Why have Marxists ever bothered with the Labour Party?

Submitted by AWL on 9 July, 2009 - 6:05 Author: Sean Matgamna

This discussion article on Marxists and the Labour Party was written by Sean Matgamna in September 1976, at the end of a big political battle in the International-Communist League, forerunner of the AWL, in which attitudes to the Labour Party figured as one of the issues.

Of course nothing in it can be applied directly to a very different situation 33 years later. Its value here is that it discusses Marxist tactics towards the Labour Party over a long space of time and in a variety of circumstances.

"H", "E", and "L", in the document, are Dave Hughes, Dave Stocking, and Stuart King, leaders of a group in the I-CL which had, just before the article was written, announced a split from the I-CL to form the Workers' Power group.


1. The British working class and the trade unions

Communist revolution demands the prior liberation of the working class from bourgeois ideology. In Britain, where the privileged conditions of the Empire allowed a great degree of freedom of working-class activity to be tolerable to the bourgeoisie, the role of the labour bureaucracy has been crucial.

The education system and the media, of course, reinforce the ties of bourgeois ideology over the working class; most important. however, in a situation where the working class has created an organisationally independent political force and has periodically engaged in major struggles with the bourgeoisie is the role of the trade unions in sustaining the false consciousness created by the basic social relations of bourgeois society and restricting the struggles of the working class from breaking through that consciousness.

The trade unions "socialise" the class to acceptance of bargaining within the system, and therefore taking responsibility for it in time of crises.

The last two and a half years [of Labour government] have shown that Trotsky was not at all exaggerating when he wrote that: "In England, more than anywhere else, the state rests upon the back of the working class which constitutes the overwhelming majority of the population of the country. The mechanism is such that the bureaucracy is based directly on the workers, and the state indirectly, through the intermediary of the trade union bureaucracy".

The Labour Party was an extension into the bourgeois parliament of a force to carry out direct political bargaining, in parallel to the economic bargaining of the unions - political reform and amelioration of the working class lot as complement to the economic reformism of the unions.

2. The Labour Party

The trade union bureaucracy created the Labour Party under pressure of blows from the ruling class (Taff Vale, Osborne Judgement), itself responding to intensifying international pressure.

The great revolutionary upsurges of the British working class (early 19th century, Chartism) had already been defeated before they could have had the chance to link themselves with scientific communist theory (Marxism). After the defeat of Chartism and the rise of the Empire, a definite labour aristocracy consolidated itself in the workers' movement in the late 19th century.

The mass party of the British working class therefore was created, not as a party influenced by Marxism (like the French, German, or Italian social democracies), but as a conservative party of social reform. At its founding conference the trade unionists insisted that the Party constitution should not include even the formal statement of a socialist aim. The sectarian attitude of British Marxists to the Labour Party hindered any challenge to that conservatism.

Until 1918 the Party had a relatively loose federal structure. It had no individual membership (except through the affiliated societies: ILP etc.). In many areas the Trades Councils carried out the functions of a Constituency Labour Party.

After the First World War the Party leadership responded to the ferment in the working class through tightening the Party structure (with the individual membership constitution, and the rejection of CP affiliation, finally made definite in 1925 though the CP's principal predecessor, the BSP, had been affiliated).

Sectarianism on the part of the newly-formed CP (only after great pressure from the Communist International leadership did it apply for affiliation to the Labour Party, and then not in such terms as to elicit a favourable response from reformist workers) blocked the possible development of revolutionary influence in the Labour Party. Communists, however, retained important influence in many local Labour Parties, and in the course of the 1920s the Communist-led National Left Wing Movement of expelled CLPs involved up to a quarter of all Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs).

In the "Third Period" [of ultra-left Stalinist policy, 1928-34], however, the CP liquidated the NLWM. With the depression in the workers' movement after 1926-7, the experience of Labour Governments, and the rapid growth of the integration of trade union bureaucracy and bourgeois state (Mondism, etc.), the Labour Party became stabilised as a bourgeois political machine.

As a result of the criminal Stalinist misleadership of the CP the Labour Party had retained its massive political hegemony over the British working class. Left-wing movements continued inside it. The ILP was a pole of attraction until in the 1930s it broke from the Labour Party - and subsequently, failing to break from centrism, withered away.

The Socialist League, later in the 30s, was probably the most "left" reformist opposition yet in the Labour Party. The Labour League of Youth, founded in 1926, was taken over by the Stalinists but wrecked by them and Transport House [then Labour Party HQ] in 1939.

