Revolutionary versus “democratic socialism”? A reply to Luke Akehurst on "entryism"

Submitted by Matthew on 7 September, 2016 - 11:21 Author: Sacha Ismail

An October 2015 article by Luke Akehurst, a prominent and combative Labour right winger who recently failed to be elected to the party's NEC, was recently drawn to my attention. The article, published on the LabourList website, was about “entryism”, by which Akehurst means the presence of a revolutionary socialist group like Workers’ Liberty within the Labour Party. It has renewed relevance during the current events.

Akehurst merits a reply because, unusually, he at least makes a nod towards rationally discussing the issues, accepting that terms like “Trotskyist” and “entryism” are commonly bandied around on the Labour right with little clarity or attempt at it. But he tries to prove that AWL is not really part of, and does not really regard itself as part of, the Labour Party. Most of the accusations he cites as proof are simply untrue, all are incoherent.

Akehurst's accusations against the AWL

Akehurst cites the party rule which says “A member of the Party who joins and/or supports a political organisation other than an official Labour group or other unit of the Party... shall automatically be ineligible to be or remain a party member”. As has been widely noted, this either cannot mean what it says — or those with a direct debit to Amnesty International or CND would have to be expelled, to say nothing of Progress or Momentum members. It is a sinister licence for bureaucrats to expel whomever they don’t like.

Or conversely to allow violations by whoever they do like: this month it was revealed that Labour peer David Sainsbury gave £2 million to the Lib Dems last year, but the Party says it will take no action against him.

Yes, Workers’ Liberty was registered with the Electoral Commission until 2015. However, we have not supported any non-Labour candidates since May 2010, when we called for a Labour vote in every constituency except one very safe Labour one (where we stood a candidate). Since then we have without exception supported Labour candidates and argued forcefully against those on the radical left who did not. In fact we have consistently backed a Labour victory in general elections for more than forty years.

Why shouldn’t a socialist organisation be able to change its orientation and become more committed to and active in the Labour Party? There is clear historical precedent. The Independent Labour Party, which was a founding group of the Labour Party, split away in 1932. It attempted to reaffiliate in 1939 and was refused. It contested parliamentary elections against Labour up to February 1974. In 1975, it decided to redefine itself as a “political pressure group”, Independent Labour Publications. It was explicit that the new ILP continued the old ILP. It was accepted back into Labour, and rightly so. The same approach should apply to Workers’ Liberty as to the ILP.

Far from “entering” the party after Corbyn’s victory last year, the vast majority of our supporters were Labour members substantially before that; and many were members before they became associated with AWL. Yes, we have a regular publication and a website. So does Progress (and, on the left, the LRC, which Akehurst graciously doesn’t want to expel). Yes, we have local groups. So does Momentum. If Progress and Labour First don’t, I imagine it is only because they don’t have enough supporters.

The Labour Party was founded by a coalition of unions and socialist organisations, the ILP, the Fabians and the Social Democratic Federation (which saw itself as Marxist). All predated the Labour Party. The notion that the existence of distinct socialist tendencies is alien to Labour’s history implies a total ignorance, in this case presumably pretended ignorance, of how the party came into being.

Contrary to Akehurst’s claim, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty is not banned. In 1990, the Labour Party National Executive banned the newspaper Socialist Organiser. Labour Party conference voted against an attempt to overturn the ban: a majority of Constituency Labour Parties were for overturning, a majority of union votes against. In 1991, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty was founded by supporters of Socialist Organiser, but from the mid-1990s until 2015, there were no or virtually no expulsions from the party on the basis of association with AWL. Expulsions began only once the war against Corbyn began last summer.

Akehurst says that “Entryism doesn’t mean being a very leftwing person who wants to join and change the policies of a more moderate party (or vice versa). “It’s a political strategy... where an existing external organisation or party encourages its members or supporters to join another, usually larger, organisation in an attempt to expand their influence... cynical and essentially parasitic in nature — it’s about the smaller party subverting the resources and membership base of the larger one. It’s an inherently dishonest political strategy, as it involves people lying about whether they are members of another party.”

The picture Akehurst has concocted here bears little relationship to the actual activity of Workers’ Liberty supporters in the Labour Party — in which we are a very small minority arguing honestly for our very distinctive ideas and proposals, while supporting the Party’s progress and activities. It would be much more accurate as a depiction of the cynical hijacking of the political labour movement over the last twenty years by a neo-liberal current, Blairism, which has been dishonest about its aims and is now organising disruptive attacks on the party because it is hostile to the revival of the labour movement under Corbyn.

Revolutionary socialism and Labour

Akehurst cites the fact Workers’ Liberty has its “own programme, principles and policy” which is against Labour’s rules. Yet all kinds of organisations and currents within the party have their own programmes — as they must in any democratic organisation. For Akehurt it is really Workers’ Liberty’s particular principles that are the problem.

