Unavoidable battleground

Communists must work within Labour to defeat the Blairites, argues Graham Bash of Labour Left Briefing

The attempt to create an electoral alternative to the Labour Party in the shape of the Socialist Alliance was doomed from the outset. The task of communists is to work within to defeat the Blairites.

Thirty-five years ago I took two of the most important decisions of my life. After a process of inner struggle, I became a revolutionary socialist. And, at the same time, I joined the Labour Party. I never saw these decisions as being in conflict with one another. And, no matter how different the political landscape has become during this 35-year period, I do not see those decisions as being in conflict today.

The changes have of course been enormous. I joined the Labour Party in 1968, towards the end of a Labour government under Harold Wilson - a government which was supporting the napalming of the Vietnamese people and which attacked the trade unions in its attempts to introduce In place of strife. In the early 1970s, the rise in industrial militancy brought a Tory government down in 1974. That militancy, finding expression in the Labour Party, helped to create the strongest Labour left for a generation or more, and it laid the basis for the Bennite movement and for the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone.

The defeat of that movement, of the Bennite left in the constituency parties and the trade unions, of the GLC, of the rate-capping struggle, above all the defeat of the miners, was a defeat that lasted a generation.

In the Kinnock years that followed, we on the Labour left were isolated, witch-hunted and we were defeated. Thatcher’s rightwing Tory government took on and defeated not only the trade unions, and not only the local government left. One of Thatcher’s greatest achievements for her class, one of her greatest legacies, according to Geoffrey Howe, was that in effect she took over the Labour Party. That is the basis of, and the historical significance of, New Labour.

Let us have no illusions about the historic role of the Labour Party. The starting point is to understand what the Labour Party actually is. It was born a distorted and bureau-cratised expression of the working class. Key here was Britain’s early bourgeois revolution and then Britain’s imperialist domination of large parts of the globe. The Labour Party was based on the growth of trade unionism, which was largely cut off from revolutionary influences and under bourgeois hegemony. The opposite, for instance, of the working class in Russia and China, where the bourgeoisie developed too late and was too weak to carry out its own revolution, and the working class was powerful and revolutionary almost from the moment of its creation.

This growth of the trade unions was relatively late in relation to the rise of the bourgeoisie, with its initial revolution and centuries-old development, but early in relation of the late arrival of the Labour Party. The political existence of the British working class was conditioned by the prior existence of trade unionism. Unlike Germany, where the workers’ party largely preceded the trade unions, in Britain the trade unions created the Labour Party. And this determined from the outset the party’s organisational stability, on the one hand, and its theoretical backwardness, on the other. Significantly membership of the Labour Party was entirely through affiliation until 1918, when constituency Labour Parties were finally created.

This produced a relationship between the Labour Party and the working class which was always indirect and passive. There was no golden age of Labourism. The Labour Party was a contradiction in class terms - created by the trade unions, but embodying the bourgeois domination and character of the trade union movement. The Labour Party had no socialist programme. Indeed it had no political programme at all until 1918, when the power of the Russian Revolution found its watered down expression in clause four.

The point is that New Labour is different. New Labour set out to destroy that contradiction. However rightwing previous Labour leaderships, New Labour had a qualitatively different relationship to the labour movement. It was not and is not the distorted and bureaucratised expression of the working class. It was and is, in its essentials, the direct and immediate expression of the interests of big business, and is intertwined with it in a way that the right wing of Wilson, Callaghan - even Kinnock - could only aspire to. And the logic and explicit intention of New Labour is to destroy the Labour Party.

But - and this is the central point - it has not yet happened. It has not yet succeeded. The Labour Party is a party based on the trade unions and the link between the Labour Party and the trade unions, however bureau-cratised, is still there. Since the rise of New Labour, and to a large degree, I suppose, even before that, the crisis of the working class has been characterised by a crisis of representation - the domination of the party by Thatcher’s heirs, meaning that except at the margins there has been no political expression open to the working class. At the last general election, for example, we had the lowest turnout for generations.

But change and movement did not stop in 1994, when Blair took over the Labour Party. There are now the beginnings of new realities, though we have to see these in some perspective.

Firstly, New Labour is itself in profound crisis: the war, foundation hospitals, privatisation of public services, the biggest parliamentary revolt for 100 years, growing defections. Secondly, there has been the biggest mass movement, the biggest demonstrations ever seen in this country against the war and against the government. Thirdly, there is a new generation of trade union leaders, less touched by the defeats of the 1980s, in conflict with New Labour. The trade unions, although they are still weak, still at a low ebb, are prepared to assert themselves - and the trade union character of the party - and to move in the direction of reclaiming the party, however partially and however much this comes from above.

The trade union base of the Labour Party has a contradictory role. It is bourgeois and conservative, but organisationally cohesive. It is the trade union base, along with the unified structure of the British trade union movement, that is responsible for the fact that, alone of all the major social democratic parties in Europe, there was no major split from the Labour Party in the wake of World War I, the Russian Revolution and the rise of the Third International. And that is the reason why no serious electoral alternative to the Labour Party based on the working class has ever been created.

