Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 13, 2020

Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance

Filed under: cops/agent provocateurs,Great Britain,Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 10:39 pm

Ernie Tate, putting undercover cops in the witness stand

A few weeks ago, my old friend and comrade Ernie Tate sent me a link to an article titled “Shag another” by Katrina Forrester that appeared in the November 7, 2013 London Review of Books. Since it is behind a paywall, I will include the article below.

Forrester reviews a book titled “Undercover: The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police” by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis. Ironically, the undercover cops belonged to a unit called SDS. In this case, it wasn’t Students for a Democratic Society but the Special Demonstration Squad that was charged with the duty of infiltrating the British left that, unlike the American SDS, was deeply involved in mass actions against the war.

Maybe it would be better to say that the British left was a hybrid of our SDS and the Vietnam antiwar coalitions that the SWP helped build. They combined a focus on immediate withdrawal but was not averse to the kind of street-fighting that Tariq Ali celebrated in his pretty good memoir “Street Fighting Man”.

Forrester’s article beings:

The Grosvenor Square demonstration against the Vietnam War in March 1968 caught the Metropolitan Police by surprise. After a rally in Trafalgar Square and a march to the US Embassy, the protest turned into a street battle; stones, smoke bombs and firecrackers were thrown, and mounted police charged the crowd. More than two hundred protesters were arrested. In the months that followed, alarm seemed to grip the police, who felt they were on the back foot. Special Branch – the covert unit of the Met which gathered intelligence on perceived state-subversives – began sending weekly reports to the Home Office predicting what protesters would do next. In one report, a Special Branch chief inspector, Conrad Hepworth Dixon, claimed that the city faced the threat of demonstrators carrying ‘ball-bearings, fireworks, hat pins and banner poles for use as weapons’.

To get intelligence on such demonstrations and on the left in general, Dixon established a squad of ten SDS officers that would go into deep undercover over a period of years. Unlike FBI agents in the USA operated under Cointelpro, the cops would become deeply embedded in the milieu they were penetrating even to the point of developing long-term relationships with the women activists. The authors’ primary source is former undercover agent Peter Francis, who spied on minor anti-fascist and anti-racist groups in North London in the early 1990s. While undercover, he lived alone in Highbury, drove a van and got a day job working in a school for children with special needs. Hard to imagine an FBI agent going to such lengths. When I was in the Houston branch of the SWP, there were a couple of guys who struck me as being on the FBI payroll but hardly amounted to undercover agents. They just sat there at branch meetings, saying nothing.

The only FBI agent who immersed himself totally in party life was a railroad worker named Ed Heisler who ended up on the National Committee. He was our Malinovsky, so to speak.

Currently, there has been a tribunal to investigate the British spying operation convened as the Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance (COPS). Ernie sent me links to two of their weekly reports, one dated November 5th and the other dated November 12th. The November 12th release included testimony from Ernie and from Tariq Ali, who were two of the leaders of the British antiwar movement and members of the International Marxist Group, the British section of the Fourth International.

Look for Ernie’s statement that begins:

Tate was born in Belfast in 1934. He emigrated to Canada at the age of 21 and worked in mechanical engineering.

Politically active all his life, Tate has written a memoir of his activism in the 1950s and 1960s, relating to his time in the International Group (a section of the Fourth International, as founded by Leon Trotsky in 1938) which, in Britain, became in the International Marxist Group (IMG).

Tate was in Britain for almost five years between 1965 and 1969, and in that time was heavily involved in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC), which was set up in 1966.

Returning to Canada in 1969, he became involved in the trade unions and for many years was Chief Steward and Vice President of a major local of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. He is now retired, and living in Toronto.

London Review of Books, Vol. 35 No. 21, 7 November 2013
Shag another
By Katrina Forrester

Undercover: The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police
by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis.
Faber and Guardian Books, 346 pp., £12.99, June 2013, 978 0 571 30217 8

The Grosvenor Square demonstration against the Vietnam War in March 1968 caught the Metropolitan Police by surprise. After a rally in Trafalgar Square and a march to the US Embassy, the protest turned into a street battle; stones, smoke bombs and firecrackers were thrown, and mounted police charged the crowd. More than two hundred protesters were arrested. In the months that followed, alarm seemed to grip the police, who felt they were on the back foot. Special Branch – the covert unit of the Met which gathered intelligence on perceived state-subversives – began sending weekly reports to the Home Office predicting what protesters would do next. In one report, a Special Branch chief inspector, Conrad Hepworth Dixon, claimed that the city faced the threat of demonstrators carrying ‘ball-bearings, fireworks, hat pins and banner poles for use as weapons’. Ministers considered deploying the army. Senior police officers assured the government they were in control, but it was clear that a radical change in tactics was needed. Dixon proposed the formation of a new covert unit called the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), which would operate differently from previous undercover police, who infiltrated criminal gangs with the aim of making targeted arrests within a few weeks. Instead, a squad of ten SDS officers, drawn from the ranks of Special Branch and borrowing strategies from MI5, would go deep undercover over a period of years, with the sole aim of gathering intelligence on the activities of political groups. The idea was to prevent outbreaks of disorder like the one in Grosvenor Square, and to catch anyone intent on ‘engineering a breakdown of our present system of government’. Harold Wilson’s government approved Dixon’s plan and agreed to fund the SDS directly from the Treasury.

