Labour Party blues

Is Labour still a bourgeois workers’ party? What, if anything, does this expression mean? Mike Macnair continues the debate

The report of my opening on the question of the Labour Party at the July 4 CPGB aggregate meeting was inevitably compressed and in a couple of places inaccurate;1 Andy Hannah’s letter (July 16) in part responds to these features of the report. If I had said only what appeared in the report, comrade Hannah’s objection that the argument is circular and rests on bald assertion would be valid. It is not. What follows is a write-up of my opening, partially revised in the light both of the discussion on July 4 and my own afterthoughts; hopefully this fuller version will help us carry the discussion forward.

This will be a two part article, the first part moving from the concrete to the more abstract theoretical question of the basis of ‘bourgeois workers’ parties’ in general; the second will return to the more concrete question of the historical and present character of the Labour Party.

Labour, sects and halfway houses

A couple of preliminary points need to be made at some length. These assume the characterisation of Labour as a bourgeois workers’ party which I will defend later in the article.

The first is that it is not a novelty in the recent politics of CPGB that we insist - against the majority of the far left - that Labour is still a bourgeois workers’ party, and hence that attempts to construct a new Labour Party based on left-Labourist politics are not merely rightist, but also futile. Political space presently exists in British politics for an overtly far-left party, a Communist Party, to begin with on the scale of the Greens and taking a similar share of the vote. The obstacle is the unwillingness of the Marxist left to unite as Marxists.

This, in turn, has three bases. The first is sectism (cults of the ideas of Grant, Cliff, Mandel, etc as being the ‘revolutionary theory’ supposedly necessary to a ‘revolutionary party’). The second is bureaucratic centralism. The third is the illusion that with the right tactics, and as long as the ‘serious left’ (your own group) could avoid being tangled up with the ‘sectarians’ (other, usually smaller, groups) a new mass workers’ party is possible in the short term.

The political space does not presently exist for a new mass workers’ party of the same sort as the early Labour Party (or the Brazilian Workers Party), based solely on the idea of independent political representation of the working class in electoral politics. Such a party already exists: it is the Labour Party. We have been making this point more or less continuously against the various halfway house projects since the days of the Socialist Alliance.

The second point is that this does not in itself imply calling for a general vote for Labour; still less for wholesale entry in the Labour Party. This point, made by comrade Nick Rogers,2 is perfectly valid. We have in the past called for votes across the board for ‘halfway house’ projects from the Socialist Labour Party, through the Socialist Alliance, to Respect - in spite of their ultra-leftist belief that Labour has become a simply-bourgeois party like the US Democrats and their rightist fakery attempting to pose as old Labour.

A vote for Labour is a class vote in a limited sense: a vote for the idea of independent political representation of the working class in electoral politics. It is equally clearly a vote for British nationalism and imperialism, class collaboration and the existing capitalist UK constitution and state. A vote for a far-left group, or for a semi-far-left, semi-party project, can be at least potentially a class vote in a stronger sense than a Labour vote. That is, it can be a vote for the idea that the working class should actually take over running society in its own interests - which are, at the end of the day, the interests of humanity as such.

Elections past and future

We can identify two aspects of the Euro-elections that were specific to it. The first was the offensive of The Daily Telegraph and associated forces promoting right populism as an alternative to political parties as such, which was mainly targeted at Labour and also implied a clear rejection of even the most limited idea of independent political party organisation of the working class. In this specific context, to vote Labour was not a simple vote for the incumbents, but a vote in defence of the idea of a political party of the working class.

The second was the fact that in this context the No2EU project lined itself up with right populism against Labour. It did not present itself as a party, let alone a workers’ party, or as a left alternative even to the extent that Respect did, but purely and simply as a populist-nationalist left flank of the UK Independence Party - a red-brown project. To vote for Labour was in this election to a considerable extent to vote for the shadow of the idea of working class party political organisation expressed by the name of Labour.

The name of No2EU contained no such shadow. That absence, together with the positive Ukip-ism expressed in its name and main slogans, took it to the right of even today’s Labour Party. The Socialist Party in England and Wales was clearly uncomfortable with the shape of No2EU, and if SPEW lead candidates had taken sufficient distance from this shape we could have called for a vote for them as individuals. But, though we got interviews with several No2EU lead candidates, none of them was prepared to take real political distance from the red-brown project.

