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Was Bill Worth Fighting For?

Robert B. Reich, Locked in the Cabinet, Vintage Books, 1998. Paperback, 388pp, $13.00.

Reviewed by Bernard H. Moss

THE IMPEACHMENT of Bill Clinton was the Dreyfus Affair in reverse. Both affairs divided the nation between Left and Right. In France in 1899 the religious Right defended the frame-up of Captain Dreyfus for espionage for the sake of national and military honour while the Left fought for his release in the name of truth and justice. For the last year in the US it has been the Right that has upheld truth and justice and the Left, the fine flower of American liberalism from Gloria Steinam to Jesse Jackson, that has defended Clinton through every evasion and lie.

Why did they support him? There was no threat of any right-wing coup against democracy as there was in France in 1899. If Clinton had been convicted he would have been replaced by Al Gore, who, if lacking in charisma, would, according to Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary, have been more methodical, reliable and pro-labour than Clinton. It is true that Clinton was a good personal friend to blacks and women, but he did nothing to stem the tide of reaction in the courts and legislatures against affirmative action. In fact, as Reich shows, Clinton largely pursued the free market Wall Street agenda, which was the same as the right-wing one – balanced budgets, social cuts and the end to welfare entitlement.

Clinton was also the source for much of Tony Blair’s programme – welfare to work, the emphasis on values rather than interests, spin control. Philip Gould, Blair’s electoral strategist, got most of his ideas about focus groups and the "swing voter" from the 1996 Clinton campaign. It is interesting to see how the same ideas play out differently in the two countries. America of course is a land of individuals where political parties do not exist in the British sense.

The Clintons made some very liberal friends in the sixties. They appointed one of them, Reich, as Labor Secretary. He set out to correct the glaring inequalities, notably wage decline, job insecurity and union victimisation, in American society. His campaign sparked great enthusiasm among departmental civil servants (which you would never see in Whitehall), in the AFL-CIO, whose leadership was passing to the radical John Sweeney, and among ordinary Americans, who can display amazing flashes of militancy when shown political leadership. Together with another maverick, the right-wing Presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, he brought to public consciousness the effects of corporate downsizing and re-engineering on wages and job security. For a few brief weeks, the time of Buchanan’s campaign, class became the main issue in American politics.

Reich’s ideas were naive. Like Clinton he believed nothing could be done about capitalist globalization and plant shutdowns. The magic solution, as for Blair, was skill training even though most Americans were overqualified for their jobs. He also naively thought that if only he could gain access to the President through Hillary or physical proximity, he could prevail against the corporate interests represented by the Texan Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen and the economics advisor from Goldman and Sachs, Robert Rubin.

Reich confirms Clinton’s talent for making everyone he meets feel special, until of course he moves on to embrace the next scoundrel. Everyone is a potential partner. Clinton is as promiscuous in his political life as he is in his private. Unlike Blair, who is a straight arrow in comparison, Clinton came into office without a project or even a direction. Like most Presidents, in the absence of a strong ideology or party structure, he became beholden to powerful business interests. This made it impossible for him to adopt Reich’s recommendations to denounce corporate welfare and increase funds for training and public infrastructure.

This also influenced Clinton’s electoral strategy. Fewer working-class Americans were voting; others voted Republican in disgust. Only a third of all Americans turned out for congressional elections. To win with Reich’s recommendations would have required a mass campaign of registration, political education and turnout, which is difficult without a party structure. It was so much easier to try to poach middle-class suburban voters from the Republicans by stealing their programme – expenditure cuts, an end to welfare. Thus was born with the aid of consultant Bill Morris the focus on the middle-class swing voter. Applying the same strategy to Britain, Gould and Blair gained one million middle-of-the-road votes while losing several million others through working-class abstentions.

Clinton’s strategy worked short-term in America. Battening on declining wages and job insecurity and inflated by a speculative boom on Wall Street, the American economy was on a roll, which Clinton did not want to disturb with disclosures about unequal rewards. Clinton turned to the right with his own plan for budget reduction, feeding the Republican sharks and carrying the liberal establishment with him. This was also Blair’s project, but he lacked an imperial economy and he had the Labour Party, in government and out, to contend with.

The Most Odious Man in Britain?

John Carvel, Turn Again Livingstone, Profile, 1999. Paperback, 328pp, Ł6.99.

