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Labour Party or Socialist Alliance? The Experience in South Wales

AFTER READING Dave Osler's article in What Next? No.14 ("The Illusion of Failure"), I was tempted to rip up my Labour Party card and join the Socialist Alliance. Then I thought, let's have a closer look at how the Socialist Alliance has actually done in my own constituency of Aberavon. The result was that they were beaten by Captain Beany, a man who gets off by lying in a bath of cold beans. Nuff said.

The question socialists should ask themselves is, do we really see a swing away from Labour to Plaid Cymru as progressive? Have a look at what Plaid Cymru are doing now they are running Rhondda-Taff Council. If you regard this as moving towards socialist politics then I'm off.

To see if there is a big shift away from Labour – or to be more precise in the constituencies which Dave names – let's do something we Marxists are always preaching about, let's look at the big picture. Is Dave seriously trying to show the demise of the Labour Party in Wales on the basis of one set of election results? A large number of people regarded the Assembly elections as local elections. We should look at how people vote in parliamentary elections to see if they are moving away from Labour.

Dave also admits that there are always pockets of electoral support for the non-Labour left. I agree with him on this point. The odd councillor/MP will get elected, but what can they accomplish on their own? Everybody loves a radical, especially when they are full of rhetoric and nothing else.

Do comrades honestly believe that alliances containing such diverse views as those of the Socialist Party and Cymru Cochion can actually stay together? Let's be perfectly honest Dave – I think not. And what about the super-sectarians of the SWP? They stand in elections if and when it suits them, supporting candidates of any variety if it is to their own advantage. The left outside the Labour Party is as fragmented as ever, and anybody from the non-Labour left who comes to any other conclusion is suffering from delusions of grandeur.

The composition of the membership of the Labour Party in Wales is still on the whole working class – can the same be said of these little grouplets on the left? There are small but effective campaigns growing within the Welsh Labour Party, such as the Welsh Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and CYFLE (Campaigning for Your Franchise on the Labour Executive). The growth of these two is connected to the disastrous leadership contest, which was partly to blame for Labour's poor showing in the Assembly elections.

With socialists active in organisations such as Welsh Labour Action, Campaign Group Wales and Swansea Labour Left, this shows that socialism in the Labour Party is not as moribund as Dave would like us to believe. Comrades are also active in their trade unions and in local and national campaigns. While I will admit that socialists in the Labour Party in Wales are fighting an uphill battle a lot of the time against cantankerous, boring, power-hungry, middle-aged farts (I bet there are a few of them in the Socialist Alliances too, eh Dave?), we are making small but significant gains.

Charles Dickens starts the novel Hard Times with the sentence "Now what I want is facts". That's exactly what I want – facts not rhetoric. Give me the facts to demonstrate that working people in factories, hospitals and offices have lost all hope in the Labour Party. Show me the facts to prove that the Labour Party is beyond redemption and can no longer act in the interests of working people, and cannot be changed by the working class for the working class. Until you give me these facts Dave, dream on.

Bill Davies

Why We Should Carry on "This Entrist Nonsense": A Reply to Jo Green

FIRSTLY, CAN I say that there is a problem with what the word "entrist" means and so I don’t necessarily think it is a good term to use. The classic form of entrism is that used by the French Trotskyists in the SFIO in the mid-’30s, which can best be described as a "raiding" tactic to win forces to a Trotskyist group so that it can become an independent party. This is a short-term perspective based on the emergence of a leftward moving rank and file inside the mass social democratic parties, which normally involves a centrist wing developing inside that party. To ignore entrism in such an event is clearly absurd ultra-leftism, and so Jo Green's questioning if entrism "ever had any" relevance ("Stop This Entrist Nonsense", What Next? No.14) can be quickly dismissed if you wish to engage with the actual labour movement as it exists.

However, although left reformism still has a relative mass base inside the British labour movement, it is certainly not developing leftwards. Therefore, perhaps we should ditch entrism for now and come back "raiding" later if necessary? But there is a clear problem with this approach, namely that if a rise in the class struggle or mass radicalisation is reflected inside the party of the working class, it is helpful to already have some influence and positions inside that party. Otherwise, you are likely to be treated suspiciously when you do enter, both by the party bureaucracy and by some of the members.

