11. Our name change debate



By the mid-1990s, the pro-capitalist ideological counter-revolution was in full swing. The class struggle, which the bourgeoisie imagined could somehow be magicked away, remained but perhaps at a less intense level. It was a struggle to maintain the thread of genuine Marxism in the teeth of the campaign in favour of the ‘market’, which appeared to be all-powerful. Capitalist ideologues touted it as the only system capable of allocating goods and services to humankind.

Given this barrage, ours was a small voice which could only aim to reach small circles of workers and youth who were able to withstand the ‘magnet’ of capitalism. We have to remember that Britain and the world were in the midst of a boom, albeit with the colossal disparity of wealth maintained and widened.

This necessitated a change, not in fundamentals but in the public face of our organisation. Militant had a tremendous pedigree, synonymous with struggle and undoubtedly associated with militant workers. However, even at the outset of Militant’s formation, it was not an ideal name, as we explained in The Rise of Militant. There were disadvantages, particularly when the bourgeois press and media used the word ‘militant’ as a prefix to every ‘extreme’ cause or campaign – including ‘militant IRA terrorism’ and later ‘militant Islamic terrorism’. These disadvantages were aggravated while Militant was forced to swim against the stream, fighting even to be heard above the chorus of pro-capitalist voices. Therefore, our 11. Our name change debate

Executive Committee (EC) proposed, in a short paper I wrote, to change the name of our paper and our organisation. Many options were explored and we had not decided on a clear alternative, but there was a majority in favour of dropping Militant.

However, quite unexpectedly to us, the suggestion provoked a big discussion and some opposition from some comrades who were opposed to what they saw as a break with our history and tradition. It was nothing of the kind. No programmatic changes were suggested. In fact, the main authors of the name change had been the most fastidious in explaining our programme and defending our method. This was a serious attempt to create the best possible means for us to enhance our intervention in the struggles of the working class and labour movement. Nonetheless, it soon became clear that we should have prepared, first through discussions and meetings and, more cautiously, with the membership and leadership before launching this discussion in a written form. This would have allowed us an opportunity to assuage the feelings of some comrades initially opposed to the idea of a name change.

The subsequent discussion assumed a drawn-out character which was so encompassing that not all the members, nor other left groups who were given the documents as part of the ‘regroupment of the revolutionary left’ that Militant was engaged in, understood the proposal. The Democratic Socialist Party in Australia complained to me on my visit to the country that it was impossible for them to read the voluminous documents and papers on this issue! The discussion was dragged out partly because some individuals intervened with their own agenda and sought to use it to raise other unrelated criticisms of the leadership. In the vanguard of this oppositional grouping was Phil Hearse, a refugee from the barely existing Mandelite organisation in Britain, part of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI), who had left them and applied to join Militant. We engaged in very friendly discussions, as we had done with others who had left this organisation previously, such as Murray Smith and a group around him and others in France in the Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire (JCR – Revolutionary  Communist Youth). We did not arrive at complete agreement with any of these comrades but there was sufficient common ground for them to join and participate in our organisation.

This disproves the myth disseminated by some on the ‘revolutionary left’ that Militant was afraid of discussions with other groups, because it was sectarian. The half-understood term ‘sectarian’ is used against us by people who sin on this score themselves. They usually confuse a stubborn, principled defence of the fundamentals of Marxism, politically and organisationally, with their one-sidedness and political confusion. These features, alongside overweening arrogance, Hearse possessed in abundance.

The Militant Labour leadership set out its proposals to change the name in a special bulletin in May 1996. We pointed out the difficulties: “There is perhaps no issue which generates more controversy than the name of a revolutionary organisation.” We emphasised that the Bolsheviks were compelled to adopt different public names in different periods. At one stage, when struggling against the tsarist autocracy and its censorship laws which outlawed ‘Marxism’, they assumed the mantle of ‘Consistent Democrats’. Lenin correctly argued that it was necessary to utilise even the limited opportunities that existed for legal work and, accordingly, to change the name of the party in this arena at least. With this, of course, went the dangers of generating certain ‘democratic’ and reformist illusions. However, this was corrected internally within the Bolshevik party – which was in reality a faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party at that time – and by successful legal work. Later, when conditions changed and it was necessary to draw a clear line of demarcation between genuine Marxists and the social democratic traitors of the Second International who had supported the carnage of the First World War, Lenin proposed renaming the party the Communist Party.1