Just as the state overestimated the threat of disorder after Grosvenor Square (the next demonstration, on 27 October, was an anti-climax), it continued to overplay the dangers of dissent in subsequent decades. Over the years, the remit of Special Branch and the SDS expanded along with the definition of ‘subversives’. In 1963 the term was used to describe individuals who ‘would contemplate the overthrow of government by unlawful means’; by the 1970s, it referred to anyone whose actions would ‘threaten the safety or wellbeing of the state, and are intended to undermine or overthrow parliamentary democracy by political, industrial or violent means’. Special Branch had long concerned itself with counter-espionage, the ‘communist threat’ and the IRA. The focus of the SDS was more specifically on public order policing, and its list of targets was long: socialists, anarchists, environmentalists, animal rights groups, anti-Nazi, anti-racist and anti-apartheid campaigners, Labour Party activists. A report on the policing of protest issued by the Inspectorate of Constabulary in 2012 stated that the point of undercover intelligence is to differentiate between those ‘intent on causing crime and disruption’ and those ‘who wish to protest peacefully’. But by exaggerating the threat of the former, the state justifies constant surveillance of the latter. The implications have long been recognised, even at the highest levels of official oversight. It is now nearly thirty years since a Home Affairs Committee reported that Special Branch had acquired a ‘sinister reputation’. ‘Accountable to no one’, it represented ‘a threat to civil liberties’.

The workings of the SDS, which became known as ‘The 27 Club’ after the date it was founded, were until very recently well concealed. It operated on a ‘need to know’ basis: intelligence gathered by its officers would be distributed to other police departments but they would not know how the intelligence was obtained. It had few rules and little oversight; quite how little is still unclear. Until it was shut down in 2008, it deployed only ten officers at any one time. Its replacement, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit, founded in 1999, had more like seventy. In October 2010, a group of activists announced on the alternative news site Indymedia that Mark Kennedy, an undercover officer working with the NPOIU, had infiltrated them. Since then, a good deal of detail about the tactics of the NPOIU and SDS, the double lives its officers led and the people they exploited and betrayed, has been brought to light. The official police response has been to stress that the majority of undercover officers did and continue to do their job well, providing intelligence that allows the state to monitor subversives. The fault, they claim, lies with a number of rogue officers.

In Undercover, Rob Evans and Paul Lewis draw on the testimonies of activists and whistleblowers to chart the history of secret policing. Their prize source is the former undercover officer Peter Francis, who spied on minor anti-fascist and anti-racist groups in North London in the early 1990s before infiltrating his target group, Anti-Fascist Action. While undercover, he lived alone in Highbury, drove a van and got a day job working in a school for children with special needs. (His new friends thought he was the school handyman, which fitted with his tough-guy persona, but in reality he volunteered at the school in exchange for free ‘dyslexia lessons’, though he wasn’t dyslexic.) He spent the rest of his time gathering intelligence on anti-racist groups. Spying on campaigners across Europe, he became so good at his job that he even caught out an unconvincing MI5 agent. It is thanks to Francis – who initially gave interviews to Evans and Lewis as an anonymous whistleblower, but has since revealed his identity – that the way the SDS operated is now known in some detail.

An officer would begin his or her deployment (one woman, Lynn Watson, is known to have been a police spy) by borrowing the identity of a dead child, a routine called the ‘jackal run’ after Frederick Forsyth’s novel, in which the assassin does just that. The trick was to find a child born around the same time, with the same first name as the officer, so that he could carry on using it. The idea was to make his real identity harder to track. He would go to the place the child was born, explore the area, learn the street names, get to know the local attractions and bus routes – usually, he would also visit the child’s grave. In SDS slang, he was creating his ‘legend’. A good legend would account for every aspect of the character’s story and personality, and would make it possible for a spy to be a ‘deep swimmer’ rather than a ‘shallow paddler’. Francis’s legend included an abusive, alcoholic father to explain why he could fight so well, and a mother dying of cancer abroad to explain his trips to visit his actual family (undercover for years at a time, officers couldn’t go home regularly). When an officer had prepared his legend, he exchanged his warrant cards for identity papers – driving licence, birth certificate, passport, even a fake criminal record on the police database, where the role required it. Once in the field, handlers aside, they were on their own. The unofficial SDS motto was ‘By Any Means Necessary’. Twice a week they would meet the other SDS officers in a safehouse, where they remained in character, exchanging stories, smoking roll-ups, drinking cans of lager.

Of all the undercover police whose secret lives have been exposed, none lived up to the SDS motto quite so completely as Bob Lambert. Francis refers to Lambert’s as the ‘best SDS tour of duty ever’. He was famous within SDS ranks long before the details of his tour were made public – by the activists whose lives Lambert temporarily shared. Known to them as Mark (‘Bob’) Robinson, he went undercover in 1983. He got a girlfriend, went to Glastonbury and became involved in the squatting and free party scene, campaigning with animal rights groups and London Greenpeace. He had a hand in writing the leaflet that formed the basis of the McLibel case in the 1990s, produced propaganda for the Animal Liberation Front and is alleged to have been one of three activists who planted incendiary devices at branches of Debenhams in Luton, Romford and Harrow in 1987. The plan was to place the devices during the day, timed so that they would go off in the middle of the night, causing just enough of a fire to set off the sprinklers, flood the stores and ruin the fur stocks. In the event, rather more damage was caused to the stores in Luton and Harrow than they intended. The other two men were convicted of arson and given custodial sentences; Lambert mysteriously walked away. Special Branch officers have said that Lambert must have acted alone; that even if the allegations are true, it is inconceivable that he had permission to do what he did. Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act of 2000, covert policing requires advance authorisation from senior officers. In the 1980s the rules were more vague. SDS officers commonly sought ‘retrospective authorisation’ for crimes committed in the field – usually trespass, criminal damage or a breach of the Public Order Act. Arson is a different matter. It’s hard to believe that such a serious crime could have been authorised, retrospectively or otherwise. But it’s harder still to believe that Lambert’s actions were unknown to senior officers, his handler at the very least.