I should now like to look at comrade Green's letter point by point. Firstly, she boldly states that "supporters of entrism are now an isolated and irrelevant minority". In contrast to this she points out the success of the Socialist Workers Party and the Communist Party of Britain. This ignores the fact that different groups who work inside the Labour Party do have a relatively important influence. For example, Socialist Action has a real base inside both the labour and student movements. Its supporters are prominent in the paper Socialist Campaign Group News and in organising the Grassroots Alliance, whose candidates received around 50,000 votes in the Labour Party NEC elections. Other Marxists are active around Labour Left Briefing, which no one can deny has more influence than the likes of the SWP, with supporters including prominent trade unionists and Labour Party NEC members as well as a small core of MPs.

Also, Jo seems to look at everything on the left in terms of size. The SWP are good because they have "maintained their membership and political influence", whilst entrists are bad because they are small in number. Here she fails to see that size and influence are often very separate (after all, if size is decisive, then the Healyites were much better than the rest of the Marxist left for a number of years!). For example, in the 1980s the Militant was a similar size to the SWP today, yet they had far more influence, running Liverpool City Council and with three Labour MPs. They also seem to have given the bourgeoisie a good scaring, with books and TV documentaries about the group being made and Margaret Thatcher regularly condemning them. How different to the SWP who, unlike Militant in the ’80s, are unknown to many households across Britain and don’t seem to bother the bourgeoisie at all.

My above point about size and influence is actually shown by the other example Jo gives of successful party-building, the CPB/Morning Star, which she correctly points out "has widespread influence in the labour movement". The sole reason why the CPB, with a paper membership of around 1,000 and a much smaller active membership, have such "widespread influence" is their orientation to the broad labour movement: the unions and the Labour Party. Indeed, the CPB actually wishes to be affiliated to the Labour Party and regards the Labour left "as the key focus for left unity" (Kenny Coyle, "The CPB and Left Unity", in What Next? No.8). It is also their position that "the problem with the SLP and the Socialist Party is that they have abandoned the struggle [inside Labour] before it has been fought. This is a damaging position, because the struggle inside the Labour Party has to be conducted with great skill by the left wing" (ibid). It seems that socialists inside the Labour Party, far from being "an isolated and irrelevant minority", are fact a "key focus" in the discussion Jo proposes on "the way in which a socialist alternative is to be built". Later on in Jo's letter, the Socialist Party's open turn is used a proof of the failure of entrism. Perhaps she should read the CPB's publications and their (generally) correct criticisms of the likes of the SP. She may also notice if she reads the Morning Star that members of the Labour Party often write in it, and that the CPB supports the Labour left.

Jo then goes on to the anti-war movement and announces that "if representatives of the various entrist groups featured at all, they preserved their political anonymity in order not to compromise their positions in the Labour Party", which apparently is "hardly the most effective way of winning working people to their politics". Apart from the fact that supporters of Socialist Action were amongst the key organisers of the Committee for Peace in the Balkans, the entire movement relied on members of the Labour Party. For example, Liz Davies of Labour Left Briefing spoke at anti-war rallies, and up and down the country the Committee's most prominent members and speakers were in fact Labour left MPs such as Tony Benn and Alice Mahon who the SWP were only too keen to get to address their rallies. In the two areas where I had contact with the anti-war movement, Cambridge and Camden, members of the Labour Party were very active. In Camden a notorious "entrist" (who in fact edits this magazine) was prominently involved in organising the anti-war campaign, and in Cambridge the only other left group on the anti-war demonstration was Socialist Appeal who also had a speaker on the platform at the well-attended public meeting. Needless to say, this representative of an "entrist" group was the most militant speaker on the platform and was joined by Labour MP George Galloway.

Jo also states that the SP, the Alliance for Workers' Liberty and Socialist Outlook have "withdrawn from the party over the past decade. In the face of Labour's inexorable rightward drive, they have evidently concluded that a turn to open work is now unavoidable". To an extent, both the AWL and Outlook have indeed turned away from the Labour Party. However, when something important happens in the party, as in the case of Livingstone's campaign for selection as Labour candidate for London mayor, the AWL and Outlook immediately turn back towards it.

As for the Socialist Party, contrary to what you might think from reading Jo's letter, leaving the Labour Party has been an absolute disaster. A former EC member of the Socialist Party's International (the CWI) in Brazil recently revealed that the SP had at most 400 active members, from a peak of around 7,500 when they were in Labour. They are continually splitting (Scotland and Liverpool being the obvious examples) and are losing sections of their International all over the place (USA, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Brazil are amongst the countries where they have lost significant numbers). Since leaving Labour, far from gaining in numbers and influence, they have lost out in both departments. In their former stronghold of Liverpool, when she was blocked from standing for Labour in 1991 Lesley Mahmood got 2,600 votes, whereas now she gets 63 votes in council elections despite an unpopular local Labour Party and a right-wing Labour government. The former sections of Militant outside Labour now have a couple of dozen members in Liverpool, compared with controlling a very active and high-membership District Labour Party when inside Labour.

