The "Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory": How Marxists Met the Thatcher Tory Threat in the 1979 General Election

Submitted by dalcassian on 3 August, 2010 - 1:54

[This interview on the 1978-9 "Socialist Campaign for Labour Victory" appeared in International Communist magazine, number 9, August 1978.

A discreted Labour government limped towards defeat. Socialist Unity was a vehicle for the IMG (today's successor: Socialist Resistance; in 1978 a relatively visible and active group, with about 700 members). The Socialist Unity/ SWP slate for the general election, mentioned in the interview, never happened, and nor did the mooted link-up with the CP. SU in the end stood six candidates, not 12. The SWP did not stand any candidates at all.

A central SWP leader, Duncan Hallas, told SW readers that the SWP was "not getting excited" about the general election, in which the Thatcherites were driving for power... The SWP was on the eve of proclaiming "The Downturn", a decision that nothing could be done by the labour movement and that socialists should, for the next historical period, focus on building the SWP. It completed the SWP's transformation into a self-sealed-off sect.
CHRIS REYNOLDS [Martin Thomas] interviewed JOHN O’MAHONY [Sean Matgamna] about the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory. O’Mahony was National Organiser of the SCLV, a member of its provisional steering committee and also of the editorial board of the revolutionary socialist weekly WORKERS' ACTION, a predecessor of "Solidarity and Workers Liberty".]

Q: We've had a Labour government which came to power on the crest of a wave of working class militancy; since than we‘ve had as clear proof as you can imaglne of the bankruptcy, of reformlsm. But there hasn't been a shift to the left In the labour movement; there's been a shift to the right. Why do you think that is, and what can we do about it?

A. In a sense the movement has followed the experience of the government. The government was elected with quite left talk and on a real class upsurge; but it had no means of dealing with the capitalist crisis other than according to the laws of capitalism. The Labour Party was committed to capitalism; the government couldn’t have broken with it.

The Tribunites‘ harking-back to war-time controls is in fact the worst kind of sectarian schema-mongering; but that was the nearest thing to a ‘socialist’ set of proposals available in the broad movement. The result has been that reality has moulded the way the Labour government has behaved, it has behaved as a straightforward capitalist government, and the ‘left’ has been disarmed.

The other side of this is that the previous labour upsurge, beginning in 1966 or 1969, was on a direct-action, objectively syndicalist, basis, even when it was fighting for political objectives. This direct action, which was so powerful that it was able to smash the offensive of the Tory government, wasn’t armed with a programme which came to grips with the political reality. Much of the previous limited active socialist consciousness, summed up in Clause Four, had been eroded as the ‘socialist’ projects for nationalisation were realised as state capitalist reorganisation of industry after the war, leading to disappointment and — for workers in those industries — ‘proof’ that nationalisation wasn’t necessarily in their interest.

The movement proved strong enough to win a mini-1926 and defeat the government, but was politically disarmed. It had no policy to answer the crisis, and no organisation to impose itself on the government.

The industrial militancy collapsed in 1975, and after that the movement effectively lined up with the government.

The government at least had some awareness of the laws of the system. The Tribunites hadn't; and in fact direct action, short of leading to the seizure of power by the working class, doesn‘t come to grips with the realities of capitalist crisis or spontaneously generate a plan to deal with it.

If you look back: the bureaucracy had been able to impose itself firmly and powerfully on the labour movement as a result of the defeat of the 1926 General Strike. It remained firmly in control until the middle 1950s. The first real break in the domination of the working class by the bureaucracy was the defection of the 'Blue Union' from the TGWU on the docks, which began the process which shattered the right wing domination of the T&G and was also the beginning of a wave of unofficial struggles.

You had the possibility of easy gains through local struggles, mainly wildcat strikes, and the trade union bureaucracy was more and more raised above and separated out from the process of industrial bargaining, especially in engineering.

It became increasingly distanced from the rank and file.