Lambert led two lives. In one, he was a policeman with a wife and children in suburban Herefordshire. In the other, he was an activist in London involved in multiple long-term sexual relationships. Lambert met Charlotte in the first year of his deployment; their relationship gave him the cover he needed to gain the trust of his target groups. When their child was born in 1985, Lambert was there at the hospital, seemingly awed by the birth of his ‘first’. He disappeared when it was time to sign the birth register. The new parents made numerous appointments to visit the registrar’s office together. Each time Lambert let Charlotte down. Charlotte put it down to his radical politics: he’d said that he didn’t think people should own each other. By 1987, when Lambert was reaching the end of his stint, he began to engineer problems with their relationship: there wasn’t a lot of money (Charlotte had taken work, allowing Lambert to ‘dedicate his time to politics’, but it wasn’t enough) and he became distant. Complaining that they weren’t having enough sex, Lambert looked elsewhere; in all, he had four sexual relationships while undercover. In May 1987, just before the Debenhams action, he met Karen.

It was standard SDS practice for officers to begin by infiltrating less radical groups in order to get to their real targets. Charlotte was Lambert’s way in. But Karen wasn’t an activist, and she gave him no access to intelligence. His purpose with her was different. It appears that splitting his time between the two women was part of Lambert’s exit strategy: feigning fears that the police were catching up with him after the firebombing, he told both of them that he had to flee to Spain, and that they could join him there. And then he vanished. Charlotte searched for him for years, enlisting the help of social services and the Child Support Agency. All the while he was working in his new job as the SDS’s spymaster, in an office just a few miles away from the child he abandoned. Whoever promoted Lambert apparently didn’t think he had broken the rules. Instead, his time in the field was treated as a model for others to follow; he took on the job of monitoring future officers and made sure they did as he would have done. Since leaving the police in 2008, he has been teaching terrorism studies at St Andrews and has become known as a campaigner against racism and Islamophobia. It is a strikingly public life for a man with so much to hide.

The experiences of Karen and Charlotte were not exceptional. Of the ten undercover operatives identified so far, nine had sex with their targets. Helen Steel, one of the activists sued by McDonald’s for the pamphlet cowritten by Lambert, discovered after ten years searching for her ex-partner John Dines that he was not the man she thought he was. Steel found the death certificate of the child whose identity Dines had stolen, discovered that he was married and that he had been a police officer. The SDS monitored the search and, worried that Steel was getting too close, relocated Dines to New Zealand. Perhaps the most disturbing story is that of Laura, whose partner, Jim Boyling, infiltrated the environmental movement in the 1990s. When he disappeared, she believed he had gone to South Africa, and followed him there. The fruitless search drained her savings and affected her health. Back in London and weighing less than seven stone, she spent the next few months in and out of hostels. Thanks to Boyling’s inability to let her go entirely (he kept in occasional contact with her by email) she was eventually able to track him down. After a series of confessions and promises – that he would leave the police, that they would have a new life – she stayed with him. Boyling persuaded her to cut ties with her activist friends and made her change her name by deed poll. They had two children and got married, but in 2007 Laura left him and went to a women’s refuge.

Lambert wasn’t the first officer to advocate ‘using the tool of sex to maintain your cover’, or the first to father a child in the field (at least one other SDS officer did so in the early 1980s; like Lambert, he was later promoted). But Lambert’s strategies proved especially influential. Since the SDS had no field manual, officers looked to success stories like Lambert’s for tactical tips. Peter Francis remembers his advice. How should a new undercover cop gain the trust of the group? Find a woman. How should he stop a woman getting attached, interfering with his work or blowing his cover? ‘Shag somebody else … It’s amazing how women don’t like you going to bed with someone else.’ How should he end his deployment? Shag another. Just remember always to use a condom.

Boyling seems to have taken the advice to heart. He told Laura that having sex with activists was a ‘necessary tool’, and besides, undercover police had ‘needs’ too. The rhetoric of necessity runs through all the justifications offered for undercover policing, which, on this view, is the defence of national security by other means. In practice, the ‘necessity’ here is not only state security, but what it takes to maintain a role. In June 2012, the minister for policing and criminal justice, Nick Herbert, justified undercover officers’ use of sex by arguing that ‘to ban such actions would provide a ready-made test for the targeted criminal group to find out whether an undercover officer was deployed among them.’ The targets are so dangerous, it seems, that anything and everything may be permitted in order to keep the mask in place. Yet, to take just one consequence of this way of thinking, if the individuals under surveillance are dangerous, and perhaps liable to retaliate should the officer be exposed, doesn’t an officer’s use of a dead child’s identity put the child’s family at risk? If it doesn’t, it is because so little threat is posed by the vast majority of the targets: the rhetoric of necessity is used to cloak the essential triviality of the whole endeavour.

