Sunday, September 28, 2014

The death of Mike Banda

Mike Banda, 1930-2014

I just found out that Mike Banda (Michael van der Poorten) died on August 29. A few words are in order. Although I have not seen or spoken to the man in 35 years and found his political orientation after 1985 repugnant, I was nevertheless saddened to hear of his passing. Banda, along with Gerry Healy, Cliff Slaughter and several other veterans of British Trotskyism, was responsible for the most serious attempt to build a mass revolutionary party of the working class in Britain in the postwar period. That this attempt imploded in the end is now well-known and that its leadership degenerated and discredited the good name of Trotskyism is also well known. But it would be a huge mistake to draw the cynical conclusion that the spectacular demise of the Worker Revolutionary Party proved that the attempt to break out of tiny sectarian groups and find a road to the masses that can actually lead a revolutionary movement against capitalism is a hopeless and futile effort.

Banda, who was the National Secretary of the Workers Revolutionary Party from 1978 to 1985, and prior to that was in charge of the print operations of the movement, was a talented organizer and magnetic speaker. His deep knowledge of the history of Marxism, of the struggle of colonial people for liberation from imperialism and in particular of the history of Trotskyism, made him a formidable polemicist and debater. He was also someone I got to know and respect during my years in the Workers League.

This isn't the place for a lengthy examination of Banda's political trajectory. Obituaries for old or ex-revolutionaries are often occasions to vent for people with axes to grind against the deceased, and the few I've seen of Banda are no exception. Banda's career as a Trotskyist was hardly unblemished: his support for the Chinese cultural revolution in 1967 or his uncritical praise for the leadership of the North Vietnamese in 1975 come to mind. But those mistakes are hardly adequate to account for Banda's evolution after the breakup of the WRP, as he eventually became a supporter of imperialism and Zionism and a strident opponent of Marxism and of the movement he had spent most of his adult life building. An analysis of the contradictions and class pressures within British Trotskyism would be a big part of the story, and that would also take in the degeneration of the Labour Party and the trade unions. Still, the vitriol with which Banda came to attack Trotskyism is noteworthy, and suggests that a layer of individual psychological motivation was also at work.

Alex Steiner

I'd like to add something to what Alex has said about Banda. I did not know him very well, but I agree that he was at times a powerful speaker. For someone new to the movement, as I was in the 1970s, Banda and Healy seemed to give voice in their oratory to the immense power of the working class and the inspiring possibilities for its liberation. I think that represented more than just talented rhetoric: it expressed what was best in the traditions of Trotskyism and of the British working class. Healy said, I think on more than one occasion, that the working class had never really had its chance, and when I listened to him or Banda hold forth at public meetings, I felt that here at last the working class was finding its voice. Alas, it didn't turn out that way.

I also want to say that one of the big tragedies of the Healy-Banda generation of revolutionaries is how little they have left behind as a legacy of revolutionary theory. Of course it would be unfair to compare them to titans like Lenin and Trotsky, but a comparison to someone like James Cannon is appropriate, and his legacy is more substantial. Ernest Mandel, for all his rotten politics, left behind a substantial body of work on Marxist economic theory. George Novack did some useful work on philosophy. What do we have from Banda and Healy, or even from the WRP's leading theoretician, Cliff Slaughter? Not much. Why this was so is a complicated story, but it means that the task or revitalizing a revolutionary movement in the future will be that much the harder.

Frank Brenner


Anonymous said...

If I'm not mistaken, Slaughter, like most other WRP academics, produced most of their theoretical material on Marxism for academic publishers rather than the party press. Leaving aside the question of the quality of that material, they did I believe produce a sizable quantity. That practice no doubt benefited their careers as academics, but in the long run did damage to their intellectual legacies (though not nearly as much damage as the SLL/WRP's degeneration, tainting anyone associated with it.)

T.M. said...

I have to disagree with the rather blanket assertion that the WRP's philosophical output (especially in-itself, that is, quantitatively, as is - I believe - quite implied) should be compared to the paltry level of James Cannon's and the SWP's writings and efforts at maintaining the philosophy of Marxism. No one who is familiar with the WRP does not know they came out with a theoretical journal besides their news journal, though it is not available on MIA yet (anti WRP bias prevails among largely SWP (UK) writers there), also they came out with large printings of books on economics and philosophy, including the series Trotskyism Versus Revisionism (specifically about philosophy and large theoretical issues), which was continued into the 1980s. Authors such as Geoff Pilling (spelling?), Cliff Slaughter, etc, and the other "house" philosophers came out with books on Capital and Philosophy, some of which are on MIA. The WRP was actually obsessed by philosophy by the early 70s, for opportunistic reasons, and had a school house dedicated to lectures on it. They were early to acknowledge Lenin's Volume 38, and later made a talisman out of it, telling American cadre (probably both of you!) to study it at the expense of more pertinent material. Healy and his pet professors also should be given some credit for acknowledging Soviet philosophy which briefly bloomed in the USSR in the 1960s-1980s, for example the writer Ilyenkov. Of course Healy later plagiarized the man in a spurious philosophical document criticized by North at the time (around 1980-82). I am 26, but I've read into the history which you lived, and I feel that you are being more than somewhat dishonest about the philosophical commitments and character of the WRP. It was complex, and it was NOT comparable to the SWP (US), which had primitive lectures on philosophy, scattered articles in their "theoretical" journal and a few books by the dullard Novack. SWP leader Joseph Hansen later declared empiricism to be dialectics.

Alex Steiner said...

Part I of response to T. M.

