The rightwing apparatchiks employed in the Labour Party’s bureaucracy should thank Andrew Northall for his kind support for my summary expulsion from the Labour Party, and his demonstration of abject subservience to their way of thinking (Letters, October 26). They are the ones who define the limits which restrict the ‘open and democratic’ discussion, within which Andrew would have us all remain confined. He supports the apparatchiks’ efforts at political cleansing. But the tide has turned in the Labour Party, and they will not be able to keep Marxist ideas from flooding in, no matter how many socialists they expel.
Andrew advocates the use of “revolutionary means” to “replace capitalism by communism, starting with socialism”. Good. He wants “the overthrow of the capitalist state” (my emphasis). Good. But don’t worry, comrade bureaucrats, he doesn’t really mean it, and promises to be a good boy, always obeying those in authority. Some revolutionary!
Overthrow the state? He cannot even abide the idea of overthrowing the labour bureaucracy, which currently rules over the workers’ movement and is still embedded in its mass federal party, the Labour Party. A subservience that fits perfectly with Andrew’s Stalinism, which sees the rule of the bureaucracy over the working class in the Soviet Union as an example to be emulated; of socialism on the road to classless communism.
‘A place for everything and everything in its place’ - that seems to be Andrew’s outlook. Reformists should be in the Labour Party, because it is a reformist party, and Marxists should stay outside, because they are revolutionaries. That is the dogmatic approach which characterises the Small Party of Good Boys (SPGB), which Andrew once supported, and which his conversion to Stalinism (the Socialist Party of Great Britain thinks the USSR was state capitalism) has, unsurprisingly, not cured.
That particular instance of fixed category thinking - that Marxism and Labour must not mix - was formative for the dogmatism of the SPGB back in 1908, when it pulled out of the Second (Socialist) International, then led by Marxists, because the Labour Party had affiliated.
For Karl Kautsky, who moved acceptance of the reformist British Labour Party, and for Lenin, who seconded it, bringing together the Marxist-led German and Russian social democrats with the reformist-led party of what was then the biggest contingent of the growing working class in any country in the world, was a promising step forward. But it spoiled the SPGB’s purity politics and, it seems, Andrew would have gone with them into the splendid isolation where they are still to be found. (However, the SPGB has its own special value - its Socialist Standard online archive contains perhaps the best historical record of those early days of Labour and the Socialist International.)
Contrary to Andrew’s and the Labour bureaucracy’s ignorant belief, socialists, including Marxists, were a valued part of the Labour Party from its very beginning in 1900, when the party had no individual membership, and consisted entirely of affiliated organisations - large trade unions and much smaller socialist organisations. Despite their relatively small numbers, both the explicitly Marxist Social Democratic Federation and Keir Hardie’s leftwing Independent Labour Party were given two seats each on Labour’s national committee, because they were regarded as having “valuable ideas”. The more rightwing Fabians, on the other hand, were given only one seat.
Later, the Marxist-led British Socialist Party, formed in 1911, affiliated to Labour with no problem, but, when it merged with others in 1920 to form the Communist Party of Great Britain, Labour refused to allow the new CPGB to affiliate. But around 50% of CPGB comrades were already Labour Party members, many of them Labour councillors. Throughout the 1920s and 30s the bureaucracy struggled to sideline and exclude communists, but this was never totally successful, and in 1939 the CPGB, unfortunately, withdrew its members from Labour as a protest against its war policy - in hindsight, a strategic error.
Andrew Northall’s criticism of the CPGB may unintentionally serve the interest of the right wing in the Labour Party. Certainly, the capitalist roaders inside the party will take heart at these comments and will no doubt be cheering him on - a prospect that would horrify comrade Northall.
While I am no longer a Marxist, I do defend the right of the CPGB to be in the Labour Party, as part of the united front of the left. My only criticism of the Marxists in the Labour Party is not that they are in the party opposing the pro-capitalist elements, but rather that they are seeking to win the party over to Marxism - a basically flawed doctrine. Yes, Marx was absolutely right to support the struggle for socialism, but his views on other important matters, in relation to philosophy, politics and economics, contain fundamental flaws which have gone unrecognised by most of the radical left.
If the enemies of socialism do remove CPGB members from the Labour Party, this will prove to be only a temporary victory for them. The united front of the left can exist in or outside the Labour Party. The biggest weakness of the British left is its failure to develop a united front of the left. The CPGB deserve credit for fighting for this strategy.
