Leon Trotsky and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party

By John Simkin

I joined the Labour Party in 1963. I was eighteen-years-old and did not have a very good understanding of politics. Politics and West Ham United were the main subjects discussed in the lunch-time break in the Barking factory where I worked. Football was no problem but I struggled when it came to political issues. The man who seemed to know most about politics, told me I would get a good political education if I joined the local branch of the Young Socialists. I did nothing about this until I got a new girlfriend. Her mother, who was a member of the party, made the same suggestion. We lived on the Harold Hill council estate and they used to meet every Wednesday at the local community centre.

The discussions we had on a Wednesday night were very different from those in the factory. Whereas most of the factory workers were mainstream Labour, these young people were revolutionary socialists and most were supporters of someone I had never heard of before, Leon Trotsky. They also liked Leninbut strongly disapproved of Joseph Stalin, who they claimed had betrayed the heroes of the Russian Revolution. They were not very keen on the current leaders of the Soviet Union but they much preferred them to those in the United States. The main political issue in 1963 was the Vietnam War and they used to get very worked up about the unwillingness of the new Labour leader, Harold Wilson, to condemn US foreign policy.

Of course, I knew very little about the political ideas of Trotsky, Lenin or Stalin. I therefore joined the local library and began reading history books on these characters. Eventually I had enough information to have an opinion of these people. Although I agreed with their views on Stalin I was less convinced by those on Lenin and Trotsky. The person I did admire was Rosa Luxemburg.

The British journalist, Morgan Philips Price, visited Luxemburg in a Berlin prison in 1918. He later recalled in My Three Revolutions (1969): “She (Rosa Luxemburg) did not like the Russian Communist Party monopolizing all power in the Soviets and expelling anyone who disagreed with it. She feared that Lenin’s policy had brought about, not the dictatorship of the working classes over the middle classes, which she approved of but the dictatorship of the Communist Party over the working classes. The dictatorship of a class – yes, she said, but not the dictatorship of a party over a class.” (1)

Luxemburg was a strong believer in democracy and was highly critical of Lenin when he closed down theConstituent Assembly on 6th January, 1918, when the Bolsheviks won only 168 seats compared to the 299 won by the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Luxemburg rejected this approach and wrote in the party newspaper: “The Spartacus League will never take over governmental power in any other way than through the clear, unambiguous will of the great majority of the proletarian masses in all Germany, never except by virtue of their conscious assent to the views, aims, and fighting methods of the Spartacus League.” (2)

Trotsky also condemned decisions made by Stalin which he believed went against the views of most party members. However, he did not have a very good record when he had the power to make decisions. The Kronstadt sailors, who had played an important role in the Russian Revolution, became disillusioned with the Bolshevik government. They were angry about the lack of democracy and the policy of War Communism.

The Soviet historian, David Shub, has pointed out: “On 1 March 1921, the sailors of Kronstadt revolted against Lenin. Mass meetings of 15,000 men from various ships and garrisons passed resolutions demanding immediate new elections to the Soviet by secret ballot; freedom of speech and the press for all left-wing Socialist parties; freedom of assembly for trade unions and peasant organizations; abolition of Communist political agencies in the Army and Navy; immediate withdrawal of all grain requisitioning squads, and re-establishment of a free market for the peasants.” (3)

Lenin denounced the Kronstadt Uprising as a plot instigated by the White Army and their European supporters. On 4th March, 1921, the crew of the battleship, Petropavlovsk, passed a resolution calling for a return of full political freedoms and issued the following statement: “Comrade workers, red soldiers and sailors. We stand for the power of the Soviets and not that of the parties. We are for free representation of all who toil. Comrades, you are being misled. At Kronstadt all power is in the hands of the revolutionary sailors, of red soldiers and of workers. It is not in the hands of White Guards, allegedly headed by a General Kozlovsky, as Moscow Radio tells you.” (4)

On 6th March, Leon Trotsky issued a statement: “I order all those who have raised a hand against the Socialist Fatherland, immediately to lay down their weapons. Those who resist will be disarmed and put at the disposal of the Soviet Command. The arrested commissars and other representatives of the Government must be freed immediately. Only those who surrender unconditionally will be able to count on the clemency of the Soviet Republic.” (5)

