Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Friday, March 03, 2006

Tony Blair: Rock Star, War Criminal...and Trotskyist?

Today's Independent had a story with a headline that caught my eye: 'Blair reveals an unexpected influence: Trotsky'.

'Tony Blair...was asked for his favourite reading matter at an event to launch World Book Day in London. Speaking at the Commonwealth Club, Mr Blair said: "There were people who got me very involved in politics. But then there was also a book. It was a trilogy, a biography of Trotsky by Isaac Deutscher, which made a very deep impression on me and gave me a love of political biography for the rest of my life."'

Now, on one level, this was hardly news - Blair had revealed this in 1998. Nor can one really argue with Blair's taste here - Deutscher's biography of Leon Trotsky probably did more than any other book (with the possible exception of Marx's Communist Manifesto) to win me to the politics of Trotskyism - and it made no. 6 in my highly scientific 'Top Ten works of Marxist History Ever' list.

Yet what nobody seems to have done yet is to contextualise the young Anthony Charles Lynton Blair being politically inspired reading about the life of Lev Davidovich Bronstein. I can concede that this may not be the most vital task facing the international working class movement at this moment in time, what with the ever present menace of neo-liberalism and imperialist war, but if we do this then some aspects of Blairism begin to become illuminated in new and interesting ways. (Well, they don't really but just give me the benefit of the doubt for a bit longer...)

The Prophet Armed - Blair, 1953-1975.

Blair must have read Deutscher's Trotsky in the mid 1970s, when he was in his early twenties. The early 1970s were a high point of class struggle in Britain - with miners' strikes bringing down two Tory Governments - and this on top of the general radicalisation of students around the Vietnam War. We can perhaps imagine an excited young Anthony Blair looking around for some sort of better explanation of a crisis wracked world and an alternative vision of socialism to that of the bureaucratic tyranny's of Stalinist Russia and Maoist China. Okay, perhaps this is going too far, but try to imagine the young Blair picking up the Deutscher biography and going 'Golly, I say, I rather like the cut of the jib of this Trotsky fellow...'

It is not too hard to see why the young Anthony Charles Lynton Blair might have been able to relate to Trotsky. Lev Davidovich Bronstein had been born into a Jewish farming family and had grown up in Tsarist Russia where anti-semitism was rife, left school aged sixteen and had been imprisoned and exiled for revolutionary activity by the time he was twenty, for trying to organise workers' into trade unions, taking the name 'Trotsky' from a jailer. Blair, whose father was a Tory law lecturer, on the other hand, after attending Durham's Chorister School was educated at the exclusive Fettes College in Edinburgh (sometimes called the "Eton of Scotland") and then had read law at St John's College, Oxford. Just as Trotsky had been elected Chair of the St Petersburg Soviet during the 1905 Revolution, Blair had won a place as the frontman in a rock band Ugly Rumours. Just as Trotsky had joined the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1897, now in 1975 Blair decided to change the world and join the British Labour Party. After all, hadn't Trotsky himself told his British followers in the late 1930s to 'enter' the Labour Party in order to win an audience among newly radicalising workers for Marxism? And now, after the glorious victories of the organised working class in Britain, surely now the revolution was not far off?

The Prophet Unarmed - Blair, 1976-1983

Blair, the young 'Trotskyist', knew that to operate inside a Party like the Labour Party as a revolutionary without being thrown out it was a good idea to keep your full revolutionary ideas hidden from public view. When Thatcher came to power in 1979, the Labour Party shifted to the Left and Blair therefore naturally aligned himself with the 'soft left' who appeared to be taking control of the party, and he impressed the then Labour Party leader Michael Foot, getting his name noticed within the party. At the time Blair espoused (for the time) conventional leftist positions.

In 1983, Blair found that the newly created seat of Sedgefield, near where he had grown up in Durham, had no Labour candidate and got himself selected. Blair enthusiastically supported unilateral nuclear disarmament, being a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament at the time. The seat was safely Labour despite the party's collapse in the 1983 UK general election; and he won. Blair stated in the House of Commons on 6 July 1983: 'I am a socialist not through reading a textbook that has caught my intellectual fancy, nor through unthinking tradition, but because I believe that, at its best, socialism corresponds most closely to an existence that is both rational and moral. It stands for cooperation, not confrontation; for fellowship, not fear. It stands for equality'. Needless to say, this was a withering attack on the 'vulgar Marxism' of Stalinism, with its pull on intellectual's fancies, and its unthinking adherance to textbooks like Dialectical Materialism by J.V. Stalin. The 'Trotskyist' Blair, stressing socialist equality over the fear and violence of the Stalinist state, was now in a position of some power as an MP.

Defeat in Victory - Blair and the Great Miner's Strike, 1984-5.

Yet then, just as Blair had made it onto the stage of history as an MP, disaster overtook the British working class movement. Not much has been written on Blair and the defeated Miners Strike of 1984-5, but I believe it is vital to understanding Blair's future political and intellectual evolution. Blair put his 'Trotskyism' to the test in the heat of the struggle and it let him down - instead of workers councils and revolution led by the miners', that he had been inspired by in the 1970s, the miners' were smashed by the organised efforts of the capitalist class using brutal state terror.

Victory in Defeat - Blair's revision of orthodox 'Trotskyism'

Many Marxists have tried to update Trotskyism since Trotsky's murder in 1940- some like Tony Cliff in order to maintain the classical Marxist tradition as being about the self-emancipation of the working class. Others have looked for other social forces as agents of change, and often ended up breaking with Marxism altogether. Yet few have given Blair's attempt to update Trotsky's ideas amid the depression that overtook the British working class movement in the aftermath of the defeat of the miner's the attention it arguably deserves. Blair now made perhaps the most audacious theoretical revision of 'Trotskyism' ever attempted, and it was to lead him to more power than he had ever possibly imagined. However, it was not without its price - it was also to lead to ostracism from the traditional Left as a whole.

