The Paul Richards column
To take Monty Python’s Life of Brian as merely a satire on the life of Christ is to miss the essential point of the film: that it is a satire on the life of Trotskyism. I don’t suppose I got most of the political jokes when I first saw the film, aged ten or eleven, even though I rushed out and bought a long-playing record of the sound track (this was before videos).
After watching it recently, you can see it’s all there – a self-styled revolutionary group, the Judean People’s Front (or was it Popular Front?), a deluded leader Reg, played by Cleese as more Fred Kite than Tariq Ali, pointless meetings with arcane standing orders, ludicrous, impossiblist demands, including the dismantling of the Roman Empire in return for a single hostage, ridiculous theoretical discussions about whether Loretta, a man, should have the right to have babies, even if biologically impossible, and of course the famous recantation of all the good things that the Romans brought to Palestine (‘what have the Romans ever done for us?’).
But the bit that stands out the most is that Reg and his comrades reserve their bitterest bile, not for the Romans, but for other revolutionaries in different factions. Aged ten, I doubt I knew what a ‘splitter’ was. It took a few years in student politics, and later in the trade unions, and some unpleasant encounters with the Militant Tendency, Socialist Workers’ Party and Socialist Organiser, to realise that Trots hate each other more than they hate war, poverty or squalor. Put three in a room, and by lunchtime you’ll have four different factions, or so the joke went. Most of all, they hate us, mainstream democratic socialists in the Labour Party.
Those observing last night’s Labour-run Lambeth council meeting being smashed up by demonstrators, or reading in their Guardian that Aaron Porter, the president of NUS, has decided not to run for a second term against a barrage of nastiness from the ultra-left, might wonder what is going on. Naively, they might assume that the scale of the Tory ‘Big Society’ cuts to services is so severe that it would unite the left into a single voice of resistance, speaking on behalf of the British people. Alas, to assume that the Trots and their dupes have campaigning against the Government on their minds, is to fail to understand a central tenet of Trotskyism. Trotsky, before his unfortunate and terminal final headache, wrote in the Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks for the Fourth International that the crisis of socialism was a crisis of leadership – of the workers’ parties and the trade union movement.
Every shade of Trotskyism since has taken the advice to heart. From the 1940s onwards, every act of a Tory government, or perceived vacillation or sell-out by a Labour one, has been blamed on the Labour and trade union leadership. Tory cuts to the NHS? Closure of the factories and mines? The Poll Tax? All Neil Kinnock’s fault. Cuts to funding higher education? All Aaron Porter’s fault (or Phil Woolas, Vicky Philips, Maeve Sherlock, Stephen Twigg, Lorna Fitzsimons, Jim Murphy, insert name as appropriate). Lambeth council setting a reduced budget based on the money granted from CLG? All Labour leader Steve Reed’s fault. See how that works? If it’s all the fault of moderate, ‘right-wing’ Labour leaders, then the obvious next leap of imagination is that if only there was an alternative, fighting socialist leadership of the party and unions, everything would be better. The central deceit of Trotskyism is that struggle between people and power, whether an industrial dispute, or popular campaign such as the anti-cuts demonstrations, or the uprisings against distatorships in the middle east and north Africa, are seen, not as the opportunity to fight injustice and make the world a better place, but as the chance to build their own faction or party and do the others down. This is why Trotskyism eats itself, which wouldn’t matter in the slightest, if not for the influence of the Trots within broader campaigns. Those young people who are taking direct action against tax avoiders, marching against education cuts, occupying college buildings should see a link between their anger and activism, and the need to build a democratic alternative in the shape of a Labour government. Instead, they are being peddled something else, much worse than the usual ‘political parties – they’re all the same’ guff. They’re being told that the cuts to education, the reduction in the numbers of NHS nurses, and the closure of local libraries is the fault of Ed Miliband.
Aaron Porter, Steve Reed, Ed Miliband, Brendan Barber. These are the real enemies, comrades.
Up in the Roman Palace, the Governor is laughing his head off.