Trotsky then ordered the Red Army to attack the Kronstadt sailors. Felix Dzerzhinsky, the head of Cheka, was also involved in putting down the uprising. Victor Serge pointed out: “Some of the rebels managed to reach Finland. Others put up a furious resistance, fort to fort and street to street…. Hundreds of prisoners were taken away to Petrograd and handed to the Cheka; months later they were still being shot in small batches, a senseless and criminal agony. Those defeated sailors belonged body and soul to the Revolution; they had voiced the suffering and the will of the Russian people. This protracted massacre was either supervised or permitted by Dzerzhinsky.” (6)

Over the next few months we spent a lot of time discussing the merits of Leon Trotsky. Most of the members of the Young Socialists saw him as a tragic hero who retained his belief in communism. They also liked his views on the need for “world revolution” compared to Stalin’s policy of “socialism in one country”. That is why of course, the media has always been far more hostile to “Trotskyists” than “Stalinists”. However, as far as I was concerned, Trotsky behaviour when in power, meant it very difficult for me to admire him.

However, I did agree with the rest of the group about most issues. At constituency meetings we were in a small minority and always lost the vote at the end of debates. We accepted that is what happens in a democratic party. Our MP was Ron Ledger, who had represented Romford in the House of Commonssince the 1955 General Election. The Young Socialists were not the only ones unimpressed with Ledger and just before the 1966 General Election, the local party attempted to deselect Ledger.

Read also:
Labour ‘surge’ continues and Tory lead shrinks, as Donald Trump flies to UK for Nato summit

Leonard Williams, the General Secretary of the Labour Party, was furious with us and the leaders of the group who wanted to get rid of Ledger, were called “Trotskyists” and were threatened with expulsion. The older members of the party backed down, including the leader, Arthur Latham, who later became MP for Paddington North. As we were still idealistic at that time, we lost of faith in the democratic system and stopped being active in the party. (Ledger resigned in 1970 to become the owner of a casino on the Isle of Wight. (7)

I was reminded about these events when Tom Watson gave an interview to Decca Aitkenhead of The Guardian. When asked about the large number of people who had recently joined the Labour Party he answered: “There are Trots that have come back to the party, and they certainly don’t have the best interests of the Labour party at heart. They see the Labour party as a vehicle for revolutionary socialism, and they’re not remotely interested in winning elections, and that’s a problem. But I don’t think the vast majority of people that have joined the Labour party and have been mobilised by the people that are in Momentum are all Trots and Bolsheviks…. Some of these people are deeply interested in political change, in building a more equal society, and are just on a journey in politics that they’re new to, and I don’t want them to feel that I’m labelling them because I’m not. But there are some old hands twisting young arms in this process, and I’m under no illusions about what’s going on. They are caucusing and factionalising and putting pressure where they can, and that’s how Trotsky entryists operate. Sooner or later, that always end up in disaster. It always ends up destroying the institutions that are vulnerable, unless you deal with it.” (8)

Watson seems to be talking about me as I have rejoined the Labour Party recently. I was a member under Harold Wilson (who I believe is a much underestimated leader who has the impressive record of being the last prime minister who saw a reduction in the gap between rich and poor while in power). I also stayed in the party under the next Labour leaders, James Callaghan, Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock andJohn Smith, but left when Tony Blair made it clear it was no longer a socialist party.

Unlike most critics of the left, Watson adds the term of Bolsheviks as a term of abuse. I was not aware that there were still Bolsheviks in existence but I suppose Watson must be better informed on these matters. Clearly there are still followers of Leon Trotsky, but in the past, it has generally been accepted that the numbers have been fairly small. That is definitely the case when you look at the membership of political parties that expound the views of Trotsky. The Workers Revolutionary Party, Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party, do not provide details of party membership but in total, “Trotskyist organizations in Britain have somewhere between five and ten thousand members”. (9)

Watson attempts to distinguish between “Trots and Bolsheviks” and those socialists who have joined the Labour Party. He claims that they believe in “revolutionary socialism” and they are not “remotely interested in winning elections”. Therefore they join because they want Labour to fail. Watson accepts they are only a minority but are able to influence a large number of new members by “twisting young arms”. (10)

Jon Cruddas, appears to have been the first Labour MP to link Trotsky with Jeremy Corbyn: “I’m worried that (a Corbyn-led Labour party) might turn into an early 80s tribute act, a Trotskyist tribute act.” (11)Ben Riley-Smith, a political correspondent working for the Daily Telegraph, wrote an article pointing out that he thought he had evidence of Corbyn being a supporter of Trotsky. He discovered that in 1988 Jeremy Corbyn and several other left-wingers, had signed an Early Day Motion. The proposal read: “That this House of Commons, in the light of the special conference of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in one week’s time, and of the judicial rehabilitation of Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Radek and Pyatakov, demands that the Russian Government goes further and gives complete rehabilitation to Leon Trotsky, Leon Sedov the chief in defendants in the Moscow frame-up trials, and all those innocent people murdered by the Stalin regime.” (12)