Paul B Smith correctly tells us that “Labour has never been a socialist party”. It has always been “a pro-capitalist party of modest reform, which aims to manage the national economy more efficiently and fairly” (Letters, October 26).
But he also states: “The attempt to transform it into something different is therefore unnatural.” Now why is that? Why exactly is it not possible to transform a party that limits itself to “modest reform” into “something different”? If Paul remembers, Labour was originally set up by the trade unions and other working class formations as a party that would defend workers’ interests. It was open to all such formations, including the forerunner of the Communist Party, the Social Democratic Federation.
Today, Labour relies overwhelmingly on the unions for its funding, as it always has. So does comrade Smith think that those unions cannot themselves be transformed into militant, fighting bodies, which genuinely seek to advance working class interests? And if it is possible for the unions to be changed for the better, what follows from that? Surely they could ensure that their more ambitious aims were reflected within Labour too?
Note that I am not claiming that Labour can be transformed into a Communist Party. But it can be transformed into a federal party that fights for socialism, with the Marxist aim of “a classless, moneyless, stateless society on a global scale”. First we must aim for a united front of the whole working class - not just the unions and cooperative societies, but political groups that openly describe themselves as ‘socialist’, ‘Marxist’ or communist’. That, after all, was the original intention. It goes without saying that advocacy of genuine socialism would not be “incompatible” with membership of such a party.
There is something illogical in the point-blank denial that a reformist entity can be transformed into a revolutionary one. There are plenty of examples of such a transformation occurring in the opposite direction, as well as those of groups and organisations being won to the working class cause. And it goes without saying that many thousands of individuals have undergone such a political transformation - in both directions.
Of course, neither the Labour right nor the union bureaucracy would give up on the kind of party they have always known and defended without a fight. Inevitably there would be a split. But if that meant Labour would no longer be a party where careerists and open defenders of capitalism would find a home, so much the better.
In conclusion, if it is true that the unions can be won by the rank and file to fight for workers’ interests, then it must also be true that the political party they fund can undergo a similar change. We need a united front of a special kind - one that can be a site for struggle over how exactly working class interests can be realised.
Out of context
Whenever anyone cites the authority of Marx and Engels, as did Gerry Downing and Ian Donovan (Letters, October 26), it is important to present the context of the statements.
Charlie and Fred, as they said, were supportive of the nationalist aspirations of Ireland and Poland - very unlike their strong opposition to the separatist movements of the Slavs. So, why the difference in attitude? A sovereign Poland was to be a buffer state against the ‘feudal’ autocracy of tsarist Russia. Independence for Ireland would undermine the still influential political power of the land-owning aristocracy in Britain. Both nationalist movements were seen as protecting and advancing the rising class of capitalists. The Slavic peoples’ self-determination claims, however, were viewed by Marx and Engels as support for reactionary pro-Russia forces and thus regressive.
Should we continue to parrot Marx and Engels when the world’s political and economic circumstances have changed fundamentally from the time they spoke on some topics?
A few weeks ago, The Economist magazine had a photo on its front page of Jeremy Corbyn coming out of 10 Downing Street with the headline, “The likely lad”.
Whilst Marxists do not have a crystal ball, I think that it is essential that we discuss what could happen when Jeremy Corbyn gets into number 10. I think there are three distinct possibilities:
The first possibility is that Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister continues to compromise with the ‘soft’ Blairites and introduces mild social democratic policies, which don’t cost much, such as the abolition of benefit sanctions and work capability medicals.
The second possibility is that Corbyn is forced by the collapse of the pound and a strike of capital to move to the right, like Harold Wilson did in the late 1960s, and carry out cuts - as Hollande did in France and Tsipras is doing in Greece.
The third possibility is that a combination of a post-Brexit meltdown of the UK economy, a downturn in the world economy and the deselection of MPs through boundary changes will lead to a national government, with Vince Cable as PM.
On balance, I think the formation of a national government is most likely. Just as in 1931, the Blairites will have a division of labour. Most will split away to form a national government, but some will remain behind to stop Labour moving in a ‘revolutionary in words, reformist in action’ direction.
Marxists must take the long view of history. We must be patient. However, we must be prepared. That means being active in the Labour Party, the Unite Community branches and on Facebook.