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John Tomlinson
Left, Right:
The march of political extremism in Britain

John Calder, London, 1981
(price: 4.95; 152 pages)

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Denver Walker
Quite Right, Mr Trotsky:
Some Trotskyist myths debunked;
and how Trotskyists today hamper
the fight for peace and socialism

Harney & Jones, London, 1985
(price: 1.00; 144 pages)

British Trotskyism is a fascinating subject. No, wait, come back. Really, I think you'll be captivated.

Well, maybe not captivated as such, but honestly the history of Trotskyism in Britain has a strange and hypnotic appeal. As a doctrine, it's not been very successful; it's never attracted more than a few thousand serious adherents - most of whom burn out after a couple of years flogging newspapers no one wants - and it only manages to build its numbers when it effectively abandons Marxism in favour of a more generalised Left Labour programme, as with Militant in the 1980s or the Socialist Alliance more recently: more money for 'our' NHS, less money for 'their' wars ... er, that kind of thing, you know. Nonetheless it's an enduring and occasionally endearing tradition that can posture well above its weight: the WRP (home of Ms Vanessa Redgrave) had the first colour daily 'paper in Britain and in its glory years used to demand a general strike in response to a spontaneous walk-out at a local tobacconist's, whilst the RCP used to pose as a serious electoral alternative to Labour before it decided that a glossy style magazine, the ill-fated Living Marxism, was the way to get the revolution kicked off. (It wasn't.)

Of these two books, the one by Tomlinson needn't detain us too long. It's a typical piece of early-1980s oh-my-god-they're-here-they're-here scare-mongering, in which the liberal centre panicked about Britain becoming an extremist country. The fascist right and the communist left are treated as equally destructive, even though it tends to be the right who are out fire-bombing people's homes and desecrating graves, while the left are still wondering whether to wind up the meeting in time for last orders. It runs through the usual suspects from the period, but fails to get any sense of perspective: 'The limited size of Trotskyist groups is adequately compensated by the depth of commitment and intensity of rhetoric.' Sorry, but no - in a revolution, rhetoric is no match for numbers.

Tomlinson also tends to have a slightly strange vision of what constitutes being 'extreme': it includes denouncing the Israeli occupation of the Lebanon, for example, and supporting the PLO's struggle for freedom (see photo here). I'd have thought that that's both common sense and common decency, but Tomlinson doesn't approve. Similarly, the picture below is captioned:

A Trotskyist group, the Spartacist League, expressing 'solidarity' with coloured [sic] immigrants. Brick Lane, 1979.
Oh no, it's the Sparts

There are many, many things about the Spartacist League that one could object to, but surely trying to support people in Brick Lane against fascist attacks isn't amongst them?

One of the things you could complain about, however, was the sheer tedium of their newspaper, Workers Hammer, which they didn't bother trying to translate from the American. Its only apparent function was to make you realize how blessed Britain was when it came to articulate Trots - they looked positively epigrammatic compared to their American counter(s)parts. In his book, Denver Walker correctly identifies one aspect of this that was always annoying:

I've often seen people perplexed by slogans like 'Unions, minorities must oppose' such-and-such. This actually means 'Unions and racial minorities'; the omissions are quite acceptable in US-English; the Sparts don't seem to realize that the wording can create a problem for those of us who speak the home-grown variety. (p.79)

He also has fun taking the piss out of their slogans, such as 'the ill-rhyming and ill-scanning couple of iambic tetrameters: Defence of Cuba/USSR - Begins in Central America'.

In fact, Walker's principal interest often seems to be taking the piss. As a writer on the New Worker (which I think was the one set up by the splitters who left the Communist Party in protest at the adoption of Eurocommunist theory in the late-1970s), he's essentially a Stalinist and regards all Trots as juvenile, ego-driven grandstanders. He thinks much the same of Trotsky himself, as it happens.