As from the struggle over 'In Place of Strife' there was a quite serious reversal of this process. The first wave of industrial struggle against the Labour government began with the imposition of that wage freeze in July 1966. It was largely a rank and file movement, although you had the seamen's strike which was led by the officials.

Then after the real beginnings (in 1969) of the upsurge which culminated in 1974, the trade union officials played a leading role.

In the previous period, since 1926-7, the trade union bureaucracy had related to the bourgeois state as a collaborator. The TUC entered into collusion with governments both Tory and Labour. This collaboration goes back to Mondism, and developed qualitatively after the beginning of World War 2. The TUC became regularly involved in discussing state economic policy with the government, giving its cooperation in return for limited concessions to corporate working class interests.

With 'In Place of Strife', for the first time in decades, there was a situation where the trade union bureaucracy was split not only from the Labour Party but also from the government, as a government. In retrospect one can see more clearly than was possible at the time that much of the great wave of struggle was partly produced by the trade union bureaucracy's split from both the Party and the Government.

This was reinforced when Heath came to power with his Selsdon policies. The Tory line of letting ‘lame ducks' succumb to the laws of the market undercut the customary ‘responsible’ collaboration between government and trade union bureaucracy. This development went further still with the Industrial Relations Act and the fight against it. At the same time the TUC turned to the Parliamentary Labour Party as its society-wide bargaining agent.

The growth of real struggle did allow real gains to be made by groups like IS. But the bureaucracy was still playing a leading role, partly rehabilitating itself.

This rehabilitation of the trade union bureaucracy is a major factor behind the experience of the present Labour government.

All that means that the possibilities of the revolutionaries, even if we had had a much bigger implantation, were very limited.

Q. Given this situation with the Labour Government, what do you think revolutionaries can do now?

A. The perspective of do-it-yourself reformism has been seriously undermined. The normal depressing effect on wages struggle of a slump has been strengthened by the effect on the movement of its ‘pyrrhic victory' in putting Labour into power, on the eve of the slump.

But the experience of the working class in the last four years has led to a great deal of bitterness and a mood of searching for solutions. It’s necessary to find a way of organising that, to give it political perspectives, and to articulate a socialist programme for it. That socialist programme must be linked to the daily class struggle; we have to rehabilitate the. perspective of direct action, which, after all, in any Marxist understanding, is the necessary agency of the socialist struggle.

One might not choose to organise such activity around the election, but the fact of the matter is that for a period of time now there has been a depression in the movement. The IMG had various projects to organise a class struggle left wing two or three years ago. They were premature; therefore they became a bit gimmicky, and now the IMG have decided to concentrate on electoral activities of a very limited sort round Socialist Unity.

Now the election creates a situation where people have to make a choice; where the Tories, for the first time in many years, do represent quite seriously different policies to the Labour Party; where the Tories are a real threat — and that is galvanising an interest in politics in the labour movement. The campaign has worked out a platform which, we think, roughly answers the objective needs of the working class now. What we need to do is organise the left that is prepared to fight back, including against this or a future Labour government.

Initially we’ve had quite a lot of success. Broad forces from many different sources and many different tendencies are involved. I think that's an indication of a felt need for such a campaign; in the run-up to the election people are feeling that they shouldn’t just passively go along with the smug right-wing propaganda, nor should they go along with the line that the Tories are so bad that we must forgive the right wing Labourites - who have actually been better Tories from the point of view of the bosses than the Tories themselves could have been, over the last four years

We've found a formula for combining the struggle for our politics, for class struggle politics, with a drive to keep the Tories out. The campaign challenges the monopoly of the right wing.

We already have at least one constituency party that will be campaigning in the elections on our politics, in a sort of parallel election campaign to the official Labour Party.

The campaign is also a means of preventing the cessation of discussion of working-class politics in the period up to the election. It prepares for a fightback, and that fightback will be necessary if Labour wins just as if the Tories win.

