The Labour Party is a bourgeois party (1966 Criticism of Militant/Socialist Party's then position.)

Submitted by AWL on 9 July, 2009 - 6:13 Author: Sean Matgamna

This is an excerpt from the founding document of the AWL tendency, "What We Are And What We Must Become", written in 1966 by Rachel Lever, Sean Matgamna, and Phil Semp.

The authors were all then members of the RSL, the group later to become known as the Militant and today continued by the Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal. They wrote the document as a critique of the RSL's politics, which were then centred around a "perspective" for the evolution of the Labour Party into (eventually) a mass socialist movement led by "the Marxists".

Not only the RSL, but also all the would-be Trotskyists in the 1950s and '60s, had come to talk of the Labour Party as "the workers' party" and to use such slogans as "Labour to power with socialist policies". Though the authors agreed with the RSL that Marxists should be working in the Labour Party, they were also the first people for many years in British Trotskyist discussion to unearth and uphold Lenin's definition of the Labour Party as a bourgeois party, a bourgeois workers' party.

Of course, nothing can be copied straight over from 43 years ago to today. We are including this text to give readers background on the basic approach with which the AWL tendency approaches the Labour Party question.
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"The fact that bourgeois labour parties have already been formed in all the advanced capitalist countries and that unless a determined and relentless struggle is waged all along the line against these parties, or groups, trends etc. it is all the same. There can be no question of a struggle against imperialism or of Marxism, or of a socialist labour movement... (wherever Marxism is popular amongst the workers, this political trend, 'this bourgeois labour party' will invoke and swear by" Marxism)vladimir Lenin: Imperialism)

It would be possible to compile a booklet of quotations on the Labour Party from Lenin, and some would appear to contradict each other. What we need then is some indication of how to judge the Labour Party, concretely, as it exists now. At the Second Comintern Congress, 1920, Lenin made a speech on the question of affiliation of the British Communists to the Labour Party:

"... Indeed the concepts 'political organisation of the trade union Movement' or 'political expression of this movement' are wrong ones. Of course the bulk of the members of the Labour Party are workers; however whether a party is really a political party of the workers or not, depends not only on whether it consists of workers, but also upon who leads it, upon the content of its activities, and of its political tactics. Only the latter determines whether we have before us really a political party of the proletariat

"From this point of view, the only correct one, the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party, because although it consists of workers it is led by reactionaries, and the worst spirit reactionaries at that, who act fully in the spirit of the bourgeoisie. It is an organisation of the bourgeoisie which exists, in order with the help of the British Noskes and Scheidemanns to systematically deceive the workers."

The Labour Party must be seen dialectically - in its connections, in its actual role and significance in the relationship of the classes - not what fig-leafs it adopts, what it says of itself, or what workers think it is.

Nevertheless, of course, Lenin advised approaches for affiliation by the Communist Party (largely on the ground that certain features of the Labour Party were unique at that time - and which are very largely non-existent now).

Lenin, in his advocacy of entry, specifically mentioned the fact that the extreme left party, which contributed the main forces to the new Communist Party, the British Socialist Party, had the right to exist with its own programme, organise in favour of that programme, and to explain openly that the Hendersons etc. were bourgeois agents. There have been very many changes since then...

He insisted that this should be without illusion. All this is well known, as is Trotsky's advice in the 1930s.

The point we want to make is that all the RSL approaches on entryism stress the alleged fact that the Labour Party is the Workers' Party, and more seriously, completely fail to point out the alien bourgeois nature of the Labour Party. (Here again the leading comrades think they are dealing with a bunch of Third Period ultra-lefts, and not members of the Labour Party, who will have the shallow picture of the Labour Party as the "workers' party", constantly bombarded with this view which the bourgeoisie find so useful, by the bourgeois press).

Not only that, but they publicly (and privately) endorse the "socialist" camouflage of Wilson and Brown. The starting-point for the entryism imposed upon us by circumstances must be a sharp Leninist analysis. This must be the beginning of the education of such forces as we win - particularly those won in the Labour Party. But in practice it is ignored when it is not denied. We are not proposing abandonment of entry - only that it should be seen as a tactic, applied flexibly, an excursion into alien territory - a tactic rather than a way of life. Also reality must be stated clearly; we should sow no illusions in the Labour Party.

On the characterisation of the Labour Party and Lenin's approach quoted above, the RSL's leading comrades content themselves with pointing out that Lenin later ''contradicted" this, i.e. their method is one of formal textual comparison which allows them to take their pick of what best fits their own mood of the moment. This, of course is their approach on a whole lot of issues ("Lenin later contradicted What Is To Be Done, etc...."), but it is not the Marxist approach.

