Peter Taaffe

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Peter Taaffe
Peter Taaffe in 2006.jpg
General Secretary of the Socialist Party
Assumed office
Deputy Hannah Sell
General Secretary of Militant Labour
In office
General Secretary of Militant
In office
Preceded by Position established
Personal details
Born 1942
Birkenhead, Cheshire, England
Political party Socialist Party
Children Nancy Taaffe
Religion None

Peter Taaffe (born 1942) is a British political activist and journalist. He is the general secretary of the Socialist Party of England and Wales and member of the International Executive Committee of the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI), which claims sections in over 35 countries around the world.[1]

Taaffe was the founding editor of the Militant newspaper in 1964,[2] and became known as a leader of the Militant tendency. Taaffe was expelled from the Labour Party in 1983, along with other members of Militant's editorial board, Ted Grant, Keith Dickinson, Lynn Walsh and Clare Doyle.

Taaffe was influential in the policy decisions of Liverpool City Council of 1983–87, according to the council's deputy leader Derek Hatton,[3] in the formation of the Militant tendency's policy regarding the Poll Tax in 1988–1991,[4] and the Militant tendency's 'open turn' from the Labour Party in the late 1980s, becoming general secretary of Militant's eventual successor, the Socialist Party in 1997.

Early life[edit]

Born in Birkenhead, Cheshire, one of six children of a sheet metal worker,[5] Taaffe first joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, before joining the Labour Party where he was attracted to the radical element in the Liverpool Labour Party. In an interview for the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘The Party’s Over’, Taaffe gave a few biographical details:

Shaun Ley – "Why was Liverpool so important in the development of Militant?"

PT – "I come from a working-class background. It was an area of a high degree of poverty, and still is unfortunately.

"It is also a seaport with a very radical tradition. It has a distinct character. Marxism and Trotskyism, the Communist Party always had a strong base there.

"It was an area of low-paid workers, not a majority of really very high-paid like other areas. Manchester, for instance, in the north-west, was more high-paid.

"There was also a militant tradition, and I came into that tradition, first in my case, in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and then in the Labour Party. In the Labour Party I discovered radical, socialist, Marxist ideas and in the course of discussion and debate I accepted those ideas."[6]

In Liverpool, the militant tradition to which Taaffe refers was can be traced to a founder member of the Communist Party (Albert Houghton) who had "long battled with the Stalinists"[7] forming a basis for Trotskyism in Liverpool before the Second World War.

"I came into contact with Socialist Fight in 1960" writes Taaffe.[8] Socialist Fight was the newspaper of a small group of mainly (but not entirely) industrial militants in Liverpool going by the name of the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL), and led by Jimmy Deane and Ted Grant.

Taaffe considered the ideas they defended to be significant. He "does not subscribe to the view that the struggles of small groupings are of no historical significance."[9] This small group supported the ideas of Leon Trotsky, who proposed that genuine Marxism, followed by Lenin, had always argued that only the working class in the advanced capitalist countries could lead a revolution to establish socialism. These were the ideas to which Taaffe subscribed.

Taaffe argues that "There is a long tradition going right back to the 1930s and Trotsky himself, of Trotskyist groups and organisations which endeavoured to find a base within the labour movement and working class."[9] When Taaffe joined this group, "Ted Grant and the Deanes (Jimmy, Gertie, Brian and Arthur), had been involved in the Trotskyist movement for decades."

This was at the time of the Clydeside apprentices’ strike of 1960. This strike spread to Merseyside and elsewhere, involving "upwards of 100,000" young apprentices,[10] and radicalised new layers of youth, some of whom came into the orbit of Trotskyism (Taaffe cites Ted Mooney, Terry Harrison, Tony Mulhearn and others.)

