February 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard
When an organisation comes on the scene claiming to stand for the interest of the workers it is necessary to examine its principles and policies critically and responsibly. There's no point in believing everything a political organisation says about itself; after all, the Labour Party has claimed for years that it stands for the workers' interest and look what happened. The Socialist Party of Great Britain does not, of course, give credence to the pronouncements of the mass media: to do so would be to accept the Militant Tendency as a Marxist organisation, committed to working for a socialist revolution. We wish that the media were right, because we would describe ourselves in precisely that way. But there is evidence to show that the Militant Tendency is far from being either what it claims to be or what the capitalist media says it is; that it is in fact just another front for the very capitalist system it sloganises against.
We expose the Militant Tendency as reformist. not in a spirit of animosity towards our fellow workers in the organisation, but because the need for socialism is now more urgent than ever and there can be no time lost in diversions. Last September we were passed a letter addressed to the Political Editor of Militant, written by a worker who had been selling and supporting the paper for two years. The following extracts (which we publish with the writer s permission) make clear what he had learnt in the period:
Having read What Militant Stands For and having come across so many Militant supporters in the Labour Party Young Socialists. I come to the conclusion that Militant does not argue for "bold socialist policies" as I had mistakenly believed. The ideas of Militant, together with the equally reformist Labour Party and LPYS do not constitute a real socialist alternative to the decaying and anarchic capitalist system.
Clause IV (part 4) refers to the “. . . common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange". Surely if there is common ownership, so that everyone owns everything, then there is no need for a means of exchange, i.e. there is no need for money. This is a fundamental principle of what Marx himself advocated. Socialism is, I think you would agree, the establishment of a system of society where production is based on the needs of the majority producers of wealth and not on the private profit of the minority owners of wealth. If we are to renounce the profit system, it follows then that the possession and acquisition of money in exchange for goods and labour will be totally unnecessary.
The letter ended with a request for a response from the political editor of Militant and an expression of hope that readers of the paper would write in with their reactions. But readers of Militant were never given a chance to read the letter. The leaders decided that these arguments were not for the consumption of the rank and file. No reply was received from the political editor. Hardly surprising: earlier in 1984 the Islington branch of the Socialist Party challenged the Militant leaders to debate their ideas in public. Their reply was that there is no point in "socialists" debating with each other we should be spending our time fighting the real enemy, the Tories. But we don't think the Tories are the main enemy: we think that all capitalist parties are the enemy, including the Labour Party and the Militant Tendency.
The writer of the letter from which we quote was given the privilege of a private reply. A letter (dated 24 September) was written to him by Dave Carr, the regional organiser for the Militant Tendency in his area. In it Carr attempted to spell out what his organisation meant when they called themselves socialists. A copy was sent to us and we were given permission to use it. Not being in favour of private debates, we have decided to make Carr's comments public, answer them, and leave our readers to see the anti-socialist nature of the Militant Tendency's position. For reasons of space we have cut out from Carr's letter one or two of the more wordy passages, and for convenience we print sections of it followed by our reply.
THE TRANSITION PERIOD
“The main confusion in your analysis (in which I see the dead-hand of the SPGB) is that you don't distinguish between socialism and communism. The implication being that it's possible for a workers' revolution to go from capitalism without any intermediate stages to communism. This is mistaken. Marx and Engels stated that the overthrow of capitalism wouldn't result in the abolition of class society immediately. That's why they advanced the slogan of the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat', i.e. the working class control state power, resting on state ownership of property . . ."
The idea of the transition period was developed in the last century when it was feared that the political will for socialism might precede an advance in productive potential sufficient to make a society of production for use and free access to all goods and services immediately possible. Now, with the aid of advanced technological know-how, the human race is capable of solving the problem of productive scarcity as soon as there is a political will to do so. There is no reason why a society in which each produces according to ability and takes freely according to self-defined need could not be established in a short time, without any transition period, if a majority of workers decide in favour of the socialist alternative. When Marx and Engels were writing this might not have been the case, but why should we accept the conditions of the nineteenth century as our political guide when we have only to look at present conditions to see the immediate possibility of socialism?
The distinction between socialism and communism was not made by Marx and is not accepted by socialists. It was Lenin and his small vanguard party in post-1917 Russia who popularised this false distinction: they called state capitalism (which Lenin admitted the Bolsheviks were setting up) socialism and promised socialism (which they called communism) at a future point in history, to be arrived at after the "socialist" transition period. The Russian workers are still waiting for the transition to end.