Reviewed by Martin Sullivan

I CONFESS that I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Ken Livingstone. It goes back to the early 1980s when I used to attend rallies organised by the Workers Revolutionary Party, at which he was a regular guest speaker. In contrast to the apocalyptic rants of Gerry Healy, which of course formed the centrepiece of such events, Ken actually spoke like a normal human being and even cracked a few jokes. For this relief, much thanks, was my feeling.

John Carvel also has some sympathy for his subject, as is evident from this book, an update of his earlier Citizen Ken. So we are offered a balanced account of Ken’s rise to political fame, which gives a hearing to his right-wing Labour critics while avoiding demonising the man once described by the Sun (or was it Workers’ Liberty?) as the most odious man in Britain.

Is the book worth reading? Well, basically, this is the sort of thing you’ll like, if you like this sort of thing. For sectarians who regard the machinations of left reformists as a diversion from the class struggle, the book will be a crashing bore. As a confirmed liquidator into social democracy, I found it entertaining and informative.

Carvel’s account only reinforces my view that Livingstone is the one figure on the Labour left around whom a genuine mass movement, akin to Bevanism or Bennism, could coalesce. In this respect, Livingstone does represent a danger to the present political order, irrespective of criticisms socialists might have of his politics (and his position on the NATO bombing in the Balkans has been an utter disgrace).

The book ends by flagging up the idea, irresponsibly advocated by some sections of the left, that Livingstone should stand independently for London mayor if Millbank blocks his selection as Labour’s candidate. This would in reality present a gift to Blair, by removing a focus for discontent among the party membership and clearing out the left from the London Labour Party. Livingstone himself has repeatedly denied that he has any intention of standing against Labour. In this, at least, his political judgement is absolutely correct.

The Socialist Workers Party and the Legacy of John Maclean

Dave Sherry, John Maclean, Socialist Workers Party, 1998. Pamphlet, 59pp, Ł2.00.

Reviewed by Bob Pitt

IT IS A sad reflection on the state of left-wing publishing in Britain today that the 75th anniversary of the death of John Maclean arrived last November without a single full-scale biography of the great Scottish revolutionary still in print. This is particularly regrettable, given the current political importance of the national question in Scotland. Maclean’s demand for a Scottish Workers’ Republic obviously has important lessons for Marxists today – as, indeed, does his record as a revolutionary operating in a workers’ movement dominated by the reformist politics of the Labour Party – even if, in the opinion of this reviewer, they are largely negative lessons.

The publication of this pamphlet by Dave Sherry, a longtime Socialist Workers Party (SWP) member in Scotland, is therefore welcome. It has no pretensions to originality, but sets out to provide a summary of the main events of Maclean’s tragically short political career.

Most of Sherry’s account is unexceptional. It outlines Maclean’s recruitment to the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) around 1902, his emergence as an influential Marxist educator in Scotland, his mounting opposition to the chauvinistic leadership of the SDF (and its successor organisation the British Socialist Party – BSP) around H.M. Hyndman, and his heroic resistance to imperialist war in 1914-18 against a background of intense class struggle on Clydeside.

Even here, though, Sherry fails to ask any probing questions concerning Maclean’s early politics. After all, as Sherry himself points out, the SDF notoriously adopted a sectarian, propagandist and ultimatist approach towards the workers’ movement, as a result of which "Marx and Engels had little time for either Hyndman or his organisation" (p.13). To what extent did Maclean manage to overcome his training in this tradition? Sherry tells us only that the experience of the pre-1914 industrial unrest "helped him to break from the inherent sectarianism of his own organisation" (p.15). However, the sectarianism of the SDF did not consist solely or even primarily in a wrong attitude towards industrial action. It arose from a general failure to understand that the working class would arrive at socialist consciousness not by propaganda alone but through a series of experiences of actual struggles, industrial and political, in which Marxists were obliged to actively intervene in order to take the movement forward.

Where Sherry really comes unstuck is towards the end of the pamphlet, in dealing with those areas of Maclean’s theory and practice which have been the cause of such bitter disputes over the nature of his political legacy. Here Sherry’s reliance on a limited selection of secondary sources – his account is in fact largely dependent on Brian Ripley and John McHugh’s 1989 biography of Maclean – results in a failure to adequately address these, the most controversial, aspects of Maclean’s politics, a failure which is compounded by some glaring factual errors and omissions.

Sherry’s treatment of Maclean’s estrangement from the leadership of the BSP, and his effective expulsion from the party on the eve of its dissolution into the new CPGB, is particularly inadequate, in view of the SWP’s position that the formation of a section of the Communist International was a crucial episode in the history of the revolutionary movement in Britain.

