100 years hard labour?

Mike Macnair reviews Graham Bash and Andrew Fisher: 100 years of Labour (London 2006, pp80, £4). Available from www.100yearsoflabour.net

This pamphlet from Graham Bash and Andrew Fisher tries to do two things. It offers both an outline history of the Labour Party and an argument for leftwingers to commit themselves to membership of the party and the struggle against New Labour. The political perspective oscillates between traditional Labour left views and a very dilute form of Trotskyism - informed by the 'Anderson-Nairn thesis' of British backwardness, put forward by New Left Review in the early 1960s.

The pamphlet is a handy source of outline historical information about the Labour Party, and provides potted biographies of a number of important Labour figures and (slanted) sketches of several groups (Social Democratic Federation, Fabian Society, Independent Labour Party, Communist Party, Militant). Its nine chapters cover the origins of the Labour Party; its creation in 1900-06; its development down to 1931; its 'nature'; the 'second generation' of leaders in the 1930s; World War II; the 1945 Labour government; "unresolved Labourism" - ie, the Wilson and Callaghan governments and the left of the 1970s; and "the end of Labourism?", covering the last hurrah of the left in the 1980s and the rise of New Labour.

The authors argue that the Labour Party, in spite of its weaknesses, was a decisive step forward for the working class: a partial recognition of the need for class political independence and working class political representation. Its peculiar affiliate structure based on the trade unions, unlike continental socialist parties, has given it unique political stability, with the result that any attempt to bypass it on the left is illusory. If New Labour finally succeeds, the authors argue, the trade union link will be broken and the party will become a British equivalent of the US Democratic Party. The idea of class-political independence will be lost.

Hence the decisive battle is now on: the battle to preserve the trade union link and the partial socialist character of the party. If this battle is lost, they suggest, the elements of the left who refuse to fight it will have to take responsibility for a historical defeat for working class politics in Britain.

Comrades Bash and Fisher are a considerable step ahead of the majority of the non-Labour far left, who argue that Blairism has already broken the historical character of the Labour Party and turned it into a British equivalent of the Democratic Party. When Labour next loses office and suddenly turns left these comrades will abruptly reverse themselves: just as in the 1970s the advocates of 'breaking Labour's monopoly hold over electoral representation' in the International Marxist Group became the most vigorous advocates of Labour Party entry in the early 1980s.

However, the account of the history of the Labour Party and the British workers' movement given by 100 years of Labour is deeply misleading, and the conclusions drawn from it are false. Comrades Bash and Fisher attribute general features of capitalist politics, found globally (like the two-party system of government), and the results of international dynamics (like British world hegemony and its traumatic passing in 1914-45) to 'peculiarities of the English', which they exaggerate. In this they follow Anderson-Nairn.

Like most writers from the organised Trotskyist tradition, comrades Bash and Fisher massively underestimate the role of the old 'official communist' CPGB in the politics of the British labour movement; ignore the consequences of its destruction by the Eurocommunists in the 1980s; and fail to grasp the continuing ideological influence of the ideas of 'official communism' in the Labour and trade union left.

Anderson-Nairn and the Labour Party's 'special character'

The comrades' reliance on the Anderson-Nairn thesis is no secret: the first work cited in the book is Nairn's 1964 New Left Review 'Anatomy of the Labour Party,' one of the central works of the 'Anderson-Nairn period' of New Left Review. The story of the first two pages is the Anderson-Nairn narrative.

Anderson-Nairn set out to explain by English peculiarities the absence of a mass communist or socialist party in Britain, unlike continental Europe. In this story the English Revolution was early and 'mediated' and produced "a deformed constitutional heritage, with the survival of a constitutional monarchy and the House of Lords "¦. The early and gradual development of capitalism and the compromise between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie largely cut off the rising trade union movement in the first half of the 19th century from any revolutionary movement, tradition or consciousness" (quoted in 100 years p5).

There was Chartism; then nothing but craft conservatism until the new mass unionism of the 1880s. Even this did not trigger a working class political movement: the Labour Representation Committee emerged in 1900 not out of an offensive movement of the working class, but out of a defensive response of the trade unions to judicial attacks.

As a Marxist approach to British history, the Anderson-Nairn thesis is pretty dated and, frankly, fly-blown. As soon as the economic practices of the 17th to 19th 'aristocracy' were investigated in depth by historians, it became clear that this was a segment of a capitalist class - as should already have been apparent from the discussions of English history in volume I of Marx's Capital. In The pristine culture of capitalism (1991), Ellen Meiksins Wood has turned the Anderson-Nairn thesis on its head. Far from the English political culture being imperfectly capitalist, it was the French post-revolutionary economy and culture which displayed pre-capitalist survivals.

