In The Rise of Militant (1995) we dealt with the origins of a small Marxist force and its development into a powerful movement. Militant in its heyday shook the serious representatives of capitalism and the Labour Party hierarchy to the core. This was shown in two mighty mass movements: the struggle of Liverpool City Council between 1983 and 1987, and the anti-poll tax campaign of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In Liverpool, a colossal movement of working people, involving city-wide general strikes and mass demonstrations, forced Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to retreat and give significant concessions in 1984.1 The Liverpool battle seriously wounded Thatcher but she was able to recover after 22 Labour councils which had pledged to oppose Tory attacks on local authorities deserted the field. Liverpool City Council stood alone, with the exception of Lambeth initially. It went down to defeat, ultimately, with the assistance of Neil Kinnock, the then Labour leader who infamously vilified the immortal 47 Liverpool councillors, thereby facilitating the aims of Thatcher. He will be forever associated with defeats for the labour movement. He was the gateman for Tony Blair and the subsequent destruction of the Labour Party as a workers’ party at base for a whole historical period.

The poll tax struggle mobilised at its height an estimated 18 million people who refused outright to pay this iniquitous tax. This was Thatcher’s flagship but it sank and took the admiral down as well! Thatcher herself was consigned to history and, as she admits in her autobiography, it was the poll tax that achieved this. It remains an incontestable fact that it was not the leadership of the Labour Party – under the perfidious Kinnock – nor the trade union leaders, let alone the noisy left groups on the outskirts of the labour movement, which defeated the poll tax. It was Militant and its supporters who supplied the energy, strategy, tactics and leadership.

This was not achieved without considerable effort and sacrifices. More than 100 people were jailed for non-payment of the poll tax, 34 of them supporters of Militant. Given the scale of the defiance and its outcome, this struggle, like the miners’ strike, is forever engraved on the consciousness of representatives of the ruling class. They were determined to extirpate the lessons. Look at the way in which the most well-known leaders of the struggle, such as Tommy Sheridan, were hounded, vilified and ultimately imprisoned – as was the Labour MP and Militant supporter Terry Fields – through a campaign orchestrated by Rupert Murdoch and his newspapers.

Observe also the shameful coverage of the poll tax struggle on a  BBC Radio Four programme in 2013. Not a single supporter of Militant was invited onto the programme, or any of the most well- known public figures like Tommy Sheridan, nor even those jailed for their self-sacrificing resistance. It is in this way that official history is written and distorted, not just by the ideologues of the ruling class but also by their shadows within the labour movement. This includes left-wing groups which, it seems, cannot give credit to Militant either in the Liverpool struggle or the poll tax battle.

The Rise of Militant was written precisely to combat such a false view of history and mark the important milestones in our development. We expressed the view at the time, as we do now, that we are not interested in appealing to the summits of the labour movement or tiny unrepresentative groups, but to the working class, particularly it’s more politically advanced guiding layers. With them we hope to draw out the real lessons of history, not for the sake of it but in order that they, particularly the new generation, can learn the lessons, the better to prepare for the battles to come.

It remains a striking fact that The Rise of Militant – with its extensive analysis and account of Militant’s progress – did not call forth one serious challenge by our opponents, either in general or to the details supplied. We were the most successful Marxist/ Trotskyist organisation in Western Europe in finding an echo amongst the working class since the days of Leon Trotsky’s International Left Opposition of the 1920s.

The recent influx of thousands of members into the Labour Party to fight austerity has produced a new interest in socialist ideas. A product of this has been a renewed interest in the ideas of Marxism. One of our old ‘foes’, Michael Crick, has republished his book, The March of Militant, and there have been programmes about the Corbyn phenomena in which we have featured. In one, Crick said that the thing about Militant was that they were “brilliantly organised, brilliant orators. They plan things, know what they’re doing and they keep at it. They’re committed, they put the hours in, they go to meetings night after night after night and they commit huge amounts of their own personal income and their lives”!2

Trawling through the archives our opponents came up with just one supposed ‘damning’ statement. In 1989 the headline over an article I wrote was the ‘Red Nineties’.3 This was undoubtedly a mistake, but the same kind of ‘mistake’ which Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky made over perspectives. Karl Marx, for instance, predicted that the 1848-50 revolution would continue because the economic crisis would continue. However, when it became clear that the French economy was recovering, he changed his perspective. Trotsky predicted when the Spanish revolution broke out in 1931 that the bourgeoisie would not ditch the king. Yet such was the deep-going character of the revolution, the monarchy was thrown overboard. Like our latter-day critics, the Stalinists launched a noisy campaign against Trotsky over his mistaken prognosis. His rejoinder? “Did you foresee any better?” Of course, they were completely incapable of putting forward any perspective, relying on a crude, empirical approach.