Over which class does the Militant Tendency think that the "workers' state" will dictate? Are workers going to be dictators over the capitalists who exploit us? The notion is ridiculous. Clearly, workers must democratically conquer state power in order to abolish classes and the state. In a classless society there will be no ruling class and therefore it will not require a state to coerce people on its behalf. As Engels put it: “The first act by virtue of which the state really constitutes itself the representative of the whole of society — the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society — this is. at the same time, its last independent act as a state" (Socialism: Utopian and Scientific). According to the Militant Tendency, society will take possession of the means of production and they will become state property. The factories in Russia are state property; so are the British mines — and the Polish shipyards. The Militant Tendency wants state ownership of the entire means of wealth production and distribution. So. during their transition period there will be state owners to whom the majority of people will have to sell their labour power in return for wages and salaries. What they are proposing is wholesale nationalisation, not common ownership where no individual, company or state monopolises the means of life. And where there is a state there are police, prisons, armies, and all the other features of class coercion. Has the Militant Tendency worked out detailed plans for how such coercion will be managed? (For example. will there be capital punishment under their new state; will the "socialist" police be armed with rubber bullets; how long will prison sentences be for those whose behaviour is out of line with state policy?) If such plans exist, why does the Militant Tendency not publish them and let workers know what life will be like under the new "Militant" state? If. as we suspect, the Militant Tendency has no idea how their new state will be run, but expects the workers to believe that "state ownership of property" will not mean what it has in Russia, China, Albania and the other dictatorships over the proletariat, we are confident that the vast majority of workers will continue to regard the Militant Tendency’s plans as just so much Leninist nonsense.
“Under socialism capitalist laws of production (albeit in a modified form) would still exist. Yes. the wages system which conceals the creation of surplus value would be overthrown but workers would continue to receive wages. Money would continue to be used to regulate exchange and the economy. Basic goods, including many foodstuffs, could be given away but other commodities would continue to be bought and sold. Under socialism, the state and money will begin to disappear. Socialism will mean, that historical moment when the state turns into a semi-state and money begins to lose its magic power."
Is he barmy or are we? What a load of confused and illogical nonsense! If the laws of capitalism will still exist "under socialism” how are we going to know that we are not still living under capitalism? There will be no wages system, but there will be wages. What in the name of Groucho Marx does this mean? Either workers are forced to sell our labour power to an employer in return for a price called a wage or salary, or we are not. The Socialist Party contends that in a society where there are no exploiters and exploited the human ability to work will not be sold at a price, but contributed voluntarily. According to the Militant Tendency, workers will still sell labour power in return for wages "under socialism", but this capitalist process (the wages system) will be called socialism. What is a semi-state? Does it mean that the new "socialist" cops will walk around with one leg on the ground or that the government will pass half-baked laws? We are told in one paragraph that "socialism" will rest on "state ownership of property" and then that the new state will be "a semi-state". How will money "begin to disappear"? Does the Militant Tendency intend to phase out coins, one by one? No. obviously there must either be a system in which wealth does not belong to the workers who have created it. so they must buy access to it with money, or there must be complete free access. Common ownership, if the term has any logical meaning, must involve the abolition of exchange and monetary relationships. But the Militant Tendency does not aim to establish common ownership: it stands for state ownership, under which wages, money and all the laws of capitalist production (albeit in a modified form) would still exist. Why don’t they tell that to the workers in the next issue of Militant?
NATIONALISATION AND REFORMS
“Militant argues that the material basis for such a planned economy must be the state ownership of the major monopolies (the top 200 in our agitation). Are you saying that this measure, carried through by the working class, wouldn't abolish capitalism? Of course, the Labour leaders have no intention of nationalising the top 200 monopolies. That's precisely why we pose that demand. To expose their rottenness, while explaining how reforms such as minimum wage, shorter hours, public works programme etc. can be financed.”
The nationalisation of the top two hundred companies in Britain would not lead to the abolition of capitalism, but to state capitalism. Indeed, this point is accepted in a passage quoted earlier which states, quite correctly, that the capitalist laws of production, in a modified form, are all that Militant means by socialism.