Far from displaying gradual development and 'historic compromise', British political culture displays abrupt discontinuities across 1640-60 and across 1688-1714. Far from there being no inheritance of the revolutionary movement of the 1640s, the ideas, if not the names, of the Levellers and other interregnum radicals persisted in the radical movements of the 18th century; into Chartism; and beyond Chartism, into the early political culture of the Independent Labour Party and Labour Party. The Labour left has not been ideologically hobbled by discontinuity from the English revolutionary tradition, but, on the contrary, if anything by its continuity in the form of radical-christian ideas.

The story of discontinuity comes from Nairn, and from Anderson's 'Origins of the present crisis' (New Left Review No23, 1964): "Chartism, its final, supreme effort, lasted for a decade. Wrecked by its pitifully weak leadership and strategy, in the end it collapsed without a fight. With it disappeared for 30 years the élan and combativity of the class. A profound caesura [gap] in English working-class history supervened."

But the "caesura" is in Anderson's historical narrative, not in the actual history of the British workers' movement. In 1862-65 the British workers' movement participated in a large-scale campaign in support of the northern, anti-slavery, side in the American civil war. Without this campaign, and in particular the contribution of Lancashire cotton workers, it is very likely that Britain would have recognised the slaveholder confederacy and intervened militarily to break the union's naval blockade. The 1860s also saw a large movement to extend the suffrage, in which Marx was closely involved. On the back of the anti-slavery solidarity campaign, the workers' movement attempted to initiate a campaign in solidarity with the Polish national movement. Out of this attempt came ... the First International, whose backbone until the crisis of the Paris Commune was British trade unionists.

The defeat of the Commune led to a European-wide witch-hunt of the International; and the British trade union leaders who had participated in it capitulated in face of this witch-hunt. The trade union movement became dominated by 'anti-politicals' who, in reality, supported the Liberal Party. The larger political context was the extension of the suffrage in 1867 to a large body of male 'respectable workers' in the towns; and along with it the emergence of an explicit imperialist ideology of 'British civilisation'.

Anderson, in fact, in 'Origins of the present crisis' recognised the role of British imperialist world hegemony in creating first a tame trade union movement and later a tame Labour Party. Comrades Bash and Fisher prefer the fictitious "profound caesura" to the plainly factual efforts of the capitalist politicians to promote imperialism as an alternative to social revolution. This choice is reflected throughout the pamphlet in the very muted treatment of the issue of Labour's relation to the British empire and British imperialism. This appears in advance on the front page, where Martin Rowson's cartoon presents Tony Blair as denying the Labour Party's origins by his willingness to "crusade for imperialist adventures at the behest of American imperialism" (emphasis added). Labour's British imperialist history has become less significant ... as it usually does with the Labour left.

Socialist groups and Labour origins

In spite of the right turn of the trade union leaders after the defeat of the Commune, socialist groups did begin to grow up, starting with Hyndman's Democratic Federation in 1881, which turned itself into the Social Democratic Federation in 1884 on the basis of commitment to a dogmatic 'Hyndmanite' version of Marxism. A split in 1884 produced the anti-parliamentarist Socialist League led by William Morris (which was to be taken over by the anarchists in 1890), while the elitist Fabian Society also appeared in 1884.

In the late 1880s, a radical extension of trade unionism to 'unskilled' workers took place, producing the matchworkers' strike of 1888 and gas workers' and dockers' strikes of 1889. In spite of the SDF's general hostility to strikes in favour of propaganda and electoral campaigning, both SDF and SL members were heavily involved in these movements.

Keir Hardie's (broadly christian socialist) Independent Labour Party, founded in 1893, was strong enough by 1895 to contest 28 seats. The common belief that the SDF was more middle class than the ILP is contradicted by research into its membership by David M Young published in 2005: 49% of SDF members were skilled manual workers and another 11% unskilled. Rather the groups were partially geographically separated, with the SDF being stronger in London and the ILP in the north, as well as separated by politics. The ILP was stronger than the SDF in parliamentary elections, but both groups had considerable success in local elections. By the time of the formation of the LRC, the ILP was slightly stronger than the SDF, with around 14,000 members to the SDF's 9,000.

As comrades Bash and Fisher indicate in their box on the SDF (not in the main text), unitary work in local elections between the SDF and ILP prepared the way for the narrow defeat of the 'anti-politicals' in the 1899 TUC vote which led to the creation of the Labour Representation Committee. The LRC's composition - seven places for the unions, two each for the SDF and ILP and one for the Fabians - reflected a real relationship of forces developed in local politics.