Those remarks were Frank Brenner's, and he can reply for himself. However I am largely in agreement with them though perhaps they require some qualifications. While I would not say that the theoretical work of the WRP and its predecessors was negligible, it was also not very impressive. The best of that theoretical work emerged from the intellectual ferment produced by a group who were won over to Trotskyism from the Communist Party in the late 1950s. That group of intellectuals included Cliff Slaughter, Tom Kemp, Brian Pearce, Peter Fryer, and for a brief period Alasdair MacIntyre, who later was recognized as one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century. Other notable intellectuals who contributed to the building of what eventually became the WRP were Cyril Smith and Geoff Pilling. Doubtless there were several others whose names I do not know. The best of the theoretical work that was produced was in the period from about 1956-1960 and can be found in the issues of the original Labour Review. (The second sailing of the Labour Review in the 1970's and 1980's was a pale shadow of the original.) You can find an index of the Labour Review on the Marxist Internet Archives,

Unfortunately only a small percent of the articles have been digitized. Of the theoretical work that was done after the demise of the original Labour Review, probably the high point was the essay Opportunism and Empiricism, written largely by Cliff Slaughter and which we have republished at with a critical introduction at permanent-revolution -

Slaughter only produced one other major work for the movement that delved into philosophical issues and that was his essay Lenin on Dialectics. I remarked on this essay years ago in my initial response to North, The Dialectical Path of Cognition and Revolutionizing Practice,
My comments on this essay start on page 38. While Slaughter deserves credit for turning the attention of Marxists to the publication of Lenin's Philosophical Notebooks, he tries to defend the completely untenable thesis of a continuity between Lenin's earlier work, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism and his later Philosophical Notebooks. These are the kinds of problems that your formulation about the WRP obsession with philosophy misses when you write,
"They were early to acknowledge Lenin's Volume 38, and later made a talisman out of it,"

Alex Steiner said...

Part II of response to T. M.

But whereas it is true that there were some important theoretical contributions in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, both the quality and quantity of those contributions noticeably deteriorated by the mid 1960s. The reason for that was the internal regime that Healy was building, which, while it made a "talisman" as you say of its commitment to philosophy, was in fact discouraging any genuine theoretical work. Serious intellectuals could not long co-exist in the kind of regime that Healy built as sooner or later they would be forced to either keep any independent thought to themselves or be forced out as was the case with Peter Fryer and a number of others. The results were clear if you look at what passed for theoretical material by the 1970s. Aside from a few academic articles by Tom Kemp and Geoff Pilling on economics, there was virtually nothing worth reading. Slaughter's subsequent literary contributions to the movement consisted of high flown manifestos and polemics that had no intellectual content and could have been ordered online from a computer program that produces polemics on demand. I have to say that much of the material in the 7 volume series Trotskyism versus Revisionism that you seem to think so highly of has this character, especially the later volumes. To cite one example, the polemic against the OCI that was written by Slaughter. It's an embarrassment to read today. Even worse is the polemic against Thornett written by Banda. I fully acknowledge my own contributions to this genre, having contributed to two long polemics against Wohlforth that you can find in Volume 7 of that series. Although those polemics made some valid political points, their basic premise was false, namely that the crisis precipitated by Wohlforth was his personal crisis and NOT a symptom of the degeneration of the leadership of the International Committee. The "theoretical" sections of those polemics were also confused, to say the least. They reflected the influence of Healy's mangling of dialectics.

As far as comparing the theoretical output of the WRP to that of Cannon and the SWP, I will leave that discussion for another time.

Alex Steiner

Gerry Downing said...

These are some of my thoughts on the philosophical debates in the WRP from my 1990 book WRP Explosion:

Chapter 4: Problems of Philosophy

I don’t know what you mean by “glory” Alice said. Humpty-Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t -till I tell you. I meant, “There’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”’ ‘But “Glory” doesn’t mean a nice knockdown argument Alice objected. ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty-Dumpty add in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I want it to mean - neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things?’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty-Dumpty, ‘which is to be master - that’s all,
Lewis Carroll, Alice Through the Looking Glass, as quoted by Dave Bruce in ‘A Charlatan is Exposed’.
Or how the WRP leadership pleaded with the world not to confuse them with the facts.
This is a difficult chapter on a subject that most ‘Marxists’ avoid like the plague. The long quotations and detailed analysis that follow are necessary because it is, after all, one of the three component parts of Marxism and serious Trotskyists cannot leave it to be turned into a mystical cult by the likes of the Healyite Marxist Party.
Gerry Healy had published his book, ‘Studies in Dialectical Materialism’ in October 1982. David North, leader of the US Workers League, sympathising section of the IC, produced some notes highly critical of it in the same month, during a visit to London. He also identified substantial areas of the WRP and IC’s political positions which had ‘drifted steadily away from a struggle for Trotskyism’. In his opinion this ‘began in 1978 and only began to predominate in 1978’. He cited the Middle East, Libya, Iran, Zimbabwe and the line on the Malvinas war. This was clearly a substantial political attack, as testified not only by the content of the documents, but also by the sharp tone of his attack on Healy. It can be seen in no other way than a bid for leadership of the IC at that time. These notes were published in October 1985 directly after the split as part of North’s claim for ‘continuity’ i.e. Trotsky’s mantle.
Though he got the backing of Slaughter and Banda in 1982 to fight this ‘drift away from Trotskyism’, they ratted on him as soon as he had left the country. North abandoned his attack when Healy threatened a split. It never got beyond the knowledge of a few IC delegates at the time.