The Second World War and 1945-51 saw the further consolidation of the Labour Party as a machine for running capitalism and of the integration of the trade unions and the state. The trade union block vote was the reliable bulwark of the right against the constituency left movements round the Bevanites.

But the experience of "In Place of Strife" [the Labour Government's attempt at anti-union laws, in 1969] shows not only that the "political wing" can take on an autonomy, but more importantly that autonomy's limits and constraints, and the elasticity and durability of the trade union/ Labour Party connection.

True, the straight bourgeois party, the Conservatives, was equally unable to control the unions. The crucial difference is that the unions were effectively able to restrain and control the Labour Party from the inside, with the aid of very limited direct action: just as there is active collusion and even promotion of Labour Government policies today by the trade unions.

The basis of Labour reformism throughout the Labour Party's history has not been any direct control by petty-bourgeois elements, but the direct control of the bedrock organisations of the working class, themselves dominated by the bourgeois ideology of working within the system.

Stalin-Bukharin in the mid-1920s attempted to construct a theory of a sharp differentiation between the right-wing politicians of the Labour Party and the trade unions - "the policy of the Anglo-Russian Committee... was based completely on the fiction of (trade union) autonomy: the party of MacDonald and Thomas [Labour leaders] is one thing, taught Stalin but the trade unions of Thomas and Purcell quite another" (Trotsky).

The problem is not that the Labour Party is a two-class party, good proletarians vs. bad petty-bourgeois and Tory agents. The problems is of a reformist mass working-class movement, which remains reformist even during mass direct action upsurges as from '71 to '74.

Where, as then, those upsurges do not take on a massive enough scope to go beyond the system to the point of creating dual power or workers' power, the mass militancy naturally ebbs back into the channels and norms of parliamentary reformism. Even if in 1972 we had reached the level of Soviets and dual power, the major force within those Soviets would in political terms have been the Labour Party. Though the Labour Party lacks the organisational monolithism that made German Social Democracy such a powerful force for reaction within the German Soviets in 1918-19, it would have been our major opponent.

Therefore any attempt to counterpose the unions to the Labour Party, as being the fighting organs of the class, is sheer ignorance, not only on the obvious level that it has rarely been the case that the union machines have fought, that there is a bureaucracy, that there has been a decline in trade union branch life probably proportionately more important than the much-discussed decline in the CLPs, but because the union machinery is the solid basis of the Labour Party, a force for the right against both socialist politics and militant direct action throughout almost the entire history of the Labour Party.

It was more than right-wing demagogy which claimed that the "Bevanite" disputes [between the Labour leadership in 1951-5, and left-wing CLP activists led by Aneurin Bevan] were between the workers' movement "proper" and airy-fairy “dreamers” of disparate backgrounds.

3. The "open valve"

The unions and the Labour Party and Trades Councils etc. form a complex, interacting network. When we talk of an "open valve" between the unions and the Labour Party there is nothing mystical about it.

In all advanced capitalist countries there is a symbiotic interaction between the trade unions and the mass parties based on the working class. The Labour Party is organised on a constituency basis consisting of wards and affiliated trade union branches; the possibility exists of a free flow between the unions and in so far as the Labour Party, and in so far as the existing working-class movement in Britain is politically active, even in a minimally independent sense (i.e. the organisational sense) it is through such channels that the activity takes place.

It is for example possible and desirable for most ICLers who belong to a union to get nominated as delegates to their local Constituency Labour Parties.

Discussion about the quantity of such activity is useful and necessary for rational deployment of our resources. But to deny that it is so, or to ignore the organic link between the Labour Party and the unions, is to make any rational allocation of forces for work in the labour movement in its all-round totality impossible.

4. Are the trade unions the "central fighting organs"?

By focusing on "the unions" as "the fighting organs of the class" we implicitly take on a syndicalist coloration, and indeed it is a right-wing accommodationist "syndicalism" which sees the unions as a homogeneous bloc and ignores both the control of the bureaucracy and the central responsibility which the unions as a whole, and their modus operandi, bargaining within the system, translated into Parliamentary politics, have for much of what we find obnoxious in the Labour Party.

Syndicalism usually has left-wing connotations, as in relation to the pre World War 1 revolutionary syndicalism which Trotsky described as "a remarkable rough draft of communism". But there has also been right-wing syndicalism, like for example the Jouhaux group which dominated the French CGT after World War 1.