Again this failure to address local politics centrally signals an ongoing weakness in 100 years of Labour. The role of the campaigns to win local councils, and of the Labour councillors, in the party's relationship to the broad masses of working class electors is downplayed. It surfaces momentarily in the honourable history of Poplar council in the 1920s, but then disappears again.

Nor did the LRC immediately leap to the status of mass party. It put up only 15 candidates in 1900, electing two MPs. Its election of 29 MPs in 1906 reflected a secret agreement with the Liberals. With the benefit of hindsight, the 1901 decision of the SDF to pull out of the LRC can be seen to be a mistake. But at least up to the point at which the Liberals decided to get the trade unions representatives back onside through the deals with the LRC, it was perfectly possible that the LRC would fail.

In this case, the growth of a workers' party in Britain would probably have followed a more 'continental' path of the unification of Marxist and non-Marxist socialists, leading to a more 'credible' socialist party which could grow rapidly: like the unification of the Eisenachers and Lassalleans in Germany in 1875, of the Italian socialists in 1892, of the Guesdists and Possibilists in France in 1903. A wing of the ILP had this perspective in the 1900s, but it ended merely in a split from the ILP which joined up with the SDF to form the British Socialist Party. The Lib-Lab Parliamentary Labour Party was a stronger magnet for the majority of the ILP.

It is probably because they saw from the continent the possibility of socialist growth that the Liberals decided in 1906 to go for a deal with the trade union leaders, including the election of some LRC candidates and legislation to provide partial protection for trade unions against judicial attacks. But the Liberals' cunning plan to incorporate the leadership of the workers' movement in the architecture of capitalist politics was not in any way unique to Britain, though the process of incorporation took different forms elsewhere.

European social democracy

The Anderson-Nairn thesis, as applied by comrades Bash and Fisher, takes the case of German and Swedish social democracy, where the party created the unions, as the continental 'norm'. In reality it was the exception. In France, Spain, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands the unions were created independently of and against the 'politicals' who formed the socialist, etc, parties. They marched under one or another variant of the banner of anarcho-syndicalism. In Belgium, as in Britain, the Labour Party when it was created had a structure involving affiliated trade unions and the block vote.

But if pure syndicalism could present itself as, and at times be, well to the left of the 'politicals' and organise mass and militant action, it could equally become a force of political conservatism which addressed 'employment issues only', like the British anti-politicals. Even in Germany, the party-linked trade unions formed the main basis of the revisionist right, and were able in 1906-07 to insist on censoring Kautsky's The road to power.

What was this revisionist right? The answer (which I have also argued in my long Weekly Worker series on strategy) is that it sought to achieve partial reforms through coalition with elements of the bourgeois parties. Marxism was to be rejected or discarded as obstructing this task. Precisely this politics was expressed in the ILP, and in the Lib-Labism of the 1906 LRC deal with the Liberals and of the PLP, created in 1906, down to the split of 1931. Tory dominance in 1931-45, and the split in the Liberals which accompanied the national government, rendered the issue moot down to the Labour victory of 1945, which for the first time made possible a majority Labour government. But by this time Labour had absorbed a good deal of the former Liberal Party, and the coalition became internal rather than external.

Was Labour saved from mass splits by its affiliate structure, as 100 years claims (p33)? The answer is fairly clearly not. On the continent, the French and German communists were willing to split not just the party, but also the trade unions; and trade union affiliation did not prevent what became large splits in Belgium. The key is, rather, the first-past-the-post system of elections, which creates a substantial pressure towards a two-party system. What holds British Labour together as a united party is thus the same thing that keeps US labour from breaking with the Democrats.

It should by now be clear that, though the Labour Party is a particular form, the content of this particular form expresses not English peculiarities, but the objective global dynamics of capitalist politics. Over time, the political style of other capitalist countries has become more Anglo-American. There is a tendency towards government by single persons, whether in the form of constitutional monarchy, executive presidency or direct election of prime ministers and party leaders. Efforts have been and continue to be made to limit the political representation of small parties and to design constitutions so as to force two-party or two-coalition systems like those in Britain and the US. The Anglo-American constitutional order is indeed "the pristine culture of capitalism", not the product of an early or impure bourgeois revolution.