Why advocate a measure because the leaders for whom you vote and canvass support will not carry it out and so be exposed as rotten? This seems to the Socialist Party, in our non-Leninist innocence, to be a dishonest and confused political strategy. Let’s follow it through: come the next election Militant Tendency will go round the houses telling workers to vote for Labour leaders. "Why should we vote for them?” ask the workers. "Because they stand for nationalisation which will be good for you.” But while telling them that you’re laughing inwardly and thinking "Silly suckers. They’ve got to vote for these leaders to find out just what sort of swines they are.” Why not start out by telling the workers what you know that the Labour leaders are rotten? Answer: because, as Leninists, you think that workers are too stupid to understand what you’ve understood, so you've got to trick them into doing the wrong thing so that they learn by their mistakes.
Socialists don't want minimum wages, we want the abolition of wage labour. The capitalist class will hardly be trembling when they hear that Militant's "revolution” amounts to little more than the provision of Keynesian financing for a few reforms of capitalism.
“. . . Trotsky, in The Transitional Programme, argued that a revolutionary should advance demands within the working class movement that link the day-to-day struggles of the workers on economic issues etc. to the need to change society. These are described as bridging demands, designed with flexibility, to raise the combativity and consciousness of the working class. In fact, Marx and Engels went to some lengths to castigate both the reformists who merely put forward a programme of reforms under capitalism and those who simply called for revolution aloof from the struggles of the working class. Both groups of 'socialists’ were sectarian."
Marx and Engels rightly held that simply to advocate a list of reforms of capitalism is a waste of workers' time. We also agree that it would be sectarian for socialists merely to preach about revolution, "aloof from the struggles of the working class". That is why the Socialist Party adopts neither of these approaches: we do not propagandise in an abstract way about how nice socialism would be but relate our analysis to the day-to-day struggle of our class; neither do we waste workers’ time merely putting forward a programme of reforms of capitalism.
Now let us look at Militant and its policies, which well live up to the description of being "designed with flexibility". The Militant Tendency does not fall into the error of simply calling for revolution — it is too busy urging workers to vote Labour so that they will realise why they shouldn't. But does the Militant Tendency "merely put forward a programme of reforms under capitalism"? If we consult pages 2 and 3 of the pamphlet, Militant—What We Stand For we find a list of eighteen reforms of capitalism. For example "Reversal of all Tory cuts and a massive programme of public works on housing, education, the health service etc."; "Opening of the books of the monopolies to inspection by committees of shop stewards, housewives and small shopkeepers"; and, of course, "Abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords". These are mere reforms of capitalism. How will the struggle to implement them "raise the combativity and consciousness of the working class"? Indeed. how have they, because reformist workers have been fighting for these things for decades and such activity has simply diverted their minds from socialist ideas. Even if the Queen was sent to work in the corner shop and allowed to inspect the books of the big companies, the capitalist system would still exist. In short, the Militant Tendency presents itself to workers as an organisation with a list of reforms of capitalism which it wants to implement. They may be radical reforms, but then Militant can afford to advocate the most radical of reforms because they have only the faintest chance of ever implementing them as a capitalist government. Trotsky and other tricksters were wrong: if you want socialism you talk to workers about the need for socialism — you don't waste their time with a lot of paper radicalism about reforming capitalism.
CAPITALIST DEATH AGONY?
“Militant consistently points out that the social and economic problems facing the working class are a product of capitalism in its death agony."
Capitalism will not die; it has to be killed. When capitalism is passing through one of its periodic economic recessions there are usually confused people on the left who imagine that quite normal features of capitalism in chaos are indicators of the system's imminent demise. For example. W. Paul, a prominent member of the Communist Party, asserted in 1922 that "The most important fact in modern history is the breakdown in capitalism . . there is the greatest possibility that the social revolution may take place in the immediate future." (Labour Monthly, 15 February 1922.) The revolution could happen soon, but not until the majority of non-socialist workers, including members of the Militant Tendency, understand it. want it and organise for it in a democratic and conscious way.
THE PARTY AND REVOLUTION
"So, how does a revolutionary party break the workers away from its bankrupt leaders? As Marxists, Militant comrades fight alongside the working class. We strive to be the best workers, the best class fighters. We win the respect of the rank and file. We counterpose to the reformist leaders a socialist programme of demands and challenge the leadership to fight for them. In doing so, it exposes in the eyes of workers the rottenness of their leaders. We also show our preparedness to contest the leadership of the trade unions and Labour Parties to contrast Marxism with reformism."