Of course, Militant has not worked with the same difficulties that confronted the Bolsheviks. We had initially operated in a situation with less abrupt turns than those which confronted the Russian Marxists in the first two decades of the 20th century. But as Trotsky pointed out: “Even the most revolutionary parties can run the risk of lagging behind and of counter-posing the slogans and measures of struggle of yesterday to the new tasks and new exigencies.”2 These general points are relevant but the proposal to change our name had to be justified by the historical circumstances which Militant Labour faced then and later. We had already undergone a sharp change in tactics when we launched an independent organisation in the early 1990s, which allowed us to seize the opportunities that existed. However, this turn, as events demonstrated, was not enough for us to progress. A further degeneration of the Labour Party under John Smith, then Blair, also compelled us to effectively abandon any idea of transforming the Labour Party. This led us to raise publicly the idea of an alternative workers’ party to Labour. We recognised that this was still a minority view, even amongst those who had retained a socialist consciousness, some of whom could be won to a revolutionary programme and organisation. This was illustrated by the singing of ‘The Internationale’ on mass demonstrations in France in the period following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Taken as a whole, one of the most important tasks of the Marxists was to seek to rehabilitate the ideas of socialism more widely, if necessary in collaboration with other forces. We commented: “No mass left wing, in the sense of the Independent Labour Party in 1932, will develop in protest against the pro-capitalist policies of a Blair Labour government.” This prognosis was entirely borne out when the Blair-Brown government took office. We conceded that perhaps “a parliamentary left will oppose Blair, and will probably eventually split away”. This perspective was not confirmed, however, because of the political and organisational feebleness of what remained of the left within the Labour Party. They were completely incapable of organising against the right wing, either within the structures of the party or in important struggles outside. We predicted that if they did split, “they will not take a huge body of workers with them, for the simple reason that these workers no longer inhabit the Labour Party”.3 This has been completely vindicated since 1996. The forces which gathered around the Corbyn  movement later were either entirely new forces or ‘returnees’ who had abandoned the Labour Party but were encouraged by Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to stand and then by his victory.

We were looking towards a new wave amongst the working class which would raise once more the idea of socialism. In anticipation of such a development we proposed that the word ‘socialist’ should replace Militant in our party name. The term ‘Labour’ had become synonymous with Blair and the abandonment of socialism and, in the situation we faced then and in the future, this would be a barrier to us finding the ear and winning the best sections of the working class. We stated: “Militant has an honourable socialist and revolutionary pedigree. But there are many workers, advanced as well as the mass, who will awaken to political life in the future, who now have an accumulated prejudice against the term ‘Militant’.” We concluded therefore “that the time has arrived for a change of our name”.4 The name Militant also had negative connotations in this new period, given the fact that the media regularly referred to ‘militant terrorists’. We wished to be separated from this.

We understood that the proposal to change the name generated fears, particularly among some trade union comrades, that we were now engaged on an increased electoralist road, to the detriment of union work. We reassured our ranks that this was not the intention of the leadership nor was it to be realised in action. Similar arguments were advanced at the time when we decided to organise independently of the Labour Party from 1992. We pointed out: “It would be much easier standing under the name of ‘Socialist Party’ to attract a wider layer of independent lefts, revolutionaries and general socialists… to work for candidates standing under this banner rather than ‘Militant’, which was perceived as a much narrower signboard for a new period.”5

As expected, the proposal generated intense discussion – one of the deepest-going discussions within our ranks on strategy and tactics. Nick Wrack, a member of our EC, disagreed with the proposal to change the name and suggested instead that we call ourselves Militant Socialist Party. In reality, this proposal was an argument in favour of the status quo; workers would hear or see ‘Militant’ and not ‘Socialist’. It did not overcome our main objection to the prominence of ‘Militant’ with its increasingly negative connotations in the capitalist media.

It was not an accident that the Irish section of the CWI argued very forcefully that the term ‘Militant’ had become a barrier to them because of its association with terrorism and particularly paramilitary organisations. We pointed out that the political consciousness of the working class in the post-Stalinist period was extremely confused. The understanding which existed in the early 1970s or the period 1979-83 in Britain, particularly of the advanced layer, was ahead of the position then and today. There was a broad layer of workers who considered themselves socialists and our task was to convince them that our particular ‘brand’ of Marxist socialism was most appropriate. We compared our role to the tasks that were posed at the time of the building of the Second International, helping to build a broad socialist consciousness while maintaining a clear Marxist revolutionary banner. We were not intending to build our organisation along the lines of the mass parties that existed at the time of the Second International. We did not intend to repeat their historical mistakes by recreating the Second or First International. We had the dual task of trying to recreate a broad socialist consciousness, as well as maintaining within this a socialist revolutionary programme and perspectives.