Ted Grant, with Jock Haston and others, had played an essential role in re-orienting the followers of the ideas of Trotsky at the end of the Second World War, in the period of relative prosperity and stability which opened up.[11] In the 1950s Grant had been editor of Socialist Fight, but the relatively affluent period had been difficult and membership was continuing to fall. By 1964 Socialist Fight had ceased publication.[12]

Peter Taaffe and the Militant newspaper[edit]

In 1964, Taaffe writes that the "youth supporters of Militant" drew on their experiences gained during the 1960 Clydeside apprentices’ strike in "seeking to organise and mobilise the Liverpool apprentices. Ted Mooney and I played leading roles, together with Harry Dowling and Dave Galashan, in organising an apprentices' strike in one factory, English Electric, on the East Lancashire Road." About 20,000 of the 70,000 engineering apprentices downed tools in total.[13] By this time the second issue of the Militant had come out.

Earlier in 1964, Ted Grant, Liverpudlians Jimmy Deane (who was National Secretary) and Keith Dickenson, Ellis Hillman, John Smith and others on the executive of the RSL decided to launch the Militant newspaper "without complete unanimity" Taaffe writes.[14]

Peter Taaffe, who lived in Liverpool at that time, was appointed editor, and Roger Protz, who lived in London where the paper was to be produced, and who had experience working on a magazine, was appointed technical editor. A business editor (S Mani) and sub editors were appointed.[15] "I was elected as the first editor of Militant in 1964," writes Taaffe, "and the only full-timer in 1965, with Keith Dickinson working with me as an invaluable unpaid 'part-timer' for the paper from 1965." [1]

Taaffe's task was to change the whole approach of this small group towards the working class – to speak in the language of the "Labour and trade union movement".

There was a need in the early 1960s, we believed, to have a newspaper that reflected a distinctive socialist and Marxist voice but which was one not existing on the margins but within the main working class party. At that stage, we thought, the Labour Party was this.[16]

In 1965 Taaffe was able to move to London, and was immediately faced with the loss of both Jimmy Deane as national secretary and Roger Protz as technical editor of Militant. He became full-time national secretary as well as editor of Militant, despite a serious shortage of money: "I was compelled first of all to sleep on the floor of a supporter in Balham... once or twice spending sleepless nights in the entrances of subways".[17] Eventually, the group became known by the name of the paper, and was either referred to as Militant or the Militant tendency.

Many of Peter Taaffe's major signed articles in Militant during the first few years were on international topics: the Congo, Dominica, Latin America, Vietnam, Rhodesia, China, bearing witness to Taaffe's interest in international affairs. In Issue 16, in May 1966, perhaps to coincide with the international working class celebrations on May Day, Taaffe's article led the front page with the banner headline 'Internationalism the Only Road'.

In September 1965, Militant in issue no.9 ran a front page article by Taaffe under the banner headline: "Nationalise the 400 Monopolies". This was the first instance of Militant's demand for the nationalisation of usually a specific number of multinational companies, which were said to control 80 percent or more of the economy, under workers' control and management, and the establishment of a socialist plan of production. Demands of this nature in Militant follow the Transitional Program written by Leon Trotsky, opshing beyond what the 'bourgeois state' was willing to concede.

Expulsion from the Labour Party[edit]

In the 1980s, after a period of growth in the 1970s, the Militant tendency became the most prominent Trotskyist organisation in Britain. Its successes and set backs are outlined in two books by Peter Taaffe: The Rise of Militant and Liverpool – A City That Dared to Fight (with Tony Mulhearn).

During this period, the Labour Party under Michael Foot and later Neil Kinnock moved to purge Militant supporters from the party. In 1983, Peter Taaffe, Ted Grant, Keith Dickinson, Lynn Walsh and Clare Doyle, the editorial board of the Militant newspaper, and the Militant supporters with the highest profile at the time, were expelled from the Labour Party.