I have read the Weekly Worker’s criticisms of how the Socialist Workers Party has distorted the Socialist Alliance through sectarianism and opportunism. I agree with most of those criticisms, but actually I think they are totally beside the point.

From where I stand, the Socialist Alliance is barely alive. However, even if the SA had been everything you wanted it to be, even if the SWP had responded positively to every criticism you have made, I do not share your illusion that the outcome could have been anything other than marginally different. My criticism is not that the CPGB has overestimated the Socialist Alliance - to be honest, that is not really the point. My criticism is that you have underestimated the centrality of the Labour Party, whose continued existence, and whose historical embodiment of the British working class, is the reason, not what the SWP gets up to, why the attempt to create an electoral alternative to the Labour Party was doomed from the outset.

A couple of years ago, when Liz Davies left the Labour Party and joined the Socialist Alliance, I wrote: “Yet, even if we accept, with whatever reservations, Liz’s two arguments for leaving the Labour Party - that New Labour is qualitatively different and that its takeover has rendered the Labour Party incapable of being reclaimed - her decision to leave the Labour Party and support the Socialist Alliance is by no means a necessary conclusion. It was always axiomatic amongst most members of the Briefing editorial board that if the Labour Party was ever destroyed our task would be to rebuild a mass party of labour based on the trade unions. And, while working class politics remains predominantly expressed in relation to the Labour Party, and while the party remains the organisational framework for the labour movement, due to its organic link to the trade unions, not yet broken, our place remains within it.

“Even in this situation, in which the Labour Party is all but destroyed by New Labour, the role of socialists would be to help to assemble a coalition of forces to rebuild a party of labour, not to use the occasion as an excuse to retreat into the marginal political practice of building a socialist sect. The Labour Party, whatever its fundamental weaknesses, is a product of the historical experience of the British working class. If we lose it, it would be the end of 100 years of working class history. A new party of labour could not easily be created without a desperately difficult struggle, especially in the period of defeat which the triumph of New Labour over the structures of our movement would represent. Our role, as always, would be to base ourselves on class struggle and the strength of the working class - the only force which can at best save our party but, if it comes to it, rebuild our party, against New Labour and the forces of bourgeois reaction which it represents.

“I am sympathetic to those who have joined the Socialist Alliance. Many comrades have found its energy and its internal life to be in marked contrast to the sectarian, bureaucratic and semi-Stalinist Socialist Labour Party. But it is not, and does not claim to be, an alternative to the Labour Party. And because of that I cannot see that it could ever be more than a marginal electoral alternative. Nor for that reason can it seriously ever address the crisis of representation that is the central political problem for the working class in [the 2001 general] election. I believe that any grouping that is serious about building a mass electoral alternative must begin to speak on behalf of and in the language of the broad party of labour that Blair has all but destroyed.”

It is important, as we look at today’s situation, to have no illusions about the state of the Labour Party as it is, or of the Labour left. New Labour is in profound crisis; the trade unions are beginning to reassert their position within the party. But it is all at an early stage. Some of the articles I have read in Weekly Worker have overestimated what is only in the process of becoming a reality. The constituency parties are still in decline - many of them non-existent. There are fewer constituency delegates than ever to annual conference. The constituency left is small and poorly organised.

However, the argument for orientating towards and being part of the Labour Party is not based on any episodic assessment of the balance of forces, but on an understanding of the historical relationship to the working class - why it cannot be bypassed, what is possible and what is necessary. The Labour Party is a battleground you cannot avoid. It is a contradiction in class terms. New Labour was set up to resolve that contradiction, by destroying the party’s class nature and its trade union base.

Trying to avoid the danger of being over-schematic, I see our task, as revolutionary socialists, as communists, as resolving that class contradiction at the heart of New Labour too. Not by destroying the working class base of the Labour Party, but by realising it. Not by the disaffiliation of trade unions from the Labour Party, as some ultra-lefts have advocated. We must fight to build, democratise, use the trade union link with the party, not destroy it. Disaffiliation of the trade unions, in the absence of a mass alternative party of labour, can only lead to a split trade union movement and exacerbate the crisis of representation.

Our task as communists is to fight within the united front bodies of the working class that history has bequeathed us. And that means the trade unions and the Labour Party. Not as rivals, which we seek to destroy, but as united front bodies within which we struggle for our programme and for leadership.

I no more want to destroy the Labour Party than I want to destroy the trade unions. I am sorry if that is shocking, but it is actually the correct position. I draw a distinction between the political formations - New Labour, Labour right, centre, soft left, whatever - which we seek to destroy as conditions permit, and the Labour Party itself. And from within the Labour Party and trade unions we seek to overcome the division between politics and trade unionism, a division which is at the very heart of Labourism and has given our movement such a distorted expression. Our task is to fight at the very elementary level for political trade unionism, and for political representation of the working class.

