Monday, 15 June 2009

Justice for SOAS Cleaners!

Protests have been called following a raid on the cleaning staff at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) by 40-50 armored police from the Immigration and Border Agency, Communist Students report.

At 6.30am on Friday the 12th the company that sub-contracts SOAS' cleaning staff called a meeting of the employees, having assembled in room G2 the room was raided by armed officers and those present questioned, without recourse to a SOAS Unison rep or translator. The raid took place at the behest of the ISS, the company sub-contracted to provide cleaning staff, and was carried out with the prior knowledge of SOAS management who were present during.

Of those interrogated Unison reports that 9 were arrested for allegedly working without proper documentation, and have since been sent to detention centers. Early reports indicate that a woman six-month pregnant is among those detained, while three members of staff have reportedly been 'fast track' deported out of the UK.

SOAS cleaners have been active in fighting to win union recognition alongside campaigns around wage increases. Worryingly early reports suggest that at least one member of staff has been threatened with deportation to Columbia, a country known to be particularly dangerous for trade unionist activists.

Around 100 students, allies and fellow SOAS staff gathered outside the main building at 8.30pm prior to a Unison emergency branch meeting. Following this public protest students occupied the university building and have issued a series of demands to SOAS management, including the release of the remaining detainees still held in detention.

Please take a few moments to send messages of solidarity to and protests to SOAS principal Paul Webley at This is vitally important and urgent.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Revolution betrayed?

I have recently started reading a new biography of Ernest Mandel by Jan Willem Stutje, 'A Rebel's Dream Deferred'. Ernest Mandel, as some of you may know, was a Trotskyist leader, part of the International Secretariat of the Fourth International from the mid 1940s onwards.

Stutje describes an amusing anecdote about a meeting between two leading members. In 1947 Mandel met with Livio Maitain in Milan, having recently attended the congress of the French socialist youth organisation at which they were first introduced:
Maitan never forgot how Mandel, seeing chalked on walls everywhere the slogan 'Viva Internazionale!', delighedly exclaimed, 'Absolutely incredible! So many internationalists in Italy in spite of the Stalinists and the reformists.' Mandel hadn't realised that 'Internazionale' was simply the name of a big Milan football team.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

The Lost World of British Communism (Review)

The book presents a series of articles, published during a period spanning the 1980s, in the midst of the Miners Strike and a crippling division in the Communist Party of Great Britain. These essays have been collected to mark the 10th anniversary of Samuel's death on December 9th 1996 at the age of 62 and at 'the height of his powers'. The text seeks to view the party of the 1940s through the prism of the same party in the 1980s.

When Samuels was writing these articles a fierce battle was being waged, within a number of European countries most notably Italy, between the traditional 'old guard' often aligned to the party line of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the "innovating" Euro-Communists, rejecting Marxist economic theory, and seeking to appeal to new constituency, creating a new form of popular front policy in the claims of the 'specially oppressed'.

Within the UK the Euro-communists established themselves in positions of leadership within the CPGB, leading eventually to break away factions of hard-liners into separate organisations. The Eurocommunist dominated leadership of the CPGB eventually disbanded the organisation in 1991,before establishing a political thinktank called Democratic Left. The detritus of which then found its expression in Charter 88, an organisation dedicated to 'constitutional and electoral reform'.

Raphael Samuels writes as a long standing member, deeply involved within the tumultuous history of the CPGB. Born into a 'Communist family' during a time in which he suggest membership of the party provided a 'a way of life', he describes a 'complete social identity at odds with the rump of an organisation the CPGB would become in the years before his death in 1996. He markedly contrasts the declining influence of the party to that which he knew as a boy, born in 1934 to a jewish family in London, selling Daily Worker at the school gates. He provides a glimpse of a closed world where, in the words of his partner's preface to the text, "his reading, friendship and social life were all dominated by politics".

Relevance Today

He identifies many characteristic traits that would continue to characterise the left long after the party was over and the struggle between the 'euro-communist' and hard line 'Straight left' but a distant memory to all of the participants.

