One of the late Tony Cliff’s more endearing features was his indomitable optimism. In particular, Cliff couldn’t possibly see a crisis in some other political tendency without suffering visions of getting member-rich quick at somebody else’s expense. It happened during the split in Militant, when Cliff entertained the possibility that the Taaffe faction, or a substantial part thereof, would admit that Cliff had been right after all about the Labour Party and would therefore join the SWP. Truth be told, there was never much chance of that. From time to time, he also thought a chunk of the Labour left would head our way. I draw your attention to the period after Mr Tony Blair’s elevation to the leadership, when Socialist Worker ran a “Leave the Labour Party” campaign, featuring weekly interviews with divers people on “Why I’ve left the Labour Party”. The trouble was, the collapse of the Labour left was a generational collapse, and these folks in their vast majority left the Labour Party and went home. On occasion they went directly to the retirement home.
What I was thinking of in this instance was the long slow death of the CPGB (the real one, not the Weekly Worker) back in the 1980s. Cliff reckoned that following the Soviet collapse he could fish in this pool. Possibly, but he got it all wrong. For one thing, although CP comrades would have been looking for answers about what went wrong in Russia, to take a line of “The Soviet Union has collapsed! Fuck yeah!” was maybe not the right tone. (I paraphrase of course, but the exaggeration is only slight.) The other big problem was that Cliff started approvingly quoting Professor Hobsbawm and Nina Temple, which was not a tactic guaranteed to win friends and influence people in the better parts of the CP milieu.
One problem, I suppose, is that the Eurocomms successfully framed the argument as one between dinosaur Stalinists and critical Marxists. They were helped along by some disingenuous quoting of Gramsci, and by genuine dinosaurs like Rothstein and Page Arnot surfacing to berate the young whippersnapper Hobsbawm. But there were ironies in this, as the “Stalinists” were fighting the battle for party democracy while it was the Euros who were running a draconian purge regime. Actually, not all that ironic, as the tankies generally had much better material, sociologically and, yes, ideologically. For all their deficiencies, they had some concept of class struggle politics and commitment to building a Marxist-Leninist party. The Euros didn’t. They were already well on their way to becoming a Kinnockite ginger group, and sociologically they were very similar to the black, gay and feminist entrepreneurs who a few years earlier had passed through the SWP on their way to sinecures in the GLC or Channel 4. Cliff should have had some idea that the likes of Temple, Jacques and Aaro (so light, so fluffy) were not the most promising material, but then hope springs eternal. Just not always in the right place.
One other thing that fed into this is the strong idealist streak in Trotskyism. Although supposedly we’re materialists, the Trots are often very reluctant to apply materialism to judging political tendencies. They like to judge (both others and themselves) not on their actions but on their formal ideological positions, their heresies and deviations in particular. Just look at the CPB/Morning Star and its Hibernian oppo, the CPI. If you didn’t know about their heritage, would they be recognisable as Stalinist parties in the classic sense? Don’t they look rather more like small left-Labour parties? Meanwhile, as Al Richardson pointed out, there are Trot groups that show remarkable affinities to anarcho-syndicalism, to social democracy and to Stalinism (of both Third Period and Pop Front varieties), more so than to the actual stances of Trotsky and the Left Opposition. (One classic counterfactual is why the Trots don’t like to refer to the economic programme of the Left Opposition. Possibly because it looks uncomfortably similar to that of the Chinese Communist Party.)
Yes, it’s one of those things that shouldn’t really surprise materialists, that people’s professed programmes – even those they sincerely believe in – are not always in accordance with their functional programmes. The old New Left Review, perhaps because of its divorce from practice, used to be a case study in this sort of thing. Perry said he was a Trotskyist, but he looked more like a Eurocomm to me. Norm used to say he was a Luxemburgist, but behind Norm’s praise of Luxemburgist spontaneity was an extremely elitist Marxism that’s been carried over into Norm’s Decent period. Very much like the pseudo-spontaneism of CLR James, although CLR was infinitely more attractive a guru than Norm.
It should be a basic materialist premise. You look at what the left does and then look at the dissonance with what it says. Strauss on Machiavelli doesn’t even begin to touch it.