What, in reality, does the Militant Tendency do? It works within the capitalist Labour Party, like agnostics trying to infiltrate the Vatican. It advises workers at election time, when the state is up for grabs, to waste their votes on electing rotten leaders.
The Militant Tendency has failed miserably to get the leaders of the Labour Party to fight for its demands. The only Militant policies Labour now accepts are ones which it has always accepted for the sake of radical appearances. Indeed, such respect has the Militant Tendency won from the rank and file of the Labour Party and the unions that its leaders were kicked out of the party in 1983.
Ted Grant. Peter Taaffe and the rest of the Militant top men want to be the new leaders. They think they can run the system better than previous Labour leaders. But. when scrutinised, the would-be leaders' policies consist of nothing more than sterile old reforms and a long-term plan to introduce state capitalism. Is it any surprise that most trade unionists would rather watch a good football match than listen to Ted Grant ranting on about what a great leader he would be?
"The SPGB argues that only the working class can achieve socialism, yet it refuses to ‘dirty its hands' in fighting for an alternative leadership in the working class. In short, it adopts an ultra-left, sectarian position . . . Let's be honest — it's simply not good enough to say socialism is production for need, not profit. We all know that. It's not good enough to say we should renounce capitalism. We all do that. The question is . . . How is capitalism to be overthrown? As Marx, Engels. Lenin and Trotsky explained time and time again, socialism has to be consciously constructed. That's why Marx, Engels. Lenin and Trotsky attempted to build revolutionary parties and revolutionary Internationals to lead the working class to power. It’s no good dodging the issue. The only conclusion a serious Marxist can arrive at is the need to build a revolutionary party. Militant represents the beginning of such a party, disciplined and based on the ideas of Marxism.”
Like Marx, the Socialist Party stands for the emancipation of the working class by the working class, not by leaders who will do our thinking for us. Together with other parties around the world holding the same principles. we stand for working-class revolution. Our role is simply to spread socialist ideas and to be used as a political instrument by conscious workers. It would be arrogant for us to think that we can lead our fellow workers or that anyone else should. That is why we are hostile both to the present leaders and to would-be leaders and would not dirty our hands in the opportunist business of appointing top dogs.
How is capitalism to be overthrown? The Principles of the Socialist Party make this quite clear. Lenin and Trotsky, who were leaders of the Bolshevik dictatorship over the proletariat, did not hold the view that revolution had to be constructed consciously; they took the view that workers are incapable of achieving socialist consciousness and must be led by professional intellectuals from outside the working class. Leninist parties reflect this elitist attitude. Leninists think that their historical role is to lead workers who could not possibly see what they have seen. Leninist parties, including the Revolutionary Socialist League (which is the real name of the Militant Tendency), are hierarchical, secretive, often dishonest organisations. usually dominated by a handful of demagogues who hand down orders to the inferior ranks in accordance with the Leninist theory of "democratic centralism", or control from the top downwards. The Third International, which was the undemocratic, Moscow-dominated body in which Lenin and Trotsky participated, was as unlike Marx's First International as the Militant Tendency is unlike the Socialist Party.
Members of the Labour Party who have told Militant members to get out and form their own Trotskyist party have got a point: the average Labour voter wants straight reformism. of the kind that Neil Kinnock is so expert in offering. Reformist workers don't want the same old dish served up with a queer Trotskyist sauce on it. Still, that's a problem for the Labour Party, not for socialists. As far as we are concerned neither Neil Kinnock (the opportunist with a chance) nor Ted Grant (the opportunist without a chance) should be treated with anything but contempt and hostility.
The Militant Tendency serves as a dangerous instrument for confusion. It may not do so intentionally — but then few confused people do. It is not only incapable of leading workers to socialism (socialism, by its very nature, will not be the product of leaders and followers), but it is also hopelessly ignorant about capitalism, socialism and the path from one to the other. We are always ready to debate these issues, for there can be few things more important in the working-class movement than open, clear and critical debate. But so far the Militant leaders have refused to expose their ideas to such public criticism. Supporters of the Militant Tendency should think carefully about their case and ours and, having done so, follow understanding to its logical conclusion.