Alliance?s futile sectarianism

Labour Party member Bob Pitt, editor of What Next?, dismissed the Socialist Alliance in his address to last month?s Communist University as ?serving no purpose?. This is an edited version of his remarks

Socialists need a general strategic conception of their relationship with the mass movement. Specifically we need an understanding of the relationship between Marxists and mass workers? parties which have rightwing leaders and pro-capitalist programmes. New Labour is hardly unique in that sense, nor is this something simply restricted to Britain. The history of the labour movement in western Europe has basically been one of parties with a mass working class base but a rightwing leadership and a pro-capitalist programme.

The key text here is that section of the Communist Manifesto - ?Proletarians and communists? - which contains the line that communists do not form a party opposed to other working class parties. Now in Britain, the way I would read that is that Marxists do not form parties opposed to the Labour Party. In the history of the labour movement in Britain there have really only been two workers? parties: the Chartists and the Labour Party. Other parties have claimed to represent the interests of the working class, but the working class in Britain has remained resolutely unconvinced by them.

So how we relate to this particular mass workers? party is a crucial question for Marxists. There are some general lessons from history about this. It is not that Marxists are dogmatically opposed to developing alternative parties to the existing mass-based workers? parties; it is a question of how such new parties can arise. They cannot be built by establishing a small, ?pure? socialist organisation outside of and opposed to that mass-based party, condemning the treacherous actions of the leadership and appealing to people to rally to the new organisation. That has been tried in Britain from the time of the Social Democratic Federation up to the time of the Socialist Alliance today and it has repeatedly failed.

Mass-based communist parties in western Europe arose on the basis of crises, conflicts and splits within existing mass-based reformist parties. In Britain, by contrast, the Communist Party was built by means of a fusion of various far left groups, in opposition to the existing mass-based reformist party. Consequently the CPGB remained entirely marginal to mass politics. In the entire 70 years of its existence it only had two MPs elected.

In a bourgeois democracy, mass politics involving millions of people is, like it or not, essentially parliamentary politics. From that standpoint the CPGB was marginal to mass politics, despite its undoubted influence within the trade unions and such organisations as the Unemployed Workers Movement. That seems to me a relatively uncontentious statement.

And yet we read in the recently published pamphlet by Jack Conrad: ?For the first time since 1920-21 there is the distinct possibility of uniting all serious revolutionaries in Britain in a single organisation and thereby starting the historically necessary process of building a viable mass working class party? (J Conrad Towards a Socialist Alliance party London 2001). If one thing can be learned from the period 1920-21, it is that you do not build ?a viable mass working class party? by those means. It was not done then; it will not be done today.

While I would say that new political organisations can only be built by splits, I do not think it is the role of Marxists to go around advocating splitting the labour movement. When splits do take place, the onus has to be put on the right wing. At last year?s Communist University I was speaking on the Labour Party after Livingstone, and I explained why I thought Livingstone was correct in not forming a new political party out of his independent mayoral candidacy. Someone said then, ?Bob thinks the time is never right for a split.?

Looking back at the Labour Party over the last century, it would be difficult to see the circumstances in which the time was right. The only significant split that took place from the left was the breakaway by the Independent Labour Party in 1932: it had 15,000 members, a handful of MPs and fizzled out after a few years.

So I am not in favour of working towards a split. I am in favour of working within the movement as it actually exists to counter the onslaught of the hard right - at the moment an essentially defensive struggle. I hope that we will defeat them and drive them out of the Labour Party. On balance, this is somewhat unlikely, in anything but the long term. And a number of groups that were once committed to this sort of perspective have given up on it.

I see formations like the Socialist Alliance, and the Socialist Labour Party before it, as a bit like the Angry Brigade without the guns - representing a narrow layer of militants who become frustrated and impatient at the conservative character of the mass workers? movement and its failure to adopt a militant anti-capitalist programme. It is not so much that they seek to substitute themselves for the mass movement; it is rather that they seek to trigger the development of a new mass movement by means of exemplary actions. This is a totally futile exercise. Whether it is standing 90-odd candidates in a general election and getting an average of 1.69% of the vote, or sending letter bombs to Robert Carr, I do not think either of these things really are effective means of promoting the development of a new mass movement. The role of Marxists is to work within the existing movement.

By the way, some people have suggested that I might have voted Green on June 7. I did not - although I did vote Green in the Greater London Assembly election: Livingstone for mayor, Labour in the constituency section and Green in the top-up list. In the general election I mainly worked outside of my own constituency, for a leftwing candidate. I live in a safe Labour seat. I knew that there would be large-scale abstentions by Labour voters in the general election and thought that was quite a good thing, because that was one way of giving a message to Blair. If it had been a marginal constituency, I would certainly have gone out and campaigned more effectively locally. I did do some leafleting for our Labour candidate, because it would have damaged my credibility with fellow party members if I hadn?t done anything - you have to find a way of relating to the consciousness of Labour Party members.

This is important. Having come from an ultra-left background, when I first joined Labour I found it very difficult relating to party members. I tended to be excessively strident and denunciatory, which had the effect of driving the centre ground into the arms of the right. I learned that you have to pose things in a way that can add to the consciousness of the people you are addressing. On the other hand, I do not keep my politics private. There are plenty of opportunities for making socialist propaganda in the Labour Party. I do not pretend to be anything other than a Marxist.

There are a number of explanations as to the origins of New Labour. One of them is to see it as a kind of inevitable product of globalisation. I find this somewhat unconvincing. There was nothing particularly inevitable about Blairism. There was something accidental about it in terms of John Smith?s death in 1994. Had this not happened, things would have turned out rather differently. Smith was a civilised, old-fashioned, rightwing social democrat. Had he remained leader, Labour would undoubtedly have won the 1997 election, albeit with a somewhat smaller majority.