There are psychological costs to leading a double life. Francis estimates that of the ten officers on the team during his time in the SDS, six sought help after their deployment was over. Mark Kennedy is only the most recent officer who had a hard time ‘coming off’. At the end of his deployment, he became a corporate spy, maybe because he couldn’t face leaving his other life. He had refused to leave on previous occasions. In 2006, when he was beaten up by the police at a protest, he was ordered to return to his real wife and children to rest; he refused, texting his handler to say he was ‘going to stay here for the time being, where people are actually going to take care of me’. Another officer, Mike Chitty, kept hold of a fake ID after his tour of duty ended, and by using it to renew his driving licence and passport, continued to lead a double life as both an activist and a spy for more than two years. He even asked an activist to marry him; how he thought that would work out is unclear. Rogue behaviour was not exceptional; some went native, refusing to come out of the field altogether. Duplicity had all sorts of consequences. Francis recalls infiltrating an anti-fascist gathering in Germany. Activists there slept in communal tents, so Francis kept himself awake all night for a whole week. Sleep was a risk: you might mumble something about your other life. Another officer found returning to normal life so difficult he ended up at relationship counselling twice – once with his real wife, once with his activist partner. Kennedy became obsessed with biomechanical body art: a tattoo was etched into his forearm that depicted his skin peeled back to reveal mechanical levers.

Not all the officers kept quiet about their grievances. Chitty was one. Unable to deal with his feelings of guilt at having betrayed the activists he infiltrated and facing disciplinary action for refusing to leave the field, he wrote a letter to Paul Condon, then commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, complaining about his mistreatment and threatening to go public about the whole operation. The threat was taken seriously, especially by the officer overseeing Chitty’s decline, Bob Lambert, who appears to have been more worried about the danger of publicity than anything else. In the report on Chitty’s case, Lambert claimed that going public would put officers and their families in danger – they should ‘expect at “the very least” postal bombs at their homes’. Chitty was persuaded not to go public; he began legal action, but settled out of court. Others were threatened with prosecution under the Official Secrets Act; Francis only went to the press after a long series of threats and counter-threats.

Only now that the activities of the SDS have been made public have the police been forced to consider changing the culture of undercover policing. The internal police reports produced in the aftermath of the Kennedy scandal have focused on the level of support given to officers. Their recommendations amount to a suggestion that officers should be better at drawing the line between their real identity and their activist personae. But success in the field often depends on blurring that line. From the outset, SDS officers were told not to feel ‘bound by their rank’ when discussing operations, and were expected to ‘approach problems in a creative way, eschewing the obedient, plodding mindset of a bobby’. They were meant to become precisely the sort of people who go rogue, to occupy their roles to such an extent that, as Francis puts it, ‘I could only just about find myself afterwards.’

It isn’t only the line between the officer and his persona that is deliberately blurred in this sort of operation; so is the distinction between the interests of the state and those of the police. The murder of Stephen Lawrence by a racist gang in 1993, and the subsequent failure to bring the killers to trial, produced a rise in anti-racist activism. The campaign for justice for Lawrence was soon joined by others against police corruption and brutality, and on behalf of families seeking justice for loved ones killed in police custody. The police, Francis recalls, began to have nervous ‘visions of Rodney King’. There was ‘huge pressure from the commissioner downwards’ to gather intelligence on the Lawrence campaign. In an attempt to protect themselves from charges of institutional racism and corruption, the police used dirty tricks to discredit the campaign, smearing Lawrence’s family and his friend Duwayne Brooks, who witnessed the murder. Francis admits inserting ‘total conjecture’ about the family into his reports. His crowning moment came when he successfully predicted clashes between protesters and police at Welling in South-East London in 1993. That earned the SDS a personal visit and a bottle of whisky from Paul Condon, which doesn’t do much to support the contention that the SDS was a rogue force whose actions were unknown to their superiors.

Francis was pulled out of the field in 1997, when the anti-racist movement was at its height, but found it hard to get out of role: ‘I had spent years hating the police and then suddenly I was one of them again. I just couldn’t deal with it … I had real sympathy for the “black justice” campaigns. I also witnessed numerous acts of appalling police brutality on protesters. I genuinely became anti-police.’ He couldn’t help but see his uniformed colleagues differently: ‘It was the simple reality that they were repeatedly in the wrong.’

Once the Macpherson Inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence was set up in 1998, Francis felt it was time for the SDS to admit it had been spying on the black justice campaigns. He wanted his bosses to disclose details of his own deployment in the anti-racist movement. They refused, and instead sent Special Branch officers to the inquiry to monitor proceedings and gather intelligence. Now that Francis has spoken out, the official police response has been to condemn the cover-up and to promise that if the allegations of a plot to smear the Lawrences are true, there will be a public apology. There has been no acknowledgment – presumably there never will be – of the simple truth at the heart of it all: that although the police claim to have done what they did in defence of the state, they were, in the end, just defending themselves.

Who now should bring the police to account? In a recent book about how to monitor the secret-keeping arms of the state, Rahul Sagar has argued that the traditional forms of institutional oversight don’t work, and that whistleblowing is the best mechanism of accountability available.* Institutions are always at risk of being captured by special interests, but whistleblowers can be relied on to call out officials when they abuse state secrecy. Whistleblowers, Sagar believes, should be judged according to their intentions: they must make their disclosures openly, so that the public can decide whether they are acting in a disinterested, non-partisan way – in ‘good faith’. This is an argument that tends to work in the interests of the state: it is far easier for the US government to tar individuals – Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden – than it is to win the argument about state secrecy and the NSA. In any case, focusing on intentions is a distraction. Who cares if whistleblowers act in good faith? Francis’s motivations for coming forward are no doubt complicated: what matters is the story he has to tell. His evidence supports the claims made by the women who were used by police spies and who are currently taking legal action against the Met.

