Illusions of Power part 7: Stay in the fight!

Submitted by AWL on 3 November, 2008 - 6:07 Author: John O'Mahony

The bitter experience of Labour in government in 1964-70 and in 1974-9 pushed many activists away from reformism and towards revolutionary socialism.

Now the experience of taking responsibility for the local government left 'in power' has pushed and sucked activists back to reformism, binding any former leftists to the new Labour establishment around Neil Kinnock.

That is a setback for the left and indeed a tragedy, which SO has fought for the last six years to avert or minimise.

The debacle of the local government left also contains the seeds of a subsidiary tragedy. It may propel a new wave of militants in revulsion away from the Labour Party and towards sectarianism of the sort peddled by the Socialist Workers Party and Ken Livingstone in their zigzags after 1979 are former sectarian revolutionaries of the SWP or WRP (or their predecessors).

Disoriented, they moved into the Labour Party without a serious and coherent perspective, retaining only general left ideas and prejudices. They were sucked into the system; some will revert to sectarianism.

The current moves in the other direction too. Both the WRP and the SWP have a central core of people who moved in the early (WRP) or late (SWP) 1960s from illusions (of different sorts) in the Labour Party to sectarian rejection of it. In both cases they chose to try to build a 'revolutionary party' apart from and artificially counterposed to the historically-evolved and historically-rooted mass party of the British working class.


Thus they forgot, it they ever knew, some of the basic truths that Marxists have gathered from the experience of the European labour movement in the last 70 years. The lesson of history, right back to the foundation of the Communist International in 1919-20, says that wherever there is a long-traditioned and powerful working class movement, it is only possible to go beyond that to a mass working-class movement on a higher level by winning a majority of the old working-class party (the Italian and French Communist Parties were formed in that way out of the old Socialist Parties), or at least a very big minority (as was done in Germany).

Whereas in Britain, the revolutionaries failed to win most or a large part of the old mass workers' movement to their politics, they remained more or less impotent sects.

At the core of the 'projects' of organisations like the SWP is the implicit commitment to building their own mass labour movement from the ground up, side by side with the one the workers have created over many, many decades of struggle.

The sectarians sustain themselves on fantasies. Thus they make an artificial distinction between the reformist Labour Party and the(non-reformist) unions. In reality it is not like that. It was not in the Constituency Labour Parties-which voted 83% for Tony Benn as deputy leader in 1981-but in the trade unions that the first big blows were dealt to the serious left in the early 1980s. The Labour Party and the trade unions are closely linked together, and any severing of the links in the immediate period ahead will not be to the benefit of revolutionary socialism. The reality is that the Labour Party is the only working-class alternative to the Tories right now, and class-conscious workers know it. Militants who turn away from Labour now in disgust towards building a 'purer' movement are turning to the work of constructing a 'revolutionary party' mat is nothing but a political white elephant- useless to the working class.

Consider what role the sectarians-the more rational sectarians of the SWP, not the more bizarre groups-have played during the crucial battles in the Labour Party, the political wing of the trade unions, in the last six years.

We have fought to smash the right wing and scour the movement clean of all their works and legacies. We made the party uninhabitable for the Liberals and pale pink Tories of the SDP. We have had to fight a long and hard battle against the attempt to drive Militant out of the Labour Party, and that fight continues.


What have the sectarian revolutionaries been doing? Standing on the sidelines, telling the Labour Left to give up' enticing a few tired souls, fainthearts who take refuge in 'hard man' postures, and others to get out and abandon the field to the right wing and soft left.

The lesson of the avoidable defeats and setbacks that the local government left has recently suffered is not that Marxists should do what the right wing and soft left want, and get out of the trade unions' political wing, the Labour Party, leaving it to the reformists. The soft left and the careerists could do what they did because the Marxists were not numerous enough and well-organised enough in the key place at the crucial time.

There was nothing inevitable in 1979 and after about the dominance of people like Ken Livingstone and Ted Knight on the Labour 'new left'.
The local government structures, rhythms and routines remoulded some of the would-be serious lefts, including the ex-revolutionaries among them, because they did not have a Marxist organisation able to work out a common, binding, revolutionary-socialist line, through collective deliberation.

The sectarians are negative fetishists. They have the same awe of the Parliaments and council chambers of bourgeois democracy as the reformists have, only where the reformists revere they feel superstitious fear and panic.

In fact, as Lenin argued rightly in 'Left Wing Communism', a serious revolutionary organisation has to learn to function in the trade unions, in Parliament, and in many other terrains. He pointed out that the most revolutionary party in history knew how to use even the miserable quasiparliament of the Tsar, and if it hadn't there probably would not have been a workers revolution in Russia.

It is the aimlessness, the lack of political culture and perspectives, and the lack of a Marxist organisation, that allow the structures of the local or central state to remould and reshape those who set out to use them for change. The official machinery of the trade unions domesticates many militants in the same way.

