david.welch at SPAMst-edmund-hall.oxford.ac.uk
Thu Apr 26 06:50:01 MDT 2001
Weekly Worker 380 Thursday April 19 2001
Two recent articles on the future of the Socialist Alliance pose the
question - what type of party do we need?
The Alliance for Workers Liberty and the International Socialist Group
have written articles outlining their perspectives for the future
political orientation of the Socialist Alliance. There are differences
between the two. However, both share a fundamental poverty of vision
and a fatal softness on Labourism. Two crude assumptions underpin this
First, that a form of Labourism is an unavoidable and inevitable stage
that the workers movement in this country must chug through. Given
this mechanical perspective, both groups seem determined to re-invent
Labourism in some form, given the advanced stage of de-Labourisation
of Blairs party. To justify this, both alibi the treacherous history
of the Labour Party in the 20th century, dressing it up as a slightly
inadequate, but basically OK workers party. More than that, by
omission they aid the ruling classs attempt to bury the history of the
only genuine workers party to have been built in this country during
the last century, the Communist Party of Great Britain.
Second, implicit in both pieces is a corrosive pessimism about the
prospects of revolutionaries being able to gain a mass audience for
our politics. The unwritten assumption is that the revolutionary
programme is not a strategic battle plan for the class as a whole, but
an esoteric, almost masonic document for those interested in that sort
of thing. At some point in the future, we are assured, it will become
appropriate for revolutionaries to reveal their revolutionary
programme, but for now warmed-over social democracy and sub-reformism
What is the Labour Party?
Both the AWL and the ISG misrepresent what the Labour Party actually
was from its foundation. The AWL is the most explicit when it states
that, "The Labour Party, for all its innumerable faults, was
established as the political wing of the trade unions, as a way of
representing the labour movement, and working people in general, in
politics - It was the party of the workers, independent of the
liberals and Tories" (Action for solidarity March 23 - all AWL quotes
from this issue unless otherwise stated).
The existence of this workers party meant, "through the unions, and at
a constituency level, working class people could directly get involved
in politics, and with some hope of influencing things. Labour MPs and
local councillors were supposed to represent working people. And they
did, after a fashion."
Blair's success means that now "the labour movement, in effect, no
longer has a political wing - even in the inadequate way it used to".
Thus, "recreating such a political wing is a big priority for labour
movement activists - something which can represent the mass of working
class people in politics".
Of course, this misleadingly one-sided characterisation of the Labour
Party flatly contradicts the understanding that informed the early
years of the Communist International and the work of the young CPGB.
Lenin, at the Second Congress of the CI in 1920, intervened in debate
between two British communists - John McLean (not the more famous John
Maclean, who was already beginning his sad journey to left nationalism) and
Willie Gallagher - on the question of affiliation to Labour. It is worthwhile
quoting the man at length to leave no room for misinterpretation. Frankly, his
contribution reads as though he were directly answering the AWL:
"First of all, I should like to mention a slight inaccuracy on the
part of comrade McLean, which cannot be agreed to. He called the
Labour Party the political organisation of the trade union movement,
and later repeated the statement when he said that the Labour Party is
the political expression of the workers organised in trade unions ...
[This view] is erroneous - Indeed, the concept political department of
the trade union movement is erroneous. Of course, most of the Labour
Partys members are workingmen. However, whether or not a party is
really a political party of the workers does not depend solely upon a
membership of workers, but the content of its actions and its
political tactics. Only this latter determines whether we really have
before us a political party of the proletariat. Regarded from this,
the only correct, point of view, the Labour Party is a thoroughly
bourgeois party because, although it is made up of workers, it is led
by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act
quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie. It is an organisation of the
bourgeoisie, which exists to systematically dupe the workers" (VI
Lenin CW Vol 31, Moscow 1977, pp257-258).
Does the AWL believe that the Labour Party fundamentally changed its
nature after these words were written? Perhaps it believes Lenin was
wrong when he wrote them and the role of communists in Britain was in
fact not to form a separate and distinct Communist Party (which,
because it is highly organised and programmatically armed, can raise
intervention in the Labour Party from the woefully amateur to the
In or out?
Of course, it is often argued by pro-Labour groups that Lenin actually
intervened energetically in the debates of the early CPGB to insist
that it must apply for affiliation to the Labour Party. This is true.
The task of overcoming Labourism positively, of breaking the hold of
these types of ideas over the mass of our class was and is the
strategic task of communists in Britain.
However, it is worthwhile remembering the context of the affiliation
tactic as advocated by Lenin. Here was a party that had not yet been
put to the test of forming a government, that still allowed communists
and revolutionary organisations to openly operate in its ranks and was
then talking very left in order to retain its influence amongst the
wide swathes of workers in Britain that had been influenced by the
Clearly, Lenin regarded the exceptional tactic of affiliation - a move
he regarded as only applicable in Britain - as a manoeuvre to speed up
the process of exposure and disintegration of the Labour Party and the
winning of the mass of the working class to the leadership of the
communists. Affiliation would give the CPGB a far wider audience for
its revolutionary message. On the other hand, if the CPGB were turned
down, he believed that "we shall gain even more, for we shall at once
have shown the masses that [the Labour leaders] prefer their close
relations with the capitalists to the unity of all workers" (cited in
Jack Conrad Which road? London 1991, p229).