The organisation portrayed is one in the death throes of its final struggle, as the Executive "expels whole branches, expel honoured veterans and 'screen' new recruits with hardly a murmur" (26). Samuel suggests this merely reflects the 'democratic centralism' of the organisation, with little suggestion of the abuse suffered by the term by these bureaucratic maneuvers since its adoption in the Social Democratic parties of Russia and Germany in the early 20th century.

Samuels gives a glimpse into the interpretation of 'Democratic Centralism' provided by the party in the post Second World War communism, citing 'The Role of the Communist Party' (1957) on 'factions'. The 'training manual' Samuels cites notes that "members ... have not the right to combine with other members in other Party organisations who think like them to conduct an organised struggle for their point of view" (83).

That Trotskyists groupings were to also mimic this distortion of the organisation method suggests that the term for Samuels, as for the far left, serves as a catch-all cover for expedient political manuevering in any given Socialist-tinted organisation. A simplification understandable in the context of a journalistic reading of the movements history or the jockeying for power within a political sect, but not perhaps of someone so deeply engrained within its history seeking to provide a credible appraisal of its history.

Popular Front

Samuels touches upon another defining feature of his involvement in the CPGB, in 1935 the Soviet Union adopted a new position on its relationship with Social Democrats, previously described as 'social fascists' posing an immediate danger to the working class. It now argued for 'Popular Fronts'.

Noting that "previous formulations (had) suffered from a tendency to overate the degree of maturity of the revolutionary crisis" (125 history of CPGB 1927-1941) the comintern leadership now argued for 'popular fronts' that were in fact "only a new name for that old policy, the gist of which lies in class collaboration in a coalition between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie" (192 Trotsky on Britain 3rd Vol). Communists involved within these fronts subordinating their political independence to bourgeoise forces within which they were in coalition.

Samuels family had experienced first hand a Communist Party that had by that time entered its 'Popular Front' period. In the mid 1930s the communist parties of the Popular Front had won over-whelming electoral victories in France while in Britain the popular front found initially muted reception in the election of Willie Gallacher as MP in 1935. However it was not until the mid 1940s that the strength of Popular Frontism in the United Kingdom would truly be felt, with the CPGB garnering 103,000 votes in the 1945 general election, electing two Communists alongside a peak member in 1943 of 60,000. Samuels notes the organisations all-time membership peak not in 1943-44 when the Red Army was "sweeping back the Nazi invaders" or in 44-45 when the "Communist led resistance was on the threshold of power in France and Italy" but instead in the "black months" of 1942 when the "Russians at Stalingrad - like the British at Dunkirk were fighting with their backs to the wall" (57).

The political legacy of the popular front would linger on long after its initial adoption. Within the party of the mid 1980s the 'popular front' remained the party's guiding light for both wings, at least in theory. Used by the Euros as justification for a 'Broad Democracy Alliance' (or BDA for short), a debate about which would rage in the pages of Marxism Today in the late 1970s. The popular front was cited as the party's most 'effective strategy' by venerable MT theoreticians such as Eric Hobsbawn, alluding presumably to the height of the party's popularity in the 1940s (38).

Samuels does not diverge greatly from this conception of the Popular Front as reflecting the CPGB at its best. His reproach of the Euro-Communists is the extent that they have strayed from its initial intentions. Samuels notes that the adoption of the popular front were justified, at least formally, on the understanding of the underlying division of social classes, at least formally in the 'theory' provided to justify coalitions with bourgeois forces, a fact that cannot be said of the modern day Euro adherents of the popular front. Samuels also chastises the Euros because the emphasis of an 'alliance' is counter-posed to that of 'Unity'. The comparisons do not withstand the strength of historical analogy, Samuels suggests, comparing the valiant fight of the International Brigades to that of the Euros 'mobilizing the support of the house of lords for the labour government'. Today, a somewhat muted expression of this understanding of the period of the popular front as "British Communism's Finest Hour" is readily apparent in the political discourse of the Communist Party of Britain [1].

That the action of the 1930s Comintern's triumphant rallying cry of the 'Popular Front' had disastrous implications for Spain is clear. Deliberately sabotaging those who had raised the issue of a revolutionary workers' government, this belies the underlining role played by advocates of the popular front during these halcyon days in the party's history. The popular front in fact served to contain social struggle, when the issue of a serious revolutionary explosion presented itself, the reformist leaders seek to limit the actions undertaken, less they alienate bourgeois allies, and break up the established coalition.


