Labour's Modernisers Are Stuck in the Past

Labelling Corbynistas as "Trots" is a lazy way to ignore the Labour Party's deep, long standing problems.

by Sam Kriss
12 August 2016, 1:45pm

James Schneider of Momentum, pictured here in 1918

For a group of people that still like to refer to themselves as modernisers, the Labour right wing seems very invested in fighting very old battles. Faced with an enormous influx of new, young members who aren't old enough to remember the battles with Militant during Labour's last long period of opposition, but who are enthusiastic and committed to socialist principles, the Owen Smith camp's response has been to conjure up all the hobgoblins of the past.

Deputy leader Tom Watson has insisted that these new members are a mask behind which ancient gremlins leer, a front for the revenge fantasies of a few old Bolsheviks, that "there are old hands twisting young arms". Conspiracies are afoot. "They are caucusing and factionalising and putting pressure where they can", he said, "and that's how Trotsky entryists operate". Later he sent detailed proof of this sinister far-left infiltration to Jeremy Corbyn himself, which mostly consisted of excerpts from a book about Militant, detailing tactics the group is claimed to have used some 30 years ago. In the Guardian, John Harris used these accusations as a springboard for a nostalgic spin through his own fresh-faced 1980s, which is exactly like today. Meanwhile, in the Daily Mail, one Tom Utley shares his harrowing tale of accidentally walking into a pub with some young people in it, who he decides – based on a reporter's legendary gut instinct – are a bunch of fringe entryists who all think that the moon landings were a hoax. "Momentum activists", he notes, "tend to prefer the Communist Morning Star to the robust common sense of this newspaper." The Morning Star has a circulation of 10,000. Membership of Momentum may be up to ten times that.

For the people making this argument, Labour risks returning to the factional struggles and perennial skulking around the tattered fringes of power that dominated its experience of the 1980s. For those trying to debunk it – Jacobin magazine's Ronan Burtenshaw, for instance – we're back in the Red Scares of the 1950s; commies lurking under your furniture, putting fluoride in the water and strange, unpatriotic ideas in your children's heads. I can think of another parallel. Back in 2004, Labour's then-foreign secretary Jack Straw, among other things one of the chief architects of the Iraq War, wrote a letter to the Independent, furious at a column in which he had been described as an "old Trot". "I have been consistent," he wrote, "in my opposition to Trotskyism and the false consciousness it engenders. I was first taught to spot a Trot at 50 yards in 1965 by Mr. Bert Ramelson, Yorkshire industrial organiser of the Communist Party." He wasn't alone: Peter Mandelson, the Labour right's éminence grise, started out in the Young communist League; Blairite standby Alan Johnson was once loyal to the Soviet-aligned Communist Party of Great Britain.

If we're going to compare the current troubles in the Labour party to the struggles of the past, we may as well do it properly. These people presumably no longer consider themselves Communists, but if you start thinking of the Labour right as a gang of degenerated Stalinists this whole panic over Trotskyite infiltration starts to make a lot more sense. Who was the first to allege a grand Trot conspiracy? In the 1930s, the Soviet Union went through a series of traumatic purges. The ruling party had been set up to serve the interests of ordinary workers; Trotsky and his faction alleged that it had betrayed its own revolution. Whether or not this was true – as a material analysis it's a little shaky – his faction became the cynosure for the resulting spasms of state-sponsored paranoia. Everything that went wrong was judged to be the work of a shadowy cabal of Trotskyite wreckers and infiltrators, people who pretended to be loyal to the Communist project but who were really in the service of outside interests. There were lengthy court judgements and grand expulsions of the party's membership. And all of this served to enforce the understanding that any of the actual problems in the country somehow didn't count – it was all the work of the infiltrators, and everything will be fine once they're gone; these problems aren't systemic, it's just a few die-hards ruining it for the rest of us.

Labour's current panic over Bolsheviks in its bed does the exact same thing. Rather than admitting that the party has had serious problems for its last two decades, that it's progressively alienated itself from its voters to the point that its grandees think a blob of humanoid margarine like Owen Smith is what ought to be running the country, the new Trot scare makes the problem go away: the people making this critique are wreckers and infiltrators, they don't count. It doesn't matter how many hundreds of thousands of people support Corbyn's (frankly) middle-of-the-road social democracy – if you can call them all Trots, they have a shadowy vested interest, they're an organised cabal, they no longer count. Labour claims to want energised, passionate members, but they can't ever be too energised or too passionate; as soon as they are, they suddenly transmutate into Trots and no longer count.

All this is obviously nonsense – as many have pointed out, the only people on the activist left who haven't been joining the Labour party in droves are the doctrinaire revolutionary Marxists, people who see the party as structurally corrupt and not worth saving. (They might not be wrong.) Momentum is significantly larger than all Communist parties in the UK combined – and even if the far-left had managed to gain enough support to suddenly take over the biggest party in the country, maybe that should be taken as a sign that these people might have a message worth listening to. For the right wing of the party, whose brief Stalinism has long ago faded into an instinctive, lizard-brain reaction, this is a horrifying prospect. This is what it means to be out of touch: Watson and his cronies see a left-wing politics rising out off the urgencies of the present, and they don't know how to deal with it. Far better to retreat into the past, to clothe any new movements in the tattered draperies of long-ago battles, to pretend that all struggles have already been fought and won, and to insist from your perch in the mouldering depths of history that anyone who disagrees with you is definitely a Trot.


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