It is difficult to see the point that Riley-Smith is making. Is he suggesting that it is only left-wing MPs who believe that Leon Trotsky and his sons Lev Sedov and Sergei Sedov, were really guilty of a pro-fascist plot against Stalin. Does he and the opponents of Corbyn in the Labour Party still believe the confession made by Gregory Zinoviev at his trial?: Zinoviev stated: “My perverted Bolshevism became anti-Bolshevism, and by way of Trotskyism I arrived at fascism. Trotskyism is a variant of fascism.” It is true of course that most western journalists at the time fully believed these confession. As The Observer pointed out on 23rd August, 1936: “It is futile to think the trial was staged and the charges trumped up. The government’s case against the defendants (Zinoviev and Kamenev) is genuine.” (13)

Trotsky himself wrote: “How could these old Bolsheviks who went through the jails and exiles of Czarism, who were the heroes of the civil war, the leaders of industry, the builders of the party, diplomats, turn out at the moment of the complete victory of socialism to be saboteurs, allies of fascism, organizer of espionage, agents of capitalist restoration? Who can believe such accusations? How can anyone be made to believe them. And why is Stalin compelled to tie up the fate of his personal rule with these monstrous, impossible, nightmarish juridical trials?” (14)

The problem for Trotsky was that Stalin was much more popular with the owners of newspapers and magazines in Britain than he was in 1936. They might have disliked communism in the Soviet Union but what they really hated was Trotsky’s philosophy of world revolution. The media got is completely wrong at the time but it was not long after the war that historians were able to reveal the techniques used by Stalin to explain the ridiculous confessions made by Zinoviev and Kamenev. Ironically, they made their confessions as outlandish as possible in order to convince those in the rest of the world that they were lying. However, they clearly underestimated the gullibility of western journalists.

Since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, it is John McTernan, who has led this campaign of smearing him as a Trotskyist. McTernan has an interesting history, he was Tony Blair’s Director of Political Operations from 2005 to 2007. He was Chief of Staff to the 2014–2015 leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Jim Murphy, who resigned after the Labour Party lost all but one seat in Scotland in the 2015 general election.

Read also:
Brexit: Theresa May’s ‘Plan B’ – or a ‘No Deal’ on autopilot? (from Lexit's Digest)

As Ronan Burtenshaw has pointed out: “At the same time as this controversy erupted, leading Progress supporter John McTernan was using his column in the Daily Telegraph to call for the Tory government to crush the rail unions. This same party member has previously called for the National Health Service to be privatized, Iraq to be reinvaded, and public libraries to be closed. Despite this, he is an almost-daily presence on television defending the Labour right. No questions have been raised about his Labour membership. Clearly, right-wing opinions are not treated with the same suspicion.” (15)

A month after Corbyn was elected leader, McTernan, suggested in The Daily Telegraph that MPs should organize a coup: “Minds are now turning urgently to what must be done. The answer is surely obvious – Labour needs competent leadership, and the current team have rapidly shown they are not up to it. How to engineer a change? A coup, obviously. But what are the precise mechanics?”

McTernan then goes on to explain: “The rule book makes fascinating, if prosaic, reading. It shows a simple route to leadership change. I have heard many agonised conversations about the mechanics of a challenge – this will not be necessary. In the words of the rule book: ‘When the PLP is in opposition in the House of Commons, the election of the leader and the deputy leader shall take place at each annual session of Party conference.’ Yes, each party conference. There’s an annual Labour Party leadership election. So the route out for Labour is Route 1 – have a candidate, a single candidate and clear the ground of all others. And I mean all others. Next year’s Labour conference needs to have an election with only one candidate. Not one apart from Corbyn, but only one. The PLP can do that because they control nomination rights. Their task is to ensure that when the annual leadership is held then Corbyn doesn’t meet the threshold. We know his support wasn’t sufficient to get him on the ballot first time round, next time the PLP have to show iron discipline and stand aside to properly keep him out.” (16)