Samuels characterises both wings of the 21st century CPGB as broadly adhering to a suggested age-old belief in 'correctness', as articulated in the appropriately formulated 'political line' inevitably providing a 'clear lead' if followed and adhered to (23). A role attributed to the snooze-enducing British Road to Socialism, despite the evident lack of interest Samues notes from anyone outside of the limited remit of the party cadre.

In terms of the self-belief of the membership of the party in this role, he does note a sea change in the sense of urgency among the broad membership of the Communist Party of the 1940s, in which each new event highlighted the 'terrible dangers that lie ahead' (35) to a situation in which much of the suggested dynamism had faded away. As illustrative of this relative decline Samuels cites the comparable role he suggests had been played by the party during the 1985 miners strike, during which he suggests the party conspired to lose leading members, and that of its involvement in the 1926 General Strike, following which party membership "doubled as a result of its activity" (34).

Samuels does not touch upon the many failings of the party's leadership during this period of growth. That a potential revolutionary explosion had been smuggled by the political direction of the soviet led Anglo-Soviet Council's over-reliance upon the existing trade union bureaucracy is largely over-looked. Suggesting that while the party had undoubtedly had great influence during this time its use of this comparative strength had often served to limit the "revolutionary possibilities" glimpsed at within these periods of heightened class struggle.

Trotsky would argue in 1928, in opposition to Stalin and Bukharin's tactical prescriptions, that the policy of the Anglo-Soviet Council had crippled British communism with devastatingly fatal results. The extent to which the failings of British Communism can be attributed directly to the role played by the party during this period remains a subject of debate. Trotsky biographer Isaac Deutscher remains critical of the view that the policy of the Anglo-Soviet Council had been the "basic cause of the prolonged impotence of British communism" which remained "vegetated" on the fringes of British politics 30 years later (186 Unarmed Prophet). That 1926 reflected the closest Britain had moved to the brink of revolutionary during the inception of the party remains clear, that had a 'correct' line followed the party would have been in a stronger position to give a lead to the most advanced sections of the working class is also not in doubt.


Samuels work is of continued importance to Marxists alive today precisely because the lessons we can draw from the experiences of the CPGB during its height have still not been learnt. If there is a central point we can draw from Samuels text it is that the political independence of the working class must still be stressed in opposition to sections of the bourgeoisie and labour bureaucracy.

Modern Trotskyism, as manifested in its many myriad expressions is itself an expression of the failure to learn these lessons. The experiences Samuels documents have instead been replicated on a ridiculous micro-scale by the Trotskyist left of the 21st century. We find this within the political bankrupt Respect project of the Socialist Workers Party, and the ease with which basic demands of republican democracy have been downplayed by the existing Trotskyist left as "abstractions" within both the Socialist Alliance and more recently the NO2EU campaign.

Again this point is made not to draw crude historical analogies with the CPGB at its height. It would be wrong to suggesting the failures of the CPGB may be directly compared with those of the existing left. However the clear need for political independence of the class from the bourgeoisie has been repeatedly demonstrated by the defeats that have resulted from such class-collaborationist out-fits.

Meanwhile the abstentionism of another section of the 'orthodox' wing of British Trotskyism flies in the face of the advice of Trotsky to his supporters in the 1930s. Trotsky suggested, during the so called 'French Turn', to join the socialist parties that were participating in the people's front in to work with leftists in them. In doing so Trotsky utilised support for candidates standing against the Radical Party to oppose the coalition policy and reassert the importance of the political independence of the class in this support.

While the tactics adopted must remain reflexive and able to adapt to concrete situations, It is this guiding principle underlining our tactics that must continue to direct our politics as Marxists. These are lessons we must not only draw from the history of the CPGB but must now more than ever seek to apply to the engagement of Marxists not within short-cuts attempts to building left-tinted populist organisations and fronts but a unified Communist party, able to effective assert these principles. What is called for now is the unity of Marxists as Marxists.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

United Campaign Against Police Violence launch meeting

On Tuesday 5th May around 100 people gathered at Friends Meeting House, Euston for the public launch of a new initiative entitled the 'United Campaign Against Police Violence' (UCAPV).

