September 28, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Memories of Liverpool in 1981 – part seven

9 min read
The 1981 riots in Liverpool and elsewhere were a political challenge for Marxists, especially the Militant, as Tony McMahon discovers

The Marxist Militant Tendency wielded huge influence in the Labour Party on Merseyside in the 1980s. It operated within the Labour Party and key figures would go on to lead Liverpool City Council during its showdown with the Thatcher government between 1983 and 1986. But what did Militant think about the nihilistic rioting in 1981? It was a case of understanding the grievances but grimacing at this chaotic outburst.

I nursed a well-thumbed anthology of Leon Trotsky’s writings on my lap as the bus made its way from the Carnatic halls of residence to the university precinct via the ruins of Toxteth. My choice of Liverpool as a place to study was mainly dictated by my newly acquired ideological stance.

This was a period on the Left when debate was still framed in broadly Marxist and ideological terms. Defining yourself, knowing who and what you were, was an essential first step to becoming an activist. You might be a ‘social democrat’, a ‘democratic socialist’ or a ‘Marxist’. You could be on the ‘hard left’ or the ‘soft left’. Reformist or revolutionary. And you might be asked to define your position on the still existing and looming large Soviet Union.

I have to pinch myself to believe that I was once a speaker in a debate at university titled: “Soviet Union – state capitalist or degenerated workers’ state”.[1] I was arguing, quite passionately, the latter position. It all seemed incredibly important at the time. Now, it has the relevance of the proverbial angels dancing on a pinhead.

I had joined the Labour Party’s youth movement a few months before, rapidly being identified as a ‘sympathiser’ by Militant. It was then a progression to becoming a ‘contact’, entering into regular discussions with a member, and then blossoming into a full-blown ‘comrade’. I was groomed into Marxism by a very earnest young woman who used to explode at my petit-bourgeois inclinations:

“You gotta see things from a class perspective, Tone!”

Like many young people at the turn of the decade, I shared a yearning for fundamental change. Some people in Britain hoped Thatcher would deliver that decisive break from the post-war consensus in a decidedly right-wing direction while others like me wanted to veer leftwards. Our parents probably just wanted things to work better, but more of the same was not an attractive option to the teenagers I hung out with in 1981.

Liverpool was described by Militant as the ‘Bermuda triangle of British capitalism[2]’. So, it definitely seemed the right place to be. Militant’s view was shared to a degree by the Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer Geoffrey Howe who in July 1981 made some astonishing remarks to Cabinet colleagues after the Toxteth riots. In classified documents released in 2011, it was revealed that he argued that Liverpool was beyond any help and should be subjected to a policy of ‘managed decline’[3].

The local Labour Party in the city had slid by degrees under the influence of the Militant via the Trotskyist tactic of ‘entrism’.[4] The logic behind this infiltration tactic went something like this: Marxists should always find themselves alongside the most politicised workers to win them over to Marxism. These workers were to be found mainly in the Labour Party and trades unions. Ergo, Marxists should ‘enter’ those organisations.

Every new member of Militant was leant a dog-eared pamphlet called Entrism. It was loaned and not given because the content was deemed to be so incendiary that it had to be handed back after being read. I still have my copy. Its worn condition was on account of having passed through the eager hands of other initiates. In reality, it was a rather dull anthology of Trotsky’s writings on entrism into socialist parties in the 1930s. But it laid bare what we were all about and our mission.

My drift into Marxism was symptomatic of a sharp left turn among Labour Party members. Though this trend was bitterly resisted by trades unions and the still powerful moderate wing of the party. They believed that the Thatcher government was inherently unstable and that, as The Economist even predicted, by 1983 Labour could be back in power resuming where it had left off before its 1979 general election defeat.

From 1980 I was a member of the Labour Party Young Socialists, the youth wing of the Labour Party, which had come under the control of the Militant Tendency as early as 1972.[5] In effect, the LPYS was regarded by the Militant as its youth organisation, branded as Labour for now. It was even referred to as the “YO” in one internal Militant document that passed under my nose.

