Need for programme
AWL faces both ways
As I reported in a previous article, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty has begun to break from auto-Labourism and to contest elections against Blair’s party (Weekly Worker July 8).
This welcome move is vitiated in no small way by the dismal platform of sub-reformist demands the AWL is putting before the electorate. Jill Mountford, the organisation’s candidate in the July 15 council by-election in Churchdown, Lewisham, issued an election address which restricted itself to calls for increased spending on the NHS and education, an end to privatisations, the renationalisation of some industries, a minimum wage of “at least” £5 an hour, “full trade union rights” and “an end to racism and discrimination”. This programme was to be paid for by “taking back the tens of billions of pounds given away to the rich and big business by the Tories in tax cuts kept in place by New Labour”.
The platform amounted to a call for “a return to old Labour governments, like those of Wilson and Callaghan”, as I pointed out. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), and despite the reasonably favourable circumstances I reported, comrade Mountford won just 66 votes (3.5%) - a figure well within the normal range for left candidates contesting local elections in recent years, including those standing on an openly revolutionary programme.
The AWL’s Alan McArthur attempted to justify his organisation’s stance in a letter published in last week’s Weekly Worker (July 15). According to comrade McArthur, the reason for the absence of any mention of the word ‘socialism’ - or indeed a global vision of any kind - from the election address is explained by the need to place “a programme of demands around which to organise activity” before the working class. But he did not respond to my criticism that there was no call for workers’ own self-activity. There was no hint that workers themselves should do anything.Without such a call the AWL’s platform is little different qualitatively from those put out by the Labour Party in the past. It too appealed to the narrow self-interest of voters - promising to work for a series of piecemeal changes that will in some small way improve people’s lives.
Rather pathetically comrade McArthur describes the AWL’s own shopping list as “transitional demands” - presumably “where we want to be” is firmly on the territory of old Labour (he did not dispute my remark that any Labour politician, left or right, would have had a pretty similar set of “transitional” policies 20 years ago).
But this is precisely the problem with the AWL. As the comrade himself makes clear, his organisation’s attachment not only to Labourism, but to the Labour Party itself appears almost as strong as ever. He writes:
“We called for a Labour vote in the past because Labour was/is the political wing of the British labour movement, and had in its structures the capacity for the working class to assert itself politically. Blair is now severing those links. But that process is far from complete: in cases where there is not a socialist or labour movement candidate who can take the struggle forward in some way, we will continue to call for a Labour vote.”
Undoubtedly this new position of facing both ways is to some extent a reflection of the differences within the AWL’s own membership: on the one hand, there are those who want to pretend that nothing much has changed within Blair’s party; these comrades would prefer to carry on as before, advocating “a massive injection of cash” for the NHS in their local Labour branch, and planning the latest left counterstroke for the next party conference. On the other hand, there are those who can no longer stomach a vote for a party that has abandoned even the pretence of being a vehicle for working class advance, instead embracing the neo-liberal, neo-Thatcherite consensus. A similar contradiction was expressed by the SWP’s slogan for the May 1997 general election: ‘Vote Labour or socialist’.
According to comrade McArthur, advocating a Labour vote “never had much to do with Labour’s programme”. We must apparently vote for the Blairites not because we think doing so will advance our cause in any way, but simply because Labour “was/is [?] the political wing of the labour movement”. Needless to say, scientifically the Labour Party was from its origins a bourgeois workers’ party. Organisationally it is based upon the working class, above all the trade unions, but politically its practice serves finance capital. World War I proved that the dominant pole of Labourism is bourgeois; the subaltern pole is proletarian. Something also proved by every subsequent Labour government from MacDonald to Blair. In other words, the fact that the trade unions (complete with rightwing leadership and policies) still provide funding and retain some representation and voting rights does not mean that the working class is able to “assert itself politically”.
Politics, not organisation, is primary. After all the US Democratic Party also receives some funding from trade unions, who exert a modicum of influence on it. To take a more extreme example, in Franco’s Spain communists - correctly in my view - worked within the fascist-sponsored trade unions. Did this union link therefore oblige the left to recommend a vote for Franco’s corporatist party? If voting Labour “never had much to do with Labour’s programme”, logically the answer is ‘yes’. The Labour Party is no more the political wing of the working class than the Democrats or the Falangists. The question has everything to do with programme and thus practice.
