When I wrote my book on the Poll Tax movement its primary purpose was to give an overview of the Poll Tax in the context of Thatcherism, to outline the key battles of the movement and draw some perhaps useful political conclusions. I also hoped it would be an inspiration for people feeling gloomy and demoralised by seemingly endless years of Tory rule. In as much as I have feedback about the book I feel it has achieved some of these things.
However it was inevitable, just as the sun rises in the East and sets in the West, that the Socialist Party (the descendants from Militant) would write a review of the book and damn it with bell, book and candle. What the SP want is a hagiography but that isn’t something I can give them.
In his review Clive Heemskerk has two main gripes with the book. The first is that he seems to assume that my motivation in writing it was to launch a sectarian attack on Militant. He writes at one point that “But he does not – cannot – dispute our incontestable leading role” as if I had kind of wanted to write a book which barely mentioned Militant but I had to bow down to the incontestable power of their sheer existence and recognise their grudgingly leading role. What a strange bunker mentality.
I don’t think anyone who isn’t fuelled by defensiveness can read my account of the Poll Tax and conclude that it is somehow harsh on Militant’s role or unfair. I consistently throughout give them credit for their role. I regular refer to the speeches and political positions of their leading members. I even try and give them the some of the benefit of the doubt over their ‘we’ll name names to the police’ after the Poll Tax riot. I also give the anarchists a chance to have their say as well as the smaller Trotskyist groups.
However no one who was alive and active during the Poll Tax movement who wasn’t in Militant could say that their role wasn’t sometimes controversial or problematic. Only Militant could write a history of the Poll Tax in which they never packed out a meeting, never kicked people off committees they didn’t like, never tried to shut down local anti-poll tax unions when they were too ‘oppositional’. In writing a history of a movement you have to tackle the dialectical (there’s that word!) relationship between the leading role that organised socialist groups play in leading a movement but also the way that those groups operate when they feel threatened or challenged by rivals.
His second main gripe is with the ending of the book where I try and grapple with the difficult historical contradiction that there was this huge multi million strong movement that defeated Thatcher’s flagship policy, even helped bring down Thatcher and yet Labour lost the 1992 election and the movement didn’t translate into anything more radical.
Now I think Clive Heemskerk makes some very valuable points on this, in particular his point about the emphasis on the end of the Poll Tax movement coinciding with the collapse of “communism”;
“Yet Simon Hannah barely mentions this era-defining context except in a couple of throwaway comments that “many on the left saw in the uprisings parallels with their fight against Thatcher”, which might portend “perhaps even a revolution in Britain?”… But to avoid any assessment of the broader objective conditions in which the anti-poll tax struggle took place is not ‘tackling the difficult questions’ about ‘what came next’. It shows at best that the author completely misunderstands the change in the balance of class forces the collapse of Stalinism represented”
I think that is a valuable point. But I also think there was a contradiction embedded in the movement itself which Clive wants to ignore or downplay or whatever. Earlier in the book I praise Militant for their single minded determination around non-payment because that was the strategy which ultimately won the fight. But the contradiction is that this strategy couldn’t be translated beyond the Poll Tax and because it was based on non-payment it didn’t have any real impact in mobilising workers as workers. Clive claims that “in the real anti-poll tax movement there was no division between the community and the workplace”. I just think that is too shallow an analysis. It was clear that there was a huge strategic debate about whether to focus on non-collection (workers taking action as workers) or non-payment (residents taking action as residents) and that played a role in the dynamics and logical outcome of the movement.
I do believe that if there had been more emphasis on organising rank and file workers that could well have had a positive outcome but I also acknowledge in the book that it was probably hard to get coming off the back of a decade of bitter historic defeats of the unions. Context does matter, but so does thinking about how things could have played out differently.
But what we have in other parts of the polemic is standard Militant hagiography coupled with a repeated refrain that I have a “timeless” and “abstract schema” about the Labour Party which means I don’t understand the true dialectic about Militant and Labour (or something).
