Trotsky is alive and well in London

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The Independent Online

Good news and bad news for Britain's 10,000-odd Trotskyists. The good news, of course, is that Ken Livingstone is going to win the London mayoralty, and even New Labour lickspittles like me are resigned to it. The bad news, however, is that this week - yet again, and despite all predictions and hopes - international capitalism somehow failed to go into terminal crisis.

But lets stick with the positive for the moment. After Labour won the election of 1997, many Trotskyist groups believed that a major opportunity had presented itself. When (as was inevitable) some voters became disillusioned with the failure of Tony Blair to transform Britain within months, they would become more open to the idea of an alternative. And who would be there to give these questing souls guidance and leadership, but the sects, groupuscules and tendencies of the Revolutionary Left?

Three years into New Labour's reign and the plan's going like a dream. The mad, counter-productive gerrymandering of Labour's candidate selection process for London mayor has produced a likely winner in an independent- left candidate with historic links to the revolutionary left. Surf the tendencies and you discover a rare excitement about the possibilities associated with Ken's triumph.

Read the bourgeois newspapers and this enhanced confidence is seen there too. The Guardian, naturally, is the filthy capitalist rag du choix, and there, recently, Paul Foot joyously ended an article on Rover by reviving the old slogan, "Occupy, Nationalise, Fight for the Right to Work" - a Mugabeism if ever there was one.

However, when I heard about a slate of London Assembly candidates called the London Socialist Alliance (LSA), campaigning on the slogan "Vote Ken, Vote LSA", I didn't immediately associate it with this mild revolutionary renaissance. The LSA seemed to have the support of a large number of distinctly un-Leninist stand-up comics and had received endorsements from a variety of famous left-wingers. The lugubrious John Pilger and the slightly more urbane Tariq Ali both wrote in support of the LSA, lauding it as a home for "real socialists". Mike Marqusee, a leading light in Labour Left Briefing and an old mate of Ken's, was named as a sponsor. Its platform was a straightforward wish-list of expenditure predicated on endless tax increases for the ubiquitous "rich".

So yesterday I went on a voyage of exploration, starting with the LSA's website, from where - following a tortuous cyber-trail - I gradually penetrated further into the colourless dream world of British Trotskyism. "The London Socialist Alliance," the website told me, "was initiated by various socialist organisations, campaigns and community groups." But which ones, I wondered. And for what purpose? Thoughtfully - and since no website designer can resist a links section - there was a list of organisations appended. I sampled them in turn.

At the website for The Weekly Worker (organ of the Communist Party of Great Britain - not the old one but a new Trotskyist one), amid the challenging contributions on the relevance of Kautsky to events in contemporary Iran, I found this: "The London Socialist Alliance," someone had written, "is of the greatest significance, bringing together as it does the SWP, CPGB, AWL, Workers Power, the rump ILN, sections of SPEW and a range of prominent left-wing individuals." I knew what the SWP and CPGB stood for, and I could bet the W in AWL was "Workers". But could there really be an organisation called SPEW? And who'd be a member of "the rump ILN"?

SPEW, it transpired on further reading, is the Socialist Party of England and Wales, formerly (oh happy days!) the Militant Tendency. And, while I never got to the bottom of the rump, I did find out that the AWL was the Alliance for Worker's Liberty.

The Weekly Worker then detailed how the positions on the LSA slate had been divvied up. At the top was Paul Foot (Socialist Workers Party), then rail activist Greg Tucker (International Socialist Group), Janine Booth (AWL), Christine Blower (whose affiliation was given, bizarrely, as the NUT), Theresa Bennett (SWP), Anne Murphy (CPGB), Kate Ford (Workers Power, the snappy name for the League for a Revolutionary Communist International), Toby Abse (ILN, rump or otherwise), some unfortunate from the SPEW and a couple of unaffiliated activists.

They all hated Tony, of course, with an irrational passion. Theresa Bennett, for example, stated that "New Labour wants to turn London into a playground for the rich. Tony Blair sees black people, single parents and asylum seekers as the problem." This conjures up a paranoid image of the police carting black people out of Brixton, and turning their houses over to rich refugees from Zimbabwe.

But what is also apparent from these websites is just how miraculous the alliance is, given how much they all hate each other. The AWL says that Workers Power is "part of the post-war kitsch Trotskyist mainstream", and "a grotesque sectarian shadow of our organisation". The CPGB comments about the SWP's "intolerance of dissent, and mindless routine activity". And everyone hates SPEW. When the slate was chosen, reports The Weekly Worker, there were even worries about how Paul Foot might behave, if elected, given that he "is on the right of the SWP" (a mind-boggling concept, this). So, "Comrade Mark Hoskisson of Workers Power suggested that, as insurance, the LSA get signed resignation letters of anyone elected, to be enacted should the LSA decide to recall a representative."

Some groups were happier with the minimalist programme than others. The AWL was worried about not grasping the moment. "We must trumpet our revolutionary socialism, not try in vain to hide the `hard-left' reality behind the media-friendly faces of Foot, Pilger et al," it proclaimed, while admitting, "Sure, that would not be to Livingstone's liking." And it's true that Ken could probably do without friends whose manifestos begin, as the CPGB's does, "The working class in Britain needs to strike as a fist," and goes on to extol the dictatorship of the working class over rule by parliament.

And that's where it always goes wrong for Trotskyists. It's not what they're against that's the problem, it's what they're for. Professor Alex Callinicos, the nearest thing that the SWP has to an intellectual, when not predicting the imminent onset of a great recession, argues for rule by workers' councils and warns of the need for stern post-revolutionary measures to protect socialist democracy.

But who wants the Cheka au Callinicos? Not least when - if you don't fancy capitalism and can't be arsed to moderate it - you can join the Mango Affinity Group and take enjoyable direct action against the IMF or the WTO (whose W does not stand for Workers). Millennial anarchism has all the advantages of Trotskyism with none of the drawbacks. It's cool, it's individual and you can be as much or as little of one as you like.

And, now I come to think about it, Ken's great strength is precisely that he isn't a Trot or - in any developed sense - a socialist at all. At his best when defying all attempts to pin him down, he's an anarchist, a Mango.