In so far as the focus on "the unions" is meant as a focus on the centrality of working class direct action, it is a mystified and extremely confused expression of that focus, and one which stops us from seeing and intervening in the labour movement as a whole, and thus militates against us preparing to do in developing our own organisation to help working-class direct action, above all to help transform it into conscious communist politics.

In so far as the workers in the last decades have "looked to the unions as their fighting organs", it has largely been to shop floor organisation. The authority regained by the unions in the last few years was paralleled by a re-growth (astonishingly rapid given the 1964-70 record) of Labour Party membership after 1970-71.

It is necessary to relate to both, to understand the complex of inter-relationships. We all vastly underestimated the importance of the opposition of first the trade union organisations as a whole against In Place of Strife and then of the unions and the Labour Party as a whole against the Industrial Relations Act [Tory anti-union law, 1971] in evoking the explosive atmosphere that triggered spontaneously when the five dockers were jailed [for picketing, in July 1972]: yet the contrast between the response to the Five and to the Shrewsbury pickets [building-worker pickets arrested in 1973, under different laws] illustrates nothing if not that.

The power of the official movement, acting according to the reformist logic of taking responsibility for the system in creating the present working-class acquiescence to wage cuts etc. in face of capitalist crisis is only another illustration of the same phenomenon The working class has not been beaten except by the combination of the limits of its own reformist outlook, the limits of direct action (1969-74) which is not revolutionary either by the consciousness of its participants or objectively by the massive scope it takes on, and the tremendous power of the apparatus of the labour movement.

For a number of generations the working class has "gone to school with Labourism" (the phrase is Trotsky's, writing almost half a century ago about one then very pessimistic but possible variant of developments the variant that we now have to live with and overcome). That has been possible precisely because of the role of the trade unions in the 1920 and '30s (Bevinism) [after Ernest Bevin, general secretary of the biggest union, TGWU], and in the right-wing domination that was so all-pervasive thereafter until the 1960s - and because of the inadequacy of the revolutionaries.

The developments of the late 1960s and early 170s were no more than a kink within the pattern. The present relationship of the unions to the Labour Party and of both to the Callaghan government and to the bourgeois state illustrates it graphically. Those who insist on the major focus on "the unions and the industrial milieu", who counterpose "industrial milieu" and "Labour Party milieu" as totally separate, who see the Labour Party as qualitatively different:

a) obscure and mystify our real central focus working, class direct action;

b) by an ignorant syndicalist fetish will unwittingly deprive the organisation of the possibility of relating flexibly to the working-class movement - creating a quasi-syndicalist sect;

a) impose on the organisation a way of looking at the complex reformist labour movement, political and industrial, that is so selective that it phases out of the picture whole areas of the interconnections and criss-cross interactions of the political and industrial segments of one organic movement - precisely those areas where a clear understanding is vital for the organisation.

An equivalent of the one-dimensional picture H/E/L draw would be to take a map of extremely difficult terrain, with inadequate roads, produce a simplified version, mainly of the roads, with much of the essential detail removed, get someone to memorise the simplified version, and then set them to travel over that territory blindfold. Blindfold? Yes, because otherwise your senses would allow you to see when you were in forest territory and likely to crash into a tree, walk into a ravine, or drop over a cliff.

In the labour movement direct sense impressions can allow a certain amount of empirically adequate reaction to seen events. (For example, H and E's limited degree of recognition that the Labour Party may be important "in some areas" before the fusion; or, more strikingly, the attitude of one leading comrade of the Workers' League [1975 splinter led by Jim Higgins from the SWP, then IS] who, in conversation with Reynolds and Smith, said that he agreed with Hindess's analysis of the Labour Party that it had lost all class roots but agreed with the Workers' League working in the Labour Party in certain areas, and was himself seriously thinking of joining his local CLP!)

Often, however, your immediate impressions and experiences will lead you to see the opposite of the actual relationships. The general revolutionary-left reaction to the industrial militancy of 1969-74 is an example; so is the case of the SLL, briefly WF, member, who concluded from 1972's events that a revolutionary party was not necessary since the working class was spontaneously doing a great job. (He was even wrong on the spontaneity, not seeing its connection with the official campaign! Workers' Fight [forerunner of AWL] did not begin to see it until early 1973).