These tendencies have also promoted a trend towards a single dominant party on the left, linked to the trade union bureaucracy, and the marginalisation of alternatives. From the point of view of capital, it is obviously preferable that such a party should be like the US Democrats rather than one which ostensibly represents the interests of the working class. But US capital undoubtedly prefers the Republican Party to the Democrats ... and in today's politics the German SPD, Italian Democratic Left, and Labour are a lot more like the Democrats or the old Liberals than the pre-1914 SPD. Nevertheless, capital rules through the two-party system; and it can rule as well through a Labour, SPD or Olive Tree/Gauche Plurielle coalition as through a Democratic Party.

The underlying tendency of the trade union bureaucracy to seek Lib-Lab and similar coalitions in order to obtain immediate reforms reflects precisely the role of the unions as bargaining organisations under capitalism; and of the bureaucracy as the institutional bearers of this role. A party which imagines its connection to the working class as running through the trade union link will therefore precisely be driven towards Lib-Labism. In reality, this was not the whole story of the Labour Party: local politics and the councils, which comrades Bash and Fisher downplay, also made the link between party and class.

And this politics, precisely because it was more political and involved more class-political independence than the 'parliamentary representation of the trade unions', formed the basis of Labour's left: it has always been based in the constituencies, not in the unions. This was the case right down to the Kinnockite-Blairite revolution, which drew on Thatcher's attack on local government and the unions, the organisational norms of Stalinism and the politics of Eurocommunism to smash the autonomy of the local parties and remake them in the Blairite image.

The Communist Party and affiliation

Before 1918 the Labour Party was not an individual membership party. It was made up of the PLP (which lacked practical autonomy from the Liberals beyond trade union issues) and local Labour Representation Committees (largely based on the ILP, but also in 1916-18 the BSP, and including local trade union and independent activists). In 1918 the PLP launched the Labour Party as a national, individual-membership party, with permanent constituency organisations, and a constitution including the famous clause four: "to secure to the workers by hand and brain the full fruits of their labour through the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and. exchange".

The PLP's problem was that its central leaders had been pro-war and had participated in the wartime coalition. But the ILP, which provided the bulk of the activists on the ground, was anti-war, as was the BSP. The BSP had split over the war, producing two pro-war minorities, Hyndman's National Socialist Party and HG Wells's Socialist National Defence League, but neither organised large forces. The 1918 'khaki election' allowed the coalition to win a large majority, but in the workers' movement the dynamic was the opposite. The union leaders' support for the coalition and 'industrial truce' had produced the shop stewards' movement, which was to send delegates to the 2nd Congress of the Comintern in 1920; and in June 1917, the Leeds Convention had called for workers' and soldiers' councils (100 years p20). In August 1917, PLP leader Arthur Henderson had been driven to resign from the cabinet.

The membership had failed the PLP, and it was necessary to elect a new membership; but in order to do so in the climate of 1917-18, it was necessary to make substantial ideological concessions to the socialists. Hence clause four.

After the foundation of the Comintern in March 1919, and therefore 18 months after the PLP and Fabians had begun their turn to electing a new membership, the BSP began discussion with the smaller groups of the far left and the left syndicalists with a view to creating a united Communist Party. The process was difficult and was not completed until 1921. The obstacle to unity was precisely the question: should the new Communist Party be affiliated to the Labour Party? The BSP was for it, most of the other groups against. Lenin in Leftwing communism (1920) argued for affiliation, and this position was adopted by a 2-1 majority at the 2nd Congress of the Comintern on August 6 1920. A few days before, the Communist Unity Conference which founded the CPGB (July 31-August 1) voted by 100-85 to seek affiliation.

Comrades Bash and Fisher write: "The CPGB's application to affiliate was couched in terms that were intended to provoke rejection, and the Labour Party's executive duly obliged" (p22). In fact, the political context makes perfectly clear that there was not the slightest chance of the Communist Party being allowed to affiliate, however diplomatic the language they used.

The whole point of the 1918 Labour Party constitution was for the leadership to create a new regime in which the PLP and union tops could, through the NEC, exercise more control over the constituency parties than they had been able to exercise over the ILP and BSP and the much looser local LRCs before it. The ILP, it was hoped, could be integrated into this regime (though in the end the demand that the ILP submit to the discipline of the NEC and the parliamentary whips forced them out of the Labour Party in 1931-32).

A Communist Party along the lines of the Comintern's conception would be a wholly different matter. The name alone would probably have been enough to ensure disaffiliation for the BSP, if it had simply informed the NEC that it was changing its name (as Sean Matgamna has suggested). If the communists had been diplomatic enough in 1920 to actually achieve affiliation, it would either have resulted in a tamed group within the Labour Party, or a short-lived moment ending in expulsion on the ground that they had lied to gain affiliation.