A guest at the CPGB aggregate, comrade Moshé Machover, made the point that New Labour’s policy of ‘triangulation’ appealing to the centre ground of politics depends on the left having nowhere else to go to. Hence, calling for a generalised Labour vote is a mug’s game: as long as we call for a Labour vote, ‘triangulation’ works to drag politics to the right. Only if the left is prepared to punish ‘triangulation’ by standing against Labour is there any chance of moving politics left. Comrade Machover’s point is a strong one and in a sense supports the arguments the CPGB has made since the early 1990s against the far left’s ‘auto-Labourism’ of that period.

The problem, however, is that the far left’s ‘old Labour’ fakery is also a form of ‘triangulation’. The ex-Labour types (like George Galloway), trade union bureaucrats (like Arthur Scargill and Bob Crow) and apparatchiks of the bigger far left groups believe that the left vote has nowhere to go but to them, so they too can ‘triangulate’. In this context not calling for a vote for No2EU was precisely to punish Crow’s, SPEW’s and the Morning Star-CPB’s attempt to ‘triangulate’ between Labour and Ukip.

It is not clear what the conditions of the 2010 general election will be, either on the front of the right-populist offensive, or on the front of the character of left electoral projects. On the first side, it is probable, though not certain, that the Ukip/BNP/‘anti-corruption independent’ vote will be simply swallowed up by the Tories. It is still possible that as a result of this last year Labour will be driven into third place and/or will lose Scotland and Wales, thereby ceasing to be a credible alternative government party. More likely is simply a very large Tory majority, with the Lib Dems as well as Labour losing out.

The more significant question for us is what the far left does. The reader who shares a predominant views may respond to this sentence: ‘Typical Weekly Worker - fascinated by left machinations at the expense of mass politics.’ In fact, it is a substantive political point. The evidence of the far left’s interventions in electoral politics over the last 15 years is at the end of the day that it has been ineffective and left us with a weaker left than we started with. What blocks us from addressing the masses effectively is precisely our disunity. Solution: if we address the disunity (‘left machinations’) the left may be able to have a real impact on mass politics. As long as we keep refusing to address these issues the left will continue to decay.

At the moment there is disarray (Peter Manson summarised the state of play in last week’s paper3). SPEW is arguing for a continuation and enlargement of the No2EU bloc (on what politics is unclear). The Socialist Workers Party has issued an appeal for left unity against the far right, which appears to be merely one of the SWP’s usual petitioning campaigns, this one designed to ‘take the initiative’ without any willingness to put up concrete proposals (let alone draw up any balance sheet of the SWP’s own disastrous past conduct in the Socialist Alliance and Respect). The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty has its own petition-style call for a new Socialist Alliance, inevitably a pale shadow of the SWP’s call. The Morning Star’s CPB executive committee has issued an ambiguous statement arguing for left unity on the basis of its People’s Charter and of No2EU’s 10-point platform, but also for “a vote for Labour in the majority of constituencies” in order to keep out the Tories.4

The CPGB PCC’s view is expressed in comrade Manson’s article. We want to see “a concerted, widespread left challenge in the general election”. And “Electoral cooperation must become a springboard for moves towards a united working class party, built in the first instance around the existing left groups. It must be based on the fundamental principles of Marxism - working class independence, working class democracy and working class internationalism.” It should be plain that we will support initiatives which are less than this aim but nonetheless could move towards it.

If, however, we actually get to May 2010 and find that we see either a multitude of competing unity projects faking themselves up as left Labourites (as in the 2008 London assembly elections) or a rerun of No2EU trying to triangulate between Labour and right-populism, then the CPB’s view will be right for the wrong reason.

Right because it will be necessary to vote Labour in a lot of constituencies. Wrong because this is not about keeping the Tories out of government - which is almost certainly impossible - but about fighting for the idea of independent working class political party organisation with a view to creating an opposition in the interests of the working class. And a translation of the sort of project represented by No2EU into general election conditions would positively undermine the idea of independent working class political party organisation.

All this argument so far deliberately assumes that the Labour Party has been in the past, and still is, a bourgeois workers’ party. So what does this expression mean and why should we take it that the Labour Party is one?

Bourgeois workers’ party

The modern left use of the expression ‘bourgeois workers’ party’ probably originates with Lenin’s ‘Imperialism and the split in socialism’ (December 1917), where the form of words used is “bourgeois labour party”.5 Lenin took the expression from a letter of Engels to Sorge in 1891, where Engels referred to the ‘non-political’ right wing of the Trade Union Congress, opponents of the eight-hour day campaign, as the “bourgeois labour party”.6 In fact, in What is to be done? in 1902 Lenin had already referred to this tred-iunionizm (US ‘business unionism’, UK ‘moderates’) as the “bourgeois ‘pure trade-unionists’”.7