We need full and adequate maps of the terrain and the interconnections, to take account not only of the gut reaction against the Labour Party - which is good for political neophytes, but criminal for supposedly mature revolutionaries - or of the 1969-74 direct action, but also of the whole analysis our movement has made over many decades of the British labour movement as a whole.

5. A mass left current in the Labour Party?

But what does the open valve mean concretely here and now? Evans in particular insistently asks and re-asks the question: is there a mass influx into the Labour Party, do we expect one, etc.

There has, beyond dispute, been a serious re-growth of individual Labour Party membership since 1970, which continues active - and there is considerable ferment, though it is limited and perplexed because it too often, even at its most "left", shares many of the ideas about accepting responsibility etc.

Nevertheless the Tribunites [left Labour MPs of the time] could, if they had the will for its organise a serious and substantial movement against Government policy, one that could actually lead to growth and draw a serious influx into the Labour Party. An illustration of this is the massive response by factory convenors to Benn's proposals on nationalisation.

The period now resembles the period from about 1947 to the resignation of [Aneurin] Bevan, [John] Freeman, and [Harold] Wilson [from the Labour government, over prescription charges] in 1951 - ferment, disgruntlement, no focus, no leadership - with the additional restraining factor of the fear of the government falling.

Whatever the effect on the morale of the Tribunites of the attitude of the union leaders and of people such as [Michael] Foot, significantly they retain an oppositionist stance. Whatever the future personal fate of Foot or of Benn, it is a gross mistake to write off even this sort of element.

Shortly before he resigned, to re-emerge as the leader of the scattered left-wing forces and to trigger the internal crisis that lasted from 1951 to 1955 and even later, Aneurin Bevan was responsible as a minister for bringing militant London dockers to trial under wartime regulations against strikes. (They were acquitted - the dockers struck under the slogan, "While they are in the dock, we remain out of the docks").

Organised opposition and some influx, though hardly a mass influx, is possible. We do not expect a mass influx. We cannot make any infallible prediction on the likelihood of the Tribunites leading a serious fightback; baldly, we do not think they will. In any case, to clarify the issue, we would be willing to argue with our opponents on the basis of such an assumption. For comrade Evans' insistent question is fundamentally misconceived.

While objective conditions, trends and movements in the class and in the class struggle, etc., are the parameters of our work and our strategy in this case, an orientation to a reformist working class - we categorically reject the view that the tactics of a group the size of the ICL can have any direct automatic or mechanical relationship to such trends.

Because of its size, the ICL has an immense autonomy in tactical manoeuvres to put on muscle, put down roots in the class, relate to layers of militants, etc. It will only do this if it is tactically flexible. Only in the final analysis are its tactical and organisational manoeuvres related to and restricted by the big trends in the class struggle, etc.

One illustration of this is the American Trotskyist breakthrough to leading industrial mass actions, in 1934: the Minneapolis coal yards were by no means the centre of US industry. They were simply where the Trotskyists were able to find an opening.

In the dispute in the ICL now our side is simultaneously arguing for an orientation to the mass trend in the workers' movement - reformism - towards the great epochal task posed to communists in Britain, of overcoming reformism; and for a flexible approach to small-group building, which is our immediate, next-stop, priority. It happens that the two coincide.

However, if we as we are now were faced with an IS-like group of 2000 to 5000 in conditions such as 1968 when about a dozen Workers' Fight [WF] members entered an IS [as the SWP was called then] of about 1000, then there would be a very strong argument for "fusing" with - entering - that organisation. Some of us might advocate it.

Inside such an organisation we would simultaneously argue for a correct appreciation of the Labour Party and the task of eliminating reformism. For an organisation of a few thousands the appropriate tactic would probably be serious partial fraction work in the Labour Party now. But not self-evidently. IS [as the SWP was called then] is not a proscribed organisation for the Labour Party. Depending on circumstances we might advocate total entry.

6. Tactics and strategy

For us the Labour Party as the mass reformist party is central and we refuse to adopt any but flexible tactics towards it.

Here E's obsessive questioning about how we see the "trends" etc. in the Labour Party developing is most instructive. For us it is not the determinant given that there is a serious, though limited, ferment in the Labour Party, that it relates to forces now politically active, vast, and with deep roots in the working class, compared to our present size, and that no other comparable and contradictory opportunity for intervention to build the ICL in the labour movement exists.

In the 1930s the Trotskyists talked of entry in a number of different circumstances, usually to do with growth, ferment, crisis (or, as in the USA, freakish re-growth) of centrist or social-democratic forces.

