Saturday, August 24, 2019

A Trotskyist Sect By Any Other Name (1997)

No comment.
TV Review from the March 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Last month—5th February to be precise—saw an unusual occurrence. The Socialist Party was featured on a BBC TV news report. Less unusually for the BBC, the report was not entirely accurate. We do not wish to whinge unnecessarily, only to set out the facts on the basis that some recognition from the BBC, however inadequate, is probably better than none at all. In any case, we were not the main victims of the broadcast—there was a far more deserving candidate for that.

The day after this news item the Trotskyist sect previously known as Militant held a conference to re-launch itself as “Socialist Party”, and its newspaper as The Socialist. So BBC2’s Newsnight filed a report on this organisation’s attempt to refurbish its tarnished Trotskyist image, while purloining the name of an existing political organisation—us—in the process. Mark Mardell, who is rather more used to swanning around the Palace of Westminster in search political titbits, compiled a feature which included footage of our Head Office and an interview with a Socialist Party member about Militant’s latest (and possibly temporary) venture into political banditry.

However, if Mardell’s reporting of us is anything to go by it is understandable why MPs are getting so upset with the media these days. In his voice-over he claimed that we had changed our name too, from the Socialist Party of Great Britain to the Socialist Party, the clear implication being that it was a bit rich of us to complain about Militant’s own change of name. In this attempt to make an interesting story even better, Mardell got it wrong, though whether it was deliberate or simply because he has a very bad memory we do not know.

The fact about this is that throughout our existence since 1904 we have used the full and shortened versions of our name interchangeably, though for what must be fairly self-evident publicity and propaganda reasons we have for some years preferred the shortened version. The BBC Newsnight team were made well aware of this, as if a visit and look around our Head Office was not evidence enough.

Rather more galling than this minor irritation, however, was Mardell’s description of Militant as being our “comrades” before we fell out over usage of the name Socialist Party. Such a comment is so inaccurate as to be laughable in many ways, though unfortunately it has more serious implications. The idea that a genuine socialist organisation committed to the overthrow of capitalism in all its forms should be lumped in with an elitist sect deserves comment from us, especially a sect which has always opposed the socialist project in favour of reforms and state-run capitalism.

Militant meanderings
The Militant Tendency—in all its various forms over the years—has been an implacable opponent of genuine socialism and democracy, and like the rest of the Left, has shown an unremitting hostility to real socialists and our attempts to win workers away from support for the profit system. Our disagreement with Militant is not the product of some Monty Pythonesque sectarianism or factionalism, as portrayed on Newsnight, merely disguising a quibble over tactics or personalities, but is a thoroughgoing disagreement about politics in its entirety. Apart from the fact that we both lay claim to the word “socialist”. Militant and the Socialist Party have nothing common at all, as anyone with even a passing acquaintance with either of us must know.

For starters. Militant favour political leadership and centralism, whereas we believe in the widest possible democracy. Militant stand for state-run capitalism under the rule of the vanguard party (themselves), we stand for the complete abolition of capitalism along with its economic categories of money, profits and wages, and instead agitate for common ownership and production solely for use. Militant have always told workers to vote for the capitalist Labour Party, we have always resolutely opposed it, advising workers not to put their class enemies in charge of the machinery of government and the armed forces. Militant thought Russia to be an advance on western-style private enterprise capitalism. Right from the outset we said it was a hideous dictatorship over the working class which led to state capitalism and warned the working class about the would-be Bolsheviks in Britain who would use the workers for their own gain . . . organisations like the Communist Party, the SWP and Militant themselves. Need we go on?

When Jeremy Paxman interviewed Militant “leader” Peter Taaffe at the end of the item it was a pity no Socialist Party members was allowed to engage in the brief discussion to point all this out. It was also a pity that Paxman didn’t go for the jugular in his accustomed manner, adopting a (somewhat understandable) air of weariness to Taaffe’s meanderings about nationalising the top 150 monopolies and introducing a two-hour week, or whatever it was, to cure unemployment. He should certainly have pressed Taaffe on his organisation’s plans to stand 28 candidates in safe Labour seats, and asked him whether Militant would tell workers to vote for the Labour Party as usual everywhere else—this, after all, being a party they now cynically describe as “pro-capitalist”, as if it wasn’t before!