Compare the SP's disastrous evolution with the record of the former members of Militant around the journal Socialist Appeal who stayed in Labour. Despite their expulsion from Militant with few members, they have managed to maintain most of those supporters and now seem to be growing. For example, I recently spoke on the phone to an RMT activist who is an Appeal supporter. They are the only active left group in the town where he lives and have managed to retain members in a place where the labour movement is hardly enthralling. This is unlike the ex-members of Militant who went away from Labour and have since disappeared, or the SWP who continually set up there only to collapse within a few months. The only former SWP members who are still active are the two who left to become involved with Socialist Appeal.

The International of which Appeal is a part is also a relative success story, with the biggest Trotskyist group in Russia recently joining them. In Italy, where they are "entrists" in the PRC, they have supporters on the party's central committee, while in Spain, where they work both in the CP-initiated United Left and in the Socialist Party (PSOE), they are the largest Trotskyist tendency. Recently in Lahore they held the biggest meeting of the Left in Pakistan for 20 years.

In point 6 of his "Conditions for Regroupment" in the last What Next?, Will Matthews correctly said that "in Britain, recognition of the fundamental class difference between the Labour Party and the Tory/Liberal parties, and therefore an orientation towards the Labour Party" was important. This is because, as Engels explained on many occasions, the role of Marxists is to orientate themselves to the existing labour movement as it is (not as we would like it to be) and to put our positions forward inside the movement, allowing the masses to learn by experience.

At this stage, that means being inside Labour in most cases and also fighting inside the trade unions. It is important that we link these two struggles together. The far left in this country generally ignores the opposition to Blair evident inside the Labour Party but often romanticises the trade unions. Yet on the Labour NEC the union representatives rarely vote against Blair, unlike the NEC members elected by the party's individual members. It is here, in Labour's rank and file, that a real opposition to Blairism of some size seems to be crystallising.

Will Matthews also added that work in the Labour Party "by no means rules out orientation towards other left formations outside Labour". This actually means that the likes of myself who believe that we should stay inside Labour can do much joint work with the likes of Jo Green and Dave Osler. We might well end up one day in the same party, if a mass left splits from Labour. I suspect that inside this party Jo and I would work against putting the sectarian interests of one tendency above the interests of the movement as a whole, judging by her letter which at least has the progressive feature of being able to admire the work of more than one left group.

Jo concludes that she wants to see "a serious debate over the way in which a socialist alternative is to be built". So do I, but she clearly believes that the politics of the SWP is one way. Yet I would ask her if she includes as part of this "socialist alternative" the 52,644 Labour members who voted for Liz Davies in the NEC elections this year. After all, 52,644 is far more than even the paper membership of all the far left organisations added together. Or does she plan to leave these people in the hands of Blair and Co?

I would suggest that Jo goes back to the drawing board, and perhaps looks at the history of our movement. All the mass Communist parties came out of the old Social Democratic parties, and Trotskyists have only ever built mass parties in countries like Bolivia and Sri Lanka where the traditions of Social Democracy and Stalinism didn’t have a mass base.

The reason little is achieved inside Labour (or indeed outside Labour) at the moment is the low level of class struggle and class consciousness. When mass opposition to Blairism does emerge in the unions this is bound to be reflected at least partially inside the Labour Party. This is where mass forces can be won in the future to a revolutionary programme.

Ian Richardson

The Trade Unions, the Labour Party and History: A Response to Dave Osler

THE MEETING organised by New Interventions and What Next? in October on the subject of "Socialists and the Labour Party" clearly revealed the poverty of argument by Dave Osler when he calls for resignation from the Labour Party. After a discussion which included many contributions from the floor, the best he could manage in reply was the political equivalent of a matey appeal to "drink up" and go to another establishment.

Since he began engaging the readers of What Next? in issue No.3, Osler has placed great emphasis on the suppression of democratic structures in the Labour Party, as well as on Blair's links with big business. He makes them central to his rejection of the party now. His sense of humour often finds play here, as his What Next? articles illustrate. But such criteria can with equal justice be applied to the trade unions, where the bureaucracy shows no less contempt for the democratic rights of the membership and regards union funds and premises as portfolio assets to be managed. Why then doesn’t Dave Osler act consistently and advocate resignation from the trades unions? Presumably because, for him, trades unions are purely economic in character.