Self-evidently if there is no political life one does not enter. At the same time one would keep in mind that even a shrivelled social-democratic sect can have a political weight and resonance out of all proportion to its size precisely because of reformism of a trade union sort in the working class, and the synchronisation of Social Democratic ideas with both bourgeois indoctrination of the working class on the nature of the state, etc., and a vague, undeveloped socialism or yearning for change. "On the eve of the 1924 legislative elections, the bureau of the ECCI in a special appeal to the French CP pronounced the SP of France 'non-existent'. I protested in vain in a letter to the bureau against this evaluation, explaining that a reformist parliamentary party may retain very wide influence with a weak organisation and even a limited press" (Trotsky, Writings 1930, p.42).

It was only - to my knowledge - after the development of vulgar evolutionism in the post-Trotsky "Fourth International" that the question Evans obsessively poses about evaluations of mass trends in existing parties became central.

Trotsky also analysed mass trends, general tendencies, etc. for example on entry into the French SP (though in relation to Belgium the case for entry rested much more on the general centrality of the Labour Party in the workers' movement and on perceived openings for "the lever of a small group"). However, for Trotsky tactics were a matter of revolutionaries seeking a real, active relationship to the working class where opportunities presented themselves, not of revolutionaries chasing after the waves and currents of History.

Thus even in the French case, where the sharpness of the immediate social/political crisis made gross trends of much more immediate relevance to revolutionaries, Trotskyists argument did not rest on a view of the SP developments as the centre of politics in France: he recognised the "miserable" social composition of the party and the fact that most advanced militants were outside it.

In postwar Trotskyist entrism, on the contrary, the concept of a necessary objective trend towards a mass left current in the Stalinist or social-democratic party became central, with the would-be revolutionary protagonist being ancillary to that trend.

Masses and mass trends are relative. If there were genuine mass influx into the Labour Party, we could not gear into it directly anyway. We would relate directly to individuals and handfuls of people. In fact the question Evans poses as central to any Labour Party tactic: will there be a mass influx? only became central to Trotskyists after they ceased to regard entry in a short-term perspective of political self-promotion and growth, and developed the tactic of deep entry; that is, started to see their central role as one of spotting the right evolving trend in which to immerse themselves.

E has picked it up uncritically - it is after all the predominant idea after a quarter of a century of vulgar pseudo-Trotskyism. Without realising it, he has the vulgar-evolutionist "Pabloite" conception. Or a caricature of it: the early 1950s "FI" forces after all worked out their ideas seriously, attempted coherence and rigour. Evans parrots these ideas, not realising that an official group position which he formally accepts on the Fourth International has as its centre a critique of the whole vulgar-evolutionist conception

Politically and psychologically E represents here a passive, academic, consumerist tendency, forever ready to discuss trends, influxes and outflows, etc. Nowhere is there a driving will to find a road to growth, to the real labour movement, for the ICL. The tendency is not unlike that of the Naville trend in French Trotskyism which Trotsky criticised bitterly: "But if.. and then.. and if? To foresee everything and provide for everything in advance is impossible. It is necessary to understand the situation clearly, to determine the tasks and to proceed with their fulfilment".

The WF tendency developed from a nucleus of four to a national tendency because it started in 1966 with a limited critique of vulgar evolutionary Trotskyism, and thereafter aggressively pursued, with the writings of Trotsky and Cannon as guide, a policy of organisation-building linked to a focus on the mainstream of the labour movement.

As it happens we think that entry should be the norm in Britain, and superficially that may seem to parallel deep entry. No. It is not with us, as with the Militant [forerunner of Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal today], a matter of riding to "power" with Labour, but that the openness of the existing mass party of the working class in this country is, almost uniquely, such that revolutionaries can exist in it more or less openly, making no concessions except for a few trivial organizational precautions. and because it is the mass party of the working class, that is where revolutionaries ought to be.

Evans and the others operate with a strange romantic view of the past of the Labour Party. They demand of us that we give them some guarantee, or at least commit ourselves to the hope, of a mass upsurge in the Labour Party wards. They seem to believe there was once a thriving Labour Party life bearing some relationship to the nominal individual membership.

As far as we know there has never been that! Probably in the period from 1945 to 1954-5 there was more involvement - certainly there have been some shifts in working class participation levels and so on. But nothing qualitative - unless you want to argue that the upsurge since 1970 is such.