The Leninist tactic of supporting the Labour Party “like the rope supports the hanged man” was adopted by the fledgling CPGB because large sections of the working class had socialist illusions in Labour. They believed its new programme would lead to socialism. It is arguable whether such a blanket tactic was ever again useful after the 1920s, when such illusions had subsided. Yet for comrade McArthur a failure at any time during the last 75 years to duly deliver the working class vote to Labour would in itself have constituted an example of “auto-sectarianism”. This peculiar, twisted view, whereby any attempt to break workers from the self-serving Labourite misleadership is condemned in such terms, would permanently tie our class to the bourgeois workers’ party.
Similarly, like voting for the Labour Party, working inside it ought to be viewed as a tactic that could be useful under certain circumstances. There is nothing inherently unprincipled with rejecting the same tactic. Unfortunately, however, much of the left transformed the tactic into a principle, forgetting that its overriding strategic aim was - or ought to have been - to break our class from this so-called “political wing of the British labour movement”. They forget too that long-term working class political interests can genuinely be advanced only by organising the advanced part of the class into a revolutionary party.
Comrade McArthur is clearly bewildered by our stress on what I called “the real political questions under capitalism that our class must adopt as its own if it is to free itself”. But, there again, a grasp of the politics of revolutionary democracy is hardly the left’s strong point. I mentioned in particular “self-determination for Ireland, Scotland and Wales; abolition of the monarchy and the second chamber”. It also seemed to me that workers, if they are to aspire to be a ruling class, ought to have taken a stand on Nato’s bombing of Yugoslavia and on Kosovar independence. Yet the AWL’s election address was silent on all these issues, just as it was on the environment, and rights for women and gays.
Instead of coming clean and admitting these omissions, comrade McArthur describes such questions as a “set of garbled demands” with no “orientation to working class organisations ... and working class communities”. Perhaps the working class communities comrade McArthur is acquainted with have been lobotomised. Perhaps they are incapable of understanding anything other than the size of their pay packet or the quality of their healthcare. Certainly, it seems, questions of how we are ruled are totally beyond comrade McArthur.
Comrade McArthur is quite right: abolition of the monarchy, like the provision of free healthcare, would be a “reform” under capitalism. But neither demands are reformist - if and when they are part of a revolutionary programme. In the context of the AWL’s platform, a “massive injection of cash” for the NHS was totally and exclusively reformist (if not sub-reformist). The election address was explicit in calling for pre-Thatcher taxation in order to fund it. It was just a little more radical than the policy of the Liberal Democrats.
Of course it is necessary to include in our programme demands relating to the workplace, and to workers’ health, education and welfare. But they must be seen as a call to action. They must centre on what workers need, not on what seems ‘realistic’. In this area too the AWL is sadly lacking: for example, its demand for “a minimum wage of at least £5 an hour” does not even match up to what European Union bureaucrats consider to be basic levels of ‘decency’, let alone what is actually necessary for workers to reproduce themselves culturally. As comrade McArthur is fully aware, only the ending of capitalism through workers’ own action can deliver a full life on a permanent basis. Our demands must be brought together in a single unity - the revolutionary programme - so as to lead workers to that logical conclusion.
But crucial to our minimum programme must be the question of the state. Our demands for democracy and control from below challenge the ruling class politically. Without such a perspective we do not even begin to show how a road to a new, communist, society can be opened up. The fight for workers’ liberty under that new society must be linked to the democratic destruction of everything that infringes it under capitalism. Viewed in that light, the abolition of the monarchy is not just another ‘reform’ - one among many. No, a successful fight to smash the constitutional monarchy system would not only send the ruling class into crisis: it would place on the immediate agenda our own working class alternative.
And comrade McArthur is right in another respect: if that fight is to be conducted along revolutionary lines, we must not shy away from pointing out that, in order to achieve it, it will be necessary to establish “organs of direct workers’ democracy such as soviets”. Of course, it would be impossible to organise such bodies in present circumstances, when the working class hardly exists in the political sense. However, propaganda calls for “workers’ defence” and the right of our class to arm itself were indeed present in the ‘Weekly Worker’ EU election manifesto (see Weekly Worker June 3).
Such calls would, as he says, be mere “abstract propaganda for socialist revolution” - if they were not intrinsically linked to the central political question of the day: Blair’s constitutional revolution from above, and the need for a rounded working class response.