Graham Day of Falkirk wrote a letter last week complaining that my last column was "more concerned with re-fighting the sectarian battles of 30 years ago than with taking the left forward in 2002" – and his point has been echoed (sort of) by a couple of friends. "I don't give a monkey's about the bloody IMG and WRP any more," one old anarcho buddy told me on the phone. "I'd completely forgotten they existed until I read your piece." "I don't know why you bother," said my chum from the Socialist Alliance in the pub. "Who needs to be reminded of all that old stuff?"
OK, point taken, me old mateys. I suppose it is rather a long time since the heyday, if that's the right word, of the nuttier Trots. In my defence, though, I was writing about a new television programme dealing with the secret state's infiltration of the far left in the 1970s. More important – and maybe I should have spelled it out in the last column – there are real similarities between the left then and today.
The International Marxist Group and the Workers' Revolutionary Party might have disappeared off the radar a long time ago – although, bizarrely, one faction of the old IMG has found a niche for itself as Ken Livingstone's office staff. (Well, the world revolution has to start somewhere, doesn't it comrade?)
But Leninist sects only marginally less pernicious than the WRP and only a little less deluded about their world-historical role than the IMG are very much a part of the current scene. Witness the sectarian warfare that has all but destroyed the Socialist Alliance or the "revolutionary defeatist" (in other words, pro-Saddam) position taken by some of the leading lights in the organising committee of the Stop the War Coalition.
Also very much part of the 2002 left are bone-headed 1970s-style anti-European Labour leftists who think nothing of lining up with the most reactionary Tories in pursuit of the goal of keeping Johnny Foreigner at bay. So too are thick-witted left trade union leaders, schooled some years ago as Stalinist cadres, who are convinced that they are the vanguard of the working class but have the strategic acumen of lemmings.
And then there are the deluded anarcho direct-actionists who think that capitalism will crumble if the next demo is big enough, and the almost-but-not-quite-anarcho anti-globalists who believe that the best solution for world poverty is to deny the poor of the Africa and Asia the benefits of capitalism.
Aaaargh. It's difficult to deny that the left at its worst is pretty much the same as it was 10, 15 or 20 years ago – apart from the fact that there's no longer a Soviet Union to excuse for its crimes against humanity. The worst of the left is still utter rubbish.
What really gets me down, however, is that there's not much more of the left these days than the worst of it. Thirty, 20, even 10 years ago, the idiocies of the Leninists, left Europhobes, Third Worldists et al were tempered by the existence of a strong democratic and libertarian left current – based on the centre-left of the Labour Party but stretching from left liberalism and the principled minority of the Labour right through to the intelligent libertarian fringe of the far left. It had several notable defining features: its commitment to individual liberty and to extending the scope of democratic decision-making; its antipathy to authoritarian states throughout the world (whatever their ideology); its political realism (at very least, scepticism about "the revolution"); and, most important, its social egalitarianism.
This democratic socialist left was once the ideologically dominant force in British left politics. But it is now in a worse state than at any time in the past 50 years. In fact, it has almost disappeared.
For all Labour's faults in the 1980s and early 1990s, it remained a democratic socialist party: Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, Roy Hattersley and John Smith all came from the democratic socialist Labour tradition. Tony Blair did not – and under his direction, with the help of others, New Labour has effectively abandoned the causes of liberty and equality.
One might have thought that this would at least have prompted democratic socialists to protest loudly, but on the whole it has not. Indeed, it is only a slight exaggeration to say that the democratic socialist perspective is invisible apart from Hattersley's Monday column in the Guardian. Some democratic socialists have been co-opted into government and can't be expected to utter a coherent sentence until they get out. Some are old or have died. But most seem simply to have given up.
I'm not quite ready to do that yet. But it does seem to me that "taking the left forward in 2002", as Graham Day puts it, is a matter of reviving a prone body that is in real danger of expiring. And I'm not really sure where to start.