A year later, speaking at the Wembley Conference Centre to several thousand supporters celebrating 20 years of the Militant newspaper, Taaffe highlighted the media attention now fixed on the Militant. Speaking about a "marvellous article" in the Daily Mirror, by now under the ownership of Robert Maxwell, he said:

I was highly amused at an article allegedly describing the ideas of the Militant Tendency. And in the course of this article, I had to scratch my head and rub my eyes a couple of times, because it quotes me as saying – this is what I actually literally am supposed to have said – in relation to potential middle class recruits to Militant, that I advocated they be dried in the wind, buried in the snow, fried on the grill, then dried in the wind, and buried in the snow again! I don’t know what Bob Maxwell thinks we are, that we want some kind of middle class shish kebab...[18]

Taaffe reports on a GCE A level examination question, "'Discuss the ideas of the Militant Tendency' – we hope there'll be many people who took that paper sitting in the audience today". His speech contrasted on the one hand the determination showed by strikers during the miners strike in 1984–1985, and the Liverpool victory of the previous year under the leadership of the Militant tendency, and on the other the "five years of defeats" inflicted on workers as a result of poor Labour and trade union leadership.[19]

At Labour Party conference in 1985, Neil Kinnock attacked the Militant-led Liverpool City council. Eric Heffer, a left-wing Liverpool MP, walked off the stage during Kinnock's speech. Taaffe characterised Neil Kinnock in this way: “The bourgeois recognized early that Kinnock’s role in attacking Liverpool and the miners was an attempt to sanitise the Labour Party, ridding it of all that ‘socialist nonsense.’” Taaffe went on to predict “an enormous recoil towards the left” within the Labour Party. But this prognosis was overtaken by the profound changes which took place in the Labour Party.

In 1988, 7,000 attended a Militant rally in the Alexandra Palace, and Peter Taaffe began assessing with the Scottish Militant members the prospects of battle around the government's Community Charge (Poll Tax) legislation. But for Taaffe and the leadership of the Militant, the prospects for Militant in the Labour Party were poor.

In fact it was Grant who had argued in Problems Of Entrism (1959) [2] and reprinted in great secrecy by the Militant in 1973 with an introduction by Peter Taaffe, that it was correct to leave the Labour Party under certain circumstances, as indeed the British Trotskyists who were in the Labour Party before the Second World War had done.

And here the problem of tactics as tactics, and not as Once-and-for-all fetishes, shows its real importance. The Labour and Trade Union leaders entered a coalition with the capitalist class, and at a later stage, entered the government under Churchill. The Labour organisations declined in activity and as live, functioning organisations.[20]

Taaffe's 1973 Introduction to this document says it is "rightly considered as a key document of the tendency".[21] Grant's words encapsulated the conclusion that was being gradually drawn by the members and leadership of the Militant as a result of the changes in the Labour Party in the 1980s – too slowly, Taaffe later argued. “Militant was slow to draw all the necessary conclusions from these developments”[22]

The Liverpool struggle 1983 – 87[edit]

In the four year Liverpool struggle, Taaffe was closely involved with developments, discussing with close friends and leading Liverpool Militant supporters, such as the former print worker Tony Mulhearn.[23] He was President of the Liverpool District Labour Party during these events, in which the Liverpool City Council declared it was "Better to break the law than break the poor", agreed an illegal budget, and built 4,800 houses and bungalows, and improved 7,400 houses and flats (amongst other works), before the 47 councillors were surcharged and removed from office [3]. Their opponents however argued that Liverpool was in chaos.

Taaffe wanted to take the Liverpool battle towards a split with the Labour Party at that stage. In the interview for the BBC Radio 4 programme The Party’s Over Taaffe makes the following remarks:

The defeat of the miners’ strike had an effect in disillusioning working-class people. Liverpool City Council was isolated and the right-wing nationally came for the Liverpool City Councillors. We made a mistake in 1986–87 when we allowed them to expel the leading Militants without taking counter-measures. We should have carried on with the Liverpool [District] Labour Party. This would have met with success in council elections and so on. But we decided we would have to retreat. I was in a minority view in Militant at that stage; I said we should fight in this way.[24]

The Liverpool District Labour Party, which Taaffe says in the same interview had a very large attendance of 700, was suspended by the Labour Party in 1986. Thus Taaffe here indicates that he argued for defying the ban, which would have been in all essentials a split from the Labour Party.