In constructing his argument this way Osler mechanically separates out the roles of the Labour Party and the unions. He fails to give adequate recognition to the role played by trade union officials in this and past decades and to the primacy of their acts of treachery at crucial moments in the class struggle.

Anyone who is too young to have lived through those past struggles can learn much from reading Inside Cowley by Alan Thornett, a leading activist in the car industry during the 1960s and ’70s. His book has the great merit of revealing the process through which the working class was disarmed and betrayed by trade union officials. The betrayals carried out then, opened the way not just for Tory rule but for the emergence of Kinnock and Blair as leaders of the Labour Party.

The real inseparable nature of the process has seen both trade union and Labour leaders attacking the interests of the working class to this day. We must not lose sight of the part played by those such as Tom Sawyer, who climbed to office in the Labour Party on the back of defeats he helped to inflict on his members. And once in office he, along with John Prescott and others who entered the movement through the trades unions, have attacked the interests of workers again and again. This is the essence of the matter – the interpenetration of the trade unions and the Labour Party.

We must not overlook, either, the positive aspects of this relationship, whereby the outcome is advancement for the oppressed. There have been positive contributions too from those who left the trades unions to become MPs. At the meeting Dave Osler sneered at my observation on this point; time did not allow me to illustrate it.

Joan Maynard, who became an MP in that critical year of 1974 (and whose career I paid tribute to in What Next? No.8 – "In Memory of Joan Maynard"), is an example. Before this step she had worked tirelessly as a trade union lay rep, then official, on behalf of one of the most oppressed sections of the proletariat, the rural working class. She continued to champion their cause as an MP. Fighting for the abolition of tied cottages and other conditions which saddled rural workers and their families, she was their voice in parliament – and a voice, it must be said, that the Labour leaders did not want to hear.

She called on all activists to join the party, the better to affect the outcome of battles ahead. The point she made then could well do with repeating today: The trades unions and the Labour Party are a living interconnected process of struggle, a battleground where defeats and setbacks as well as victories are experienced, making their impact on the plane of history for decades. In order to influence the outcome you have to be a member of both wings of the movement, however bourgeoisified you consider them.

If the many thousands of members recruited to left sects between 1974 and 1984 had joined the Labour Party instead, the outcome of the struggle could have had an entirely different character. Those of us who made the mistake then, must accept a share for the outcome now.

We got a sense of the reasoning which spurs Osler to call on activists to leave the party from his anecdote about the state of affairs in his workplace. Apparently NUJ reps there are confronted by managers who are – horror of horrors – members of the Labour Party. This makes Osler shudder. For him, this is a real measure of the bankruptcy of the party under Blair's leadership.

The fact is, though, that this is not a specific symptom of Blairism or something unique to the present period. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s the same was true of managers at all levels in the health service, as I know from direct experience. Indeed, people like that have been in the Labour Party since the Caxton Hall meeting in 1900. What, after all, was Ramsay MacDonald? As a Labour prime minister, was he so different from Blair?

Frankly it is being kind to Blair and his cronies to resign because of the presence of managers in the party. Osler again demonstrates the weakness of his position and his lack of commitment to sustained struggle.

The most class-conscious and self-sacrificing layer of the working class, who built and maintain the trades unions and Labour Party, does not enjoy the freedom enjoyed by sectarians who can so easily abandon one party overnight and then join another the next day, and another and another ...

The working class carries its history, defeats, mistakes and all, clamped to its back. It must therefore extract every last vestige of advantage out of the organs that it built. The proletariat has gone through hell to build them and will go through hell to clear the road for progress. En route it must learn to get to grips with its own shortcomings and take up the legitimate grievances of other elements in society.

In separating the Labour Party from the trade unions, and seeing the unions as purely economic organisations, Dave Osler and others who share this view are seriously mistaken. When the Labour Party was founded workers did not cease discussing politics in the unions. Even though officials and right-wing elements have always attempted through rule books and constitutions to prevent or limit such discussion, nonetheless it thrives.

Trade union life, for rank-and-file members, is shot through with politics. It is in the nature of things that much business resolved on at shop, branch and national levels takes the form of action and appeals directed in one form or another at the Labour Party. To leave the party when this class-conscious section of workers has not finished business with it means in practice abandoning to the bourgeoisie what generations struggled to build, without an alternative being prepared.

Those who think that at this low ebb in the struggle it is impossible to influence the outcome from within structures where the democratic process is being squashed should consider the experience made by workers under much harsher restraints. It is worth reflecting that Trotsky advocated work in the corporatised unions in Nazi Germany.