The campaign enables us to politicise the labour movement side of the election campaign, in a way that would not be possible if we had to accept the monopoly of the right wing leadership, which of course is accepted by the do-nothing Tribunite pseudo-left.

Q. What sort of forces do you think you can draw Into the campaign?

A. Over the last four years, with the slump and the Labour government, many industrial militants who are reformists in the sense that they have no perspective for the overthrow of the system have found themselves without a perspective of struggle. Some of them can be drawn to our campaign, and, in the course of the campaign, educated politically. We aim to give them a perspective for struggle and for organising, linking industrial action with socialist policies.

One of the important things about the campaign is that we are completely committed to support of direct working class struggle, irrespective of the implications for the fortunes of the Labour Party in the elections.

Also, there are a lot of people in the labour movement and the Labour Party who are trotskyists with a small ‘t’ — people who accept many of the basic ideas of Trotskyism, and who have ad some education in the Trotskyist movement, but who, because of the failure of the movement to organise a coherent and serious party, have lost the perspective of reorganising the labour movement and creating the force that can really overthrow capitalism. They have not lost their commitment to the working class interest, but they have lost hope. They tend to sink into routine activity in the labour movement.

l think we can give a perspective of struggle to many of these people; minimally, for the election, but also perhaps a perspective beyond that.

We can also draw in sections of the Young Socialists. The 'Militant’ leadership of the Young Socialists is characterised by sterile maximalism. They know the general objective but they have no idea how to get there. They relate in a very tail-ending, minimal way to the class struggle.

The maximalist propaganda of ’Militant' does appear extremely radical to many young people, but the hegemonic position of 'Militant’ in the YS has kept the YS shrivelled and unhealthy.

As regards organising against the present government, they have proved as bankrupt as 'Tribune' — and with less excuse, because 'Militant’ is better organised.

We can hope to enlist segments of the YS for a perspective of struggle — not just proclaiming socialism but struggling for it. And then we could begin to challenge the hegemony of ‘Militant’.

Q. Did you approach 'Militant'?

A. At the YS conference we issued an open letter inviting them to take part in the campaign.

They didn’t respond. They tend to be rather arrogant and regard themselves as the mass movement.

In fact the 'Militant' shows that you can find the worst forms of classical sectarianism even within the mass movement. They have a schema which says that if they keep their heads down long enough, eventually they will be able to take over the Labour Party. and the Labour Party can introduce socialism peacefully. And they counterpose their schema to the class struggle.

Q. Isn't there a danger that in aiming for a broad campaign you could dilute your politics to the point where the campaign becomes just a cover for left reformlsm?

A. Yes, there is always a danger of that. But for us it's no use bringing people in if they’re not prepared to fight. We've got no motive to dilute our platform to bring in people who aren't willing to fight. A Tribunite who really wanted to fight for the interests of the working class wouldn't fight for the imposition of war-time controls or withdrawal from the Common Market. They would, in fact, be drawn by the logic of reality to most of our demands — because our demands aren't sucked out of our thumb, they are drawn from the experience, the struggles, and the needs of the working class.

If the Tribunltes are at all likely to fight, we can get them to fight fundamentally only on the sort of issues we have raised.

A more real danger than diluting is to wind up as a small sect that puts forwards its "Action Programme" and says: we demand of you agreement with every word of this Action Programme in advance. That is why we haven’t insisted that people joining the campaign agree with every dot and comma of the platform.

There's another problem. In the election, Socialist Unity and the SWP will be standing left wing, anti-Labour candldates. Couldn’t this campaign, In as much as it ls oriented to Labour rather than an independent challenge to Labour, detract from the building of a revolutionary alternative, at a time when the discredltlng of Labour means that the revolutionary alternative could get real support if presented in a bold way? l‘m not sure it's a true claim for Socialist Unity that it has a bold and sharply independent presence. In fact it’s very woolly. Our platform is closer to a hard Marxist platform than Socialist Unity’s.

And Socialist Unity, standing in about a dozen constituencies, are not at all an alternative to Labour.