The Poll Tax 1989 – 1991[edit]

In Glasgow, in April 1988 a “one-day conference with delegates from every area of Scotland where Militant had supporters and influence”,[25] was held with Taaffe present. This conference decided to adopt the tactic of mass non-payment of the Poll Tax, and the "building of a Scottish-wide network of local anti-poll tax unions and regional federations" – a strategy which was clearly in tune with large swathes of the population.[4] In fact Prime Minister John Major subsequently reported that 17.5 million people had either not paid or were in serious arrears[26] just before abolishing it.

Anti-Poll Tax Unions were set up around the country, and brought together on an all-Scotland and then an all-Britain basis. These bodies, which brought Tommy Sheridan to prominence and are described in n Taaffe’s 'The Rise of Militant', had to be built outside, and essentially in opposition to the Labour Party, which was implementing the Poll Tax at local level.

"The august Times (11 July 1984) thundered: 'Danegeld in Liverpool'." writes Peter Taaffe in Liverpool – A City That Dared to Fight, chapter 8 p151 [4]. The Poll Tax non-payment campaign has been widely credited for causing British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s downfall. The BBC, for instance, reports: "The unpopularity of the new charge led to the poll tax riots in London in March 1990 and – indirectly – to the downfall of the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the November of the same year". The headline of this 'On this day' retrospective is "1990: One in five yet to pay poll tax" [5] (See also Poll Tax Riots.) Peter Taaffe argues that:

The experience of mass struggles outside the Labour Party, above all in the Poll Tax, were to convince the majority of Militant's supporters and leaders that the old tactic of concentrating most of its forces in the Labour Party had been overtaken by events.[27]

The Open Turn[edit]

From 1987, differences between Taaffe and others on the executive committee of Militant and the CWI, and Grant and his supporters became apparent.

The decisive issue between the two sides arose in 1991. It centred on whether the group should take an "open turn", initially called the "Scottish turn", which meant founding an independent political party outside of the Labour Party, or whether it should continue with entryism. Taaffe and the majority in Militant supported the Scottish turn and the creation of Scottish Militant Labour whilst Grant and a minority opposed it. These became known as the 'Majority' and the 'Minority' positions, and both produced documents which were circulated.[28]

The ‘Open Turn’ debate took place essentially between April and October 1991. In April 1991 the Militant executive body decided to support the "Scottish Turn" as it was initially termed.[29] In January 1992, the majority leadership claimed that the minority was intending to split from Militant. Peter Taaffe published an extended editorial in Militant (24 January 1992) entitled “A parting of the ways” which announced that following the "Scottish turn" decision at the special conference in October 1991, Tommy Sheridan would be the group's Glasgow Pollock candidate in the approaching general election."

Taaffe stated that those ten months had been one of "profound debate" culminating in the special October 1991 in which the majority had overwhelming support. Many opponents of the 'Scottish turn' will remain loyal supporters of Militant, Taaffe predicted. Immediately after the special conference, Taaffe stated that Ted Grant and his group took steps to set up "their own small premises and their own staff and are raising their own funds. We regret Ted Grant has split in this way. He made a vital contribution...”