To be an effective activist means working in the mainstream and if necessary against the stream, the better to understand and influence developments. Such work must be informed by a study of the past. In developing the ability to correct our own errors, learning from previous generations is an indispensable tool.

And here another weakness in Dave Osler's argument reveals itself: his indifference to history He is solely concerned with now. Yet the past will never truly be past, while the class struggle lasts. After the defeat of the miners' and local government struggles in 1985, managers not infrequently bated trade union reps who defended working conditions and jobs won in the past with sneers about "history". Such reps were labelled "dinosaurs" by employers, Stalinists, and Labour and trade union bureaucrats alike.

It suited the needs of social democracy to adopt this position, because as Walter Benjamin observed, in a period of great defeats: "Social Democracy thought fit to assign to the working class the role of the redeemer of future generations, in this way cutting the sinews of its greatest strength. This training made the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren" (Illuminations, p.262).

Now that Blair and his co-thinkers are poised to eliminate even that view from the political terrain in Britain, we need our history more than ever! Without it, we cannot fathom how we got here, let alone what to do next.

During the New Interventions/What Next? discussion meeting Dave Osler chided Revolutionary History editor Al Richardson for "doing nothing"! Hearing that, alarm bells began to ring in my head. I have been told on many occasions that certain figures on the left have "done nothing". One sectarian after another has said that Peng Shuzi, Ken Tarbuck, Baruch Hirson or Sam Bornstein – to name only a few – were "embittered individuals who recruited no one and built nothing". In sects such as the SLL/WRP, of which I was once a member, these remarks were commonplace from party hacks, particularly if the person so labelled had just published a book or pamphlet relevant to the struggle. The purpose of such remarks is clear: to wall off the membership of sects from the task of learning about the real movement of the struggle in all its complexity and richness. And when sects split, access to the history of our movement can make the difference between a progressive or retrograde outcome to the split.

At a time when the backbone of the class has been seriously damaged by the course of the battle, when many workers are having to rediscover their potential for struggle, no serious activist should be taken in by such dismissive remarks. The editors of Revolutionary History, Searchlight South Africa, New Interventions and What Next?, together with the authors of books and pamphlets and the recorders of oral history, have created a resource beyond price. In it, future generations will find the inspiration, clarification and necessary guidance to carry forward the struggle to new heights. Heights which, at the present juncture in the struggle, we can only imagine.

Ian Harrison

Ethnic Oppression in Kosovo

I WOULD like to comment briefly on the recently-published Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) report on human rights in Kosovo, as this has some obvious implications for our response to the break-up of Yugoslavia and our understanding of the role of national question, which have been hotly debated in What Next?

As comrades are perhaps aware, the report found that the majority of atrocities committed by Serbs against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo were in fact carried out after the NATO bombing began in March. This confirms accounts at the time, and it surely demolishes the claims of those such as John Palmer in the last issue of your journal ("War in Kosovo: A Victory for Human Rights") concerning the humanitarian consequences of NATO's war.

The OSCE report also details the attacks on Serbs since the entry of Kfor troops into Kosovo, and states that the KLA is directly implicated in these widespread killings. Indeed, the level of inter-communal violence in Kosovo since "liberation" would appear to be not much lower than it was before the NATO bombing – it is just that those on the receiving end of the violence are Kosovan Serbs rather than ethnic Albanians. Yet the "international community" that was so ready to spend millions bombing Serb civilians, supposedly in response to atrocities against Albanians, has provided only 1,700 of the 4,000 policemen it promised the UN administration in Kosovo, thus allowing the "ethnic cleansing" of Serbs to go ahead without hindrance. Is this what comrade Palmer calls "a victory for human rights"?

Those who deluded themselves that there is something progressive about Albanian nationalism in Kosovo have all been made to look pretty foolish. Frankly, they should have known better. Oppression of Serbs in Kosovo is nothing new – it was precisely the systematic discrimination suffered by the Serb minority at the hands of an Albanian-dominated administration that gave Milosevic the excuse to rescind Kosovo's autonomous status back in 1989.

All in all, I think it's about time that self-styled socialists stopped tail-ending these reactionary nationalisms and returned instead to some basic conceptions of anti-imperialism and class politics.

Dave Richards

Lambertism: The True Story (1)

I HAVE just finished reading your correspondent Frank Wainwright's latest offering to a subterranean discourse in the pages of your press ("Towards an Assessment of Lambertism", What Next? No.14).

Contrary to what he says, there are many people in this country who know precisely what the FI/ICR, or Lambertists, are capable of. I clearly disagree with his stout defence of their devotion to the cause of the working class and have on many occasions thought of putting fingers to Cyberspace, but just never did.

