Not a penny for New Labour
Dave Craig reviews the decisions of the June 29 Campaign for a New Workers Party conference and calls for a "republican socialist synthesis of Trotskyism and Labourism"
‘Tough on Labourism, tough on the financial causes of Labourism’ did not come from Tony Blair, but it certainly should come from us. The Weekly Worker was right to call for a “break with Labourism” (June 26). But it went and spoilt it all by demanding we keep pouring funds into the belly of the Labour beast.
After 10 years in office the Labour Party is politically and financially bankrupt. It has nothing to offer the trade unions or the working class. The Campaign for a New Workers’ Party calls on unions to break the financial link with Labour. It is quite right to do so. The trade union movement should invest their money in building an alternative party which gives political support to trade unions, not least by fighting the anti-union laws.
Trade unions voting to fund New Labour are turkeys voting for Christmas. Workers are not stupid. They know which class Labour supports and it is not them. It is only the grip of the trade union bureaucracy that has stopped more unions pulling the plug and then switching off the lights.
At the recent CNWP conference Labourism was the central question, as the Weekly Worker rightly proclaimed. The Socialist Party did not want to talk about it. Yet it could not entirely be avoided because of an amendment to the SP resolution from the Revolutionary Democratic Group, which began:
“In the struggle for a new party of the working class, the CNWP rejects Labourism as a false ideology against the interests of the working class. We reject the narrow perspective of present-day Labourism of pushing the Labour Party to the left. We will campaign against Labourism and in favour of a different kind of party which is explicitly and openly republican, socialist and internationalist.” An additional point read: “The CNWP will seek to develop and promote a radical alternative ideology to Labourism which emphasises the urgent need to fight for democracy and socialism in the present.”
Nobody spoke against this amendment. But the Socialist Party voted against it and so it was overwhelmingly defeated. We do not know what the SP’s arguments are. This vote does tell us something, however: the SP is not prepared or willing to lead a fight against the ideas of Labourism. It is the exact opposite of the CPGB, which declared war on Labourism whilst urging workers to fill its coffers. A consistent position is to strangle Labour financially and stab them ideologically at the same time.
The CNWP conference was more interesting for what it revealed than what it actually proposed to do. It did not propose much. The Socialist Party has been moving the campaign along at a snail’s pace. In fact the snails in my garden move with more speed. What are the reasons for this?
Certainly objective conditions for a new workers’ party have existed since the 1990s with the collapse of the old CPGB and the arrival of New Labour. There has been a huge gap to the left of Labour which the divided Trotskyist movement could not fill. Various attempts, beginning in 1996 with Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, show there is a recognised need for such a party.
Ten years later the left is not much further forward. The frustration that many feel about this is palpable. The problem is not objective conditions, which are overripe, but the dominant ideas or consciousness in the socialist movement. Labourism has been the dominant set of ideas in the British trade union and socialist movement for a hundred years. These ideas do not fit the current political reality in Britain. Renewed Labourism is trying to recreate something that cannot work. Failure is the only possible outcome. And the number of failures is mounting up.
It is as if the socialist movement is blindfolded in a darkened room. All we can do is wander round in circles bumping into each other. We have to take off the blindfold of Labourism and turn the lights on. Then we might be able to march in the same direction. The slogan of a new workers’ party has wide resonance. But it does not go far enough in challenging and uprooting Labourism.
The Socialist Party’s own resolution illustrates the problem. It says: “There are those that hope that the crisis in New Labour will be an opportunity to move Labour to the left. This is utopian.” It is not. We cannot know how Labour Party leaders or members or workers and trade unionists will respond to a crisis. We cannot know whether they will move to the left or right any more than we can know that the announcement of redundancies will cause workers to go on strike or take the redundancy money.
The Socialist Party resolution claims: “The only force that would be able push the establishment parties to the left is a new mass workers’ party.” The case of the Left Party in Germany is cited. It “is pushing the political debate in Germany, as the capitalist parties are forced to feint left at least in words in order to try and cut across the growing support for the Left Party”.
This is the SP’s argument with the Labour left: ‘Dear John [McDonnell], Labour cannot move to the left - you are wasting your time. The best way to force Labour and the other capitalist parties to talk left and pretend to be left is to set up a new workers’ party.’ The assumption is that we have a common or agreed set of ideas and programme. It is matter of choosing the best means - in or out of the Labour Party.
The Socialist Party is right to say we do not have sufficient forces to launch a party. But with arguments like these we will never gather them. It is not surprising that we are only moving at a snail’s pace. Whilst Labourism dominates the thinking of the left, the SP can huff and puff, but it will never blow down the walls that separate the workers from a new party. We will simply get out of breath and need to take a rest.
As the Labour Party was being formed, queen Victoria was on the throne and British capitalism was still the major economic power in the world. Labour was neither a republican party nor a socialist party. It was to provide a voice for trade unions in parliament and promote social reforms. The idea of improving the lot of workers, but accepting the framework of the constitutional monarchy and capitalism, is liberal reformism.
The Labour Party created its own ideology of Labourism. In recent years many have left the party, but still carry its ideas with them. It therefore has a wider and deeper influence across the left. In 1918 the Russian Revolution forced the Labour leaders to adopt clause four which called for public ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. The aim was to prevent the working class turning to revolution. It was rank opportunism, promoting what was popular without any intention of delivering it.
If Labour could be considered a socialist party at all it was because of clause four. But it was always a non-republican socialist party. Fundamental to Labourism was the acceptance of the constitutional monarchy - not simply loyalty to the monarch of the day, but to the ruling class and the state. It opposed interference in high politics or constitutional affairs, which fitted neatly with the narrow concerns of trade unionism.