A press release issued before the meeting outlined the provisional committee of the campaign as composed of delegates from organizations established by the friends and families of people who have died in custody alongside Socialist Worker Party, Green Party, Labour Representation Committee and Rail, Maritime & Transport Workers (London Region) and Public and Commercial Services Union representatives.

The meeting opened with a brief introduction by the chair, a Socialist Workers Party comrade. He noted that the campaign is borne of the police violence of the April G20 demonstrations, at which police officers randomly searched and brutalised protesters, alongside the close scrutiny of police tactics that has followed the death of Ian Tomlinson in London's financial district while on his way home from work.

The role of UCAPV the comrade argued is to act as a coalition of many different organisation to come together over many issues, suggesting that "our strength is in our breadth".

The primary focus for the three week old organisation the comrade stressed is the upcoming demonstration on May 23rd at Trafalgar Square. At this demonstration it is hoped protesters will be able to surround and thus 'kettle' Scotland Yard. A reference to the police tactic utilized at the G20 protests to contain crowds of protesters within a limited areas.


The first speaker from the front table was Deborah Coles, co-director of 'Inquest', an organisation launched in 1981 to campaign against deaths in custody. Deborah noted that this year is the 30th anniversary of the death of Blair Peach, an activist that sustained injuries eventually leading to his death following a police charge during an anti-fascist demonstration. .

The second person to speak was Jenny Jones, member of the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA) and Green Party London Assembly Member. Jenny suggested the UCAPV initiatives focus should include bring about change within Metropolitan Police Authority organisation, suggesting a sea-change since the death of Ian Tomlinson during which "even the tories" have been "asking difficult questions". Jenny suggested that we should welcome a situation in which people of all political hues were calling for an "end to brutality" and greater scrutiny of the police.

Jones suggested that there were things she could and couldn't say on the Police Authority, she could not suggest that the organisation either sort itself out or disband but she could argue for a review of the general policing culture. These were differences in tone, Jones argued before arguing that the focus of the campaign should be in translating the anger people rightly felt into "tough questions" for the police, alongside other 'critical' voices on the police authority, like the Liberal Democrat representatives.

Martin Smith, national organiser of the Socialist Workers Party spoke soon after. His comments contrasted markedly in focus to those of Jenny Jones, rightly apportioning blame not only to the individual policeman or woman but at the highest level, observing the continued relevance of the Italian proverb that "fish rots from the head". Comrade Smith noted that the role of the function of the police is one that seeks primarily to defend private property, at the expensive of those they are said to "serve and protect". However Martin did not extend his analysis to the implications for the campaign's initial focus; whether the campaign should focus upon reforms within the MPA, for example, is not a topic he touched upon. Surprising given the suggestion within Socialist Worker in November 2007 following the shooting of 27 year old electrician Jean Charles de Menezes that "the Metropolitan Police Authority should be disbanded" [1].

Following this point Comrade Smith asked rhetorically if anyone in the room had "ever seen the police support a strike?" before noting that the police "represented those in authority". In doing so Martin Smith chose not to dwell upon the the 'illegal' strike action undertaken by the Prison Officers Association in 2007, nor its call for the insertion of support for strike action in an amendment to a composite proposed to the TUC conference of 2008. That the comrade chose not to do so is perhaps not surprising given the divisive implications for the left of strike action among those who are part of the state's institutions of repression.

Comrade Smith mirrored the sentiments of the chair and the material for in the meeting in suggesting the upcoming demonstration would be a chance to put 'thousands on the streets of the capital' in opposition to police violence. In an approach suggesting that, in the words of the leaflet for the upcoming action: "mass mobilisation will be the key to our success". In the context of escalating police brutality Comrade Smith noted the steady "hike in wages" for the police during periods of intense working class unrest, citing the Miners strike of 1984-5 and the General Strike of 1926 as examples of the police being 'brought off' during periods of rising working class consciousness, of which the G20 protests were presumably an example.


All in attendance, both within the audience and on the front table, seemed rightly disgusted by both the brutal and violent policing of the G20 protests and the injustice faced by the friends and family members who had very movingly described the loss of loved ones at the hands of the police. Given both the emotive nature of the question and building press attention on the tactics the police have recently employed, the need for political discussion regarding the future direction of the campaign and the politics it seeks to adopt seems more vital than ever.