Grant, Alan Woods, Rob Sewell and other leading supporters of the 'Minority' were expelled, and reconstituted themselves as the Socialist Appeal tendency, after its paper, and Scottish Militant Labour eventually became the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP).[30]

"A parting of the ways"[edit]

In the Militant editorial[31] and in the document "Two Trends: Political Roots of The Breakaway"[32] in January 1992, and in his book about Militant, Taaffe identified other issues which had become problematic. Political disagreements within the group existed over Black Monday (1987), Russia, Afghanistan and South Africa).[33] Taaffe accused Grant of "never [being] prepared to enter into a dialogue. Ted effectively claimed a right of political veto" over the executive committee of the Militant.[32] For Taaffe, there was a difference of views over the achievements of the last ten years. "They [Grant and his supporters] claim that over the last ten years Militant has relegated theory and moved towards activism. Incredibly, they dismiss as "activism" the outstanding interventions of Militant supporters in the miner's strike and the Liverpool council battle...Above all they relegate our successful leadership of the anti-poll tax movement which defeated Thatcher." On the contrary, counters Taaffe, it is Grant and his followers who have fallen into "dogmatism" and betray an atrophy of thought: "The former minority are political dinosaurs. They operate with outmoded formulas which no longer apply... an absolutely dogmatic, black and white, undialectical approach towards political phenomena, both in Britain and on an international scale.".[32] He claimed that Grant "publicly asserted his views against the majority of the editorial board on crucial issues, [which] threatened to have a disorientating effect on some of our supporters".[31]

One disagreement over current events was over 'Black Monday' – a sharp fall in the international stock markets in 1987. Grant believed a worldwide slump would arise from the fall of the stock markets. "From a capitalist point of view at best this will be the worst post-war slump, but it is possible that it will be worse than the slump of 1929–33".[34] Whilst Grant had the support of Alan Woods and Michael Roberts on this issue, he was opposed by Taaffe, Lynn Walsh, Bob Labi and what was to become the "majority". Here was first clearly delineated the dividing line that was drawn between the supporters of Grant and Taaffe. Taaffe writes that the discussion on the executive was "very sharp."[35]

Taaffe argued that "To other members of the Editorial Board it was clear that the major capitalist states, especially Germany and Japan, were stepping in to finance a stabilisation of the world financial system. This, we argued, would allow the boom to continue for a time, postponing a recession and other problems into the future. This was what happened."[31] Despite the disagreements, Grant proceeded to publish his views in the Militant. Looking back in 1992 Taaffe argues that Grant should have been challenged in writing.[32] Such a challenge would have meant the formation of factions in 1987.

A final issue was the approaching collapse of the Soviet Union, or for them, the crisis of Stalinism. Taaffe and the majority believed that the restoration of capitalism was possible in the Soviet Union. Grant disagreed. In fact in the same article on 'Black Monday' Grant added his view that "Any illusions in Gorbachev changing anything fundamental, will be shattered by the attitude of the Moscow bureaucracy to this crisis." The collapse of Stalinism was, Taaffe counters, "the end of an epoch", which led to capitalist triumphalism.[36]

The Socialist Party[edit]

The majority in the Militant tendency, led by Peter Taaffe, argued that the Labour Party had become a thoroughly bourgeois party which no longer represented the working class. Militant went on to become Militant Labour and then the Socialist Party in 1997, with Taaffe as general secretary. It campaigns in the trade unions to break the link with Labour and found a new party based on the working class, in contrast to the supporters of Socialist Appeal, who support a policy of work within the Labour Party and the trade unions in opposition to New Labour under Tony Blair.

Internationally, Taaffe won majority support in the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI). The opposition to the Open Turn internationally walked out and founded the Committee for a Marxist International and its In Defence of Marxism website. The CWI later founded a website Marxist resource from the Committee for a Workers' International in part to publish the documents written by Peter Taaffe and others in the CWI about these and other developments and debates, as a contribution to an analysis of what they perceive to be the complexities of the current period, and how to build the path to the working class for the ideas of Marxism.

Taaffe continues to play an important role in the Committee for a Workers' International, writing books and pamphlets such as the History of the CWI, Afghanistan, Islam and the Revolutionary Left (2002) and on the anniversary of the British general strike, 1926 General Strike – workers taste power (2006).

