices we could also hammer home the sharp reality of our arguments: that unless more money was available to Liverpool from the central funds then jobs really were on the line. There was never ever any intention to implement a single one of those 31,000 redundancy notices.”
Not surprisingly, Militant’s redundancy “tactic” was bitterly opposed by the unions. Hatton bleats: “Now we were their employers, and they fought us bitterly every inch of the way. We had told them that the redundancy notices were only a tactical ploy, but they sold the idea to their members as though it was for real. ‘Should we let our employers sack us—or should we stand and fight them now?’ was the line they took.” That is the end result of running the local state in the first place, which means becoming the bosses.
The Labour councillors were surcharged and banned from office by the courts. Militant were rewarded for their decades of loyalty to the Labour Party by being expelled by the Neil Kinnock leadership. The response of Militant to the witch hunt is explained in an appendix to the Taaffe/Mulhearn book: “When faced with expulsion proceedings in 1982, Militant’s Editorial Board decided to challenge the NEC’s [National Executive Committee] unconstitutional and undemocratic move in the courts.” Use of the bourgeois courts against political opponents in the trade unions or the workers movement is a breach of the principle of proletarian independence and an attack on the labour movement’s strength. Inviting the class enemy to intervene in the internal affairs of the labour movement is to promote illusions in bourgeois democracy by portraying the state as “neutral” between classes. That is the very essence of Militant’s Labourite reformism.
What was the result of Militant’s proud record in Liverpool? They boast that the Labour vote in 1987 was higher in Liverpool than the national average and much higher than it had been in 1983. In other words, if only that swing had been reflected nationally we would have had...a Kinnock-led Labour government! That’s what you get with “socialists” holding executive office and administering the capitalist state. In its own way it’s a powerful argument for why you need a workers revolution.