But even if they are successful in these actions, what chance is there that we will see significant reform of policing practices? The police will continue to argue that the SDS operations belong in the past, and that responsibility for them lies with a once (but no longer) institutionally racist police force. The NPOIU has made a similar attempt to distance itself from its now defunct parent squad, even though it has committed and concealed the same offences. Sagar isn’t wrong: the recent reviews of political policing that promise higher authorisation, more internal oversight and better exit plans for undercover officers read more like an attempt to prevent whistleblowing and publicity than anything else. Though they stress that the actions of officers must be ‘necessary’ and ‘proportionate’, and that attempts should be made to minimise ‘collateral intrusion’, they are also careful to point out that a ‘system of control … can only reduce the risks, not eradicate them completely.’ Sex is not discussed. Fifteen separate official inquiries into policing are currently underway. All of them are taking place behind closed doors, and the largest, Operation Herne, is being conducted by the Metropolitan Police itself. The Met has also separately referred Francis’s allegations to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. Perhaps all this internal oversight will make a difference? Perhaps not. The women suing the Met have refused to co-operate with Operation Herne while the police remain in charge. So has Francis himself; and neither he nor they will be impressed by the referral to the IPCC, described in a recent Home Affairs Committee report as lacking ‘the investigative resources necessary to get to the truth’.

August 1, 2018

A Party with Socialists in it

Filed under: electoral strategy,Great Britain,Labour Party — louisproyect @ 7:18 pm

For American leftists wrestling with the question of whether the Democratic Party can be remade into an instrument of “democratic socialism”, I recommend Simon Hannah’s newly published “A Party With Socialists in It: a History of the Labour Left” even though there is not a single word about Bernie Sanders. Since many on the left view the Democratic Party and British Labour as essentially the same, an excursion through Labour Party’s history would help to validate or falsify that claim.

Ironically, Corbyn himself lends credibility to the comparison by openly admitting that he got his ideas from Bernie Sanders. Playing Gaston to Corbyn’s Alphonse, Sanders saw Corbyn’s efforts to transform politics and take on the establishment as parallel to his own campaign.

There is also the close affinity between the two politicians whose neoliberalism helped to fuel leftist rebellions in both parties. Just as Corbyn and Sanders saw each other as kindred spirits, so did Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. Blair’s New Labour turn and Clinton’s reshaping of the Democratic Party to conform to the Democratic Leadership Council’s precepts were cut from the same cloth. Seeking middle-class support, particularly among those voters benefiting from the technical and financial sectors, the DP and Labour saw blue-collar workers as expendable.

All of this is indisputable. However, one cannot gloss over the class differences between the DP and Labour or their institutional and organizational distinctions. Reading Simon Hannah’s history of Labour will make you acutely aware of their differences.

The title of the book is carefully chosen since it is written from the perspective of those who have struggled for more than a century to turn the Labour Party into a genuine socialist party. To understand the dialectics of this struggle, you have to go back to the party’s formation that combined contradictory elements. From the Fabians, it got the idea that socialism could be achieved through piecemeal reforms. In essence, they were Britain’s Eduard Bernsteins. It is not hard to understand why Germany and Great Britain would be susceptible to reformist illusions. As two of the most advanced economies in the late 1800s, workers would find revolutionary socialism a risky proposition. Why build barricades when the ballot would serve your needs?

Even the trade unions in England bought into the gradualist schemas, or more accurately the trade union officialdom. As counterparts of Samuel Gompers, they saw their role as mediating between the boss and their dues-paying membership.

At the conference that launched Labour in 1900, the only participants that could be mistaken for Marxists were those of the Social Democratic Federation led by Henry Hyndman, an eccentric businessman who formed the party after reading the Communist Manifesto. If Ramsey MacDonald had ever read the manifesto, it certainly didn’t show. His concept of socialism was based on the idea that workers and bosses were part of the same organism and that it was Labour’s job to prevent either class from becoming too greedy. Nobody at the conference had spent much time analyzing the British state, including Hyndman.

Another leftist component of the Labour Party was the Independent Labour Party that despite the similarity in name was closer to Hyndman politically. When WWI broke out, the ILP took an antiwar stance just like Eugene V. Debs. However, its internationalism only went so far. When the Easter Rebellion broke out in Ireland, they lined up with Ramsey MacDonald in calling for its suppression.

In 1917, the Russian Revolution shook up the left everywhere, including England. A Communist Party was formed in 1920 that immediately took up the question of its relationship to Labour. Those of you familiar with Lenin’s essay on ultraleftism know that the young Communist Party held a sectarian position. After reading about Ramsey MacDonald in both Richard Seymour and Simon Hannah’s books, I understand their position better even if it was wrong.

Meanwhile, the ILP continued to be the main socialist organization in England, electing a number of MP’s from Glasgow in the 1920s who scandalized the rightwing of the party by singing “The Red Flag” outside of Parliament each morning.