Personally, I have very little time for any of the political gurus that he mentions and am no fan of pompous people like Phil Hearse. Nevertheless, the types that Wainwright lauds, Daniel Gluckstein and Alan Benjamin, are no better – and possible much worse!

The fact that Wainwright likes your magazine must indeed be a consolation to you!

Where I agree with Wainwright is that there is a need to dump the rubbish out. When he attacks the rumour and scandal mongers who speak of alliances with Force Ouvrière (FO) bureaucrats and joint full-timers he is right: those on the left must prove these things or shut their mouths.

All sorts of leftists have opportunist relations with Social Democrats – look at Gérard Filoch, aka Matti, in the French LCR and his dalliance with Julien Dray and Mitterand! The fact that the PCI are linked to Force Ouvrière can be debated politically but should not be used as a slander.

Wainwright is also correct to attack those such as the infamous Christophe Bourseiller, author of a book that purports to tell the story of how Marc Blondel ascended to power within the FO, but in fact slanders Pierre Lambert for 300 pages. This is not discussion, and belongs in the Stalinist school of falsification. Those like Martin Thomas and Colin Foster of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty who resort to such methods should be ashamed of themselves.

I have been around the far left for twenty-five years in this country, on and off, as a member of the IMG and other currents, but Wainwright's little piece is certainly worthy of Lambert's own hand!

The only really worthy work done by the Lambert current has been in Algeria where the Parti des Travailleurs (Workers' Party) of Louisa Hanoune has been building itself in opposition to the carnival of reaction being unleashed in that country at the present time. In the USA, there is also some good work being done among the Labor Party milieu.

The real role of the PCI should be told. The slandering of Varga and Broué among others. The building of fake Workers' Parties on minimum programmes. Their use of the term constituent assembly, their obsession with the European Union, their fake European Workers' Alliance, their support for democracy with its class content extracted, their refusal to fight with the left for control of the unions, their obsessional anti-Stalinism – now turned upside-down-on-its-head. They are also obsessed with security, and concentrate on building themselves rather than any united front (including their daft secular education campaigns).

Internationally they tried to break up the USec in 1979, turned to a fusion with the Morenistas in 1980, then split in 1981, and took a number of people out of the Socialist Action current in 1991. Now they have turned toward the French Communist Party. All these factors – and many others – show their opportunism of forty years since the day Lambert overthrew Marcel Bleibtreu as leader of what was to become the Lambertist sect.

Lambert has now "reconstructed" his Fourth International. He has built a huge apparatus around his "International Liaison Committee of the Workers and the Peoples". He has his US section under the control of his pals Alan Benjamin and Ralph Schoenman. He is on his way!

We in Britain must not let him get his feet under the left's table. The havoc he will wreak on the left, disaffected and weak though it is, could set us back fifty years.

The British left has had three major sects: the SLL/WRP, the IS/SWP and the RSL/Militant Tendency. We don’t need Lambert's own peculiar brand of opportunism and sectarianism.

Miranda McVeigh

Lambertism: The True Story (2)

RE THE LETTER in the last edition of What Next? entitled "Towards an Assessment of Lambertism", I would like to make the following remarks as a former supporter of that political current.

Frank Wainwright is clearly a follower of Pierre Lambert, either a real one or a sympathiser/fellow traveller. His assessment suffers in many areas. I want to take up a handful.

  • His lack of critical balance.
  • The "exposure" of Earl Gilman.
  • The glossing over of the Lambertists' dishonest method.
  • His dismissal of polemic with other leftists, a la Lambertism.

Wainwright claims: "My purpose is not to uncritically defend the politics of Lambertism, but rather to offer an alternative perspective." I believe that Wainwright does just what he claims not to do. He defends the twists and turns of the Lambert current internationally with abstract references to the International Liaison Committee, the growth of Socialist Organizer in the USA, the development of the British section and the anti-Maastricht work. Only an "insider" or someone who has the "inside dope" at least could write all this.

Wainwright dresses the Lambertists in the clothing of some very honest politicians out to build an international current in the classic Trotskyist mould. This is false. They are a dangerous political sect with a large budget and some unhealthy methods. I should know – I was in the Socialist Labour Group for many years.

Wainwright, on a minor issue, dishonestly exposes Earl Gilman. Gilman is an ultra-leftist, who produces a publication single-handedly in California. However, he may have good reasons for using a pseudonym, and it is wrong for Wainwright – whoever he may be, and I don’t know – to uncloak him for all to see!