The articles reprinted in this magazine show how clearly SO grasped and understood the issues and the alternatives that the left faced in 1979 and afterwards. But we were not strong enough to determine what happened. If the serious people among the sectarians who spent the years of those struggles trying to entice a few people to quit the Labour Party had instead been where they should have been, fighting for socialist politics in the existing mass political labour movement, then our combined forces might have been strong enough to have controlled or seriously affected what happened.

Right now there is no other way forward for the labour movement but to go through another experience of would-be reformist Labour government.

Layers of the Left who set out after 1979 to change the Labour Party have now recoiled in face of the difficulties and, in horror that Thatcher has been a beneficiary of the turmoil in the Labour Party, they want to give Kinnock a chance. They are frightened by the opposition and by the long travail involved in winning the working class and the labour movement to working-class socialism.

Many of them will turn left again- though of course the wretched Livingstones won't, and that's all for the good- as it becomes clear, whoever wins the next election, that Kinnock doesn't have any answers. It will again become clear that there is no alternative to continuing the struggle to change the labour movement into a movement adjusted to the job of overthrowing capitalism and making a socialist Britain.

Just as the hidden programme implied in the sectarians' refusal to fight to transform the existing movement is that they will build their own parallel labour movement, so again there is a hidden implication in their message to the Labour Left now: give up, because the setbacks for the left prove that the left can't win. The logical-obviously undesired- implication is that we should give up on socialism as well as giving up on winning the working-class movement for socialism.


For the job of remaking - renovating or as Tony Benn puts it 'refounding'- the existing conservative many-millioned labour movement is a work of immense scope and duration. It is only a few degrees removed in its scope, and in the power and strength of the bourgeois forces outside and inside the labour movement who must be overcome for it to be done, from the task of the socialist revolution itself. When the serious left has won the existing mass working-class movement (or a large enough section of it) for socialism, then the socialist revolution will not be far away!

Only the socialist transformation of society is of greater scope than the socialist transformation and reorganisation of the long-established mass British labour movement.

Yet mere is no other road to socialist revolution than the remaking of the existing working-class movement. Layers of youth, ethnic-minority militants, women activists, etc. may from tune to time appear outside the structures of the labour movement. But there is no ground for believing that a new militant mass labour movement can come into existence side by side with the existing one-separate from it or counterpose to it.

On the contrary: most of the living, militant, rejuvenating forces, from the shop stewards' movement of the ,60s and '70s to the present Bennite left, have appeared within the structures of the existing mass movement. In so far as there is powerful political opposition to that movement in the working class, it is to the right of the movement and under direct bourgeois political and ideological domination.

The idea that any force, whether the relatively tiny SWP or even a much bigger 'revolutionary' party can compete with the Labour Party from outside in the period ahead, is ludicrous. Therefore, the notion that defeats and setbacks for the left prove that we should abandon the fight in the Labour Party is not too distant from the analogous conclusion that defeats for the working class should make us give up on socialism. The working class has been defeated again and again: in pitched battles like the Spanish Civil War, by way of the peaceful surrender of its leaders to the fascists as in Germany in 1933; by way of straightforward sell-out of magnificent but politically headless movements like the ten-million-strong French general strike of 1968. To those who give up in despair, socialists explain that it is an immense historical work to win socialism, requiring long-sustained battles and manoeuvres of the working class against capitalism.


In relation to the Labour Party too, the same basic arguments apply~-all proportions granted. The forces against us in the Labour Party in the last period could call on the whole of bourgeois society, from the gutter press upwards. They could call on the trade union leaders. They could flatter, bribe and cajole our prominent people. They could turn the political apathy and passivity of most workers- an inbuilt feature of capitalism in normal times-to their advantage. They could profit from our lack of a sizeable non-sectarian Marxist organisation.

Therefore give up on the fight to change the movement? Just as well give up on the fight for socialism.

They are actually and literally the same thing. To give up on the struggle to change the mass political labour movement and decide to leave it to Kinnock is to give up on the fight for socialism- socialism in the here and now, socialism as based on the only working class we have got.


Building a little white-elephant sectarian propaganda party on the sidelines (albeit one that is uncritically 'Labour' in elections, like the SWP) is no compensation, and cannot offset or conceal the logic of the SWP's position, however much its leaders and militants may deny that logic.

The lesson from the left's recent setbacks is that we must organise a
Marxist left in the Labour Party and the trade unions-a movement that knows how to immerse itself in the living struggles of the working class and of its labour movement without losing its political, ideological and historical identity; a movement which is sure of its own Marxist identity and therefore does not have to use it as a sectarian fetish; a movement which can keep faith with its revolutionary socialist politics without turning its back on the working class and its existing organisations.

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