Taaffe's Marxism in Today’s World, (2006) arose from a visit to the CWI's offices in London by an Italian Marxist publishing collective, Guiovane Talpa, who conducted a probing interview with Peter Taaffe and Bob Labi on CWI policy over several days, publishing the transcript in Italian. At the completion of the project the CWI published an additional English version. This book discusses the views of the CWI on war, capitalism the environment and other issues, and is now being published in India.


Taaffe has written a number of books and pamphlets including:


  1. ^ Website of the Committee for a Workers' International. Retrieved 21 March 2009.
  2. ^ Jimmy Deane's archive minutes.
  3. ^ Derek Hatton Inside left, p32
  4. ^ a b Tommy Sheridan A Time to Rage, p.45
  5. ^ Andy McSmith Faces of Labour: The Inside Story, London: Verso, 1996, p.100
  6. ^ Shaun Ley interview for The Party’s Over (BBC Radio 4) broadcast in February 2006. Taaffe’s full remarks were transcribed from the interview in late 2005 kindly supplied by permission of the BBC, and published by the Socialist Party at
  7. ^ Bornstein and Richardson The War and the International, p.5
  8. ^ The Rise of Militant, p10
  9. ^ a b Taaffe The Rise of Militant, p.9
  10. ^ Taaffe The Rise of Militant, p.20
  11. ^ Bornstein and Richardson, 'The War and the International', pp176ff
  12. ^ Speaking at the 1984 Militant Rally which celebrated 20 years of the Militant newspaper, at the Wembley conference centre in London, Ted Grant says Socialist Fight had "ceased publication for a time – and we intended to publish it – it was in duplicated form and we intended to publish it in printed form". Militant Rally of 1984 (Part two, afternoon rally, 60 mins) at Socialist Party historic videos, also on DVD, published by the Socialist Party 2007.)
  13. ^ 'The Rise of Militant' p20-21
  14. ^ Rise of Militant p17. Jimmy Deane was National Secretary until 1965. Before his death he made his minutes of these meetings available. cf
  15. ^ Jimmy Deane's minutes of these decisions. In op cit
  16. ^ Shaun Ley for the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘The Party’s Over’ cf
  17. ^ The Rise Of Militant, p.11
  18. ^ Militant rally video extract: Peter Taaffe's opening remarks (8 mins)
  19. ^ Militant Rally of 1984 (Part one, morning rally,) at Socialist Party historic videos, also on DVD, published by the Socialist Party 2007.) Peter Taaffe is referring to the period beginning with the victory of Thatcher in 1979.
  20. ^ Problems Of Entrism
  21. ^ Introduction to the 1973 publication of Problems of Entrism
  22. ^ Peter Taaffe The Rise of Militant, p344
  23. ^ Derek Hatton, Deputy leader of Liverpool City Council says "the man who has had the greatest political influence on my political thinking, and on the way in which we shaped our policy in Liverpool, was Peter Taaffe." Inside left, p32
  24. ^ The Socialist, weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party
  25. ^ The Rise of Militant p.312
  26. ^ Danny Burns Poll Tax Rebellion, p.176
  27. ^ Taaffe The Rise of Militant, p.344
  28. ^ Marxism and the British Labour Party – the 'Open Turn' debate.
  29. ^ Taaffe The Rise of Militant, p.433-4
  30. ^ A debate took place between 1998 and 2001 in which the leadership of the Scottish section of the Committee for a Workers’ International proposed a change in the political character of the Scottish section. The leadership of the SSP eventually broke away from the CWI. Cf Party, Programme, Reformism and the International – the 'Scottish debate' The SSP had gained several MSPs in the Scottish Parliament, but the SSP split in 2006, with Tommy Sheridan forming Solidarity – Scotland's socialist movement.
  31. ^ a b c "A parting of the ways", Militant, January 1992
  32. ^ Peter Taaffe The Rise of Militant, p.328, p.445
  33. ^ Militant, 30 October 1987
  34. ^ The Rise of Militant, p 447
  35. ^ For instance, Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man

External links[edit]

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