Nor did the 1920 application and its rejection close the question. Though it never came close to a majority, allowing communist affiliation received substantial votes at Labour Party conferences through the 1920s. Communists continued to work as individual members of the Labour Party down to the 'third period' turn in 1928, though the Labour Party formally banned communists from individual membership in 1924. Communist influence on the Labour left and in the trade union movement was actually significantly stronger than that of the BSP or the smaller groups before 1920.

Political influence

The high point of communist formal influence in the Labour Party was the National Left Wing Movement (1925-28), which the CP wound up as a result of the 'third period' turn. But CPGB political influence in the Labour Party reappeared as political influence on the Socialist League led by Cripps in the 1930s.

In the Labour left as it developed in the 1950s to 1970s, Trotskyists were certainly present; but their ideas were in no sense dominant. The CPGB supplied the political ideas of socialism in a single country, peace campaigning and 'advanced democracy', and CP-influenced economists were heavily involved in the construction of the left Keynesian 'alternative economic strategy' of the 1970s. On the other side of the coin, the CP's industrial cadre and the CP-led trade union broad lefts provided a link between the Labour left and the industrial movement. This link blocked a full reassertion of control by the PLP, the trade union tops and the party apparatus.

In the 1980s, however, the CP leadership moved sharply to the right with the help of the Marxism Today project. The internal factional struggle in the CP accelerated, giving rise to the split of the Morning Star; and in 1991 the Eurocommunist wing was to turn the party into the 'Democratic Left'. The effects in the Labour Party were obvious. Former Eurocommunists and their fellow-travellers became prominent 'soft lefts' and are now prominent Blairites. The link between the constituency left and the trade union left evaporated. The Labour right now was able to regain control and remake the party.

Since the collapse of the 'official' CPGB, the Labour lefts have been at sea. They cling to strategic ideas which are, in reality, fragmentary and diluted forms of the CPGB's British road to socialism. The non-Labour far left also clings to fragmentary forms of strategic ideas devised 40-odd years ago ...

Of course, the collapse of the CP reflects deeper processes: the collapse of the regimes of bureaucratic 'socialism'; the turn of global capital to financialisation, with its accompanying negative impact on the British manufacturing heartlands of the trade union movement and positive impact on the suburbs and small towns; the specific offensive of Thatcherism; and the immediate defeats of the Labour Party led by Foot in the khaki election of 1983, and of the miners in the great strike of 1984-85.

Nor do I mean by this to prettify the politics of the CP. The point is a simple one. Bash and Fisher argue that the CP could have done better if it was willing to make whatever compromises were necessary to get into the Labour Party. For example, it could have dissolved its public, organised face, in order to rid itself of an obstacle to really influencing Labour Party members. This is what the Trotskyist groups which work in the Labour Party have done - comrade Bash's own left Chartist Briefing included. But the political influence of the 'outside' CP on the Labour Party, at almost any period in its history, far outstripped the influence of the Trotskyist entry groups. Indeed, the most successful of the Trotskyist entry groups, Militant, was the one which was closest to having a public face and thus furthest from the advice of Bash and Fisher.


The Communist Party influenced the Labour left primarily because it had an alternative strategic line to that of the Labour leadership, which the ILP lacked. The collapse of the 'official' CPGB is at the end of the day the collapse of that strategic line, which relied on and assumed the idea of the USSR as a shining example.

Briefing in the late 1970s to early 1980s also had a strategic line: the line of 'Labour take the power'. This was a variant on the common Trotskyist strategy of the general strike leading to soviets: but for the Briefing comrades, it was the Labour Party general committees which would (because of the affiliate structure of the Labour Party) become soviets.

Somewhere along the road to 100 years of Labour, this line has gone missing, and what comrades Bash and Fisher present in its place is, by and large, the pieties of the old Bennite left, which would not have sounded odd from the ILP. It is the Labour left which has influenced the Trotskyists, not the other way round ... something of the same sort happened to Militant, with its 'Enabling Act' strategy.

The lessons of the origin of the Labour Party, and of the relation of the Communist Party to the Labour Party, are in fact fairly simple ones. Marxists certainly ought to engage with the internal politics of Labour and, so far as possible, fight for Marxist ideas within the Labour Party. But the precondition for doing so is not entry, as comrades Bash and Fisher argue. That leads, as it has led Bash and Fisher, to fighting for Labourite ideas.

On the contrary, it is the unity of the Marxists in a common party, based on a Marxist programme, which is the precondition for effective Marxist work in relation to the Labour Party.