The theorisation in the article of this form of words is that developed at more length in Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism. The core of the argument is that monopoly gives rise to ‘superprofits’, profits over and above normal profitability. Before the emergence of imperialism, Britain derived superprofits from monopoly, and Marx and Engels identified this as the basis of the political backwardness of the working class. The emergence of imperialism, as a distinct stage (according to Lenin, around 1898-1900), meant that monopoly superprofits became a general feature of the imperialist powers (in this article Lenin limits these properly so-called to Britain, France, Germany and the US). Superprofits allow the concessions to the top layers of the proletariat: ie, the formation of a labour aristocracy. This in turn supports the formation of ‘bourgeois workers’ parties’:

“The bourgeoisie of an imperialist ‘great’ power can economically bribe the upper strata of ‘its’ workers by spending on this a hundred million or so francs a year, for its superprofits most likely amount to about a thousand million. And how this little sop is divided among the labour ministers, ‘labour representatives’ (remember Engels’s splendid analysis of the term), labour members of war industries committees, labour officials, workers belonging to the narrow craft unions, office employees, etc, etc is a secondary question.”

“Formerly”, writes Lenin, “a ‘bourgeois labour party’, to use Engels’s remarkably profound expression, could arise only in one country, because it alone enjoyed a monopoly, but, on the other hand, it could exist for a long time. Now a ‘bourgeois labour party’ is inevitable and typical in all imperialist countries ...” He adds: “The important thing is that, economically, the desertion of a stratum of the labour aristocracy to the bourgeoisie has matured and become an accomplished fact; and this economic fact, this shift in class relations, will find political form, in one shape or another, without any particular ‘difficulty’.”

And: “A first-class bourgeois manipulator, an astute politician, a popular orator who will deliver any speeches you like, even r-r-revolutionary ones, to a labour audience, and a man who is capable of obtaining sizable sops for docile workers in the shape of social reforms (insurance, etc), Lloyd George serves the bourgeoisie splendidly, and serves it precisely among the workers, brings its influence precisely to the proletariat, to where the bourgeoisie needs it most and where it finds it most difficult to subject the masses morally.

“And is there such a great difference between Lloyd George and the Scheidemanns, Legiens, Hendersons and Hyndmans, Plekhanovs, Renaudels and co?8 Of the latter, it may be objected, some will return to the revolutionary socialism of Marx. This is possible, but it is an insignificant difference in degree, if the question is regarded from its political - ie, its mass - aspect. Certain individuals among the present social-chauvinist leaders may return to the proletariat. But the social-chauvinist or (what is the same thing) opportunist trend can neither disappear nor ‘return’ to the revolutionary proletariat.”

The other side of the argument is that imperialism, and hence preserving the privileges of the labour aristocracy, involves a deepening oppression of the lower layers of the working class, who therefore become increasingly revolutionary. Hence the real socialists will base themselves on these lower layers:

“On the one hand, there is the tendency of the bourgeoisie and the opportunists to convert a handful of very rich and privileged nations into ‘eternal’ parasites on the body of the rest of mankind, to ‘rest on the laurels’ of the exploitation of negroes, Indians, etc, keeping them in subjection with the aid of the excellent weapons of extermination provided by modern militarism. On the other hand, there is the tendency of the masses, who are more oppressed than before and who bear the whole brunt of imperialist wars, to cast off this yoke and to overthrow the bourgeoisie. It is in the struggle between these two tendencies that the history of the labour movement will now inevitably develop.

“... Engels draws a distinction between the ‘bourgeois labour party’ of the old trade unions - the privileged minority - and the ‘lowest mass’, the real majority, and appeals to the latter, who are not infected by ‘bourgeois respectability’. This is the essence of Marxist tactics!

“... And it is therefore our duty, if we wish to remain socialists, to go down lower and deeper, to the real masses; this is the whole meaning and the whole purport of the struggle against opportunism.”9

More than 90 years have passed since Lenin wrote these words; and it should be perfectly plain on the basis of the evidence that has emerged in those years that the theoretical argument is wrong.10

In the first place, winning concessions from capital does not automatically commit skilled workers politically to the side of capital (as was already relevant in the political evolution of the British miners and railworkers in the early 20th century). On the contrary, unorganised - and hence badly paid, etc - workers may well and have in the past formed a mass base for rightwing politics. The linkage to the ‘labour aristocracy’ therefore fails.