At the time when our ‘infamous’ statement was written, it was not clear which way events were likely to develop in Russia and Eastern Europe. On the basis of the information in our hands it was not excluded that the youth and working class could succeed in overthrowing the bureaucratic regimes and move towards setting up democratic workers’ states. An absence of Marxist perspectives characterises these Marxist groups. They cover over their mistakes. We use mistakes to educate our ranks on why they have been made and to learn from them.

The last book dealt largely with the progress of Militant over three decades. This did not proceed in a seamless manner, with success piled upon success. There were periods of rapid growth in influence and numbers, but there were also periods when little progress was possible. The class struggle and its reflection within the labour movement – the trade unions and particularly the Labour Party within which Militant operated at that time – did not always proceed at fever pitch. There were times of slow progress and even of stagnation which demanded slow and patient work. Nevertheless, this period was generally marked by an upward curve of the labour movement and of Militant itself.

By the end of the 1980s, however, this was beginning to come to an end. A series of defeats of the British working class – the miners’ strike, Liverpool City Council, the victory over the print workers – had an effect on the political outlook of the broad mass of the work ing class, above all, of the politically more developed workers. This was reinforced by developments within the labour movement – sharply expressed within the Labour Party – with the move towards the right, including expulsions by the Kinnock leadership. Liverpool was particularly affected with the expulsion of Derek Hatton, Tony Mulhearn and many other leading figures who had led the council struggle. The scale of the defeat was compounded by some political mistakes in our response to the wave of expulsions.

Militant supporters had been trained in the importance of the mass organisations, the Labour Party and trade unions. But this, probably inevitably, assumed a somewhat one-sided character by most of the leadership as well as in Militant’s ranks. Expulsions were to be fought but not to be taken too far in the direction of a split from Labour because they were seen as temporary setbacks. Any attempt to form an alternative pole of attraction outside the Labour Party ran the risk of ‘isolation’ from its rank and file, and therefore political impotence. Such was the reasoning of those like Ted Grant and Alan Woods who split from Militant in 1992. In reality, the course I advocated in the late 1980s – of setting up a new party, initially in Liverpool at least – held out the best chance of preserving the lessons of the struggle and with it the members and cadres who had engaged in the battle. There is no doubt that, with subsequent developments, some of the ‘independent’ forces that would have been assembled by such a tactic would have dropped away following the collapse of Stalinism and the ideological counter-revolution that followed in its wake. However, much more influence and support would have been retained, even given the unfavourable climate, than with the self-defeating retreat and acceptance of the expulsion of leading Militant supporters.

It was this issue, first rehearsed in discussions that took place in 1987, which formed one of the aspects of the split in 1992. Those who at least belatedly took to the road of independent work in the 1990s have been relatively successful in retaining a significant force, which is having an impact on the labour movement today. Those like Alan Woods and his followers – Ted Grant passed away in 2006

– have been pushed to the margins with few supporters and even less impact.4 This picture of the labour movement in retreat in the late 1980s, however, is just one side of what was taking place. During this time the anti-poll tax struggle was in full swing and was developing into a massive social conflict, which resulted in victory and the subsequent expulsion of Thatcher from office.

Nevertheless, the ideological retreat underway – particularly by the tops of the trade unions and Labour Party – was reinforced by the development of neoliberalism. The weakening of the trade unions and with it the supposed partial disintegration of the working class, deindustrialisation and globalisation of production, led to the development of ‘post-Fordist’ ideas. This was championed in particular by the Eurocommunist wing of the Communist Party gathered around its journal Marxism Today. We combatted these ideas, which were having a politically corrosive effect within the labour movement but the Kinnock leadership leaned heavily on these ideas to push Labour further towards the right and, in the process, marginalised the Labour left. This was enormously reinforced by the collapse of Stalinism between 1989 and 1991.

This represented a historic turning point, a colossal blow ideologically for the left and Marxism in particular. Its effects were not immediately obvious to those who lived through these events, including the Marxists gathered around Militant. As we have explained elsewhere, we had underestimated the degree to which the Stalinist Russian regime had rotted away, particularly in the decade which preceded its overthrow. The period of stagnation under Leonid Brezhnev and his feeble successors demonstrated the incapacity of these regimes to further develop the productive forces. Russian society and the other Stalinist regimes were in a state of atrophy, no longer capable of working within the bureaucratic straitjacket. The only viable alternative was for the working class to rise in a political revolution, overthrow the bureaucracy and establish genuine workers’ democracy, which in turn would regenerate the planned economy and open up huge possibilities in all fields. However, the stagnation and decay of Stalinism unfolded against the background of a boom – feeble as it was – in the capitalist economies in the West. If these non-capitalist societies were to break with the planned economy and take the road of capitalism, promises were made that living standards comparable to the best in the West were possible. If not the levels of the US then at least those in West Germany could be attained, argued the capitalist theoreticians: “Blooming landscapes,” predicted former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. We commented: “But via Bangladesh.”