So, if accepted, the CPGB would have gone into the Labour Party all
guns blazing. It was essential that in any bloc or affiliated
relationship with Labour, the communists had to "retain complete
freedom of agitation, propaganda and political activity. Of course,
without this latter condition, we cannot agree to a bloc, for that
would be treachery; the British communists must demand and get
complete freedom to expose [the Labour leaders]" (VI Lenin Left wing
communism: an infantile disorder Moscow 1970, p90).
The formation of the CPGB and the type of tactics advocated to it by
influential leaders of the Communist International like Lenin were
premised on understanding the Labour Party as "a thoroughly bourgeois
party" (Lenin). If that understanding is true, why should "the aim of
the Socialist Alliance - be to revive that original idea of the Labour
Party, only better, and equipped to deal with the 21st century reality" (AWL)?
The AWL is trying to rewrite history - not very convincingly.
Increasingly the ISG has constituted itself as a rather down-at-heel
attorney for the Socialist Workers Party. Speaking on behalf of its
client in the latest issue of its paper (Socialist Outlook April), it
explicitly excludes the idea that revolutionaries should strive to win
the mass of the working class to revolutionary democratic politics -
ie, under these non-revolutionary conditions the fight for reforms
using the most revolutionary methods objective circumstances permit -
through the vehicle of the SAs. Instead, it suggests that only
minimalistic - old Labourite - reformist politics are appropriate for
this period. In language reminiscent of pre-Alliance days, its Dave
Packer writes of the CPGBs intervention in the March 10 policy
conference of the SA that "in a classic sectarian fashion, their cabal
attempted to foist onto the conference their version of a
revolutionary programme" (Socialist Outlook April).
"Foist" is an odd word to use here. After all, the Communist Party
submitted its proposals on programme to a democratic vote at the
conference. We spoke up for our politics, lost the vote, if not the
arguments, and now accept the decision of the majority. To foist means
to insert something surreptiously or illegitimately. Thus - while
plainly wrong factually - its use is psychologically significant.
Ditto "cabal", of course, meaning a small group of political
Palpably, for the ISG any attempt to win a majority for the
revolutionary programme - which contains a whole series of radical
reform aims - is a sectarian exercise, a doomed and potentially
disruptive stunt that runs counter to the natural political flow of
the workers movement in this period. The adoption of a revolutionary
programme - any revolutionary programme, that is, not simply the
spaced out version peddled by our CPGB cabal - "would have cut off the
Alliance, not only from the mass of the working class, but the broader
Thus, the CPGB is akin to early revolutionaries such as Bakunin and
Lassalle who counterposed their own particular ideological shibboleths
and blueprints for revolution to the real movement of the masses. As
comrade Packer puts it, the SA "bears within it the dynamic
potentiality to become a new workers party - This emergent party - if
it is to provide a socialist answer - must at some point adopt a
revolutionary platform" (my emphasis - IM).
He thoroughly confuses the question by foolishly suggesting that
demands such as the call for workers militias "are certainly part of a
full revolutionary programme", but as "agitational demands" they would
only be "appropriate - in a pre-revolutionary crisis - it is only at
the highest level of class struggle that the highest form of united
front, built on demands for workers councils - and workers militias is
Of course, we do not suggest that in every strike or protest, not
matter what its level of intensity or the numbers involved, we demand
the people involved form workers militias. So comrade Packers use of
the term "agitation" is a diversion. But, we do recall that during the
miners Great Strike of 1984-85, the forerunners of the ISG did not
raise the demand for militias then either - despite the fact that the
miners themselves were organising hit squads, embryonic forms of armed
workers defence corps!
Clearly, such perfectly sensible, principled demands can have
contemporary applicability, not least as propaganda (ie, historic
memory). By relegating such bodies to the far off, distant day when
the blessed revolution dawns, comrade Packer abandons them in practice
altogether. Revolutionary politics may be preached by the ISG at
ritualistic gatherings: eg, paying homage to the October revolution.
But the content of its day-to-day work in the movement - including its
propaganda - is indistinguishable from left reformism.
Indeed, it believes that any attempt to fight for principle - albeit
"premature" principles - in the SAs poses the danger to the project
that the "ultra-left sectarians" will "wreck it". In its own way, the
ISG thus replicates the divorce between the movement and the ultimate
aim that came to characterise German social democracy in its descent
into opposition and - eventually - social chauvinism.
Is the fight for a revolutionary programme a premature stunt that, if
successful in the SA, "can only isolate us" (SO April)? Frankly, this
displays such a profound misunderstanding of what a revolutionary
programme constitutes, it is hard to know where to start.
The defining feature of a communist programme is that is a
codification of the general interests of the working class, not any
one section of it (let alone a confessional document of faith for the
politically anointed). It embodies an understanding of the strategic
tasks of the proletariat as it moves into battle, not against this or
that government, or even the bosses, but against capital itself as an
organic, global, metabolic system of exploitation. This is why we
believe that it is only a revolutionary programme that can actually
challenge capitalism - an idea dismissed as "absurd" by our ally
comrade Packer, but surely of tremendous contemporary significance
given the growing anti-capitalist movement.
Left reformist programmes can certainly confront capitalists with
encroachments on their property and power. But by definition, because
of their refusal to confront the pivotal question of the state, they
cannot even challenge the rule of the capitalist class in one country.
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