Among those representatives of the provisional committee speaking from the front table there are visible differences of focus in the attention the UCAPV initiative should focus upon. These are differences that were not addressed in a meeting that welcomed no contributions from the attendees. While the chair welcomed the breadth of the campaign as one of its strengths, this is a strength only if it is extended to those not within the immediate remit of its current provisional leadership, especially during these critical formative steps.

The kind of politics we need must take the issue of accountability of the police seriously, linking this to wider questions of democracy.That the Socialist Workers Party has within its involvement in previous broad "united fronts" suggested the demand for the armed forces and police to be “dispersed” and replaced with a workers’ militia is a "utopian" far-left demand abstract from 'existing consciousness' belies the way the organisation, like much of existing left, has failed to take the issue of democracy seriously.

While that the suggested success of the campaign could be measured by actions involving "thousands" is clearly problematic. As the 'Grand Old Duke of York' strategy of the anti-war movement suggests, size alone cannot provide the kind of change in society that is so urgently needed. What can is principled politics and a viable strategy for state power that must accompany any suggested rise in political consciousness in confrontations between workers and the police.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

The 'Trade Union Discussion'

The characterisation of Trotsky as displaying "excessive self-assurance and show(ing) excessive preoccupation with the purely administrative side of the work" within Lenin's "Last Testament" has a certain resonance among the existing far-left. It also poses a problem for those whose political project is dependent upon a view of Trotsky as entirely 'at one' with Lenin. That the existing Trotskyist left has extended great effort to emphasize the similarity of their views makes sense in the context of a political environment in which Stalinism had tried to reclaim Lenin as their own, and use his work to excuse their every twist and turn.

Never has the image of Trotsky as the bureaucrat been so contested as during discussions of the 'Militarization of labour' in the early 1920s, a debate arising from the conditions of post-war economic reconstruction at the end of the allied blockade of Soviet Russia.

To provide some context, Trotsky had previously proposed in February 1920 to abandon the "linch-pin" of War- Communism, arbitrary grain requisitioning. A proposal that would be rejected by Lenin and the Central Committee majority. In the words of his biographer Isaac Deutscher Trotsky had attempted to "throw the economy back on to the treacherous tides of a free market" (415. Prophet Armed).* Trotsky would however one month later 'plunge back into the accepted folly' and champion the next phase of a series of arguments that could later only be understood as extending from the logic of continued "war communism", most notably the 'Militarization of labour'. These disciplinary measures were necessary features of a painful ''transitional period'.

At the Ninth Congress of the party Trotsky noted that Militarization is:

Unthinkable without the militarisation of the trade unions as such, without the establishment of a regime in which every worker feels himself a soldier of l labour, who cannot dispose of himself freely; if the order is given to transfer him, he must carry it out; if he does not carry it out, he will be a deserter who is punished. Who looks after this? The trade union. It creates the new regime. This is the militarisation of the working class.

It is in the fall of 1920 that the divergent opinions of Lenin in stressing the role of unions as providing protection against the Soviet state could be heard; divergent views evident within the party expressed themselves in a number of distinct platforms including (besides the followers of Lenin and Trotsky) those of the Workers' Opposition who championed the role of independent union control of industry (102 Cohen). It is in this context that we find Lenin warning that “Our present state is a workers’ state with bureaucratic deformation ... Our state is such that the completely organised proletariat must protect itself against it and we must utilise these workers’ organisations for protecting the workers from their own state, in order that the workers may protect our state ...”