I’d started attending LPYS meetings in Epping Forest, near where I grew up. Lord Underhill (formerly Reg Underhill) lived locally and had been national agent of the Labour Party between 1972 and 1979. Beneficially for Militant, he had recommended abolishing the list of proscribed organisations in 1973 – that were incompatible with party membership.[6]

But he then produced a report in 1975 alleging that Militant was a separate organisation within the party having its own parallel organisation. The National Executive Committee considered his report but there was no appetite to return to proscription. Militant responded with a September 1975 front page headline stating: ‘Witch-Hunt Will Fail’.

From 1975 to 1979, Underhill’s position on Militant hardened. In a series of subsequent reports, he alleged that Militant was in reality an independent party called the Revolutionary Socialist League and the editorial board of its newspaper Militant was actually the RSL’s central committee. He wasn’t wrong.

The Militant approach to the Labour Party was articulated in a meeting I was invited to behind closed doors in Liverpool. We were described as a small rock positioned in such a way that we could move a giant lever: The Labour Party. Our strategy would be realised by one of two outcomes. Either we would recruit the best people in the Labour Party and leave. Or we would make life so hellish for the ‘reformists’ and ‘right wingers’ in the Labour party that, like a peeled onion, these outer layers would fall away. That was the analogy used.

Underhill fulminated that the RSL was a Marxist revolutionary party that had adopted the Trotskyist tactic of ‘entrism’ to transform the Labour Party from being a social democratic to a revolutionary Marxist organisation. [7] In the form of the Militant, it had already taken over the party’s youth movement and had a significant presence in many constituency parties and also trade union branches.[8] In 1976, leading Militant and LPYS activist Andy Bevan became the Youth Officer of the Labour Party.

Militant also began to influence party policy. In 1972, the Labour Party conference passed a motion calling for an Enabling Bill to be presented to parliament that would bring into public ownership the top 350 monopolies.[9] The motion had been proposed by Ray Apps and Pat Wall, two leading Militant members. Whether the conference realised it or not, this was the central demand of Militant and would have led in reality to the nationalisation of 85% of the UK economy and the end of capitalism.

When the Toxteth riots broke out, the ruling Liberal party on the council and the local press sought to implicate Militant as instigators of the riots. They formed a connection between the events in Toxteth and the visit to Merseyside of Clare Doyle from the Labour Committee for the Defence of Brixton (LCDB).[10] She was also on the editorial board of the Militant.

The LCDB was set up by editorial board members Doyle and Lynn Walsh and Tony Saunois, then the LPYS representative on the Labour Party National Executive Committee. This was a textbook Marxist response to a situation it had not initiated but over which it wanted to exert some influence. The LCDB reached out to black residents’ representatives, shop stewards, councillors and Labour Party members. A month later, it was the driving force behind a benefit gig at the local town hall headlined by the pop groups UB40 and Aswad.

In reality, Militant was in the same boat as everybody else scrambling to keep pace with events, though with very different motives. It sought to intervene with its Marxist programme and recruit the ‘best elements’ to Militant. As orthodox Marxists, they shunned the spontaneity of rioting with its lack of organisation and political programme. To Militant, rioting was a form of ‘individual’ terrorism that gave the state a perfect excuse to beef up its police and security powers.

The approach therefore was to sympathise with the grievances behind rioting while diverting the aggrieved to Marxist conclusions and away from this nihilist, inchoate behaviour. Doyle explained in a 2011 article:

“Once the April flare-up began, the LPYS and Militant supporters moved into action. They did not consider burning and looting as the way to combat the policies of Thatcher, but they understood what was behind the rage that was unleashed.”[11]

The LCDB had clearly blipped on the radar of the tabloid press because once Doyle appeared in Toxteth after the rioting, it was announced that ‘Red Clare’ was in town. According to the Militant version of events she was there to update on Brixton and compare the situation in Toxteth. It’s a more sober and equally more likely explanation. The tabloids cast her as an orchestrating influence.