Secondly, ‘bourgeois workers’ parties’ in the sense in which Lenin used the term - large-scale nationalist and class-collaborationist workers’ parties linked to mass trade union organisations, etc - are not only found in imperialist countries. They are found more or less everywhere there is a substantial wage-worker class, albeit often in the form of ‘official communist’ parties: the Brazilian Workers Party is a clear example, but there are others elsewhere in Latin America, or in India in the form of the Communist Party of India and Communist Party of India (Marxist). Africa south of the Mashreq and north of South Africa is pretty much the only part of the globe not to be infested with bourgeois workers’ parties, probably because of the absolute weakness of the urban proletariat as a class in that part of the world.

The linkage to imperialism therefore fails. Contrary to Engels as well as to Lenin, nationalist and class-collaborationist politics in the organised workers’ movement is not a simple product of concessions paid for by super-profits. In this as in other aspects of capitalism, “The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future.”11

This does not, however, mean that the concept of a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’ is useless. But to grasp why it is useful it is necessary to take a step backward in the argument in order to move forward on more solid ground.

Party or spontaneous movement?

The essence of Marx’s and Engels’ arguments is that the supersession of capitalism is not a question of moral-ideological choices by ‘society’, but of the working class taking over the running of society. To the extent that working class people choose to organise to defend their common interests, they will be objectively driven to make their struggle with capital more effective - for example, in the form of general laws, like limits on the working day - and, in the end, to take political power away from the capitalist class and into their own hands.

It is for this reason that a constant element of their political arguments from the time of the Communist manifesto on is the need for workers to form an independent class party for political action against the capitalist class. In the Communist manifesto itself the communists appear as a ginger group within broad workers’ parties where these exist (the Chartists and US Land Reformers).12 In their political activity in the First International the idea of a broad workers’ party, based solely on the idea of the working class organising for political action to defend its class interests, is counterposed to the more precise ideological schemas offered by the Proudhonists, Lassalleans and Bakuninists.13 Hence, too, Engels’ 1894 comment on the British Social Democratic Federation: “The Social Democratic Federation, just like your German Socialist Labour Party, has managed to transform our theory into the rigid dogma of an orthodox sect ...”14

The basic ideas here are familiar to the left and form part of the basis of ‘non-sectarian sectarianism’ and halfway house projects; and equally of ‘Labourite’ projects like Britain’s road to socialism and various Trotskyist projects of long-term Labour Party entry.

The trouble, of course, is that in fact such general workers’ parties are everywhere dominated by nationalist and class-collaborationist bureaucrats. Wherever they exist, they serve at least as a means of mediating the loyalty of trade union leaders to the capitalist state, and in a good many cases - Britain and Brazil provide clear examples - they serve as electoral vehicles for government carried on in the interests of the capitalist class.

This outcome was, in fact, predicted by one of the major contemporary critics of Marx’s and Engels’ line: Mikhail Bakunin. Both in his ‘Critique of the Eisenach programme’ (1870) and in Marxism, freedom and the state (1870-72) Bakunin argues that working class organising for political action will inevitably result in the ascendancy of the bourgeoisie.15 Indeed, in On the International Workingmens’ Association and Karl Marx (1873) he anticipates Lenin on the ‘labour aristocracy’: “To me the flower of the proletariat is not, as it is to the Marxists, the upper layer, the aristocracy of labour, those who are the most cultured, who earn more and live more comfortably than all the other workers. Precisely this semi-bourgeois layer of workers would, if the Marxists had their way, constitute their fourth governing class.16

Bakunin’s alternative was reliance on spontaneous mass movements, fomented and coordinated by a small international revolutionary group with the aim of the immediate abolition of any form of state - the “invisible dictatorship”.17 This alternative has over the last 130 years - beginning in 1870-71 - proved futile. But this does not disprove the substance of Bakunin’s negative criticism: ie, that workers’ organisation for partial demands under capitalism inevitably implicates the workers’ organisation in the manoeuvrings of capitalist politics and turns it into a ‘bourgeois workers’ organisation’. Contrary to the ideas of the anarcho-syndicalists of the 1890s-1900s,18 trade unions are no more pure in this respect than workers’ political parties: the falsity of this idea was already apparent in Britain and the US and became obvious elsewhere in World War I and in Spain in the revolution and civil war.

Feudal bourgeois corporations

The existing state’s capture of organisations originally created as fighting formations opposed to it is not unique to the working class. Urban communes originated across Europe in the 12th to 13th centuries, to a considerable extent as revolutionary organisations of the bourgeoisie, were often forcibly suppressed or incorporated by the feudal powers they opposed. In some parts of Italy, communes actually won independent political power, creating what might be called in Trotskyist terminology ‘deformed bourgeois states’. By the late middle ages, however, urban institutions had largely been effectively subordinated to the growing feudal state and thereby integrated in seigneurial politics.

