|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.
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.