When the miners launched a general strike in 1926, the ILP provided much of the support while MacDonald and his likeminded MP’s did everything they could to sabotage it. Among the ILP activists was a very young Aneurin Bevan from Wales who dropped out of school at the age of 14 and went into the mines to work alongside his father. Eventually, he became an MP and devoted to the working class cause. In the 1950s, he was the Corbyn of his day. Indeed, when you connect Bevan to Tony Benn and then Benn to Jeremy Corbyn, a persistent red thread becomes apparent, one that has no equivalent in the Democratic Party.

When the Great Depression hit England, MacDonald proposed a coalition government with the Tories that so antagonized Labour voters, it resulted in the party not winning an election until after WWII. Unlike the USA where FDR carried out Keynesian economics, Great Britain was effectively ruled by their version of Herbert Hoover, with Labour offering no alternative.

Fed up with Labour reformism, the ILP disaffiliated with some members going on to form the Socialist League that included Harold Laski, Ralph Miliband’s professor, Aneurin Bevan and Michael Foot. Hannah writes that the League was the first theoretical challenge to Labourism. Unlike the ILP, it remained affiliated to Labour and hoped to influence party policy through books and articles written by its intellectual cadre.

In 1932, Socialist League member R.H. Tawney published an article in the Political Quarterly (coincidentally an issue containing one by Trotsky titled “Is Stalin Weakening or the Soviets?”) titled “The Choice Before the Labour Party” that articulated the choice that remains before us up until the present day:

Yet the objective of a socialist party, and of the Labour Party in so far as it deserves the name, is simplicity itself. The fundamental question, as always, is: Who is to be master ? Is the reality behind the decorous drapery of political democracy to continue to be the economic power wielded by a few thousand—or, if that be preferred, a few hundred thousand—bankers, industrialists and land-owners ? Or shall a serious effort be made—as serious, for example, as was made, for other purposes, during the war—to create organs through which the nation can control, in co-operation with other nations, its own economic destinies ; plan its business as it deems most conducive to the general well-being ; override, for the sake of economic efficiency, the obstruction of vested interests ; and distribute the product of its labours in accordance with some generally recognised principles of justice ? Capitalist parties presumably accept the first alternative. A socialist party chooses the second. The nature of its business is determined by its choice.

For many, the Clement Attlee government of 1945 to 1951 seemed to be the second alternative. Through its nationalization of much of the economy and the creation of a National Health Service, socialism was on the agenda at last. But this was no utopia. In the winter of 1946-47, a coal shortage left many homes without heat and light. This led some leftist MP’s like Michael Foot and others to form a group called Keep Left that was similar to the Socialist League, seeing itself as a pressure group on Labour. They wanted more state planning and a more forthright commitment to working class needs. In addition, they also opposed Labour’s growing ties to American imperialism in the early stages of the Cold War.

Discontent with Attlee’s government also helped to spawn the Socialist Fellowship, launched by Ellis Smith and Fenner Brockway, former ILP members. Brockway helped to recruit people to fight for the Spanish Republic, including George Orwell, an ILP sympathizer. Like Debs, he was imprisoned for his antiwar activism during WWI. At the time he co-founded the fellowship, he was a Labour MP. If his profile resembles any Democratic Senator or Congressman you know of, please drop me a line so I can follow up. Maybe I should even offer a $50 reward for finding a needle in a haystack.

Smith and Brockway consciously sought to include Trotskyists in their group, including Gerry Healy, as well as left MPs. They started a newspaper called Socialist Outlook that reached a circulation of 10,000 in 1951 during the depths of the Cold War.

In the 1950s, a bitter struggle broke out in the Labour Party between the old guard MacDonald-like rightwing, including the labor bureaucrats, and the leftwing led by Aneurin Bevan. Like Corbyn, Bevan was popular with the party’s base but reviled by the upper crust in Parliament and the unions. Despite reining in Bevan, who was seen as undermining the party’s chances in elections, Labour kept losing to the Tories for a 13 year period until Harold Wilson’s election in 1964,

In a bid to expand its base and throw a bone to the left, the party leadership formed the Young Socialists in 1959 but kept it on a tight leash. They were ordered not to invite any Keep Left people to speak at their meetings. Ted Grant and Tony Cliff both adopted entryist tactics into the YS that worked to their advantage. Meanwhile, Gerry Healy approached the group with his typical sectarian bombast and was told to get lost.

Battles resumed after Wilson’s election. Like Attlee, he turned out to a major disappointment especially on foreign policy. Hannah describes how someone in the Socialist Fellowship/Keep Left tradition responded to Labour’s failure:

The experience of the Labour government of 1964-70 had a profound effect on Ralph Miliband. He saw that too many of the left MPs had been bought off with opaque phrases or vague promises of socialism and peace. They confused the rhetoric with the reality and grasped at each left nod from the party leadership as a new principled turn. By the time the second edition of Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism came out in 1972, his conclusion was clear enough: Labour was finished as a vehicle for any kind of socialism. Even its Fabian perspective of gradual, incremental moves towards socialism had been abandoned by the party leaders’s Now it was a mere shill, a prop for the ruling class, and the Labour left was a busted flush, made up of isolated ‘pathetic figures’ able to mount ‘episodic revolts’ but nothing more. Miliband proposed ‘moving on’ from Labour, building something new. Nevertheless, the years following the publication of the second edition of Parliamentary Socialism heralded a renaissance for the left of the party, which went on to achieve breakthroughs in both politics and constitutional arrangements that changed the future of Labour.

