All to play for

Peter Manson presents the CPGB's Theses on the Labour Party

Once upon a time, Labour had a vision

The success of Jeremy Corbyn in gaining enough MPs’ nominations to ensure his place on the leadership ballot demonstrates once again that there is still all to play for within the Labour Party. We in the CPGB totally disagree with those on the left who claim that there is little difference between Labour and the other mainstream parties, that Labour is now a ‘bourgeois party’ pure and simple.

On the contrary, it remains a “bourgeois workers’ party”, to use Lenin’s famous phrase. As the theses below (adopted by the CPGB in November 2010) state, Labour’s formation in 1900 “marked a significant step forward”, in that, “Albeit in a distorted and imperfect manner, it embodied the principle of working class political independence from the parties of the bourgeoisie”.

As this document makes clear, two incorrect approaches to the Labour Party have dominated the Marxist left. The first consists of “burying oneself in the bowels of the Labour Party”, while “keeping one’s ‘true’ politics under wraps”. The second - today more and more common on the left - has been to “stand aloof from the Labour Party and its internal disputes and conflicts”. No, Marxists should aim to transform Labour into “a real party of labour” - a “united front for all pro-working class partisans and organisations”.

Peter Manson

Theses on the Labour Party

1. The Labour Party came onto the historical agenda only with the ending of Britain’s industrial and commercial supremacy. Specifically the trade union bureaucracy turned towards building a Labour Party after the perceived failure of Lib-Labism. Under British conditions the formation of the Labour Party in 1900 marked a significant step forward. Albeit in a distorted and imperfect manner, it embodied the principle of working class political independence from the parties of the bourgeoisie.

2. Against strong objections from Henry Hyndman of the Social Democratic Federation, but supported by Karl Kautsky and Ilyich Lenin, the Labour Party was accepted into the Second, Socialist, International in 1908. That despite not being a proper socialist party and still tied to the Liberals in many ways.

3. The Labour leadership has from the beginning been dominated by reformism. There was never a golden age when Labour was truly Labour. Even when the aim of ‘socialism’ was formally adopted in 1918, it was conceived as a cynical ploy to divert sympathy for the Russian Revolution into safe channels. Needless to say, the Labour Party’s version of socialism was antithetical to working class self-liberation. Rather it was a version of state capitalism. Capital would be bureaucratically nationalised and the mass of the population remain exploited wage-slaves.

4. Historically - in terms of membership, finances and electoral base - the Labour Party has largely relied on the working class. Politically, however, the Labour leadership acts in the spirit of the bourgeoisie and the interests of capital. Something ensured in no small measure by the intermediate social position occupied by the trade union bureaucracy, which has a material interest in the continuation of the system of capital. Lenin correctly characterised the Labour Party as a “bourgeois workers’ party”. Despite Blairism, New Labour and the abandonment of the old clause four, the Labour Party must still be defined as a bourgeois workers’ party.

5. Labour is a federal party. Affiliated trade unions, constituency parties, socialist societies, the Cooperative Party, Labour Students, a Westminster parliamentary party, a European parliamentary party, etc, making up its constituent parts. The original aim of the Labour Party was extraordinarily modest: the representation of working class opinion “by men sympathetic with the aims and demands of the labour movement”.

6. Throughout its existence the Labour Party has been rent by left-right divisions. In part this reflects the contradiction between the working class base and the pro-capitalist leadership. In part there is a symbiotic relationship. Right reformism needs working class votes, but gains coherence through the serious business of trying to secure a parliamentary majority and forming a government. The trade union bureaucracy certainly wants a sympathetic government or one that is at least not overtly hostile. However, the capitalist state, legal system, media, money and corruption set the parameters of what is considered reliable, responsible and, in normal circumstances, electable.

7. By contrast left reformist figureheads are constantly drawn to the right, crucially because they too look towards forming a government, but this time, at least in verbal terms, in order to get hold of the existing capitalist state machine. Left reformists claim this is crucial if their version of bureaucratic socialism is to be realised. Meantime there is the business of gestures.

8. Left reformists tend to compromise with the right in the name of getting elected and are thereby doomed never to secure any lasting or meaningful control over the Labour Party machine, let alone the commanding heights of the parliamentary Labour Party. When left reformists are elected to the leadership they have little or no impact. Either they serve as a stop-gap (George Lansbury), someone who maintains the loyalty of disillusioned or radicalised workers. That or they quickly become indistinguishable from the right wing (Ramsay MacDonald, Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock).

9. Overcoming Labourism is a central strategic task for communists in Britain. Toadying as loyal lieutenants to left Labourites, keeping one’s ‘true’ politics under wraps, burying oneself in the bowels of the Labour Party and subordinating everything to staying in there till the glorious day when the class struggle transforms it into an instrument of socialism is naive at best. At worst it is downright treachery. On the other hand, to stand aloof from the Labour Party and its internal disputes and conflicts is as good as useless. A typical left sectarian pose.