Our prognosis was entirely borne out by subsequent events as the planned economy gave way to shock therapy and ‘wild capitalism’ resulting in a catastrophic collapse of the productive forces. This was the greatest economic contraction in history, even exceeding the us Great Depression in the 1930s and brought with it all kinds of social horrors. Mass pauperism, the decline in life expectancy, orphans cast out into the streets and left to scavenge for a crust of bread, were conditions which lasted for more than a decade. I witnessed this first-hand on a visit to Moscow, St Petersburg (Leningrad) and Ukraine in 1998 – the results of the ‘victory’ for the oligarchs and their capitalist international backers!

Nonetheless, we were the first Marxist tendency that understood what had taken place and drew the necessary political lessons. As early as Boris Yeltsin’s coup of 1991, we concluded that the pro-bourgeois wing of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the ‘Soviet Union’ had begun to liquidate the planned economy and was navigating a return to capitalism. The same process subsequently unfolded in most of the countries of Eastern Europe at various speeds depending upon their specific national conditions. Just what political effect this had is indicated by a subsequent comment of the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro: “It is as if the sun has disappeared.” Despite Stalinism’s monstrous bureaucratic regimes, the existence of the planned economies – the last remaining conquest of the Russian revolution – served as a point of reference for what was possible for the working class and labour movement internationally. Now that had gone and the bourgeoisie worldwide was triumphant, proclaiming through the Wall Street Journal that capitalism had won! The working class – particularly its more politically conscious layer – gradually understood the consequences of this defeat. I remember speaking at a meeting in Birmingham in the early 1990s when a member of the Communist Party, speaking for many who harboured illusions in the political system of Russia and Eastern Europe, started to weep when he recounted that his life had been wasted and now lay in ruins because the “Soviet Union was no more”.

Militant supporters did not react in this fashion because of the priceless asset of the political analysis of Stalinism which Trotsky had handed down. We were irreconcilably opposed to Stalinism and wished to see it overthrown. However its replacement by capitalism signified not progress but a terrible regression. It was a defeat and a serious one at that. A sober analysis of what had taken place was therefore necessary if genuine Marxism was to avoid being thrown back. This was not a defeat on the scale of the victory of fascism by Mussolini, Hitler and Franco in the pre-war period. Fascism’s victory had meant the crushing of the working class and annihilation of its organisations together with all democratic rights. This victory of the bourgeoisie allowed it to conduct a ferocious campaign asserting the ‘superiority’ of capitalism over discredited ‘socialism’. The fact that Stalinism was a horrible caricature of genuine democratic socialism – the idea of the planned economy with workers’ democracy – counted for little against the propaganda barrage which was unleashed. The ruling class was fortunate that this process coincided with an economic boom – following the recession of the early part of the decade – as this seemed to reinforce their arguments.

If the restoration of capitalism had taken place against today’s dire world economic situation – a crisis manifesting in clear depressionary features particularly in southern Europe – then the reaction may have been different. As in previous crises of Stalinism – Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968 and others – the working class and revolutionary intellectuals could have sought changes in the political superstructure of the societies while maintaining and regenerating the planned economies. This in turn would have thrown up the idea of a return to Lenin’s genuine ideas of workers’ democracy and socialism, combined with an appeal to the world working class to join them in a new socialist era. All the evidence shows that, initially, Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev was seeking the ‘liberalisation’ of the bureaucratic regime from above. As is often the case, however, concessions from the top provoked revolution from below. Because of the dark night of Stalinism over the previous 70 years, no independent organisations of the working class had been able to develop. The pro-bourgeois wing of the bureaucracy quite clearly developed to become a majority in the late 1980s and seized the opportunity to sideline Gorbachev after the coup of 1991 and then, through the figure of Yeltsin, moved to install a brutal pro-capitalist regime.

What followed was the greatest robbery in history, putting in the shade the exploits of US gangsters like Al Capone in the 1930s. The consequences of this theft of state property – in which former Communist Party bureaucrats were in the vanguard – and the creation of obscenely rich oligarchs was played out in the British law courts. Rival oligarchs sued each other over who initially stole state property from whom – property belonging (theoretically at least) collectively to the Russian people. It was as if Bugsy Spiegel and Al Capone had recourse to US law courts to settle gangster issues such as who controls territory and the division of the swag from robberies!