Robin Archer is the Director of the Ralph Miliband Program at the London School of Economics. He is also the author of the author of Economic Democracy: The Politics of Feasible Socialism (Oxford, 1998) and Why Is There No Labor Party in the United States? (Princeton, 2010). In June, he wrote an article for Jacobin titled “Is Corbyn the Future of the Left?“. It is worth noting his analysis of the Democratic Party:

But it would be a mistake to overstate the similarities between Britain and the United States. In most respects, British party politics remained fundamentally different. The Labour Party is not merely a label (or a brand) which enables supporters to engage in candidate selection, but an ongoing membership organization for which the unions that founded it continue to provide vital ballast. And the parliamentary nature of the political system in which it operates leaves Corbyn in a far stronger position than a defeated candidate in the United States, by giving him a clear, ongoing, constitutionally recognized role as leader of the opposition (the Prime Minister in waiting) at the head of a government in waiting (the Shadow Cabinet). Moreover, at present this influence is further accentuated, both within the Labour Party and in parliament: within the party because Labour’s unexpectedly strong electoral performance in 2017 has stabilized Corbyn’s position among previously hostile MPs; and within parliament because the election has left the governing Conservative Party, even after reaching an agreement with the small Northern Ireland Unionist Party of the late Ian Paisley, with an extremely narrow parliamentary majority.

Something tells me that Robin Archer’s Why Is There No Labor Party in the United States? is worth reading.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, when Ralph Miliband wrote his article, Labour’s death was being greatly exaggerated. Not only was there to be another fracas with Tony Benn taking on the rightwing, there would finally be Corbyn himself keeping alive the militancy that was present, even if only a flicker, at Labour’s birth.

Looking back at the 100 years of struggle in British Labour described by Hannah, I can see nothing comparable in the Democratic Party except the peace candidates of the 1960s, the Jesse Jackson campaign, and the Sandernista tendency now at work. That being said, the differences being fought out in the Labour Party were over fundamental questions of whether the party would fulfill the promise made in Clause IV of the 1918 constitution of the Labour Party and. No debate like this ever took place in the Democratic Party:

To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.

Despite the Fabian origins of the Labour Party, Corbynism represents the ripening of contradictions in the party that took a century to reach fruition. A hollowed out economy that has left millions of British left out and suffering can no longer be represented as one capable of being reformed. Despite the rather bland rhetorical style of Corbyn, the Labour Party can conceivably become a powerful vehicle of social change. It certainly won’t serve as a vanguard party but it is a necessary first step in coalescing the British left into a well-organized and powerful force that will fight to transform society in first country ever to become capitalist. Who knows? Maybe it will be the first to become socialist.

July 20, 2018

Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics

Filed under: Great Britain,Labour Party,social democracy — louisproyect @ 1:43 pm


The left internationally has been stuck on the horns of a dilemma for quite some time now. When radicals take state power but fail to abolish private property, internal contradictions eventually catch up with the government and dash the hopes initially placed in it—Syriza in Greece and Chavista Venezuela being prime examples. With Cuba and North Korea as relics of the “communist” past, there are few on the left that consider them as models in the way that large parts once did fifty years ago, even more so when both hold-outs are now moving rapidly toward a Chinese-style economy. Just this week, there was news that Cuba will now recognize private property under a new constitution.

Despite such discouraging tendencies, radicalism persists mostly as a result of the assaults on living standards the capitalist system imposes. As part of an ongoing project to analyze the renaissance of social democracy in the United States, rebranded by the DSA, Jacobin and the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party as “democratic socialism”, I decided to read Richard Seymour’s “Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics”. I knew little about Corbyn except what I learned from the Guardian, The Nation and the usual leftwing websites that were as breathlessly enthusiastic as they were about the Sanders campaign.

As someone who has lauded Seymour’s books in the past, I delayed reading his 2016 Verso book because his Lacanian turn, while satisfying his own intellectual agenda, left a Freud-hater like me cold. I am happy to report that his book on Corbyn vintage is Richard Seymour and necessary reading for those grappling with the question of whether capitalism can be reformed.

Continue reading

April 11, 2018

My Dear Americans – The British Sceptre Passes to the US

Filed under: Brian A. Mitchell,Great Britain,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 10:02 pm

(A guest post by Brian A. Mitchell)

The British Government, having lost their gamble with the Nazis in the pre-war Munich deals with the Nazis, then having had to run begging to the US for economic and military aid in the war and afterwards, had to cede Britain’s colonies, overseas assets, markets and foreign military bases to the US and submit to US demands for bases in Britain in order to bring our wartime allies, the Soviet Union, within range of US nuclear bombers in the US led Cold War and without any British control. In other words the British Sceptre passes to the US.

“…to set forth the political, military, territorial and economic requirements of the United States in its potential leadership… including the United Kingdom itself as well as the Western hemisphere and the Far East. The first and foremost requirement of the United States in a world in which it proposes to hold unquestionable power in the rapid fulfilment of a programme of complete re-armament… to secure the limitation of any exercise of sovereignty by foreign nations that constitutes a threat to the minimum world area essential for the security and economic prosperity of the United States.”

(Economic and Financial Group of the US Council of Foreign Relations, 1940.)

“The question of leadership need hardly arise. If any permanently closer association of the two nations is achieved, an island people of fifty millions cannot expect to be the senior partner. The centre of gravity and the ultimate decision must increasingly lie with America. We cannot resent this historical development.”