Perhaps on reflection Paxman didn’t feel the need to press Taaffe harder on any of this, because most of what he said was nonsensical and this must have been obvious enough to the viewers. Indeed, the abiding impression left by Taaffe was that there must be a village somewhere that has been deprived of its idiot, though one suspects that if this is the case they will manage to get along quite well without him. The same could be said of the working class as a whole who, beleaguered by the profit system and its representatives, need Militant’s support for capitalism and Taaffe and co.’s tactical posturings like the proverbial hole in the head.
Dave Perrin

Spot the balls (1997)

TV Review from the May 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

If the election campaign proved anything it was that slick, well-produced TV is not necessarily the most interesting. Most of the election coverage was well done if not flawless in its use of presentational techniques, graphics and virtually seamless continuity. And yet much of it was still deathly boring and irrelevant. Indeed, despite its slickness, the specially extended BBC1 Nine O’clock Election News lost a whole tranche of viewers as the campaign progressed.

One of the few programmes to eschew such modern TV professionalism didn’t attract a terrifically large number of viewers either — mainly because it was up against soap operas and football — but Spot The Difference (Channel 4. 8pm, April 9) was almost unique in that it informed its viewers about things worth knowing. To that extent, it was more informative and watchable than almost anything else.

The presence of a small, insipid audience, poor programme structure and horrendous editing simply did not matter as the message was all. And the important message was this — that without forewarning it is virtually impossible to tell the difference between randomly selected passages on policy from any of the main parties of capitalism that dominate the political agenda. Even the most dedicated political anoraks, who have spent hour after hour poring over the party manifestos and policy statements, cannot do it with any degree of certitude.When the presenters plucked out a sound-bite or policy goal from the literature of the Tories. Labour or Liberal Democrats the most common reaction from the panellists was ’’well . . . it could be any of them really!"

Really saying something 
Although there is now an unprecedented emptiness about capitalist politics, it is not that the main parties are saying nothing at all. A lot of their pronouncements are just froth and bubble — but quite a bit of the time they are saying something. It is just that on most issues they are basically saying the same thing.

They all believe that the capitalist class (usually referred to simply as "business") creates wealth rather than legally steals it from those who do actually create it — the wage and salary earning working class.

They all believe that the free market and competition offers the most efficient and viable method of producing wealth ever conceived by humankind, despite the untold misery it has caused but can't do anything about.

They all believe in state repression of those who try to "buck" the system or who are denied access to wealth on the grounds that they are not part of "the business community", and who commit terrible crimes like joining trade unions to defend their meagre interests in the market place.

They all believe in the 
necessity of a "strong defence capability” to safeguard the interests of Britain and the British — a Britain where one person owns more wealth than nineteen of the rest of us put together on average and where the majority's stake in "the national interest" is little more than a huge mortgage and a second-hand car.

And they all believe that they — the guides and beneficent manipulators of our economic and moral interests are capable of bringing wealth and success to the mass of the population.

It is because of all this that a programme like Spot The Difference has its uses. Few but the most bigoted or ideologically brainwashed can now believe that there is any meaningful difference between the parties of the market economy. The downside is that such programmes do nothing to offer real hope, real encouragement or a real sense that things can be different. In the present political climate they merely reinforce the spread of cynicism and apathy among an already downhearted and dispirited working class.

It is precisely for this reason that journals like this — and those who read it — are so important. We do not constitute a huge political force and are not as yet a political pressure to be truly reckoned with — but we do offer one thing. A scientific and logically-arrived at view that is able to account for society as it is. and has a clear, exciting and practical vision of how it really could be. Without us it would indeed be a cynical, cold and miserable outlook for humanity. With us — and more importantly with you — organising for genuine change, there could yet be a ray of hope. As a well-known children's TV programme used to put it a few years back — get up. turn off the TV set, and go and do something less boring instead.
Dave Perrin

The Negative Midas Touch (1997)

TV Review from the July 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

BBC1's Panorama (8pm, 9 June) on the night before the first round of the Conservative leadership election went a good deal of the way towards explaining the Conservative Party’s historic and horrendous defeat a month or so earlier. Nick Robinson spent 40 minutes charting the Tory decline over the last five years examining Major's weak leadership, the ERM debacle, the tax rises, splits over Europe, sleaze and the challenge represented by a revitalised Labour Party under Blair.

What he didn't examine was quite how suspicious the majority of voters have demonstrated they are about the great political "project” of the last twenty years, ushered forward in Britain by the Tory right. This is the political project built on the premise that the market knows best, and its application by the Conservatives was one of the key and deciding factors in the huge Tory defeat.

