4 Apr 2020

When Keir Starmer was a Marxist.



Canvassing in Brighton back in 2017 to support Green Party MP Caroline Lucas’s re-election efforts, I knocked on a door and came across a fellow ex-member of Socialist Self-Management. The numbers involved in the group and in the production of its glossy magazine Socialist Alternatives, I guess, never amounted to more than thirty. We exchanged memories of former associates, and Keir Starmer’s name came up. He was described on the door step as ‘ambitious’. Now elected Labour Party leader, has Keir Starmer’s youth affiliation, in the 1980s, with an obscure Trotskyist splinter group, anything to tell us about his future direction in British politics? Probably not, if I am frank. Origins are no automatic guide to future development. Indeed many of us move through different forms of ideological commitment over a lifetime. Nonetheless, I still feel that Socialist Self-Management was an innovative group and I think it is worth outlining their approach, which might be seen as prefigurative of later developments in British politics.
Socialist Self-Management had an odd dual existence. On the one hand it was a loose libertarian group with little trace of paper selling, democratic centralism or political discipline. Even using the term ‘membership’ was a little misleading. Far from being a homogenous organisation, those of us involved were likely to be in the Labour Party like Keir, but included Greens and the otherwise unaffiliated. There was no getting up at 5.30am to sell copies of Socialist Alternative at the factory gates, however we did get to go to a Bastille Day Celebration and a revolutionary youth camp in the South of France in the summer of 1989.
On the other hand, SSM was essentially a section of the International Revolutionary Marxist Tendency. Not only was Keir a Trotskyist, but one of those exotic and rarely seen specimens, a Pabloite. Occasionally, events in memory of Trotsky were promoted, along with copies of Sous le Drapeau du Socialisme, the International Revolutionary Marxist Tendency’s journal. I guess Shelley’s dictum that poets are the’ unacknowledged legislatorsof the world’   might be rewritten substituting ‘former Trotskyists’ for writers of verse. There is some evidence that 1980s Trotskyists dominate British politics in 2020. The Brexit Party and Boris Johnson’s policy office are staffed with ex members of the Revolutionary Communist Party. I digress.
The tension between a Fourth International affiliation and a loose libertarian organisation led to some criticism from observers of SSM. There was certainly conflict with the Socialist Society when SSM members were attending meetings. It is worth digging a little deeper to understand the perhaps unusual, but innovative ideological orientation of the Revolutionary Marxist Tendency. Stalin, Tito and the international green movement all played their part.

Michel Pablo was the pseudonym of Michalis N. Raptis. A Greek citizen born in Egypt in 1911, he became a controversial and innovative Marxist leader. By the 1950s he was one of the most prominent leaders of the Fourth International . The Fourth International (FI) had been created as a new global Communist organisation, after Stalin’s rift with Trotsky. Backed by the US Socialist Workers Party, Pablo had played an important role in uniting the International and shaping its strategic direction, but by the early 1950s the new perspective he was advancing for the organisation caused bitter dissent. He argued that the strength of official Communist Parties, the relative weaknesses of the Trotskyists, and the likelihood of World War Three occurring, suggested a new tactic. Supporters of the FI were to secretly join Communist Parties or social democratic parties as a long-term project to exploit the subsequent divisions caused by likely war. While this might be seen as an imaginative way of leveraging power for a relatively small political organisation, it was perceived understandably by many of Pablo’s comrades as scandalous, given that Stalin had had Trotsky murdered. Pablo's politics are discussed in greater detail here.
Fast forward to the 1980s, Pablo had long been expelled from the FI and his Trotskyist international was a tiny organisation. He continued to innovate; anti-colonial struggles had been one intervention. Older members of Socialist Self-Management such as the physicist and former Bristol West Labour Party Parliamentary Candidate John Malos , whom I met, were proud of their role in the Algerian independence struggles of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Challenging bureaucratic forms of socialist planning, Pablo embraced workplace democracy, thus the title Socialist Self-Management reflected the core of his political philosophy. He acted as an economic advisor to Chile’s socialist President Allende before the 1973 coup. Feminism was another passion, the Pabloites were early advocates of what now might be termed intersectionality. Ellen Malos authored The Politics of Housework, published in 1980 along with Housework and the Politics of Women's Liberation.
Ecological politics was another focus. Australian members of the Pabloite International were early advocates of what we might term ecosocialism. My involvement came after reading Alan Roberts’ book The Self-Managing Environment. Like John Malos, Roberts was another Australian physicist. The Self-Managing Environment’s Freudian Marxism linking an alienated workforce to the existence of an ecologically damaging consumer society looks rather dated at first sight, another iteration of Marcuse perhaps. However, in robustly criticising the Malthusianism of 1970s environmentalists like Paul Ehrlich, defending the concept of commons and taking a nuanced view of technology innovation, I think it remains an important book for those of us advocating green politics today. I picked up a copy of the Self-Management Papers in Camden’s radical bookshop Compendium, put together by an Oxford student using the pseudonym Harry Curtis at some point in the mid 1980s. When Socialist Alternatives came out I was a keen reader. Not having seen an issue for a month or two I asked the people behind the counter in my then local radical bookshop Full Marx in Bristol . They told me that one of the production team supported their bookshop, I was introduced to John and Ellen Malos, who whisked me down the M4 for regular meetings in London with ‘Harry Curtis’, Peter Tatchell and, of course, Keir Starmer.

Keir struck me as radical, competent and pragmatic. He and Harry were enthused by reading Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, suggesting strong intellectual engagement with approaches to building a new left. Eventually SSM faded, ‘Harry Curtis’ became a member of the Green Party, the Pabloites internationally re-joined the Fourth International of Ernest Mandal (although Pablo himself wasn’t allowed to join). Keir continued with some radical commitments as a young lawyer, from defending poll tax protesters, to work on the McLibel case. Involved in the Haldane Society of socialist lawyers, he eventually became Director of Public Prosecutions. It will be interesting to see where Keir takes the Labour Party. However, the experience of Trotskyist-turned-establishment politicians, one thinks of Lionel Jospin, French Prime Minister 1997-2002, has not so far been a source of radicalism. However we shall see.
Derek Wall

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When Keir Starmer was a Marxist.

Canvassing in Brighton back in 2017 to support Green Party MP Caroline Lucas’s re-election efforts, I knocked on a door and came acros...