(The Economist Oct 19 1940.)

“Well, Boys, Britain’s broke. It’s your money we want.”

(British ambassador to Washington, Lord Lothian, November 23 1940.)

“Whatever the outcome of the war, America has embarked on a career of imperialism in world affairs and in every other aspect of her life… Even though by our aid England should emerge from this struggle without defeat, she will be so impoverished economically and crippled in prestige that it is improbable that she will be able to resume or maintain the dominant position in world affairs that she has occupied for so long. At best, England will become a junior partner in a new Anglo-Saxon imperialism in which the economic resources and the military and naval strength of the United States will be the centre of gravity… The sceptre passes to the United States.”

(President of the US National Industrial Conference Board Virgil Jordan, to the Annual Convention of the Investment Bankers’ Association of America, Hollywood, Dec 10 1940.)

“Gradually, very gradually, and very quietly, the mantle of leadership was slipping from British shoulders to American.”

(Elliott Roosevelt, on the Atlantic Charter conference with his father US President Franklin Roosevelt and British PM Churchill in August 1941.)

“My dear Americans, we may be short of dollars, but we are not short of will… We won’t let you down. Standards of life may go back. We may have to say to our miners and to our steel workers: “We can’t give you all we hoped for. We can’t give you the houses we want you to live in. We can’t give you the amenities we desire to give you.” But we won’t fail.”

(British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin to the American Legion, London, Sept 10 1947.)

“Today Americans know that they are the dominant power in the world… and they expect the rest of us to respect their leadership.”

(Tory Lord Woolton, Sunday Times, July 16 1950.)

“Mr. Bevin went to New York, determined to prevent the precipitate rearmament of Germany… He failed… Faced with an American ultimatum… he toed the line.”

(New Statesman and Nation, Dec 2 1950.)

“We British must recognise that American policy must prevail, if there is an honest difference of opinion between us as to what to do next in the world struggle. He who pays the piper calls the tune.”

(Labour MP Commander King-Hall, National Newsletter, June 28 1951.)

“Do we need Britain? The British Empire, for all its reduced power, has a valuable string of naval bases around the world – Gibraltar, Hong Kong, Malta, Suez, Aden, Singapore, to mention the most important… The colonies take one into the economic sphere – tin, rubber, uranium and other raw materials… We need Britain.”

(New York Times, Jan 9 1952.)

“You may be sure that we shall stand by you on fundamentals.”

(British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in letter to US President Eisenhower, 1953.)

“…this Marshall Plan is going to be the biggest damned interference in international affairs that there has ever been in history. It doesn’t do any good to say we are not going to interfere. … I don’t think we need to be so sensitive about interfering in the international affairs of these countries.”

(US Senator Cabot Lodge to the US Foreign Relations Committee regarding post war Marshall aid to Britain and Western Europe.)

“Whether we like it or not, we must all recognise that the victory which we have won has placed upon the American people the continuing burden of responsibility for world leadership. The future peace of the world will depend in large part upon whether or not the United States shows that it is really determined to continue its role as a leader among nations.”

(US President Truman’s message to Congress, Dec 19 1945.)

“Am I wrong in saying all British governments since 1945 have done what the Americans have wanted?”

(British MP Tony Benn.)

“…the United Kingdom is already dependent on United States support.”

(British Foreign Office, 1958.)

“It is cheaper to fight with soldiers of other nations even if we have to equip them with American arms, and there is much less loss of American life.”

(US Senator Taft, Washington, May 19 1951.)

“It takes a man and a gun to fight. The United States is providing the gun, Europe the man.”

(US General Eisenhower, Paris, August 1951.)

“We fought World War I in Europe, we fought World War II in Europe, and if you dummies will let us we will fight World War III in Europe.”

(US Rear Admiral Gene La Rocque.)

“…what has been our one and only basic policy in the last thirty years. This is that we prefer to fight our wars, if they be necessary, in someone else’s territory.”

(US JCS document, 1946.)

“We are proposing dollars to arm men other than our own men. We are contributing dollars rather than men.”

(US General Marshall, August 1 1951.)

“Abominable. Loyal, blind, apparently subservient… I think that the almost undeviating support by Great Britain for the ill-advised policies of President Bush in Iraq have been a major tragedy for the world… has prolonged the war and increased the tragedy that has resulted.”

(US President Carter, on British PM Tony Blair’s subservience to the US, on BBC Radio.)

“The UK will… take on at times the role of a Trojan Horse … but its effectiveness in this role will depend on… not appearing to act as a US stooge.”

(British Foreign Office, 1972.)

“We’ve got to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Americans.”

(Observer editor Roger Alton to his journalists, January 2003.)

“…the US did not want to be the only country ready to intervene in any trouble spot in the world. We hoped the British would continue to uphold their world-wide responsibilities.”

(US Secretary of State Dean Rusk to British Prime Minister Harold Wilson.)

Brian was born in the bombed out wartime East End of London and developed an interest in political books early on. He worked in various technical fields for 20 years, all of which thoroughly bored him. He entered academic life (History and Classical Economics) and became an independent journalist, worked for the ANC (secret at the time) until the end of apartheid, and was a trade union representative in a large hospital. He is now retired and still works (when able) as an independent journalist.


June 28, 2016

British factions in the Brexit Spring and their foreign backers

Filed under: Great Britain,humor — louisproyect @ 3:20 pm

brexit foreign

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