If socialism was the aim, the absence of republicanism removed the political means of getting there. It is like wanting to clean the windows on the fourth floor when all the ladders have been taken away. Without republicanism, socialism was a utopian aspiration.
Of course there were republicans in the Labour Party, including MPs. But it was treated like a religion, a private matter not to be brought into the public arena, and not worth rocking the boat over.Republicanism was never discussed. It was a taboo subject. The Labour Party was firmly committed to supporting the constitutional monarchy as a system of government.
The third component of Labourism is the idea it is a workers’ party. All socialists who cling to the Labour Party cite this dogma. As early as 1920 Lenin assessed it and was dismissive of it. True, Labour had a working class membership, but its leaders, ideas and programme were thoroughly bourgeois. As every Marxist knows, it is the latter, not the former, that decides the class character of a party.
The world has moved on since Lenin’s day, not least because Labour has been in government many times, showing its real class nature. Today under New Labour even the pretence has gone. It has ditched clause four and openly promotes itself as a pro-business party. Without doubt New Labour is a bourgeois party because it supports the class interests of big capital. The trade union bureaucracy is still clinging to this ‘workers’ party’, hoping for titbits and a pensionable retirement in the House of Lords. Militant workers have no illusions.
To break with Labourism means to reject the theory of non-republican socialism, an expression of the bourgeois theory of economism. It is to return to the idea that the working class is the champion of democracy as the only democratic class in society. Socialism can only prosper if it connects with its democratic republican and secular traditions. Although Marx was an advocate of such an approach to politics, you do not have to be a ‘Marxist’ to agree with it.
To break with Labourism means to reject the theory that Labour is any kind of workers’ party. One would have imagined that the New Labour project and the politics of the last 10 years of a Labour government would have clarified that in practice. If Labour is not a workers’ party, then why stuff their pockets with money?
Republican socialist party
Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, the Socialist Alliance and Respect were all based on the ideology of Labourism. All were doomed to fail. All failed. The CNWP will fare no better unless it breaks with Labourism and begins a struggle to break the working class movement from it. It means drawing on the experience of Chartism as a militant democratic working class movement. It means raising political demands to prominence and breaking with non-political trade unionism or economism.
There is no sign that these radical democratic arguments have made any progress. The conditions are becoming more dangerous. The credit crunch has triggered a more general economic crisis. Labour’s hopes for New Brownism have been dashed. The Labour Party is bankrupt. The split in the Scottish Socialist Party has been matched in England by the split in Respect. The British National Party continues to gain votes. Last but by no means least, the sound of war drums over Iran is getting louder. The situation deteriorates and the left remains hopelessly divided.
Yet there are straws in the wind that point towards greater left unity. The growth of Hands Off the People of Iran has surprised even its more optimistic supporters. At the CNWP conference there was a broad platform, including two trade union leaders, speakers from the Labour Representation Committee, Respect Renewal, Alliance for Green Socialism, Walsall Democratic Labour Party and the Socialist Party. Perhaps this outbreak of peace and goodwill affected the SP leaders.
Bob Crow, the Rail Maritime and Transport union general secretary, spoke in favour of what the RDG has called a communist-Labour party. Bob had never been in the Labour Party (he had been in the CPGB until it split in 1988). But he argued there were elements of the old Labour Party that should be incorporated into any new workers’ party. It was vital that trade unions had a voice in parliament and MPs who could speak for them.
This did not mean affiliating to the Labour Party. In fact he said the RMT had better political representation from MPs after they had broken the official link. He drew some lessons from the Socialist Labour Party. Scargill had been too impatient and too controlling. He finished by saying the socialists needed to get their act together. Perhaps some sort of umbrella organisation was needed. This was not an end in itself, but a step forward.
So Peter Manson was right to call for a break with Labourism. But his June 26 article was flawed for a number of reasons. First, Peter does not explain what Labourism is. It is assumed we all either know or agree. Second, it assumes that Marxism is the only alternative. This is untrue. The case for a republican socialist party may be unpopular, but it exits as a real option.
The thesis and antithesis are not the only possibility. In Britain the struggle between Labourism and Trotskyism will no doubt produce a synthesis, which will in time produce new contradictions and struggle. We have to be aware of three moving options, not two.
I have certainly argued that republican socialism is a synthesis of Trotskyism and Labourism. It is a road the movement can take out of the present impasse. If you want to say the same thing in a pejorative way, you can condemn republican socialism as a halfway house between Labourism and Trotskyism. You can say that a republican socialist party is a halfway house party. But only a political idiot would think that Labour was a republican socialist party.
If Peter wants to confront Labourism, he has to look at all the trajectories, not just the ones he thinks are easier to attack. To simply claim it is a choice between Labourism and Marxism may be clever politics. But it is not good enough for Marxist science. It would be like showing a photo of the leaders of the Russian Revolution which had been doctored to remove Trotsky.
Finally, since the CPGB is still attached to the dogma that Labour is a workers’ party, albeit with bourgeois leaders, it has not itself fully broken with Labourism. Peter says: “We should not, in current conditions, call on union members to demand their leaders break the link.” This places the CPGB in the position of backing the rightwing union leaders, who try to justify giving cash to a party which supports a capitalist government attacking workers. This is nothing to do with supporting Labour like the rope supports a hanging man. As a tactic it is shooting yourself in the foot.
- Not a penny for New Labour.
- Break with Labourism.
- For a republican socialist party.
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