If Wainwright is so concerned with political honesty he should reveal that the SLG, under the direction of Lambert and Demassott, sent two comrades into Militant, only to pull them out and into Labour Briefing in a blaze of glory in the mid-1980s. Now, Trotsky spoke of the ethics of entrism into the Social Democracy and Stalinism, but he never claimed that it was principled to infiltrate another leftist organisation. This episode was known in limited circles at the time, but if the Lambertists and their camp followers are baying for fair treatment then they should think carefully about that period too.

Wainwright mentions the far left several times, but as with all Lambertists disdains to enter into dialogue with them. He refers to pieces in What Next? and Workers' Liberty but doesn’t take up the substance of their political critiques in any way at all.

I would like to challenge Wainwright, John Archer (as Britain's Lambertist-in-chief) and anyone else they can throw up (for example Mike Calvert, who had long been Archer's protégé) to a debate with the ex-Lambertists on their political heritage. I am sure this can be set up under the auspices of comrade Pitt and What Next?

It is my contention that the Lambertist current, both in this country and internationally, is characterised by opportunism. I could write for hours on this, but I will only say the following. Lambert and his crew always deal with important issues: class independence, democratic demands and the fight for mass parties of the working class everywhere! But they need a clear programmatic response. From day one Lambert's tendency was marked by its apolitical and syndicalist origins. The concept of the revolutionary programme was never understood by them as a guide to action; it has always been used as a mantra. Lambert, Gluckstein, Wainwright, Archer (and Calvert, who is still clearly a Lambert camp follower) are politically incapable of addressing this.

The French working class repeatedly turned its back on Lambert's projects. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the French revolutionaries, many of whom were seriously disarmed by Lambert and Gluckstein. The mix of verbal orthodoxy, an apparent non-sectarianism and a huge apparatus that was capable of magic shows spat out, demoralised and burned up wave after wave of French cadres.

The role of Lambert as a street trader hawking his beguiling wares around the revolutionary left needs to be destroyed. His politics do not resemble those of a revolutionary movement, and the more his claims to orthodoxy are seen for what they are – a fraud – the sooner his influence will wane.

The lack of left splits from the PCI is an indication of the grip that the bureaucracy has on the apparatus. Nevertheless, the experience of the Workers Revolutionary Party in this country shows how even the most fossilised and ossified cliques can be smashed. I only hope my piece helps to open the eyes of any young militants who may be beguiled by Lambert and his British followers today.

Tom Hallsworthy

Editor's Note: Just to clarify matters, I should point out that Jack Davis, whose name was appended to a translation of a report from El Nuevo Tuepo ("A Lambertist Conference in San Francisco", What Next? No.11), was not a pseudonym of Earl Gilman.

A Response to José Villa

JOSÉ VILLA'S article on the League for a Revolutionary Communist International ("Ten Years of the LRCI") in What Next? No.14 deserves both support and correction. His political characterisation of this group is generally correct. Their rightward drift and their opportunism flow directly and uninterruptedly from their incorrect conception of the period. The LRCI's characterisation of the collapse of the degenerate workers' states in the late 1980s, as marking a new period of world revolution, places them in the Premier League of mistakes by world Trotskyism. For an arrogant organisation that enjoyed calling everyone else "centrists" to fail to notice which way the arrow of history was pointing makes them not only centrists themselves, but centrists of the kindergarten variety. It also explains the history of their strange associations. After all, if you jump on a train moving in the wrong direction, you can only come into contact with all the wrong people.

With regard to my own position in the LRCI, José exaggerates. Yes, I was isolated. No, my publication on the world economy was not vetoed, it was starved of resources by a leadership setting the wrong priorities. Our tendency was not wound down, it exhausted itself.

To this day, a decade later, the LRCI has not corrected its position on the world situation. In such an ossified group, what chance did we have to correct comrades a decade ago? In fact I believe they are now debating whether the counter-revolutionary phase of this revolutionary period is about to end, releasing a period of full-blown revolution.

With regard to my position on restoration, José uses shorthand. The theory is complex, but it hinges on the role of money. Once money has been re-established, i.e. it can circulate as capital and store value, it is no longer permissible to talk of these economies being planned. The outstanding example at the time was Poland's Big Bang in 1990.

While the LRCI leadership was always Euro-centred, José's criticisms are a bit one-sided. Although always at a disadvantage, the Latin Americans often acted precipitously and were difficult to manage, even taking into account cultural differences. Some of José's organisational practices did undo much of the genuine political support he had in the LRCI. This was a pity, because his political work was exemplary and resulted in many profound insights into political developments.