We must see the various positions taken up by Lenin dialectically as they fit together and form a comprehensive (moving) picture. The Labour Party is an organisation of the bourgeoisie - but it is only useful to them because of its connections with the working class. To use the description of it - "the party of the British workers" etc. - as a means of avoiding a sharp Marxist class analysis of its role, its actual position in the relationship of forces, is not serious.

Neither is it serious to say "well - it is - and then again it isn't." In its function, whatever the contradictions, it is a bourgeois party. It is true that if we ignore the contradictions we will not be able to gauge future developments - but this approach of the leadership will prevent us preparing to make the best of the future developments in the Labour Party.

The comrades' approach is that Labour Party is the workers' party and essentially the machine is an imposition. It only requires a bit more exertion, pressure, activity on the workers' part for the machine to move, to respond to and reflect their desires, at least to a limited extent. This is both stated and implied: it is our practical approach... Our immediate expectation is for a reflection of the ranks' first pressures on the machine.

Because of our whole position we can't avoid presenting these possible reflections as "good" - whereas our task must be concern for the general class significance of these things, for the fact that movement "under pressure" by the machine can lead to the defeat of the class. Failure to recognise these people's "progressive" moves as mousetraps is to make a headlong dive for the cheese! Unless we prepare a force capable of independent activity there isn't much else we can do anyway, except go almost passively, even into the slaughterhouse.

The Leninist position is that the Labour Party, judged in its role and function, and despite its origins and special connection with the trade unions, is a capitalist, a bourgeois workers' party. Judged politically it is not a workers' party with deformations, inadequacies (its "inadequacies" amount to a qualitative difference), but a bourgeois party with the special function of containing the workers - actually it is a special section of the bourgeois state political organisation.

The Labour Party is the main instrument of capitalist control of the workers; the organisation formed out of an upsurge of the workers, but an upsurge in which the workers were defeated ideologically and thus in every other field, is now the means of integrating the drives and aspirations of the workers with the capitalist state machine. It is not a passive reflection but an active canaliser of the class - against itself, against the proletariat's own interest. It is against this background that Clause Four [the "socialist" clause in the Labour Party's constitution then] must be seen.

The approach and viewpoint is important here, and what we see will be seriously affected by how we begin. The initial statement "a workers' party" or "a bourgeois workers' party" will affect everything else. For example the bureaucracy is seen either as a crust formation, with certain deficiencies in relation to the needs of the class, but basically part of the class, which will respond (genuinely as opposed to treacherously) to pressures - or as a much more serious opponent, a part of the political machine of the main enemy class (irrespective of how it originates); and therefore our expectations from it will be quite different. We will not be quite so "comfortable" in the Labour Party.

The most obvious thing is that we will see their shifts to the left as also a danger and not as a triumph for the pressure of the class, as something which increased our responsibilities, as a party, rather than absolves us of them, lessening our role... The unqualified definition of the Labour Party as a workers' party is a snare.

Lenin (1920) anticipated a Labour government as a kind of Kerensky-type regime of crisis, and the situation and class forces then justified that. Now, however, a Labour government slots into a more or less stable state machine and immediately works for the capitalists, bringing to the bourgeoisie as its special gift a dowry of the aspirations and illusions of the working class.

Its function at the moment is to alleviate capitalist development problems - rationalisation. In its "nationalisation" enterprises in general the Labour Party seems to have adopted a special role in relation to the structure of the British economy. This is ever more concentrated, centralised, in need of modernisation. The "reforming" Labour Party harnesses the workers electorally as a driving-force to overcome the resistance of the average Tory supporter who sees private property as a sacred, immutable principle. The beneficiaries - the big bourgeoisie, the dominant capitalist groups - are of course a bit more flexible in their thinking and aware of their situation, their own needs.

What this means is that we must be as free in our propaganda and activities as possible - we must get out of the habit of wishful thinking. "Nationalisation" must be judged and presented from a class point of view. There must be no exaggeration of the ferment under the Labour Party, its vote, or the electoral swing by way of justifying our own "tactic". We must justify ourselves by our activity - not by distorting reality.

The first thing, as Trotsky said many times, is not to be afraid of stating what is. In 1966 the Labour Party did not appeal to the electorate as a socialist party - if anything the very opposite. Ignoring things like that, as the comrades do in gauging the petty bourgeois swing to Labour, can help only the bureaucracy. Quietism and tailism are bad enough anyway - on the basis of the self-delusion they become poisonous.

The lesson is that we must stress the necessity for a role for our own movement; the vital need is for self-confidence. How can we build an organisation when in practice we deny our politics an immediate serious vital role?

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