Despite the good-humoured banter, however, there's something a bit more serious going on as well. Underlying it all is a deep fury that anyone calling themselves a Marxist could dare to criticise - let alone oppose - the workers' paradise that is (or rather, was) the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. For Walker such talk is effectively treason. And nothing arouses his wrath so much as any left group venturing its support for a figure like, say, the trade unionist Lech Walesa, or the writer Solzhenitsyn - 'That's no dissident, that's a whinger,' he spits in ill-mannered spite. As he points out repeatedly, such support places Trots shoulder-to-shoulder with Thatcher and Reagan. (Having a go at China is perfectly alright, of course.)

Get out of Denver, baby, go!Unfortunately he then simultaneously reveals his ignorance and undermines his own position by denouncing the work of Martin Barker (of the SWP). Now, Barker wrote a fantastic and highly recommended book in the early-1980s entitled A Haunt of Fears, which examined the horror comics of the 1950s and the campaign to stamp them out. Apart from providing a serious analysis of a neglected art-form, the book also exposed the role of the Communist Party in the suppression of free speech - this in response to the Kremlin line of defending native nationalist traditions: Morris dancing and sea shanties were ideologically sound, whilst rock & roll and Hollywood were capitalist exploitation. In this context, the comics were apparently to be regarded as Yankee imperialism and an attack on British culture, rather than as the subversive and sideways attacks on bourgois complacency that Barker identifies.

Moving on from that work, Barker turned his attention to the then-current campaign against video nasties, which was following much the same trajectory as the earlier witch-hunt. In particular, he produced a superb analysis of I Spit On Your Grave, which - despite the dodgy title - is a fine, and exceptionally harrowing, movie. (At least that's how I remember it from the eraly-1980s - it's back out now, and maybe in retrospect it's not lasted too well, I don't know.)

But for Denver Walker, such talk is deeply offensive. 'I haven't seen the video,' he says in the time-honoured tradition of pompous piety and blinkered bigotry, before complaining that Martin Barker is 'silly' and a supporter of 'sadistic American filth' (so much worse than other sadistic filth, apparently). In other words, Walker places himself shoulder-to-shoulder with, er, Margaret Thatcher and Mary Whitehouse.

The truth is, of course, that trying to smear someone by pointing at their alleged bed-fellows is a poor substitute for argument. There's not a single idea in the history of humanity that hasn't at some time been espoused by a scoundrel. Walker's dislike of Trots, for example, doesn't exactly distance him from the Daily Mail.

Despite these caveats, it's mostly an entertaining book. It reminds you, for example, of the Revolutionary Workers Party, the group that every other Trotskyist ridicules. Tiring, perhaps, of industrial disputes that were pre-destined to betrayal by right-wing union bureaucrats, the RWP (or Posadists, as we knew them, after their founder Juan Posadas) turned their attention to UFOs and possible Chariots of the Gods-type visitors to Earth. They theorised that:

(1) only an advanced civilization could master inter-planetary travel;
(2) an advanced civilization is, by definition, a socialist civilization;
(3) ergo, we should embrace any visiting extra-terrestrials as the saviours of the working class.

As far as is known, this theory was original and did not originate as a flight of whimsy on the part of Douglas Adams. Trotsky rejected the notion of 'socialism in one country'; Posadas rejected 'socialism on one planet'. Genius. The Posadists also argued for a first nuclear strike by the Soviet Union on America.

The difference between these books can perhaps best be demonstrated by their depictions of the tortuous lineage of British Trotskyism. Tomlinson adopts a logical approach, thus:

click to enlarge whilst Walker is a bit more graphic: click to enlarge
(click on either picure to enlarge)

Sadly both of them predate the fantastic 'Reds in the bed' scandal of October 1985, when Gerry Healy was expelled from the Workers Revolutionary Party, the organization he founded, for establishing 'entirely non-communist and bureaucratic relations inside the party', i.e. seducing young women members.

reds in the bedreds in the bed
reds in the bed

non fiction