Certainly there is more life in the Labour Party now than since the unilateralist/Clause 4 controversies of 15 years ago, and with younger and fresher forces often involved, more likely to engage in a campaign comparable to the post-1951 Bevanite campaign against the Party leadership than just to fade away as did so many between 1964 and 1970.

It is in the nature of social democratic organisations that their active membership usually is tiny as a ratio of their support. It is not in relation to the vastly inflated nominal membership of the Labour Party, individual or affiliated, that we should judge the present Labour Party and Young Socialists, but in relation to the ICL, its size, its tasks, and the opportunities in the social-democratic arena for us.

7. An illustration: and some objections

As illustration of why, we will take Tower Hamlets CLP (probably a bit better than the average Labour Party). About 70 delegates attend the monthly General Committee meetings, more than half trade-union delegates, not ward activists.

Where is there a more typical minimally politically active body of workers for us to reach, moreover workers "representing" organisations numbering tens of thousands? Trades Councils? Sometimes. We should be there too. It is much more accessible to most of our members to be in wards and CLPs.

Aren't they backward and reformist? Sometimes. Some are militants, reformist militants.

Aren't we lending credibility? We have little to give. On the contrary, we gain a hearing, integration, contacts, including industrial contacts.

Isn't it corrupting to encourage working-class militants to become involved in such a milieu, to draw any of the few worker contacts we have into active Labour Party work away from the pure proletarian situation of the factory? If such a person is close politically, it can (a) be a training in how to fight reformism in the factory and (b) be a drawing of her/him into active collaboration with us in a way that is meaningful in combating the general reformism s/he will meet - and finally, into the ICL.

If the person in question is not politically active at all, or is not politically active outside trade union activity, but is a reformist in electoral terms, in outlook etc., then drawing her/him into active struggle on specific issues can be the beginning of politically transforming her/him. Reformism demands passivity. Sincere reformist workers drawn into activity in the reformist mass party, in association with revolutionaries, can be transformed into revolutionaries.

Our approach - building our organisation on the basis of our politics, actively seeking to find a route to transmit those politics - allows that flexibility The petty bourgeois workerist tendency, lacking a rounded view of the whole labour movement, and having a superstitious fear of the Labourite face of reformism (though not of the trade-unionist face of the same reformism), are helpless in dealing with such problems.

They confuse technique - factory bulletins, paper sales and geography - the shop floor, more usually standing at the factory gate - with politics. No: they substitute technique for politics. Or again, No. They substitute a fantasy about a magic technique (and a few magic slogans) for either a real technique or real politics.

But don't we lose credibility, prestige, face, by the limited camouflage we adopt in doing this entry? Have we much to lose?

A group our size will recruit on propaganda for its full programme. It will engage in actions, attempting to use transitional slogans in struggle, and as part of that struggle to draw some people further along the line of linked demands, beyond the immediately relevant slogan or slogans to our full politics. Very occasionally - usually not under circumstances it can control or plan for (cf. the Minneapolis example again) - it will engage in an exemplary action that will focus a lot of attention on the grouping responsible (suitable self-identification, publicity, etc. is obviously not something we forswear).

In so far as one can make sense of their conception, and especially the way they counterpose their fantasy plans for exemplary industrial work as a means of gaining credibility for the ICL, H/E/L operate with a mental image of a valiant ICL doing "propaganda by the deed", as opposed to our more traditional conception of propaganda by explanation.

Even apart from the fact that a propaganda group gets its ideas across through all-round explanation, and that in the very most favourable circumstances only a limited amount can be got through to people by exemplary action, this is self-evident nonsense. By definition we are weak in ability to perform because... barring freak situations we are weak.

The propaganda of the deed approach counterposed to a more rational conception is another fantasy - the 7-stone weakling from the body-building advertisements kicks sand in the face of the giant 17-stone bully to "prove" he is stronger and tougher. Since things in reality are not quite like that, immediately subsequent events are very likely to provide an "example" of the opposite...

S. Entry work and the united front - and workerism

We lose almost nothing - we can gain enormously. Entrism is a variant of the United Front; the tactic developed by the Communist International after 1921 to win over the social democratic workers, who were a big minority or a majority in most European countries. Essentially it meant communist organisational and ideological independence, coupled with unity in action with reformist workers, dictated by real class interest; the reformist workers would learn in action. For Britain the Communist International advocated affiliation of the CP to the Labour Party.

