Don’t sweat the small stuff: Militant, Trotskyism and my advice from Tony Benn

Back in 1992, I wrote to Tony Benn. I was living in Leeds at the time and had just left the Militant Tendency. For me, at that age and in those circumstances, it was a big deal. The split between those who’d argued for staying in the Labour Party and those who thought the future lay outside had just taken place, but the rancour remained. I’d had enough of the whole thing. My experience of Trotskyist organisation had exhausted and disillusioned me, but still it was difficult. I was leaving many friends behind and all the things that I had thought were important.

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I wrote to Tony to vent my spleen, essentially. I was bitter. I couldn’t work out what place Militant’s philosophy had in the party, and I was left with the feeling that Trotskyist groups could only be wreckers, living off the good work that the Labour Left (represented by the Campaign Group at the time) did. I wrote him a lengthy, somewhat pretentious letter. To my surprise, he responded straight away, not once but twice. I had met him only briefly, we had no relationship as such, but despite this, he took the time to give me some advice that it took me a little while to process, but keeps coming back to me.

In his first letter, he said:

“I think we’ll have to argue it out and if, as you believe – probably quite rightly – that the long term aims of Militant are not realistic, then we don’t really have to worry about what they are saying.”

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In his follow up, handwritten letter, he said:

“…rank and file people sometimes join Militant out of despair with the party – and I am always in favour of contact across the whole spectrum of opinion in the party.”

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Actually, the detail of what he said is less important than the general thrust, which was: stop worrying about what they are up to and focus on what you can do, what your contribution is and can be. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

It took me a long time to understand this. For years after leaving Militant, the minutiae of what they said seemed significant. Because the important thing about obsessing about Trotskyism or any other philosophy within the party or the left, and prioritising the defeat, organisationally or otherwise, of smaller groups within the Labour Party, isn’t what it does to them, it what it does to you and your politics. Once that becomes a focus, it’s both a poison (it paralyses positive organising approaches) and a repellant (to those not in the know, or those not interested).

There is a reason why people like Tony Benn, John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn have not devoted their lives to ‘clearing out’ Trotskyism or any other sectional group within the Labour left. It is because they recognise the corrosive effect on our own politics of that particular cul-de-sac.

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