This is what the Labour Party MPs tried to do but the courts intervened and Corbyn’s name did appear on the ballot paper. Tom Watson clearly agrees with McTernan on how to remove Corbyn. In his interview with Decca Aitkenhead he pointed out that he wanted “to reverse Ed Miliband’s ‘terrible error of judgment’ and reinstate the old electoral college system, which accorded one-third of the votes in a leadership election to the PLP and a third each to the unions and the members.” If that happened, Watson was fairly confident that the Labour Party would never have another socialist leader. (17)

Watson and McTernan have both failed to understand the political changes that have been taking place in Britain. Jeremy Gilbert, Professor of Cultural and Political Theory at the University of East London, has convincingly explained the reasons for the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn. “Labour has seen an unprecedented influx of new members over the past 18 months – a surge of democratic interest unparalleled in our nation’s recent history. From this movement, a new organisation has also emerged which has tried to channel some of the energy generated by the campaign for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership to positive ends. Those ends are not revolutionary or even particularly radical: Momentum is simply trying to give a voice to a body of opinion which has been widespread throughout the country for many years, but has been denied any kind of place in our public life since the early days of New Labour.” (18)

Research carried out by Leon Festinger helps to explain why people like Watson and McTernan are unable to understand this development. In the autumn of 1954 Festinger came across an unusual story in his local newspaper. A 54 year-old housewife, Dorothy Martin, was claiming that the world would come to an end before dawn on 21st December 1954. She added that true believers would be saved from the apocalypse by a spaceship that would pick them up from the garden of Martin’s small house in suburban Michigan, at midnight.

Festinger, a student at the University of Minnesota, was fascinated by how Martin’s followers would react after the prophecy had failed. Festinger contacted Martin and convinced her that he believed her claims that the world was going to come to an end. Festinger joined the cult and was in her house on 21st December. Martin’s husband was not a believer and went to bed. The cult members kept checking outside to see if the spaceship had landed. After the deadline pasted the group became sullen and bemused. This was only a temporary feeling because it was not long before most of the people in the house became even more fervent believers in the Martin cult.

Festinger points out in his book, When Prophecy Fails: A Social & Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World (1956) that the group convinced themselves that their actions had stopped the world from being destroyed. As Festinger put it: “The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction”. (19)

In his book Festinger showed that this behaviour, while extreme, provides an insight into psychological mechanisms that are universal. Festinger used the term cognitive dissonance to describe the inner tension we feel when our beliefs are challenged by evidence. As Matthew Syed, the author of Black Box Thinking (2016) has pointed out: “In these circumstances we have two choices. The first is to accept that our original judgements may have been at fault. We question whether it was quite such a good idea to put our faith in a cult leader whose prophecies didn’t even materialise… The second option is denial. We reframe the evidence. We filter it, we spin it, or ignore it altogether. That way, we can carry on under the comforting assumption that we were right all along.”

Syed tested this theory in a study of a group of economists. He noticed that while studying economics atOxford University he noticed that the students “split into rival schools, such as Keynesians or Monetarists, at an early stage of the course”. In interviews he carried out with economists at the peek of their careers, he discovered that “very few economists alter their ideological stance”. He quotes one of those who took part in the study, Professor Terry Burns, as saying that the chance of economists changing their ideological stance “is roughly as common as Muslims converting to Christianity or vice versa.” (20)

Read also:
Censure de la cagnotte du boxeur par Leetchi et Crédit Mutuel : Violer la loi, c’est open bar…

In August, 1931, John Maynard Keynes, wrote a letter to the British prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, describing the May Report, commissioned to look into the economic crisis that had been created by theGreat Depression, as “the most foolish document I ever had the misfortune to read.” He argued that the committee’s recommendations clearly represented “an effort to make the existing deflation effective by bringing incomes down to the level of prices” and if adopted in isolation, they would result in “a most gross perversion of social justice”. (21)

Keynes outlined what the British government should do in his book, A General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936). Keynes argued that the lack of demand for goods and rising unemployment could be countered by increased government expenditure to stimulate the economy. His views on the planned economy influenced President Franklin D. Roosevelt and was a factor in the introduction of theNew Deal but he was unable to persuade MacDonald and his National Government.