Sherry explains the growing conflict between Maclean and the leadership of the BSP (which formed the main component of the CPGB at its foundation) on the grounds that, unlike Maclean, these leaders had not developed a real understanding of Bolshevism and that, consequently, Maclean "doubted whether they were capable of providing revolutionary leadership to the working class" (p.53).

In reality, Maclean’s initial conflict with the BSP leadership around Theodore Rothstein (who had ousted the Hyndman clique in 1916) arose out of the party’s adoption of Bolshevik-inspired united front tactics in the form of the Hands Off Russia campaign – an initiative which Maclean criticised because he believed it was a diversion from the task of summoning workers directly to revolutionary struggle. Unlike Rothstein and others, Maclean remained to a large extent trapped in the propagandist methods of the old SDF tradition and proved unable to adapt to the more flexible tactics promoted by the early Communist International. Sherry, uncritically repeating the analysis found in Ripley and McHugh’s book, fails to grasp this point.

These differences were not, though, the cause of Maclean’s breach with the BSP in 1920. The explanation lies in the mental instability brought on by his mistreatment during the prison sentences he received during the war as a result of his anti-imperialist agitation. Willie Gallacher’s repeated statements, then and later, that Maclean began to suffer from paranoid delusions, "seeing spies everywhere, suspecting everybody and anything" turns out to have been entirely true – which has not prevented those who have defended Gallacher on this point from being accused of providing "not a shred of real evidence to support their scurrilous accusations, only feeble assumptions to mask their own political inadequacies" (Jimmy McCarthy, writing on Maclean in Scottish Marxist Voice, No.7, 1998-9). Sherry, however, limits himself to telling us that Maclean was "especially hurt when individuals like Gallacher accused him of mental imbalance" (pp.53-4), without taking a position on this contentious issue.

Yet the course of events which led to Maclean’s break from the BSP is quite clear. It began in November 1919 when he shared a Hands Off Russia platform with Lieutenant-Colonel L’Estrange Malone, a Liberal MP who had become a sympathiser of the Bolshevik Revolution. Maclean became convinced that Malone was, as he put it, "an agent of the British state, soothing the socialists while Lloyd George was preparing a spring offensive against Russia". When Maclean was billed to speak alongside Malone at a big Hands Off Russia rally at the Albert Hall in February 1920, he refused to share a platform with this "agent".

A discussion with Rothstein, who offered him a paid job as a speaker for the Hands Off Russia campaign, only served to convince Maclean that Rothstein too was in the pay of the state. Gallacher recounts that Maclean returned from London proclaiming that Rothstein was a government agent. This is confirmed by a Special Branch report from March 1920: "A few days ago Maclean announced on a public platform that all the leading Communists in the country, mentioning them by name and including that of Theodore Rothstein, were police spies."

Sherry not only ignores this but also tells us, quite wrongly, that Maclean was excluded from the final conference of the BSP in April 1920 – a mistake which Sherry again owes to Ripley and McHugh, who themselves seem to have adopted it from Ray Challinor’s book The Origins of British Bolshevism. But Maclean’s presence at that conference is well-established – his daughter Nan Milton refers to it in her biography of Maclean, as does Maclean himself in his famous "Open Letter to Lenin".

The 1920 BSP conference is essential to an understanding of Maclean’s failure to join the CPGB, as it was here that his paranoid suspicions about state conspiracies came to a head. To quote another report by Special Branch:

"There was a curious incident at the Conference. John Maclean rose and made charges against the leaders of being police spies.... It was decided to hold a secret meeting of the Executive to investigate the charges. At this meeting Maclean argued quite temperately and with some superficial logic that the money received by Theodore Rothstein and Albert Inkpin was Government money; he cited incidents that could only be explained on this hypothesis, and he challenged them to produce evidence of the source of the money. In reply, Inkpin assured his hearers that every penny came directly or indirectly from the Soviet Government; that it came by secret couriers and that he handed it on to Theodore Rothstein.... The Executive of the British Socialist Party has warned Lenin of John Maclean’s mental state and in future the Soviet Government will not have relations with him...."

If Sherry had done some wider research, even into the available secondary sources, he would have been aware of this. Maclean’s intervention at the BSP conference is recounted in James D. Young’s book John Maclean: Clydeside Socialist and in even more detail in my own pamphlet John Maclean and the CPGB, neither of which Sherry seems to have read.