The creation of ‘feudal-bourgeois’ institutions was a means of subordinating the bourgeoisie. But it was also a contradiction for feudalism as a social order. What made subordination possible was a variety of concrete concessions to the bourgeoisie (and in particular the integration of a layer of the bourgeoisie in the state order). But these contradictions in a sense undermined the feudal social order. Stadtluft macht frei (‘City air makes free’) is a proverbial expression of the role of the existence of cities as tending to undermine serfdom. In the Netherlands in the revolutionary period, and in London (and some other towns) in 1639-41, mass mobilisations took back some of the city institutions as instruments of struggle for the revolutionary overthrow of the monarchy. In both cases what was involved was not simple recapture: new, protestant organisations and their ideas formed the basis for the overthrow. In contrast, the Stuart monarchy attempted to impose more direct control over the boroughs through an offensive of forfeiting charters, interfering in borough elections, etc in the 1680s; and the French monarchy actually succeeded in remodelling city constitutions to give control to government-appointed officiers.19

I do not intend this history as a simple analogy. The point is that there is a common underlying structural dynamic at work. The old class order throws up its own class negation. The new class fights for its immediate interests. Its doing so is initially ‘revolutionary’ and met with force. But then the old ruling class responds with concessions to the rising class, organised through an increasingly centralised and bureaucratised state. The concessions, and the growth of the state, together enable the old ruling class/state to bring the institutions of the new class under control and incorporate them in the old order.

In doing so, however, the old ruling class/state ‘denatures’ its own class order, since both the direct concessions and the incorporation undermine the ‘naturalness’ of lordly and clerical (feudal) or capitalist rule. The state is thus driven to extend direct state control over the organisations of the new class to the point at which they become merely empty institutions or quangos detached from their class origin (officier-controlled municipalities in ancien régime France; the Labour Party and trade unions in Britain are moving in this direction). If it is to defend its interests effectively, the new class needs to create new fighting institutions more directly targeted at the replacement of the existing state order: ie, to begin to aspire to taking power.

Where do the concessions which are to support incorporation come from? The problem is more acute in relation to the bourgeoisie’s concessions to the working class than to the feudalists’ concessions to the bourgeoisie, because the working class are primary producers and the laws of motion of capital in some sense logically imply a tendency, other things being equal, for wages to converge on subsistence plus training costs. For Lenin they came from the rewards of imperialism; but though these rewards are real, this can hardly explain the phenomenon of bourgeois workers’ parties in countries which are clearly not imperialist centres.

The answer has three elements. First, in the ‘up’ phase of both the short business cycle and long periods of growth, material social productivity tends to increase. This enables a larger share of social surplus to go to the working class without actually - materially - impoverishing capitalists. Second, concessions need not be only material concessions (higher wages, etc). The vote, political liberty, etc are also concessions the working class has won from capital, not free gifts.

Thirdly, other things are not equal: this was the essence of Marx’s critique of Lassalle’s construction of the “iron law of wages” on the basis of a vulgarisation of Marx’s economic arguments.20 If the working class does not organise and fight, wages will tend towards subsistence plus training costs. But the working class does organise and fight. As long as the result does not prevent capitalists paying interest to their creditors and paying themselves/shareholders enough to keep the business going, the result is that wages are raised above the subsistence plus training level and employment conditions are improved.

All these conditions apply as much to colonised as imperialist countries. Certainly, the concessions can be larger in imperialist countries. But it is not true that there can be no concessions in colonial countries; this idea is an illusion derived ultimately from Lassalle.

The material conditions for the existence of bourgeois workers’ parties therefore exist everywhere that there is a substantial wage-working class under capitalist rule. This is not to say that such parties automatically will exist: it is plain that they do not exist everywhere, except in the sense that Engels originally used the term, to mean pro-capitalist trade union leaders.

For there to be a bourgeois workers’ mass political party, rather than a reformist sect, three additional political conditions are necessary. The first is that a mass section of the working class should decide to create such a party for its independent political representation, rather than simply lobbying within the existing capitalist ‘party of democracy’. This condition was absent, for example, in Britain between 1848 and 1900 and is absent in the US today. The second is that the capitalist state should be willing to pursue the path of incorporation of the workers’ party through concessions (however limited) rather than simply using repression against it; this condition has been absent in many colonial countries, where the strength of the peasantry has been sufficient for the capitalists simply to rely on the ‘party of order’ and the military/police complex. The third condition is, of course, that a sufficient mass of the working class shall not have decided that it is necessary to organise for the overthrow of the capitalist state order and working class power.

What do these theoretical considerations imply when they are applied to the concrete history and present character of the Labour Party? This will be the subject of a second article.