With Jeremy Corbyn recently ejected from the Labour leadership, and his squadron of preferred advisors going with him, the influence of the so-called “hard left” of the Labour Party is in question again. The most recognizable face of the hard-left is Momentum, which now exists as a confusing constellation of vaguely related groups, all claiming to be true to its founding purpose, and all absolutely certain that their small fringe organisation will be the one to unite the British left. However, in the last half-decade or so, a former key ingredient to the sectarian goulash of British leftism has gone quiet; the Trotskyist.
If you’re British, and particularly if you’re British and left wing, you’re probably passively aware of Trotskyists in some way, be it through newspaper-related memes or through Life of Brian. If you’re slightly older you may even remember Militant or the SWP back in their hey-day, or seeing detachments of newspaper purveying comrades at the roadside at most major protests of the last forty years. At 18, I was distinctly unaware of these things, so when I was invited to join a Trotskyist group through a university society, I didn’t really understand what I was doing.
Since the fateful day at secondary school when a teacher recommended I read the library copy of the Communist Manifesto I had considered myself something of a lefty. I joined the Labour Party at fifteen, but had never really been involved. This made me a perfect mark for recruitment; I had strong beliefs, but I was new to political activism. I was given regular reading material by the organisation, I spent much of my first year of university tearing through Marxist classics at a feverish rate, convinced that if I understood the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky well enough, I could eventually help push Britain down the red bricked road to revolution.
Every weekend of a long and cold winter I spent my Saturdays shivering by the side of the main road in my university town, offering passers-by the most recent revolutionary analysis of British politics. More often than not people didn’t care, or at best, treated me how they treat a proselytiser who’s come knocking during the football, and yet we struggled on.
The organisation of which I was a part still practiced the lost art of entryism in the Labour Party, which had more or less been abandoned by the far left since the inglorious collapse of Militant in the early nineties. So this organisation managed to get me more involved with local Labour politics, but the first Party meeting I attended with this group was definitely not a highlight of my political life.
In prior meetings, we spoke about the antisemitism crisis within the Labour Party, something I knew very little about at the time. With the help of “full time socialist revolutionaries” from the organisation’s leadership, I was taught that any complaint about antisemitism in Labour was by definition false, and surely a “right-wing coup”, or the fictions of Blairites who would make up anything they could to discredit the new left-wing direction of the Party.
At the Labour Party meeting in question I seconded a motion supporting the reinstatement of a certain MP expelled from the Party for (what I now understand to be) highly problematic comments regarding Labour’s response to antisemitism in its ranks. I gave a fiery and offensive speech in support of this, accusing other Party members of not being true in their commitment to socialism if they did not agree. I was, quite rightly I now realise, met with outrage at my speech, and on the way out of the meeting, I tried to make small talk with a local councillor, for whom I have great respect and infinite time. He refused to speak to me because of what I had said. Ever since actually looking into the issue in question, I have bitterly and sincerely regretted the events of that meeting.
The hostility I received from the wider Labour movement did not discourage me, so I carried on much the same, which eventually led me to a national conference. I was attending as a delegate from my local branch of the organisation. I met characters who were no doubt sincere in, and motivated by their beliefs, however odd I found them. For an organisation nominally organized in accordance with the ideas of “democratic centralism”, the conduct of the conference did not strike me as particularly democratic.
On almost every vote into organisational positions, the organisation leadership’s preferred candidate was approved, usually unanimously. When voting on amendments to documents, the leadership gave their recommendation on whether delegates should vote for or against them. The position of the leadership was always approved, with some who wrote amendments even later deferring to the whim of the leadership and recommending voting with their line instead. By the end of some days I would abstain on most votes just to break the monotony. This situation did little to help my rapidly degenerating opinion of this “revolutionary organisation” to which I had dedicated so much of my time, and the political conversations I had there were little help either. I distinctly recall a moment, towards the end of the conference weekend, when, during some theory-heavy small talk, a comrade explained to me that such a thing as black holes actually could not exist, as the dialectic could not explain them. As he referred me to some obscure text by Engels which he thought would illustrate his point, I reinserted my headphones and tried to purge this information from my mind, for fear that even the laws of physics were in fact capitalist falsehoods.
Trotskyists have seldom exerted influence on the mainstream Labour movement in Britain. It would be fair to refer to them as sects, rather than parties. Their purpose is to maintain and reproduce a rigid interpretation of politics, not to gain power. It is in this characteristic that the accusations of cult like behaviour originate. Trotksyist ideology, and most old-fashioned leftism which clings to doctrine for that matter, contain within themselves the mechanisms to negate any criticism. Anyone who’s had the dubious pleasure of membership of a far-left organisation in Britain will be aware of the extensive lexicon for decrying criticism, even from others on the left. A certain idea may be “Kautskyite” if it is too critical of the Bolsheviks, or may be too “reformist” if it acknowledges that in the first world power comes mainly through the ballot box, and so on.
It is this which leads British Trotskyist groups nowadays to paint vast swathes of the Labour Party as “Blairites” or “right wing”, despite the fact that even the rightmost fringes of the party are mainly centrist, and true Blairites have been a dying breed for quite some time now. This, along with their belief in vanguardism, leads to a climate where members are taught to be suspicious of the opinions and intentions of anybody in the movement who isn’t obviously on board with Trotkyist ideas.
Strangely enough, the final chapter in my own hot and cold romance with Trotskyism was written while I was on holiday on the other side of the world. While visiting a friend in Australia during my first Easter holidays of university, we noticed that a conference of Marxist ideas was being held nearby while I was in the country. As I was with a friend who shared my interest, we decided to attend, and that I would write about the event for the website of my organisation at home.
I interviewed officials who had helped organize the conference, and a local left-wing sociologist, hoping to relay the latest goings on of Australian socialism to a British audience. Once I was back in my own hemisphere, article in hand, I gave it to the relevant committee member. Not long after this, I had to defend my article over the phone to a member of the organisation’s leadership. I was told my article was unfit for publication, and that I would have to rewrite it explicitly to be critical of specific aspects of the ideology of the organisation that hosted the conference. The idea of writing a brutal ideological takedown about people who I had met and liked did not sit well with me. I refused this task, consigned my article to a dark corner of my hard drive, and promptly decided I had had enough of the insular world of Trotskyism, and left the organisation shortly after.
Overall, despite the stress and headaches my time as a Trot caused me, it was, kind of like a catastrophic election defeat, an educational political experience; just not one that I would recommend. It taught me the value of self-criticism in politics, and of scepticism towards any view of the world that claims to be all-encompassing. Now that nationalisation of natural monopolies, higher maximum rates of income tax, and a certain level of wealth redistribution, are pretty much accepted as Labour policy in the Party and the country, we might expect Trotskyists and the hard-left to slowly fade out, but I doubt they will fade completely. They will find some way to persist and maintain the expression of their view, as long as there are people willing to join up and help them do it. In the same way the Communists of the West fell into a period of death spasm, and then brief reincarnation post-1991, the “hard left” will survive the end of the era of Corbyn. If you’re thinking about involvement on these corners of the left, save yourself some hassle, money and time, and just compile a left-wing lockdown reading list instead.