In the election, the vote for Labour will be a class vote in the sense of it being a vote for the labour movement’s own organisations. As the election draws near, the fact-of Labour being the alternative to the Tories is going to lead to a reversal of the trend which has led to some quite impressive results for Socialist Unity in one or two areas.

Socialist Unity has got itself into a blind alley. SU 's policy for its dozen or so constituencies is of course to elect SU MPs. Apart from those areas, SU’s policy is ‘return a Labour government'.

They don’t even call for a Labour vote, presumably because they don't want to contradict their own candidates; they call for a Labour government, to square the fact that they are standing, as their contribution to political clarity, with the knowledge that the Labour vote will be the class vote.

What that means in practice is that instead of a wide-spread campaign in as many constituencies as possible, certainly more than 12, a campaign such as ours which says vote Labour but tight for our policies, a campaign which takes away the alibis of the right wing and prepares for a fightback, you have a campaign where SU pays for putting up candidates by a general endorsement of lesser-evilism — keep out the demon Tories, Callaghan is better than the Tories.

l personally sympathise completely with the feelings of the SU comrades about the need to challenge the Labour Party right wing. But we're doing that, and l think we’re doing it more effectively, and in far wider areas of the labour movement. SU’s project is premature. At the very best it will be a way of building the IMG and one or two tendencies around it.

They have done particularly well in some immigrant communities. That‘s a tremendous contribution, in my opinion. But it‘s also another indication of the weakness of their campaign: surely, while recognising and fighting the racism that exists in the labour movement, it’s necessary to integrate the immigrant workers into the labour movement, to take their militancy and their alienation from British capitalist society into the movement, where it can be a healthy tonic force.

We start from the same basic impulse as Socialist Unity; but the fundamental task in the election, of indicting the government and putting forward alternative policies, is most effectively done not in SU ‘s way but in ours.

That‘s the key question. it’s not a matter of having an emotional break with the Labour Party, it’s a matter of whether one can most effectively fight Callaghan from within ‘his own' castle or outside it.

The SWP is different. It has a harder and in many ways better electoral presence than SU, but the SWP is in fact an Oehlerite sect . which stands in elections for no other reason than to build itself. Of course, from the point of view of the SWP, it is quite legitimate to want to build their organisation in the election. But l can't see why those who don’t agree that the SWP is the party should want to build it. lts claim to stand as an alternative to Labour is complete illusion, and the illusion has been shown up very clearly in their very weak performance in the elections. If you read the internal Bulletins of the SWP, and the communications of the Central Committee, what preoccupies the SWP in the elections is how to dish Socialist Unity.

Lenin was fond of saying that for the mouse there is no animal bigger than the cat. Obviously the IMG is the mouse to the SWP’s cat. But it looks as if the SWP no longer believes that it is the cat in relation to electoral activity.

Now SU is orientating to the sectarlan, semi-Oehlerite SWP rather than to the mass movement. I suspect that the strategists of Socialist Unity might be convinced that what they are doing isn't the best way to fight the right wing here an now, if it wasn't for the tremendous temptation to conduct what they call a unity offensive against the SWP.

And while SU is relating to the SWP, the SWP, according to their conference statement, is calling for an agreement between left-of-Labour forces for the election, which means almost certainly that they'll try for an electoral non-aggression pact with the CP, and you'll have a SU-SWP·CP daisy chain.

The cat and mouse game of the SWP and Socialist Unity is not a real contribution to the central task of building against reformism.

Q. The SWP would say: the only way you can really deal with reformism Is to build an independent revolutionary party. To do that lt's no good bulldlng up left caucuses ln the Labour arty, you have to come out openly, recruit openly, stand openly ln elections.

A. It la necessary to build an independent revolutionary party. The question arises as to how that is to be done, given an enormously powerful labour movement with a mass reformist party of a structure unique among reformist parties for its relative openness.

