December 8, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

An American view of 1980s UK Trotskyists

3 min read
As Trotskyists enjoyed some political success in the 1980s - we look at the American view of this development on the political Left

In the early 1980s, British Trotskyism was in the rudest of health. The Militant tendency in particular had solidified its hold on the Labour Party Young Socialists and exercised a significant influence in many constituency Labour parties. So, what was the American view of UK Trotskyists? Especially an America now governed by Ronald Reagan – a President determined to bury the Soviet Union.

Scouring American newspaper articles of the time, I’m surprised to find that there was a surprising level of awareness about UK Trotskyists. Despite being opposed to the Soviet bureaucracy, that didn’t endear them to US-based observers. They were still Marxists and therefore opposed to private property and capitalism. So that made them an ideological enemy.

DISCOVER: Two rival youth wings in the 1980s Labour Party

Victor Riesel (1913-1995) was a commentator on American labour unions known for his vehement anti-communism and homophobia. In past decades, his opposition to communist recruitment within labour unions drove him straight into the hands of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his ‘McCarthyite’ witch hunt of suspected communists in the 1950s. The years had not mellowed him. In an article syndicated in the Indiana Gazette on 30 June 1982, he let rip about the presence of Trotskyism across the Old World. Of special concern was the UK where the Militant tendency stood accused of infiltrating the Labour Party – a tactic called ‘entrism’.

The group had been ordered by Labour’s National Executive Committee to hand over a list of ‘members’, ‘officials’, and finances. Needless to say, it responded that the Militant had no membership nor officials and its finances were of no concern. Riesel described the Militant thus:

“These Trots aren’t ‘Moscovite’ communists who have a British party of their own. Could these Trotskyists capture the British Labour Party which some day will take power in Britain? These revolutionists have already captured a strong section of the Labour Party. The Executive vote giving the ‘Militant tendency’ three months to prove it was not a party was only 16-10. So the ‘Militant tendency is a power.”

Riesel cited British commentators who felt that Militant would not have fared so well if it didn’t have friends in the trade unions. He compared this to the success American Trotskyists had enjoyed in the past in UK labour unions. And bemoaned the fact that the FBI was “forbidden to investigate or event keep lists of militants or revolutionists regardless of the crucial nature to our defense and economy of the infiltrated industries”. What worried him was that the Militant in Britain could embolden Trotskyists everywhere.

“Look at what the ‘Militant tendency’ Trotskyists have accomplished in Britain. They organized. They captured districts. They are prepared to nominate candidates for the next Parliamentary elections.” This point really irked Riesel. Militant would use its parliamentary platform to spread its program. “What if they win a strong bloc? They would have more than a shrieking voice in the House of Commons. They would have shown the Trotskyists-Marxist cadres across the world exactly how to ‘fraction’, caucus and win.”

FIND OUT MORE: The turbulent Labour Party of the 1980s

Pardon some of the misspellings in these quotes but they are quoted verbatim!

Riesel warned his American readers: “Don’t scoff at the ‘Militant tendency’.”

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