Within 'Lenin' Robert Service gives a perfunctorily brief account of the 'trade union discussion' as largely confined to Trotsky's call for a ban on strikes and 'reduction' of the trade unions to the conidition of state organisations [3:422]. Service argues that the response of Lenin to this call related strongly to the percieved need for unity in the face of the fragile peace within the party leadership restored at the Ninth Party Congress. He suggests Lenin emphasises the 'bureaucratic distortions' that had taken place following October and the continually useful role of the trade unions. Providing a glimpse of a Lenin that viewed Trotsky as "ripping the party apart" in the face of more pressing issues, of which the 'trade union discussion' formed only a part (423). He describes a 'sketchily' reported paraphrasing of the speech on the subject to the Moscow province Party Conference, in the face of a potentially unpopular move in response to short-term vital economic tasks [4:402). Lenin's primary concern remained the unity of the Bolshevik party at all costs. We find a variant of this view within the infamous anti-Communist work of Nicolas Werth. Werth describes Trotsky as the 'principle archietect' of Militirization, Trotsky is said by Nicolas Werth as having explained at his ideas at the Ninth Party Congress, in which we begin to see the outlawing of strikes 'in practice' [5:88] as measures designed to 'restore order' [5:89].

The reaction of the Post-Trotsky 'Trotskyists' on this issue differs dramatically in emphasis but retains as a template of any understanding of the 'trade union debate' the historical features of "War Communism".

Ernest Mandel, a Trotsky leader elected to the leadership of the ISFI after 1946 aruges within 'Trotsky as Alternative' that the concept that would come to be known as 'militarization of labour' can only be understood in terms of the demobilization of a massive Red Army following the end of the allies blockage of Soviet Russia. Labour armies are introduced during this period as a response to the problem of 'mass unemployment' (132). Strongly critical, Mandel does however suggest that Trotsky’s proposal that the trade unions should train workers to take the place of the factory directors in the running of the big enterprises "would be an obvious step in the direction of workers’ self-manage­ment” (E Mandel Trotsky as alternative London 1995, p55).

Elsewhere within "Lenin and Trotsky" Ted Grant and Alan Wood describe the 'trade union dispute' as "one episode" in the "whole crisis of the political and economic mode of organisation known as War Communism", and as such indistinguishable from this period (96 Woods/Grant). Grant and Woods describe as "drastic" the measures introduced to "get industry moving, to feed the hungry works and to end the drift from town to country" (96). What is not touched upon in this account is the extent to which Trotsky had initially distanced himself from a key policy of War Communism prior to this advocacy.

In stressing the similarity of Lenin and Trotsky's views on this issue they quote comments to a speech at the All-Russian Congress of Soviets in 1920 in which Lenin is quoted as saying "in a country of small peasants, it is our chief and fundamental task to discover how to achieve state compulsion in order to raise peasant production" (97) Grant and Wood defend these actions as undertaken in light of the need to arrest the flow of workers from town to country, assuming the necessary use of 'draconian measures', such as arrest for "labour desertions". Following on from this they note an 'official decree' detailing punishments for this crime after the Ninth Party Congress alongside another issued on January 15, 1920 establishing the very first "revolutionary army of labour" (98).

Grant/Woods do hint at an acknowledgement of the divergent view of Lenin in noting that during the discussion of this question 'small frictions' eventually lead to a "series of divisions" in the party leadership, with not two but "at least" five alternatives being put forward (100). Both Service and Grant/Woods note that Lenin's prime concern remained preventing a split and maintaining the fragile unity of the leadership. It is for this reason that Lenin is said to have opposed Trotsky's proposal to "shake up" the union officials (100).

Of those Trotskyist writers that have written about Trotsky's politics on the 'Militarization of labour' Tony Cliff perhaps goes furthest in seeking to distance himself from them, describing Trotsky's politics during this period as advocacy of "anti-democratic, anti-working-class, “substitutionist” practices". Cliff does not compare the policies outlined by Trotsky during this time with those pursued by Stalin’s in the next ten years, despite the fact that “there was hardly a single plank in Trotsky’s programme of 1920-21 which Stalin did not use during the industrial revolution of the 1930s.” (armed 515).

In suggesting that Lenin and Trotsky were 'at one' on this issue Grant/Woods mirror Robert Service in suggesting that policies that would later be enacted by the consolidated Stalinist leadership had met largely with the consent of Lenin during this time. Ironically as has been noted “nobody had in 1920-21 gone farther than Trotsky in demanding that every interest and aspiration should be wholly subordinated to the ‘iron dictatorship’. Yet he was the first of the Bolshevik chiefs to turn against the machine of that dictatorship when it began to devour the dream” (I Deutscher The prophet unarmed Oxford 1978, p73).