The conference that Maclean was excluded from was not the BSP’s but the Unity Congress of July-August 1920, which resulted in the foundation of the CPGB. Maclean claimed to have been delegated to the Unity Congress by the BSP’s Tradeston branch, but his credentials were rejected by the conference organisers, who refused to recognise the branch. Whatever the merits of their case, the likely explanation for his exclusion is their belief that he had no real intention of joining a party which he believed was run by state agents and funded by the Lloyd George government, and that he wanted to attend the congress only to repeat the paranoid accusations he had made a few months earlier at the BSP conference.

When he deals with Maclean’s adoption of the demand for a Scottish Workers’ Republic, Sherry’s reliance on Ripley and McHugh’s account puts him on stronger ground. He argues, in my view quite correctly, against the view expressed by Nan Milton and others that Maclean refused to join the CPGB because he was already convinced of the need for Scottish independence and a separate revolutionary party for Scotland. Sherry observes that "Maclean’s arguments with the leaders of the embryo CPGB were well under way before he ever considered the notion of a Scottish workers’ republic" (p.53). He also points out the elementary truth that Maclean was mistaken in trying to apply the lessons of the Irish liberation struggle to Scotland, where the national question did not have anything like the same sharp anti-imperialist character.

But even here Sherry’s careless attitude to basic facts undermines his argument. He tells us that Maclean first called for Scottish independence in 1921, "in the aftermath of a major defeat for the working-class movement" (p.55). In reality, Maclean first raised the slogan of a Scottish Communist Republic (later amended to "Workers’ Republic") in August 1920, at a time when the labour movement had launched a powerful – and successful – campaign to stop military intervention by the Lloyd George government against Russia in the Russo-Polish war. Maclean’s adoption of Scottish separatism is better explained by the fact that, having excluded himself from the formation of the CPGB and thus marginalised himself in relation to revolutionary politics at an all-British level, he turned pragmatically to the idea of an independent struggle for a workers’ state in Scotland, led by a specifically Scottish revolutionary party.

Sherry also ignores the ultra-left nature of Maclean’s politics in his final years. While this ultra-leftism may have had its roots partly in the sectarian, propagandist and ultimatist traditions of the SDF, it also demonstrated the increasing subjectivism and lack of political judgment which characterised Maclean’s approach during this closing phase of his career.

The August 1920 campaign against British intervention in the Russo-Polish war, referred to above, is a case in point. Whereas the newly-formed CPGB intervened vigorously in the more than 300 local Councils of Action that were established at the instigation of the TUC and Labour Party, Maclean rejected participation in the official campaign. "We Communists are the only ones who can lead society to Communism", he argued. "Therefore we must form a Communist Council of Action to assume the real power when the proper moment arrives." Maclean did hold a meeting in Glasgow in an attempt to launch a Council of Action along these lines, but it amounted to a small gathering of convinced revolutionaries and necessarily excluded the main political tendency in the Clydeside workers’ movement, the Independent Labour Party. Maclean obviously lacked any conception of the united front tactic, whereby revolutionaries engage in joint actions with reformists and are thus able to advance the interests of the movement as a whole while at the same time demonstrating in practice the superiority of Marxist political analysis and leadership.

By the time he launched the Scottish Workers Republican Party (SWRP) early in 1923, Maclean’s sectarianism was deeply embedded. He bitterly opposed the CPGB’s promotion of the united front in relation to the Labour Party, which in the early 1920s was developing a mass electoral base on Clydeside. Maclean concentrated on denouncing reformism, building a tiny revolutionary-nationalist sect, and standing no-hope candidates against Labour in elections. The character of his politics at the end of his life is indicated by the fact that the SWRP affiliated to the ultra-left "Fourth International" founded by the German KAPD, Sylvia Pankhurst’s group and other incurable sectarians. None of this gets a mention in Sherry’s account.

Understandably, Sherry wishes to inspire his readers by giving credit to the political career of courageous revolutionary, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, the tactics adopted by Maclean as a revolutionary intervening in an overwhelmingly reformist mass labour movement are never critically analysed. This is perhaps understandable, as a serious study of such issues would undoubtedly call into question the SWP’s own shallow approach to present-day socialist politics, which involves maintaining a largish independent quasi-revolutionary sect in circumstances where the great majority of class-conscious working people give their political allegiance to a party led by anti-socialist right-wingers.

Sherry’s pamphlet will hopefully introduce Maclean to a young generation of socialists, and in that respect it can serve a useful function. But its limitations underline the need for a new full-scale biography of this important political figure.