He says the key Labour aim and value is “democratic socialism”. We cannot be in the party because we “believe in a revolutionary path to socialism”. Akehurst says that we support “the armed overthrow of parliamentary democracy and its replacement by a dictatorship of the proletariat [and see ourselves] as part of the same revolutionary tradition as the Bolsheviks and Lenin and Trotsky”. Therefore: “Labour isn’t your party because we are a party that believes in a parliamentary and democratic road to socialism.”

Here it is worth noting again that one of Labour’s founding affiliates was a Marxist organisation (the SDF), while another had many people within it who saw themselves as revolutionaries (the ILP). Please also note that if Akehurst was consistent he would also campaign to expel individuals who see themselves as being in a revolutionary socialist tradition.

More fundamentally, both the description of Marxists and the self-presentation of the Labour right involved here are dishonest. By using the archaic term “dictatorship of the proletariat”, Akehurst presumably hopes to strike horror into the hearts of his readers. But what Marx meant when he wrote about the “dictatorship of the proletariat” was the “rule of the waged working class”: neither more nor less.

The current social and political set up is the “dictatorship (rule) of the capitalist class”. To wanting to replace the latter with the former, we plead guilty. Workers’ rule, unlike that of the capitalists, will surely admit openly that it involves the “dictatorship” of a class (until all classes dissolve completely). But it will, on every level, be far more democratic than the system we have now. As Lenin and Trotsky’s comrade Rosa Luxemburg put it:

“Socialist democracy is not something which begins only in the promised land after the foundations of socialist economy are created; it does not come as some sort of Christmas present for the worthy people who, in the interim, have loyally supported a handful of socialist dictators. Socialist democracy begins simultaneously with the beginnings of the destruction of class rule... it is the same thing as the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

“... This dictatorship consists in the manner of applying democracy, not in its elimination, but in energetic, resolute attacks upon the well-entrenched rights and economic relationships of bourgeois society, without which a socialist transformation cannot be accomplished.”

We are “revolutionaries” in two senses. Firstly, we believe that overturning capitalism will require more than simply legal enactments; it will take a mass movement in society, in workplaces and communities as well as at the level of politics, overflowing the blocks and filters and channels of official society. And secondly, we think it very likely that such a movement will come into conflict with the existing state machine — the police, the army, the bureaucratic hierarchy — which will defend capitalism with every means available. History, from the Chilean coup of 1973 to the miners’ strike of 1984-5, certainly suggests that.

There is nothing undemocratic about any of this. In fact it is consistently democratic view of social transformation, a “socialism from below” (if you want to use that term). We are democratic socialists.

What about Parliament? We think that labour movements in history have created, at high points of mobilisation and struggle, more flexible, responsive and meaningfully democratic institutions than the kind of parliamentary system we have in Britain today. That doesn’t mean we are “against parliamentary democracy”. Workers’ councils are in fact a kind of “parliamentary” system, in the sense of a system of elected assemblies. Moreover, we want to defend existing parliamentary democracy against bureaucratic and military subversion, extend its democratic aspects and test it to the limit as a channel for working-class self-assertion.

It is, in fact, the Labour right who over three decades or more have helped shift Parliament closer to a talking shop, with British democracy more and more hollowed out even by the low historical standards of democracy limited by capitalism (“bourgeois democracy”). Judged by their record, their contempt for parliamentary democracy is second only to their hatred for democracy in the labour movement, currently so spectacularly on display.

The Labour right and socialism

“We are a party that believes in a parliamentary and democratic road to socialism”, says Luke Akehurst. So does Tony Blair believe in a parliamentary road to socialism? Does Peter Mandelson? What about Blair’s former director of operations John McTernan, who openly praises privatisation, says he’s glad Thatcher defeated the miners and recently used the pages of the Daily Telegraph to call on the Tories to “crush the rail unions and for all”? Who can doubt Blair and all his ilk privately feel the same?

Luke Akehurst, the pretend loyal citizen of the labour movement, has (as far as I can see) said nothing about McTernan’s shameful rant in the Telegraph. Just as the right-wing feminists of the Parliamentary Labour Party have refused to take time out of their attacks on the “abuse” and “sexism” of Corbyn and the Labour left to even comment on Owen Smith’s real and regular sexist outbursts or the foul misogynist behaviour of Simon Danzcuk.

The key division in today’s labour movement is surely not between “democrats” and “revolutionaries”. There is a division between democrats and anti-democrats in the movement — with, broadly, revolutionary Marxists and reformist “democratic socialists” on one side, and Stalinists, semi-Stalinists and the Labour right (many of whose leaders are ex-Stalinists) on the other. Another division to look at would be between those who actually believe in socialism in some sense and those who oppose it.

Or better still, I would suggest: between those who meaningfully adhere to the labour movement, its struggles, its history, its interests and broad values, and neo-liberals of the Blair-Mandelson-McTernan stripe who hate it and want to maintain their dominance over Labour in order keep it down; along with their apologists like Luke Akehurst.

Akehurst appeals to Labour’s “democratic socialists” to help cast out the revolutionary left. In fact those, including Owen Smith supporters, who have minimal loyalty to the labour movement must cast out the likes of McTernan, and demand that the Akehursts help or go too.