Lenin outlined the reasons for this approach in Britain: the CP could, apparently, make open propaganda, calling the Labour Party leaders traitors, without automatic expulsion - "the British Communists must demand and get complete freedom to expose the Hendersons and the Snowdons". So can we today, without the formal affiliation.

The Trotskyists of the 1930s, having decided the Communist International was dead for the revolution, sought for ways of building their own organisation. Entryism was frequently used. It is the united-front tactic adapted to conditions of terrible weakness of the revolutionaries.

ICL cannot with much success approach even IS for unity in action. We can just about make such proposals to the IMG. IS, IMG, ICL together could not realistically propose united-front unity in action to the Labour Party. Entry means by-passing the formalities.

Most of the objections to taking opportunities such as participating in meetings of 70-odd delegates (like Tower Hamlets CLP monthly meetings) in conditions of very great political freedom of propaganda, are strangely coupled with a quite peculiar idealisation of workers in the factory place.

The factory is the heroic battle front, especially to the petty bourgeois who have never been in one, or never for more than a few months. The General Committee, or ward, is the grubby place where the political consciousness that is the dominant one among our class - including in the factories - is starkly revealed.

From this flows the psychological need to deny the organic link between the two, to blinker oneself to the fact that oven in the heroic phase of a strike action the basic political concepts and framework of ideas usually remains that so starkly and uglily bared at the General Committee or ward.

Idealisation and romanticisation of "the worker" in the factory on the one hand and, to speak frankly, something akin to snobbishness in relation to the real political consciousness of the real workers on the other - that is the mark of petty bourgeois workerism. It is a killer disease for an organisation like the ICL, because those 70 Tower Hamlets GC members just happen to represent the only working class we have in the area apart from the few Communist Party sectarian Stalinoid social-democrats and the "revolutionaries".

They are not meaningfully separable from workers in factories (!), and they are often more accessible to us - though certainly when they move into strike action may well be a time when they and other workers presently more backward are most accessible to our ideas, and show the "true essence" of the proletariat bestirring itself in a way that bears some relation to its historic role as we conceive of it.

The "revolutionaries" who indulge in a combination of "workerist" romanticism, usually from a distance, or peering in fascination at the mysterious world beyond the factory gate where one is trying to sell papers, and squeamish or snobbish reluctance to probe into the realities of the reformist consciousness that dominates our class, are sick. They also belong to a distinct class category - petty bourgeois workerism.

9. Labour Party work versus industrial work

But, all that apart, it is agreed that working class direct action is central and that it takes place mainly in the factories. In terms of scarce resources. Isn't there a conflict between Labour Party and industrial work?

What is industrial work? (a) Work within a factory; (b) from the outside, around it; (c) trade union work.

At the Trades Council level the line is already scarcely worth drawing, in contradistinction from the General Committee level. Labour Party work is attendance at meetings, doing a tiny amount of work for the Party. As the ICL, in both trade union and Labour Party work, our primary business is fighting the battle of ideas, building a revolutionary nucleus.

Pushing forward this or that partial struggle,.building this or that rank and file grouping, left caucus, or Young Socialists branch, is important, and has weight in making our basic tasks easier or more difficult - but for Leninists what is central is the task of revolutionary propaganda and building a revolutionary organisation.

We do not counterpose that task, as the Healyites do, to the building of partial movements and struggles - but still less do we dissolve it into or subordinate it to that building. Such a subordination is implied by H/E/L's prioritisation of a search for "where the sanctions and forces can be mobilised" over a search for openings for ICL propaganda and active intervention.

A clash of resources at a given time and place is possible - yes. A serious ICL member or branch - first and foremost ICL, and not Labour Partyist or trade unionist - will intelligently choose.

There is no general clash, either logically or empirically. Logically, there would only be a clash if all members had enough serious industrial-militant contacts to talk to, help, "service", etc. so that no time was left for anything else.

That is not the case, and scarcely ever likely to be the case. If it were however, the case, then what would we say to those militants? We would try to educate them to ICL politics and recruit them - yes. What line would we propose they take with the reformist mass of workers, on a routine day to day basis? "The ICL is the only answer"?

How would they relate to the fact that compared to the Labour Party (or CP or IS) the credibility of the ICL wouldn't be very great even if we were much much bigger? They would have to relate to the Labour Party and passive Labour Party supporters by making demands on the Labour Party. Even if they lived in the situation most ideally corresponding to the thinking of H/E/L our comrades would have to relate to the Labour Party.