This may, at first sight, seem paradoxical because self-evidently the Blairite Labour Party is in love with the free market too, with small caveats. This is what bamboozled Panorama into ignoring this popular rejection of the free market, but a closer look at the election and the years leading up to it would have demonstrated the truth of this proposition. This is because although New Labour did not campaign on an open programme of state capitalism like in 1983, neither did it campaign for the free market. Beyond the soundbites the Labour Party campaigned on very little at all and its most popular policies were little more than heavily dressed-up anti-free market rhetoric devoid of spending commitments.

It is quite possible that the Labour leadership does not particularly find the schools voucher system. GP fundholding, the NHS internal market and so on to be quite the idiocies they painted them as but they were crucially aware that these market reforms were deeply unpopular among the working class both as workers in those fields and as consumers of services.

Sighting the target
In fact, the Labour Party's position on the free market as conveyed by its leaders and campaigners was a superb example of audience targeting. Its most obvious free-market rhetoric and pro-big business stance was reserved for its growing number of admirers in the capitalist class, the people it is now having to "do business” with now it is in government. For the consumption of the working class, there was a rather different fare—pledges to curb the alleged excesses of the free market Tory years and to build a community of interests, a “one nation" vision of inclusion rather than exclusion. In this way the Labour Party distanced itself from the unfettered free market just enough to convince its target voters to switch to them without at the same time frightening them off with grandiose revenue-raising proposals or suchlike.

The more discerning on 1 May were not seduced by this two-faced posture and turnout was the lowest for years, but then again so was the vote for the unashamed party of the free market.

Of course there are those in the Tory Party who believe (rather like the Bennites did some years ago about their project) that the only problem has been that their medicine for capitalism’s ills has not been administered in great enough quantity. As the Tory leadership contest has shown hardly anybody with brain cells still functioning believes this nonsense.

Instead politics has reached a situation (and Britain is only one example of it) whereby the free market is generally viewed by most people with suspicion bordering on hostility while the overt interventionism and state ownership of the past is distrusted and feared in equal measure. In this scenario there appears to be only one short-term solution and the Labour Party found it just as Clinton's Democrats did—attack everything that has gone before and failed, whether state capitalism or private capitalism and hope that something more substantial than rhetoric will come along to fill the resultant void. In other words, a “new" capitalism where the old private/state and left/right divisions have been left behind. A capitalism where persistent old problems require bright new solutions which must be there in the minds of the great and the good . . .  somewhere.

But these ideas about superseding the old divisions seem remarkably sparse and those that are around tend to cost big money. While the Tory Party fights over the spoils of its defeat everything Blair touches turns to gold at present. But at an ideological level, deep beneath the political spin. Prime Minister Blair has been dealt the hand that capitalism deals all its leaders blessed with momentary popularity out of the popular distaste for the effects of the market, including Thatcher and Major before him, is the negative Midas touch, where sooner or alter, everything the market touches, including its political "masters", turns to shit, no matter what the rhetoric or political dressing.
Dave Perrin

Revolting business (1973)

From the January 1973 issue of the Socialist Standard

Once upon a time there existed, in the swamps of British politics, a strange mutant known as the Independent Member of Parliament. Some of these were elected for the universities, where the equality of man was proclaimed by allowing anyone with a degree to also have an extra vote as a reward for all those years of toil among the books and the lecture halls. Other Independents were elected by ordinary constituencies — in other words by thousands of members of the working class who had never had the time or the money to go to university.

The Independents, who could be politically interesting characters, were supposed to prove something about the unique intelligence and stability of the British electoral system. They were living witness to the fact that personality counted for something against the might of the political machines. One of the first acts of the Attlee government which came to power in 1945 was to abolish the University seats (along with other plural voting rights). This effectively destroyed most of the Independents; the rest were crushed between the upper and nether millstones of the two big parties, which settled down after 1945 to grind British politics into a dull succession of conformities which were referred to as party discipline. This was the heyday of the political gorilla, when the most primitive political man could slide into Parliament, provided he had the right party label around his neck.

Lies, Cynicism and Good Copy
The system now is that when there is a vote in Parliament the members of each side are expected to attend and to vote in accordance with a line laid down for them. It is the job of the party whips to make sure that everyone knows when to attend and how to vote and in case there is any chance of a mistake they often send out their orders in writing, sometimes underlining them. Three underlinings — a three line whip — means that no disobedience will be tolerated.