Finally, José is right in arguing that the US sympathising section, the RTT, should never have been expelled on the eve of Congress. That was undemocratic and denied them the right to address the whole of the Congress (not that this would have changed anything).

There are a lot of good people in the LRCI, but they do not have the personal courage of their political convictions to break from their disoriented leadership and inept theorists.

Brian Green

The Jazz Revolution and Frank Kofsky

ROBERT WILKINS' review of Frank Kofsky's John Coltrane and the Jazz Revolution of the 1960s ("Marxism and the Jazz Revolution", What Next? No.14) was interesting to read, but I think he gives a very one-sided account, both of the jazz revolution and its consequences, and also of Kofsky’s analysis.

Wilkins argues that, by loosening musical structures in pursuit of increased improvisational freedom, ’60s experimentalists like John Coltrane led jazz into a stylistic cul-de-sac, from which it was extricated at the end of that decade by the fusion movement headed by Miles Davis – a movement which "drew much of its inspiration from ’progressive’ rock and owed relatively little to Coltrane’s innovations", according to comrade Wilkins.

First of all, I would question Wilkins’ negative assessment of Coltrane’s late period. He quotes approvingly the comments by two members of Coltrane’s group, McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, that by late 1965 the music had become "a lot of noise". But this was in large part related to Coltrane’s mistake in employing two incompatible drummers – Jones and Rashied Ali – whose rivalry on the bandstand resulted in an overwhelming storm of percussion that drowned out the other instruments and made it impossible to hear the music that was being played.

Admittedly, the influence of Albert Ayler’s extreme "outside" style of improvisation on Coltrane himself, and more directly on Pharoah Sanders, did make for a challenging listening experience – one which some audiences evidently found difficult to take. But musical progress often meets initially with a degree of popular incomprehension and hostility. This doesn’t automatically invalidate the music, as Wilkins seems to imply. In any case, it is a caricature to depict all of Coltrane’s late-period music as being played in that style. He continued to compose and perform quite lyrical pieces, and even Sanders was capable of improvising in a more restrained and sensitive fashion, as is demonstrated by some of his playing on the 4-CD set Live in Japan, recorded in 1966.

Furthermore, it is unfair to blame Coltrane himself for the setbacks suffered by the jazz revolution. Who can say what new developments Coltrane would have pioneered had he lived? Certainly, it is reported that he was investigating new musical forms and instruments at the time of his premature death in 1967. There is no evidence at all for Wilkins' assertion that Coltrane had reached a stylistic "impasse" by that point.

It is also false to portray the fusion movement as being influenced primarily by "progressive rock". In its early, positive phase, this movement drew its inspiration not only from rock but also from funk and from even further afield – Miles Davis famously stated that the main influences on his classic 1972 album On the Corner were James Brown and Karlheinz Stockhausen!

And, of course, these musical components were fused with jazz, which inevitably involved the influence of Coltrane, as the dominant figure in that music during the previous decade. In his book Ascension jazz critic Eric Nisenson, from whose analysis Wilkins otherwise borrows heavily, points to a section of "Pharaoh's Dance", on Miles' path-breaking Bitches Brew album, "where there is an explosion of free energy, including wails and cries, that is unmistakeably resonant of Coltrane's Ascension period". Nisenson also identifies the presence of "Trane-influenced discordant power" on other Miles records such as Pangaea and Dark Magus.

Such influences are clearly evident too on early fusion albums by Miles alumni Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul. Would pieces such as "Wandering Spirit Song" on Hancock's Mwandishi or "Double Image" on the Zawinul album have been possible without Coltrane's work in expanding the horizons of jazz?

I would also agree with Nisenson's view that it was precisely this combination of jazz with other musical elements that made the initial stages of the fusion movement so exciting. Where it went off the rails was when its main proponents renounced the gains of the ’60s jazz revolution and took to producing simplistic funk-rock in pursuit of commercial success, thus providing yet another example of capitalism's destructive impact on creativity and artistic integrity.

Finally, I think Wilkins is unfair to Frank Kofsky, whose Marxist approach to the jazz revolution was never as crude as Wilkins makes it out to be. Even Nisenson, whose criticisms of Kofsky are echoed by Wilkins, was ready to accept that "Kofsky, an intelligent man and a scholar, realised that too exact an equation between radical politics and music was misleading", which is something you’d never guess from Wilkins' review. And Kofsky's support for the political struggles and music of African Americans deserves our heartfelt appreciation, rather than the grudging and lukewarm acknowledgement which is all comrade Wilkins is prepared to concede.

Jim Stuart

From What Next? No.15 1999