Keynes made a very important point in the preface to his book: “The composition of this book has been for the author a long struggle of escape, and so must the reading of it be for most readers if the author’s assault upon them is to be successful – a struggle of escape from habitual modes of thought and expression. The ideas which are here expressed so laboriously are extremely simple and should be obvious. The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.” (22)

Tom Watson, John McTernan and those Labour MPs who are attempting to remove Jeremy Corbyn are suffering from the same problem that faced Ramsay MacDonald in 1931. He found it impossible to reject the conventional economic ideas that he had developed since he entered political life. So strong was this belief he was willing to propose a £70 million economy programme that included a £13 million cut in unemployment benefit. Tom Johnson, who wound up the debate for the Labour Party, declared that these policies were “not of a National Government but of a Wall Street Government”. In the end the Government won by 309 votes to 249, but only 12 Labour M.P.s voted for the measures and MacDonald was expelled from the party.

Philip E. Tetlock, the author of Expert Political Judgement: How Good is It? (2006), discovered that it is those who are the most publicly associated with political policies, whose livelihoods and egos are bound up with those decisions, are the ones who are most likely to reframe their mistakes and are the least likely to learn from them. (23) Research carried out by Sydney Finkelstein on corporate institutions, came to a similar conclusion. His work showed that error-denial increases the higher you go up the pecking order. (24)

All those Labour Party critics of Corbyn have one thing in common, they have all personally benefited from Tony Blair’s decision to move the movement away from socialism. They have the most to lose from accepting the criticism of people such as Jeremy Gilbert who have most clearly identified the motives of those people who have recently joined the Labour Party. “It is a body of opinion which believes, with good reason, that the embrace of neoliberal economics and neoconservative foreign policy under Blair was a disaster, and that it was enabled by the evisceration of party democracy by a small elite who took control of policy-making, media-messaging, and the selection of parliamentary candidates.” (25)

The National Executive Committee’s response to the popularity of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn (it is now the largest political party in Europe) is to expel members who they think might be his supporters. This includes banning all members who joined fewer than six months ago. While at the same time allowing people to pay £25 to vote in the leadership election. They seem to be convinced that most of Corbyn’s supporters are too poor to pay the extra £25 to register.

I am myself highly critical of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. However, I along with most other members of the Labour Party will be voting for him when my ballot paper arrives next month. As Ellie Mae O’Haganpointed out recently: “I am yet to meet a single Corbynite who is naive about Corbyn’s failings as a leader, the great challenges he faces, or who does not want to win a general election. But the reason so many have coalesced around him anyway is because they view his leadership as the only opportunity they have had in at least 30 years to see their views finally represented in public life. The Labour rebels’ attempt to unseat him is, in their minds, as much an attempt to excommunicate the wider left as it is to get rid of Corbyn himself.” (26)

References

(1) Morgan Philips Price, My Three Revolutions (1969) page 160

(2) Rosa Luxemburg, Die Rote Fahne (18th November, 1918)

(3) David Shub, Lenin (1948) page 405

(4) Crew of Petropavlovsk, statement (4th March, 1921)

(5) Leon Trotsky, statement (6th March, 1921)

(6) Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1945) page 153

(7) Ged Martin, Ilford Recorder (26th July, 2013)

(8) Tom Watson, interview with Decca Aitkenhead, The Guardian (9th August, 2016)

(9) Ronan Burtenshaw, Jacobin Magazine (12th August, 2016)

(10) Tom Watson, interview with Decca Aitkenhead, The Guardian (9th August, 2016)

(11) Jon Cruddas, quoted in The Guardian (10th September, 2015)

(12) Ben Riley-Smith, The Daily Telegraph (15th August, 2016)

(13) The Observer (23rd August, 1936)

(14) Leon Trotsky, The Trial of the Seventeen (22nd January, 1937)

(15) Ronan Burtenshaw, Jacobin Magazine (12th August, 2016)

(16) John McTernan, The Daily Telegraph (14th October 2015)

(17) Tom Watson, interview with Decca Aitkenhead, The Guardian (9th August, 2016)

(18) Jeremy Gilbert, Open Democracy (18th July, 2016)

(19) Leon Festinger, When Prophecy Fails: A Social & Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World (1956) page 169

(20) Matthew Syed, Black Box Thinking (2016) pages 81 and 107

(21) John Maynard Keynes, letter to Ramsay MacDonald (5th August, 1931)

(22) John Maynard Keynes, preface to A General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936)

(23) Philip E. Tetlock, Expert Political Judgement: How Good is It? (2006)

(24) Sydney Finkelstein, Why Smart Executives Fail (2013)

(25) Jeremy Gilbert, Open Democracy (18th July, 2016)

(26) Ellie Mae O’Hagan, The Guardian (9th August, 2016)