That brings me to the role of revolutionaries, of which I count myself one. Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist manifesto, that “Communists have no interests separate and apart from those of the working class.” Those words were written over a 150 years ago. But I believe they should be the starting point for any discussion of what a revolutionary organisation is, and how it should relate to the working class and the rest of the left. The precondition for challenging New Labour is not the unity of revolutionary groups, or of Marxist groups. No revolutionary organisation can be built - or revolutionary unity which is of any use whatsoever achieved - unless those involved are at the same time engaged in the struggle for the broadest possible unity and strength of the labour movement.

Any organisation that puts its interests above and separate from those of the movement can only build a sect. A sect is defined not by its numbers - there can be a sect of five or of 50,000. It is defined by its orientation to the working class. A revolutionary group on the one hand and the united front on the other are not opposites or alternatives, but part of the same process. You cannot build a revolutionary group organically linked to and part of the working class movement, outside the struggle for a united front.

We have been bequeathed the concept of the Leninist revolutionary party that is distorted, almost Stalinised, by those such as Zinoviev, who provide a picture of a revolutionary group appearing almost ready-made with a perfect programme, setting up its banner, fighting off the reformists and centrists and, when the moment came in 1917, the masses flocked behind its banner. It is a wonderful story, but that is not how it happened.

I believe the Bolshevik Party is a model. Not the Bolsheviks of pre-1917, who were sometimes divorced from the labour movement and were sometimes sectarian, nor the Bolsheviks of post-1917, when bureaucratic degeneration was beginning. My model is the Bolshevik Party of 1917 itself, which operated in conditions infinitely more favourable than those that we can dream of in this country, facing as they did a weak, impotent bourgeoisie, and therefore a weak reformist current within the workers’ movement. Yet, even in these conditions, those revolutionaries succeeded in taking power because they understood the centrality of the united front. Their slogan was not ‘Power to the Bolsheviks’. It was ‘Power to the soviets’ - which were the united front bodies of the working class, the highest form of united front, as Trotsky called them (as opposed to the Labour Party, which arose in opposite historical conditions and which I would perhaps describe as the lowest form of the united front).

Marcel Liebmann, in his wonderful book Leninism under Lenin describes the Bolshevik Party in 1917: “In the course of 1917 in Russia, the masses and the party came together. The proletariat largely identified itself with an organisation that had become for the first time its own organisation. The terms of the relation between class and party, between guided class and guiding party, the class that is led and the party that leads, were reversed, the Bolshevik Party having at last agreed to submit itself to the revolutionary proletariat.”

What Liebmann calls “libertarian Leninism” was made possible because the party ceased to be in relation to the masses an external body, an organ imposing itself as leader. The point of this is not just an academic discussion about Lenin, interesting though it is, but to show that the united front, the building of the organisations of the working class - left unity against right, class against class - is not an optional extra for revolutionary organisations. To the extent that we are part of revolutionary organisations, and not a sect, it is what we always do - not at the cost of programmatic clarity, or as an alternative to it, but side by side with it.

I helped to set up Labour Left Briefing 23 years ago. I can pick out, for example, the headlines “Kinnock scabs on miners, but we will fight on” and “It’s war!” during the miners’ strike; “All out for Bermondsey”, as we supported poor old Peter Tatchell, who got the chop for writing an article on extra-parliamentary action; “The people’s choice” on Ken Livingstone; “Not in our name”, as we moved towards war; “Liberate the Labour Party”, with a statue of Blair being toppled, and “War criminal”, which is probably my all-time favourite.

We have stood the test. Our voice has not been silenced. We have not been forced to compromise our essential politics because we have dared to be in the Labour Party.

I have never said that the Labour Party can be transformed into a revolutionary organisation or party. What I say is that we must distinguish between revolutionary groups - embryos at best of a revolutionary party, communist organisations fighting for programme and leadership within the united front bodies of the working class - and the struggles of the class itself, which are, have been and probably will continue to be focused on the trade unions and their distorted, rotten political expression, the Labour Party.

I do not preclude the possibility of us all belonging to the same revolutionary organisation at some stage in the development of the struggle. However, to belong to an organisation that is standing candidates against the Labour Party would for me be impossible. There is not the space, for historical reasons, for an electoral alternative to the Labour Party, an expression of the trade unions - certainly not at this stage.

I will never be in the same organisation as anyone who proposes setting up an alternative outside the structure of the Labour Party and the trade unions. If you think you can do that, then fine: go ahead. If you can prove me wrong, I will join you. But if you are against disaffiliation, then the logic of that position is quite clear. You are for the power of the trade union movement being put back into the Labour Party and used to make the various bodies of the party accountable to the trade union movement.

I have to admit that I am a fan of the Weekly Worker - I actually read every word of every issue. It is not all good, comrades. When reading through a 3,000-word article about the Socialist Alliance in Aberystwyth, I have been known to lose the will to live. But overall I admire the intelligence, the integrity and the revolutionary will that is expressed. These are all preconditions for a healthy revolutionary organisation.

There is, however, a further precondition - and that is for your intelligence, your integrity and your political will to be applied where it matters and not on the margins. As Karl Marx wrote in 1847 in his Theses on Feuerbach, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point, however, is to change it."