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How mad is too mad for Labour?


The Liverpool Echo reports that Derek Hatton has applied to rejoin the Labour Party more than thirty years after his expulsion for being a leading member of the Militant Tendency. It seems his application will probably be accepted.

Militant was the hardest of the hard Left. The adherents were Trotskyist, rather than official Communists, seeing the Soviet Union as a sclerotic bureaucracy, a deformed version of socialism. But they still proudly claimed to ‘stand on the record of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917’ and of the ‘great teachers’ Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky. I don’t know if Mr Hatton still believes any of the old ideology but I haven’t heard of any retractions.

Militant’s real and supposedly secret name was the Revolutionary Socialist League. Secret, because the existence of a formal party had to be denied. This was to allow them to insert themselves into the Labour Party which had strict rules against dual party memberships.

Militant, though, was a full and tightly organised party. It had its own national structure, rules, plenty of full-time workers, newspaper and ideology.

When, after a bitter struggle, Labour finally kicked them out, they renamed themselves the Socialist Party of England and Wales. This gave us SPEW, by far the best political acronym I’ve ever heard. Sadly, they seem to have dropped the England and Wales and are now just the Socialist Party.

Whatever the name, they were a fanatical group dedicated to the overthrow of our democracy and the building of a communist state, under the guidance of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. Which, just to be clear, meant themselves.

I had my own spell with Militant, at 16 spending six months as a member before its rigidity and fanaticism drove me away. So I can speak from at least a small amount of experience. You would expect that for an overly political teenager it would be rather heady and exhilarating to be in a revolutionary party. But Militant were grim, grey and strictly disciplined. Members had their tasks to perform and sacrifices to make for the organisation. There were dull papers and pamphlets to be digested, boring repetitive meetings to attend and dogma to be learnt.

The party had an official line, set from on high, to be followed on any political question. This came under the guiding principle of ‘Democratic Centralism’. There was little democracy, but plenty of centralism. Comrades were not expected to deviate. The speed with which you could anticipate a party position, based on your understanding of Marxism-Leninism-Trotskyism and the firmness of your belief in the party, was the measure of your virtue.

They were some pretty scary people. I’m quite sure that had we ever achieved our workers’ Utopia, there would have been no problem with finding our own secret police or Gulag guards. These, after all, were people who often had a deep knowledge of the crimes of the early Russian Bolshevik regime and were not in the least ashamed of supporting it. Executing the bourgeoisie was a pleasant fantasy.

After a titanic struggle, Labour managed to rid itself of the Militant parasite. Of course there was the odd fringe member with dodgy views, but outright Communism was banished.

Now it seems that revolution is acceptable again in Labour. This isn’t the first story to emerge about people with extremist histories joining or re-joining the party under Mr Corbyn’s leadership. You can even occasionally see on Corbynite social media the old socialist slogan: ‘No enemies to the left.’ Which means, however extreme your views, any leftist is welcome. Mr Corbyn and his shadow chancellor John McDonnell of course have their own associations with the trappings of communism.

Still, the idea that Militant might have lost its political toxicity within the party seems extraordinary, given the amount of pain that the civil war to expel it once caused. If you remember your politics from that era, you’ll know it was a war that very nearly killed the Labour Party.

The interesting question now is exactly how extreme do you have to be, to be refused Labour membership? We know from the example of Mr Corbyn’s adviser Andrew Murray that expressing support for North Korea isn’t a bar to acceptance, so perhaps Mr Hatton’s former role in a Bolshevik sect that almost destroyed Labour is not that much of a big deal.

Who’s next to apply for membership? Pol Pot’s ghost?

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Ollie Wright
Ollie Wright
Ollie Wright is an ex-Labour Party man with a life long interest in politics and history.

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