Proclaiming the revolutionary party — a ‘revolutionary party' which like the SWP in Lambeth can get 200 votes - doesn't actually build the party. The SWP proclaims itself as the alternative to Labour in the elections, and it can‘t even beat the lMG... That’s a good measure of the gap between the pretences and the realities.

There’s a recurring pattern of tendencies which proclaim the party as at principle, irrespective of whether they are able to be a party in any sense. They proclaim the organisational hardness and separateness as the principle, and then have -to face the fact that they haven't got the support. They have to compete for that support with the reformist party, and they wind up diluting their politics and cutting corners.

We can look back in Britain on at least 15 years of a very bad Oehlerite experience: where tendencies proclaim ‘the revolutionary party' in a situation where that party doesn’t actually exist, and the members of those tendencies would be muon better occupied in doing serious work to implant themselves in the broad labour movement.

The first Oehlerite experience was that of the SLL. In 1964, after working in the Labour Party for 16 years, this grouping decided to pull out.

it has a myth which it peddles to its members that it was expelled. A few of its members were expelled from the YS, but in actual fact the SLL took a decision to get out and they provoked expulsions. Not long after their paper came out with a major middle-page spread saying the answer for the miners, faced with massive redundancies, was to join the Socialist Labour League and break with the Labour Party!

This raving unrealism, fuelled by subjective desires, continued until now they have completely lost contact with reality, seeing imminent military putsches and all sorts of other things. Of course, the quality of the leadership of this tendency may have speeded up this degeneration, and it might perhaps not be necessary for the self-proclaimed party of 1965 to wind up in 1977-78 supporting Gadaffi of Libya — but there is a clear Iogic... and a dreadful warning to the SWP.

Premature independent organisation, proclaiming independence as the principle, can lead to political bowdlerisation, as we can also see in Socialist Unity. But it is possible to organise within the Labour Party for politics which reflect the working class interest, to take those whose first reaction to Callaghan is one of class hatred and give them a perspective of transforming the movement.

Over the last 15 years there has been an uneven radicalisation. Relatively small groups of radicalised workers, and, more so, petty-bourgeois and white-collar workers, who have become radicalised in advance of the labour movement but without political education to enable them to relate to the labour movement, have very often wound up counterposed to the broad movement, and - at least in the WRP - have ended in a sectarian blind alley which destroys them as militants.

The temporary downturn of industrial militancy since 1974 left the radicalised minorities isolated. In the SWP that provoked a crisis leading to serious defections in 1975.

l don't want to say that the radicalised element must at no point go ahead of the broad movement. That would be stupid. But equally it is necessary to maintain contact with the movement.

Q. You seem to present a rather Iong-term perspective of burrowing away in the La our Party until some far-off day when the revolutionaries will have very large forces. But in fact, as you have said, in the late ’6fls, for example, a lot of people were radicalised and went outside the Labour Party. Surely, if revolutionaries had not gone with them, what would have happened ls that those forces would have been wasted and the revolutionaries would have been left trying to recruit the less militant, the less daring, the more stick-in-the-mud sort of people.

A. I agree entirely with your assessment of the '60s. But in retrospect one must accept that, for example, ’Militant' was able to make gains and can now play its present role partly because the revolutionaries did not just go with the radicalised people, who were often immature and ultra-left; they capitulated to them, and completely abandoned their previous understanding of the Labour Party and the problem of the broad labour movement. The old leaders of the Trotskyist movement, those who had a political education, served very badly the people who became radicalised in the ‘60s.

I'm not advocating a slow, decades-long perspective of burrowing in the Labour Party. For example, a revolutionary tendency of a certain size, still not remotely comparable to the forces of the reformists, might decide that some of its forces would be best occupied not working in the Labour Party. One must keep that option in mind, not least because the present relatively liberal regime in the Labour Party may not continue.

But, however one decides to allocate forces, it is necessary to keep at the centre of our perspective the epochal task of revolutionaries, transforming the labour movement.

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