A number of documents were produced and a full discussion took place in the following months in the ranks of our organisation. Many contributions were positive. Clive Heemskerk, playing a key role in the editing and production of our theoretical journal, Socialism Today, the Merseyside Regional Committee and the EC of the Irish organisation all added to the discussion, as did individual comrades who wrote letters which were printed in special bulletins. However, a long document by John Bulaitis, Phil Hearse and Jared Wood disagreed vehemently with the idea of changing our name. Ironically, Hearse had spent most of his political life opposing Militant – having only joined us recently and left our ranks shortly afterwards. In  reality, their document was not concentrated on the name change alone but was a broad assault on the perspectives of our party. It only addressed the name change incidentally and in passing.

They objected to the leadership’s characterisation of them as ‘conservatives’. We replied: “Yet what is a ‘revolutionary conservative’ but one who fails to recognise profound changes when they take place and obstinately clings to a banner or an idea, or a formula, which has been overtaken by the march of events?… If our organisation was to accept their method, their approach towards perspectives, and the name change they propose [Militant Socialist Party], we would not only be unprepared for the period that is opening up we would become peripheral as far as the workers’ movement was concerned.”6 In the discussion on our National Committee (NC), one comrade informed us that all the dockers and their partners – who were involved in strikes at this stage, with some joining us – supported dropping ‘Militant’ and, moreover, favoured the name Socialist Party. Most comrades who engaged in the discussion did so in a very positive way, even where they had doubts or disagreed with changing our name.

After a thoroughgoing, extensive discussion over six months, the party agreed at a special national congress to approve the decision to change our name to Socialist Party. This proposal received 71.4% support; the resolution to change our name to Militant Socialist Party 24.8%; and for the status quo, Militant Labour, just over 3%. However, because the debate had been conducted in a democratic and comradely way, the party moved on to implement the decision and began to campaign under our new banner. Phil Hearse and John Bulaitis, with a few others, subsequently left the party, lapsing into inactivity. Nick Wrack later joined the SWP, then left it to join George Galloway’s Respect, later becoming an ‘independent socialist’ in the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). Nick then left TUSC and attempted to join the Labour Party and Momentum. Jared Wood, in the best traditions of the Marxist movement, forcefully argued his position but, when the conference decided against him after the open and democratic debate, he loyally accepted the decision and is currently on our NC.

No time was lost in launching the party together with the first issue of The Socialist, the new name for our paper, published on 7 February 1997. It caused significant interest with millions of TV viewers and newspaper readers, introduced to the Socialist Party through a media blitz on the 4th and 6th of that month. The Times commented: “Militant marches back as the superior socialists.” The Press Gazette reported: “Militant relaunches as The Socialist as the class warriors fight on.” The Daily Telegraph headline was ‘Militant Returns to Haunt Blair at the Election’. The Press Association reported Dave Nellist speaking at our media launch: “After 18 years of the Tories a huge number of people want to see the back of this government, yet… Gordon Brown’s big idea was to say vote Labour and there will be no change in economic policies.” A spokesman for Brown, it continued, “refused to comment”. There was a special report on Newsnight, including a live interview by Jeremy Paxman with myself, and a report with top political correspondent Jeremy Vine was shown four times on BBC Breakfast Time. The first phone call to the party for more information arrived 30 minutes after Newsnight ended.

Dave Nellist appeared on Norman Tebbit’s Sky TV show Target. Tebbit said he would leave the country if socialists taxed more than ‘100 grand!’ Dave retorted: “Some may regard that as a small price to pay!” As he arrived, John Prescott came out of the studio. Quizzed by Prescott, Dave explained the aims of the Socialist Party and sold the first issue of the Socialist to him for £1! We received widespread publicity in Wales, in the Western Mail, the South Wales Evening Post and The Echo. On Merseyside, there was a page in the Liverpool Echo and coverage in the rest of the regional press. Dave Murray had 30 minutes on Radio Essex and Jim Horton was interviewed live on Three Counties Radio. Elaine Brunskill, our parliamentary candidate in Tyne Bridge, was also on radio. Our newly launched Socialist Party, it was announced, would contest up to 25 seats in the forthcoming general election. Sizeable meetings and rallies took place throughout the country to launch the new party.7