Yet even with all these precautions the monolithic unity of the big parties sometimes crumbles, as M.P.s who can usually be relied upon to find their way into the correct lobby blindfold appear to have lost all sense of direction and find themselves rubbing voting shoulders with men they choose in other circumstances to call the enemy. When this happens the newspapers assure us that we are witnessing a political revolt. At times the revolt is of little account; only a few M.P.s are in it and at most it reduces a majority by a small amount. At others — for example in the recent debate over the immigration laws in connection with British membership of the Common Market — it can be extensive enough to defeat the government.

There have been history-making occasions when a revolt has been aimed at the leader of a government. In 1940 many M.P.s had become convinced that Neville Chamberlain’s government was too tainted to be able to persuade British workers to die and suffer enthusiastically enough in the struggle of their masters against the threat of German capitalism. There was a great debate in which Chamberlain, although not actually defeated, came close enough to it to feel himself compelled to resign. Some of the speeches made on that occasion were hypocritical enough to find a place among even Parliament’s long history of lies and cynicism. Particularly honoured among the contributions was that of the late Arthur Greenwood, the ex-pacifist who was revered as Labour’s conscience, the gentle hero of the left. Greenwood got up to demand, not an end to hostilities but a more efficient prosecution of the war and, according to many observers, his speech set the seal on Chamberlain’s fate. Then there was the more recent occasion in 1963, when the followers of Harold Macmillan thought that his clumsy handling of the Profumo scandal indicated that he was no longer a sort of political cash register which recorded an ever-increasing vote but someone who was old and out of touch. One Tory actually went to the lengths of pinching an idea of one of Chamberlain’s critics and quoted a suitable piece of poetry in his speech, which at least showed that a university education comes in useful sometimes. It made excellent copy for the reporters and the M.P.s could go home full of pride at their consciences which had operated so strongly in reaching such a weighty decision. Meanwhile capitalism — and even Macmillan for a while — went on as before.

Conscience at Work . . .
But to bring us back to the present, the whole debate on the Common Market has been very confusing for the whips and the disciplinarians because both big parties are split wide open on the issue, which meant that a lot of M.P.s had to be leaned on pretty heavily to persuade them to vote in the right lobby at the right time. There was of course the famous case of Roy Jenkins, who has now taken his conscience into the wilderness for a while, who saw nothing inconsistent in voting for British membership of the EEC and then against the laws which would enable that membership to come into effect. Not for the first time, this type of political agility earned for its exponent the label of a man of principle.

And principle is what political revolt is supposed to be all about. On most issues an M.P. is expected to vote the party line but on a few he is allowed — if he does not assert — dissension on grounds of conscience. Sometimes this is of as much significance to the lives and welfare of the workers of this country as the split in 1928 when, while there were 1,300,000 unemployed, Parliament debated the wording of the book of Common Prayer. Another example is in the battles over the abolition of the death penalty, when M.P.s who had eagerly supported the organised butchery of millions of working people in wartime were prepared to argue that it was barbaric to do the same thing to about a hundred people a year.

Why do the party machines allow what is called conscience to work on such matters? The simple answer is that they have only a small influence on the important events of British capitalism. Much as it mattered that there was a death penalty to the man who was taken to the execution chamber, on the scale of the interests of the ruling class his fate was of no account. Only a few vociferous reformers would get upset about it.

. . . and at Rest
In contrast the issues which are the day to day business of capitalism and of its parties cannot be allowed to be affected by crankish theories of reform. When these are under discussion conscience must be flattened. Membership of the Common Market is of such historical importance to British capitalism that little aberration can be allowed among the people who administer the system. It is the same over the range of the legislation which is generally designed to perpetuate the existence of this national wedge of world capitalism.

And when these sort of chips are down, the M.P.s can be relied upon to conform, sometimes stifling their consciences with an assurance that it is all for the good of the party or the country. There need be no mystery about this, for there is one thing on which there is unbroken unity both within and between the parties of capitalism. They are both solidly agreed on the necessity to sustain the capitalist social system, at whatever cost in human suffering and social disarray. Within that unity there is room for an occasional revolt or deviance over a minor issue. We still wait for the real, significant revolt which will be not a matter of conscience but of understanding and which will sweep away capitalism and all its tattered conscience.