The Prophet Outcast - Blair, 1987-2005

Blair's theoretical revision of Trotskyism involved in some sense a truly heroic self-sacrifice perhaps comparable to Trotsky's last years in exile and isolation in the 1930s. Essentially, Trotsky had argued that the cause of international socialism could only be furthered in Britain if the grip of reformism on the British organised working class was undermined. What was needed instead of the Labour Party was a new mass revolutionary party of the working class. Blair's revision of Trotskyism was to think that it might be possible to break the power of Labourism over the working class if Trotskyists took over the Labour Party - and took it not to the Left and socialism but to the Right and Liberalism. However, in order to do this, 'Trotskyists' had to completely cover up their socialist agenda and act as Right wingers. He decided that he would therefore need to recruit people around him who were prepared to break all their past links with the Left and trade unions and go on a type of 'suicide mission' in order to destroy the Labour Party as a party of the working class by pretending to 'save it'. What was needed was 'New Labour' - a new Party of Liberalism - in order that the grip of old Labourism over the working class could be undermined. He soon recruited some people around him willing to join him on this suicide mission and after becoming leader of the Labour Party in 1994 managed to get the Labour Party to dump Clause Four, which committed the Party to 'the common ownership of the means of production' - ie socialism.

In 1997, Blair became Prime Minister of Britain as the leader of the victorious Labour Party. Now, he was in a position to use the Labour Party to attack the working class movement and try and break workers from supporting Labour. Things like tuition fees, cuts in disability benefit, attacks on single mothers and building a Millennium Dome which was to all extents and purposes a homage to corporate power went someway to alienating British workers from the Party. The Labour vote was steadily falling, and a small but determined anti-capitalist movement had been created. It was not bad going after only three years, but it was clear something more drastic was needed.

Blair was in a dilemma. Previously, he had thought that simply by going on the offensive as a Government against the very people who had voted for Labour would be enough to help encourage the development of socialism in Britain. But it was not happening fast enough - people were instead looking around to the Lib Dems and even the far right like UKIP as well as just the Left. Clearly, simply turning Labour into a Liberal Party was not going to be enough. What could he do to further socialism and totally destroy Labourism?

While Blair was considering his options, he soon remembered one thing that might do the trick. What had angered him as a young person? Of course - the Vietnam War! US Imperialism! Waging imperialist war could create a new mass movement open to ideas about revolution and Marxism. But could he kill people for the revolution? Blair must have wrestled with his conscience long and hard. Trotsky had been a military hero, leader of the Red Army and fought revolutionary war - was there such a difference between the Russian Civil War and Imperialist War? People died in both. History would surely absolve him - if by killing people the revolution was furthered, wouldn't it?

His first serious adventure in bloodletting took place when he joined up with US President Clinton to bomb Serbia in 1999. Of course, he stressed that it was about an 'ethical foreign policy', and 'humanitarianism' in order to make sure Labour came across as complete and utter hypocritical bastards. But a further set back - as the mass hoped for anti-war movement did not materialise. What would he have to do to get the working class in Britain to rise up against him?

Then the opportunity came - with the election of George W Bush as US President and the decision to launch a war on 'terrorism'. When Bush wanted to bomb Afghanistan, Blair pledged his support - he would stand 'side by side' with the US state. Then Bush suggested war on Iraq. This was a big test for Blair's 'Trotskyism' - was he prepared to go down in History as a War Criminal in order to try and hasten the inevitable revolution? The alternative to socialism was barbarism, Marxists had argued - and well, if people did not want socialism he would show them what barbarism looked like. He would force people to stare into the depths of Hell. However there was hope on the horizon - a huge anti-war movement had begun to emerge and this was before the war had started. People were already leaving Labour in droves - good. He decided to kick out one of the most vocal critics in the Party, George Galloway MP, forcing him to help set up a decent socialist alternative to New Labour, Respect. At last Labourism looked like it might still be undermined! Blair decided that maybe waging war on Iraq would be the thing to build socialism in Britain, especially if he sold the war to people on a completely false basis - non existent Weapons of Mass Destruction. It had the desired effect - provoking the biggest demonstration in Britain ever, with two million on the streets. Finally Blair's 'Trotskyism' seemed to be paying off - he had helped make some History!

The Prophet and the Proletariat - Where is Blair going?

However, it is unclear where Blair's 'Trotskyism' can go after Iraq. Blair has sent British working class kids off to die for multinational companies, has privatised or is trying to privatise pretty much everything that moves in Britain - including health and education - has presided over the huge growth in the gap between rich and poor, acted like an authoritarian bastard and torn up ancient civil liberties, and is clearly prepared to go and kill again in Iran should 'History' demand it, with all the racism and bloodshed such a war would entail. However, how much more barbarism can the world take? We have to get Blair out of power - for his own sake as much as anyone elses - and that means protests, strikes, and mass demonstrations. It is time to march in March. If not us, who? If not now, when?

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At 5:47 am, Blogger Frank Partisan said...

I'm covering this story with a plug of your blog.

At 9:39 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Cheers RE.

The hidden history of Blair's 'Trotskyism' needs to be told!

At 10:23 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Actually, I have just remembered something else about Blair's regime that is illuminated when thought about in the context of his 'Trotskyism'.

Remember the 'Czars' that Blair created at the start of his reign - 'Drugs Czars', 'Traffic Cone Czars' etc etc - surely that was done so that the British working class would think about the October Revolution - what Trotsky called 'The Overthrow of Czarism' - and decide to build up a Bolshevik revolutionary organisation?

The evidence mounts...


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