Letter: a contribution to the discussion on the 40th anniversary of Militant

A comrade who was actively involved in building the Militant in the 1970s and 1980s recounts his experience, how he became disillusioned by the changes in the internal regime, how the tendency he had joined was transformed into something else. He now sees in In Defence of Marxism the genuine traditions of the Militant at its best.

Dear Comrades,

I was the secretary of a Militant branch in London which my then partner and I had built over a period of 5-6 years, with the help of comrades from the local district. When we moved to the area in 1979 we had already been members for about 3 or 4 years. At that time there were two semi-active members in the area. By 1985 we had a healthy branch of 16 active members – all making regular donations, all attending branch meetings, all active in their local Labour Party’s/unions/workplaces.

Branch meetings were mainly given over to political education. We opened with a lead-off on a political topic – Marxist theory, a topic from history, perspectives for Britain or other countries – which would last perhaps 30 minutes; then a discussion of an hour or more, and finally a summing up for 10 minutes or so by the speaker. After that, perhaps 20 minutes briefly organising the work in the coming week.

Speakers were from the centre, from the local district committee or were branch members. Where we could we encouraged the newer members to lead off a discussion – I would talk to them about the topic and help them prepare.

We held weekend schools for the local members, with more time for comrades to prepare by reading and with more time to discuss the ideas.

We had two local LPYS branches in our area, where we had a majority. My partner was on the LPYS National Committee for a year. I was youth officer of one of the local Labour Parties. We had 7 or 8 members active in the party and a periphery there of perhaps 20 to 30 left wingers. We were solidly part of the Party. We worked with the left and they worked with us. They had respect for us and knew we were serious – although they were perhaps not 100% consistent; there were many cross-currents and odd ideas sometimes wafting around.

It was a healthy branch of Militant. It was a branch you could easily recruit a young worker to, a trade union activist, a serious member of the Labour Party. We worked together, we respected each other, and we were comrades.

I was the main organiser of the branch – one of the local leading comrades – in a small way the local “theoretician” – which meant that on just a few occasions, when the centre could not help, I had to think things through on my own.

I remember one weekend, for instance, when we had a tough situation involving the local Black and Asian community, with the local Labour councillors messing around, thinking about how to save their council seats, and playing into the hands of the racists who were active locally in the National Front. I spent the weekend just visiting the comrades, particularly the Asian members, talking and thinking things through. By the end of the weekend we had a perspective and plan for the work of the branch, a policy for the LPYS members, a motion for the Labour Party meeting the following week. My head ached!

Yes, there was just sometimes too much abrasiveness when a more patient and friendly approach would have been better. I would take responsibility for that. In the organisation as a whole there was the beginning of an atmosphere of intolerance. It was too easy perhaps for the leading comrades to unconsciously intimidate the newer members into silence.

This was just the beginning of a tendency – not corrected by the leadership in the district or nationally. It could have been easily put to one side. But, to the extent that it was ever mentioned openly, a “hard man” approach was encouraged. We were serious, we were revolutionaries, and we didn’t have time to waste. Rather than patiently explaining, the internal regime was beginning to lean towards a more arrogant approach, demanding loyalty rather than earning it.

During the miner’s strike in ‘84-‘85 we did more than any other part of the local labour movement to actively help the miners. We had miners visit, stay with the comrades, we helped the miners organise collections and where we could introduced them to local trade unionists and pushed for meetings in the local workplaces. I’m proud to have been able to play a part in what we knew was a turning point for the movement as a whole.

But – looking back – too often we were the only part of the local labour movement that was actively involved. And even within the organisation, it was too often the leading comrades more than others who were organising, helping, offering accommodation. Good though it was to be involved, I feel now that this was the beginning of an element of substituting ourselves for the movement – even of the leading members substituting themselves for the rest of the membership.

This was what eventually led to my resignation from the organisation.

Over the following year or two there was increased pressure from the centre and the local fulltimer for more activity, which put political education (mine included) into the background. New members would be integrated through action – not through discussion – this was the implied but unspoken message.

Increasingly we were literally ourselves alone – a march against youth unemployment with only 20 people on it, all members, including the local full-timer. Not even messages of support from the local labour movement, never mind actual people on the march. This was ultra-leftism.

Why didn’t I stay and fight? It was impossible. Already there had been comments from the full-timer about the need to fight the “conservatives”. As an older member, and a white-collar worker at that, I knew I would be attacked personally on that level if I raised any opposition. I was absolutely on my own.

So I left. I did what many people have done perhaps in Britain in the last 10 or 15 years. I tried to solve the problems of life by myself – put energy into my job, tried to gain some satisfaction from that, got married, lived a life that I laughingly call normal.

But things move on. I'm not sure why I started browsing around on the web a year or so ago. Possibly the situation in Iraq. I work in the oil business, have friends working in the Middle East, and have visited there a number of times. And I know from first hand experience the viciousness of management in the oil industry – here the capitalists will tolerate no opposition and will act with extreme brutality to get what they want.

Perhaps also it was a beginning of an awareness that it isn’t possible to solve life’s problems by yourself alone. Somewhere the labour leadership is described as “believing in the emancipation of the working class, one by one, starting with themselves”. Yes, you can try to go down that road if you want, but it’s a dirty way to live, and there are no comrades.

The comrades at the “In Defence of Marxism” web-site have done phenomenal work in the most difficult situation. The quantity, but especially the quality, of the material, the serious approach to theory, the insight, perspectives and tactics I see there are exactly the ideas of Militant that attracted me more than 25 years ago.

Yet there is much more to do. All of those ex-Militant comrades, who drifted away, passively or actively, in disgust or just out of exhaustion, should look at these ideas, think seriously about where they are and what they are doing with their lives. Yes, there were mistakes. It’s been a bruising experience. So what – this is nothing in terms of the history of the movement. It’s something to learn from, something to gain strength from, an opportunity to see in terms of our own experience the living reality of a Marxist approach and how different that is from the childish nonsense of the ultra-left.

If nothing else, it’s an opportunity to learn what it really means to build a Marxist tendency rooted in the labour movement and firmly part of the class. This is the method of dialectical materialism – to clearly see that the contradictions in the Labour party will lead to the most almighty future events which will shatter all the old illusions – to understand that history does not move in straight lines, that the old can resurface in the new, the same but different, better, stronger.