Let’s take a look at the example that Clive gives which will be familiar to anyone who knows anything about the British left, the boosting of Liverpool City Council as an example of what Labour could be like under a “Marxist leadership”. After criticising my analysis of Labour as an ‘electoralist’ party Clive reminds us all that “The Liverpool Labour Party, after all, had led a mass movement, including city-wide strike action, at the same time it was winning great electoral victories. The author’s timeless and schematic ‘analysis’ provides no means to accurately assess the possibilities of working class struggle being organised through the Labour Party either during the poll tax years, their aftermath – or now.”
Of course in my book on the history of the Labour left (which the Socialist Party also didn’t like because again it wasn’t enough of a hagiography for their own tendency) I go through lots of examples where the Labour left attempted to engage in a actual class struggle and social movements. The only point I would make is that these were exceptions and the number of left activists that have been expelled over the years whilst the majority of Labour and Labourism has been dominated by electoralism and a parliamentary fetish remains consistent.
If I believed that there was no room for manoeuvre within Labour for class struggle activism then I wouldn’t have bothered joining under Jeremy Corbyn.
It is also worth noting of course that in terms of timeless abstractions the SP confidently declared that Labour had been completely bourgeosified in the 1990s and that it was dead to the cause of socialism, because only the Socialist Party now embodied the true proletarian ideals. Now that’s what I call a schema!
I just want to look at the final paragraph as well because Clive rounds up his review with a personal dig which I just love. I’ll pull the paragraph apart to examine it bit by bit.
“In reality Simon Hannah is himself an example of how socialist consciousness was thrown back in the post-Stalinist era.”
Ouch! I need some ice for that burn Clive.
“Viewing the anti-poll tax struggle from afar he is frustrated that it did not produce a more profound “movement of rupture” than the objective conditions made possible and is not sure that it is an instructive model after all.”
Well it is frustrating that more didn’t come out of it, surely Militant agree with that too? I actually do say it has lots of lessons for today but there are also specifics (like it was an issue that affected everybody and therefore had a lot of traction with millions of people) that mean it can’t simple be replicated today. Yes the collapse of the Soviet Union was a factor but is that some kind of ‘down turn theory’ when anything was possible? At the time Militant was debating building a mass working class alternative to Labour and standing their own candidates in elections so you can’t have thought things were that bad at the time.
“Dissatisfied, he reaches instead for any and every other route to building an alternative political force – even speaking favourably at one point of “the temporary left turn of the Liberal Democrats under Charles Kennedy”!
That’s cheap Clive! Bloody hell. What I actually wrote is mostly about Labourism after Kinnock; “There was no alternative political force in Britain that emerged out of the struggles against Thatcherism that could either defend social democracy or advance a more radical socialist cause. The closest was the political evolution of the SNP and the temporary left turn of the Liberal Democrats under Charles Kennedy until 2006.” The mantle of even old social democracy – which I am not a supporter of – was abdicated by Kinnock and Blairism purged it from the Labour Party for over a decade (you can read more about that in my history of the Labour left). Likewise the socialist left didn’t manage to build any mass alternatives pace the success of the SWP in the Stop the War movement. The idea that I am reaching out to ‘any and every route’ to build a political alternative is just nonsense. I have no truck with the Lib Dems, Greens, SNP or Labour (except for under Corbyn) and have consistently organised to the left of Labour, including in the Campaign for a New Workers Party alongside the illustrious comrade Heemskerk.
“…rather than seriously discussing how a working class Marxist nucleus can be built today that will be capable, as Militant was in the late 1980s, of melding with and leading the mass movements of the future.”
I have not seriously discussed the issues of working class politics, Marxism or how to build mass movements of the future? Clive has clearly never heard me shouting loudly down the pub about my views on the working class Marxist nucleus!
From protest to resistance (based on my arguments in the Poll Tax book)
The final thing I will say just in defence of historians (even amateur ones like myself) is Clive’s slightly weird comment that I was only 9 when the Poll Tax riot happened. He argues “he had no experience of the events to check against (he was nine in 1990!)” implying that I probably can’t be credible to write a history of the events.
Well that may be, comrade Heemskerk, but I pray to God you didn’t say the same thing to Peter Taaffe when he wrote his history of the French Revolution The Masses Arise: The Great French Revolution, 1789-1815. Comrade Taaffe might be older than me but I don’t think even he was particularly active in the storming of the Bastille either.