But why only from outside? Again, logically, only if there was an ever-expanding circle of "pure" industrial militants to occupy them fully. Here, even logically, the theory becomes absurd. It is not logical or conceivable, given the reality of the labour movement, that this expanding circle would not overlap with elements of the Labour Party, militants already within it.

Even IS wound up hauling in workers some of whom remained members of the Labour Party and all of whom had to vote Labour. (Oliver describes how in Coventry IS, around election time, the worker members would disappear... off canvassing for the Labour Party!)

IS also had to relate to Labourite workers. And the cry "build IS" has not noticeably answered the problem. The ICL is anyway committed to the use of transitional demands, and does not see itself growing into a mass party in a molecular growth - or wouldn't H/E/L agree? Do they have a new analysis of IS to offer us? Do they want to abandon what they used to call "transitional politics" and, following the encouraging examples of the WRP and IS, adopt the cure-all slogan for us of "build the ICL"?

Looked at logically and followed through to its conclusions, the idea of a basic or serious conflict between Labour Party and industrial work (work in the economic and political reformist working-class organisations) leads us straight to IS sectarian politics. Actually it only leads us back to them.

For H/E/L operate with a mishmash political consciousness still bristling with IS prejudices, of which their fear of the Labour Party is one, and their failure to go beyond beginning to understand the method of transitional demands is another.

Both theoretically and empirically the counterposition, "Labour Party work versus industrial work", the cornerstone of the H/E/L argument is untenable.

10. SWP (IS) and the Labour Party

It is a fact that it is impossible to understand IS's evolution without understanding its relationship to the Labour Party.

The Cliff tendency was part of the syndicalist and sectarian majority of the (maximum 500 strong) RCP in the '40s [Revolutionary Communist Party, the united Trotskyist group of the time], which fought against an active tactic of the Labour Party entry.

It collapsed together with the survivors of that majority into the Labour Party in 1950 (together with the current Militant [the forerunner, then deeply immersed in a Labour Party "perspective", of the Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal today].

By 1960 Cliff is writing in Edition One of his booklet on Luxemburg, justifying Luxemburg remaining in the German Social Democracy and the post-1916 Independent Social Democracy. until 1919, in terms of rationale and self justification for a completely passive Labour Party existence.

(Cliff on Luxemburg, like Cliff on Lenin, tells us more about Cliff than anyone else - or at least about Cliff's position at the point of his writing, or revising: see the shameless unacknowledged changes, on crucial points changes of 180 degrees, in the 1966 edition of the Luxemburg pamphlet). John Palmer reportedly put it most sharply if crudely. "Only when the revolutionary workers are in the streets fighting will it be appropriate to leave the Labour Party".

Then came the 1964 Labour Government and the growth of opposition to it, with IS to the beginnings of the wave of industrial militancy, adapting gropingly and empirically. By 1967 Cliff is ready to publish two articles in Socialist Worker (then Labour Worker) showing what had been available in excellent book form from Ralph Miliband since 1961, that Keir Hardie had never been a "good socialist" etc. They drifted out of the Labour Party, like they had drifted in.

By early 1969 Jim Higgins could write that the evolution of the Labour Party was irrelevant to IS, as if reformism was being evaporated by the heat of industrial militancy

Workers' Fight had in 1966 published the first Trotskyist analysis we know of since the 1930s establishing the elementary fact, anathema then to the other groupings, that the Labour Party was a capitalist party, though one based on the working class. In early 1969 WF replied to Higgins by saying that, on the contrary, the Labour Party was central to the whole future of IS.

The same people were a few months later to begin to fight (we now think mistakenly, though we do not repudiate the critical approach that led us to those conclusions) against a blanket endorsement by IS of all Labour Party candidates and argue instead for attempting to throw IS's weight into widening the split between the trade unions and loyal trade union and pro-trade-union MPs, and the Wilsonites, over In Place of Strife, voting for the former and not the latter. It was in our estimation of the weight IS could dispose of and of the dynamic of Labour Party/union relations that we were wrong, not the general approach.

The same individuals (Landis, Price, Cleary) now advocate a serious involvement in the Labour Party, without any withdrawal from meaningful industrial work. Wild zig-zagging? Only apparently. The central appreciation of the centrality of reformism has remained constant, so has the crucial question for communists of having a clear scientific view of the Labour Party and flexible and adaptable tactics. On that we have a constant record for 10 years.

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