10. In 1920 Lenin urged the newly formed Communist Party of Great Britain not only to seek affiliation, but work to put the Labour Party into government. This despite the Labour Party’s dreadful record in World War I and the presence of Labour ministers in Lloyd George’s cabinet. Putting Labour into office would allow communists to expose the Labour leadership and win over the working class to communism. And, whether or not the Labour Party accepted the CPGB as an affiliate, there is, insisted Lenin, an enduring obligation to criticise all varieties of reformism.

11. The overthrow of capitalism and the transition to communism requires that the working class organises independently of the labour bureaucracy. However, a mass CPGB is impossible without the communist vanguard closely cooperating with and changing the outlook of the broadest sections of the working class, not least the membership and base of the Labour Party.

12. The Labour Party rejected CPGB affiliation in August 1920. Despite that the bulk of communists maintained individual membership. In 1922 two CPGB comrades were elected as Labour MPs - despite subsequent undemocratic rule changes barring communists from membership, standing as Labour candidates and even representing their trade union at Labour Party conference, the CPGB continued to exert a considerable influence. A swathe of Labour Party constituency organisations were openly pro-communist.

13. The CPGB was the main driving force behind the formation of the National Left Wing Movement in 1926. Its Sunday Worker, largely financed by the CPGB and edited by CPGB member William Paul, attained a 100,000 circulation. Though there was an opportunist tendency to refrain from criticising leftwing Labour leaders and trade union officials, the NLWM was a creative application of the united front tactic advocated by the Communist International. The NLWM not only opposed the anti-communist witch-hunt in the Labour Party. It openly advocated many of the political positions of the CPGB, including the “overthrow of the capitalist class”.

14. Even when it was dominated by Stalinism the CPGB continued to influence the Labour Party. The CPGB generated the theory and programme for much of the Labour left. It was responsible for many of its political actions. The ‘official’ CPGB also reinforced the reformism and nationalism of the Labour left. Eg, opposition to the European Union and demands for a British withdrawal.

15. Both the formation of the CPGB in 1920 and the NLWM are highly relevant for today. Outside the Labour Party the revolutionary left is divided into numerous confessional sects. That means duplication of effort, woeful amateurism, narrowness of vision and endless debilitating splits. The revolutionary left inside the Labour Party is hardly any better. It either fondly looks back to Stalinism, champions third-world Bonapartes or hires itself out to left reformist figureheads. The unity of the revolutionary left on the basis of a Marxist programme and genuine democratic centralism would represent a tremendous advance. But the widest masses of the working class must still be won. Here prolonged communist work in the Labour Party and the trade unions is vital.

16. There is no contradiction between the fight for a mass Communist Party and the fight to transform the Labour Party, trade unions, cooperatives, etc.

17. Calls for a return of the old clause four are totally misplaced. Communists urge Labour Party members to organise on the basis of explicitly Marxist - as opposed to social democratic, Stalinite or third-worldist - politics. Marxists in the Labour Party should openly advocate extreme democracy in society and throughout the labour movement, working class rule and international socialism.

18. The Labour Party can be made into a real party of labour. By that we communists mean establishing the Labour Party as a united front for all pro-working class partisans and organisations. Undemocratic bans and proscriptions should be rescinded and all communist, revolutionary socialist and left groups encouraged to affiliate.

19. The fight to democratise the Labour Party cannot be separated from the fight to democratise the trade unions. Trade union votes at Labour Party conferences should be cast not by general secretaries, but proportionately according to the political balance in each delegation.

20. Communists fight for all trade unions to affiliate to the Labour Party, for all members of the trade unions to pay the political levy to the Labour Party and join the Labour Party as individual members.

21. The Labour Party must be reorganised from top to bottom. Bring the PLP under democratic control. The position of Labour leader should be abolished. Chairs of the PLP, shadow ministers, etc, should be elected by and accountable to the national executive committee. Abolish the national policy forums. The NEC should be unambiguously responsible for drafting Labour Party manifestoes. The NEC should be elected and accountable to the annual Labour Party conference.

22. Make the annual conference into the supreme body of the Labour Party. Instead of a tame rally there must be democratic debate and binding votes. Make Labour Party officials and shadow ministers report to the labour movement as servants.

23. Elected representatives must be recallable by the constituency or other body that selected them. That includes Labour MPs, MEPs, MSPs, AMs, councillors, etc. Without exception elected representatives should take only the average wage of a skilled worker, the balance being donated to the labour movement.

24. Winning the Labour Party for democracy, the working class and Marxism necessarily involves a protracted struggle against the right wing. These careerists have no legitimate place in the labour movement. The pro-capitalist, pro-imperialist right must be driven out.