It became clear that if the ideas of Militant were to survive then it would be necessary to face up to this now difficult objective situation. We and our international organisation, the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), were clear about the scale of the defeat and how much the workers worldwide, particularly the socialist project, had been set back. We were now swimming against the stream and it was entirely different to the situation that we experienced in the 1970s and 1980s. Then we were going with the grain of the workers’ movement and, because of our clear analysis and policies, we gained significantly. Now we faced a much more difficult situation, which required a change in tack. Others did not face up clearly to the drastically changed situation.

Those who had departed from our ranks – the supporters of Ted Grant and Alan Woods – were in denial about what had transpired in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. In the early 1990s they still maintained that a capitalist counter-revolution had not yet succeeded! They finally got round to recognise in 1997 what had been evident to us for five to six years, that Russia was now a capitalist regime. This lagging behind events was not an accident. It became an organic part of the method of this increasingly politically conservative organisation, something we witnessed during the political disputes leading to the split in the cwi. It would manifest itself in their approach towards the ‘traditional’ workers’ organisations and many other issues which developed both then and later, as we shall see.

Nor did other left organisations fare any better. The Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) and its international body, the International Socialist Tendency, characterised the collapse of Stalinism not as a defeat but as a ‘sideways move’. This flowed from the erroneous analysis of Tony Cliff, the leading SWP figure, that Russia was not a ‘degenerated workers’ state’ but a ‘state capitalist’ regime. Therefore, nothing fundamental had changed in the transition from ‘state capitalism’ to a ‘normal’ capitalist regime. They were among the only people on the planet, from either a bourgeois perspective or from the labour movement, who failed to recognise the huge historic defeat that had taken place. From the tabloid press to the ‘learned’ journals of capitalism, all were crowing throughout the 1990s that their system had emerged triumphant from the ruins of Stalinism.

Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, later said that capitalism was the best system for “producing and delivering goods and services”. The collapse of Stalinism led to ideological turmoil in which mass communist parties disintegrated. Moreover, some Marxist-Trotskyist forces capitulated to the prevailing pessimistic mood. All over the world, labour leaders were accommodating to the ruling class and becoming playthings of the bosses. Never at any time did we fall prey to this. The class struggle went on, as we shall see, in which we sought to intervene. This was not, after all, the first time that the workers’ movement and Marxism had experienced setbacks and defeats. The working class had been forced to climb up the ladder of history step by step and sometimes facing huge obstacles. There were periods of big advances but also others when it was difficult to move ahead even by an inch. There were times when the class enemy dynamited the steps previously taken such as under fascism. Undaunted, the working class rebuilds the steps in which to advance.

The 18th century ideas of socialism and communism – formulated by Babeuf – which were suppressed in the French revolution by the newly victorious bourgeoisie, were kept alive, as Friedrich Engels pointed out, by a handful of followers “in the back alleys of France”. They were later taken up by the emerging French proletariat, then given a scientific basis by Marx and Engels and subsequently embraced by mass parties in Europe in the 19th century. The Bolsheviks in Russia, following the defeat of the 1905-07 revolution, were reduced to a handful. Nevertheless, despite banishment, imprisonment, torture and ‘Stolypin’s noose’ (the hanging of revolutionaries), the Bolsheviks were able once again to engage with the working class following the mass movements which re-emerged in 1912.

While the counter-revolution which followed the collapse of Stalinism did not assume the bloody and repressive form which was deployed by tsarism, it was on a much bigger scale, it was international in its character and was uniform. The Bolsheviks, even at the time of the worst repression, could look internationally and see the advance of the workers’ movement in Europe and even the USA, with the success of Eugene Debs in the 1912 presidential elections when he received over 900,000 votes (just under 6%), equal to almost eight million today. Debs also received 913,000 votes (3.4%) in 1920, following women’s enfranchisement.

There was no light shining internationally which was able to dispel the bleak political situation confronting Marxism and the workers’ movement in the noughties. Not only was there an ideological counter-revolution, but this had very real material consequences in the sharp shift towards the right, particularly at the top of the trade unions and the workers’ parties which were rapidly becoming ex-workers’ parties. In the factories and workplaces the bosses went on the offensive. All the past gains of the working class began to be challenged: wages, welfare, housing, all were savagely cut. Rather than fighting and promising to cancel out the past defeats – particularly those inflicted by Thatcher and continued by John Major’s government – the Labour and trade union leaders acceded to them. The outline of a decisive shift towards the right within the Labour Party became particularly evident as Militant faced up to the events of 1995.