Having been involved in Militant in the years that followed, this misunderstands the approach of a very orthodox Marxist group, which Militant was. Spontaneous riots were not relished. Every ‘comrade’ had to read Lenin from back to front. They knew that the first leader of the Soviet Union had dreaded the so-called “July Days” in 1917 when Russian workers and soldiers swarmed on to the streets. These protestors wanted an end to the war being waged by the pre-Soviet Provisional Government against Germany (the First World War) and were refusing to be sent to the front.

The Bolsheviks had not yet taken power. They also opposed Russia’s involvement in the First World War. But Lenin wanted an orderly seizure of the Russian state as opposed to an inchoate explosion of anger that could be counterproductive. This resulted in a public stance of lukewarm support from the Bolsheviks but in private, furious opposition to the riots that unfolded in Petrograd (now St Petersburg).

“Far from aiming to seize power, the Bolsheviks did their best to restrain the masses”.[12]

Lenin’s formula for a successful revolution was a vanguard party led by strategists steeped in Marxist theory leading the proletariat. Everything else was a potentially destructive distraction.

While the Bolsheviks fretted behind the scenes, the two elements that thrived during the brief July Days were Anarchists and the extreme-right Black Hundreds. Arguably groups with a similar profile can be found playing the same role in today’s protests as de facto agent provocateurs and counterdemonstrators. Their actions gave the state an excuse to clamp down on dissent, which impacted Bolshevik activity for a while.

1917 was not an abstract piece of history to groups like the Militant but a history lesson with immediate relevance. At no point in the years that followed, did I ever hear the 1981 riots being referred to as something to emulate or repeat. Far from wanting to be in the driving seat in July 1981, Militant sought to divert the chaotic energy from the streets into something far more organised and Leninist.

It’s strange to say, but Mary Whitehouse seemed to have an instinctive understanding of the frustration and anxiety that Marxists felt about the riots. The revolutionaries were not controlling events, much as they might have wanted to in the case of the SWP. She blamed TV. Militant blamed the underlying grievances of unemployment and racism. But neither Mary Whitehouse nor the Militant thought riots were a good idea.

There was even a tinge of regret over the destructive power of the violence in Toxteth. The prominent Militant activist Derek Hatton, who went on to become Deputy Leader of Liverpool City council when Labour gained a majority in the 1983 elections, referred to events that summer in Toxteth in his autobiography:

“I know those streets well – places like Upper Parliament Street and Granby Street where I stood watching buildings which were Liverpool landmarks razed to the ground. The Racquets Club in Upper Parliament Street – the preserve of elitist generations of Liverpool businessmen – was reduced to ashes in a night. The old Rialto cinema building on the corner of Princes Road, with its distinctive domes, was burned to the ground in hours.”[13]

[1] Grant, Ted, Silverman, Roger, ‘Bureaucratism or Workers’ Power’,, Web

[2] Taaffe, Peter, Mulhearn, Tony, ‘Liverpool – A City that Dared to Fight’, Fortress Books, 1988

[3] ‘Toxteth riots: Howe proposed ‘managed decline’ for city’, BBC News, 30 December 2011

[4] Grant, Ted, ‘Problems of Entrism’,, Web

[5] Taaffe, Peter, ‘The Rise of Militant’, Militant Publications, 1995

[6] Smith, Evan, Worley, Matthew, ‘Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956’, Manchester University Press, 2017

[7] Grant, Ted, ‘Problems of Entrism’,, Web

[8] Ibid: ‘Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956’

[9] Ibid: ‘Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956’

[10] ‘1981 Brixton riots’, Socialist Party, 6 April 2011, Web

[11] Ibid: ‘1981 Brixton riots’

[12] Woods, Alan, ‘1917 Russian Revolution: The July Days’, Socialist Appeal, 21 July 2017, Web

[13] Hatton, Derek, ‘Inside Left’, Bloomsbury, 1988

2 thoughts on “Memories of Liverpool in 1981 – part seven

  1. Intriguing inight into the mind/adventures of a Miltant activist (young Tony) up from Woodford Green. Wish I’d kept my copy of Inside Left – evocative quote from Hatton re the aftermath of the Toxteth riots, what a waste.

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