Making and unmaking Labour

An alternative to the Labour Party will only ever grip masses of workers if it is an alternative to Labourism, writes Mike Macnair

In the first part of this article I argued that Lenin's use of the expression "bourgeois workers' party" was based on a false theoretical argument, but that the phenomenon the tag captures is real enough.1 I attempted to locate it in the larger general historical process of the decline of capitalism as a class order, the rise of the working class and the response of capitalists and the capitalist state to this rise.

This response is initially one of simple repression, but moves to a policy of concessions in order to incorporate under state control the institutions the working class has created. The effect of this policy is, however, to undermine the authority of the ruling social order. Hence, while the organised workers' movement is incorporated in the capitalist state regime, the idea of a society without capitalist rule (as opposed to simple working class defence of group interests within capitalist society) becomes more "thinkable".

The capitalist class and state are then driven to a "counter-reformation" (to borrow language from the historians of the equivalent period in the decline of feudalism). This means intensified state control and incorporation of the workers' organisations, together with an artificial and state-dependent economic, social and ideological "revival" of the old social order. This is the phase of capitalist decline in which we are now living, at least in Britain.

The capitalist concessions to the working class which support incorp-oration of the organised movement do not require the proceeds of imperialism, though imperialism allows more extensive concessions. They need not be directly economic, but can also be political concessions - like universal suffrage and the removal of forms of legal repression.

Representing workers' interests

Capitalist parliamentarism spontan-eously produces two broad political parties, albeit these may be made up of coalitions of smaller fragmentary parties. The capitalist class cannot rule, even through a restricted electoral system, in its own name: who, even among petty bourgeois, would vote for the Bankers Party or Monopolists Party? So capital in electoral politics must make a link between its interests and the interests of - at least - broad sections of the petty bourgeoisie. It does so in two ways. The party of order or, in terms derived from French politics, the "right" - Tories in England - appeals to the authority of the father in the petty bourgeois family, to the unity of the nation and to religious ideas inherited from pre-capitalist society. The party of liberty or "left" - Whigs and later Liberals in England - appeals to the freedom and equality of market exchange to construct an image of capitalist egalitarianism and democracy.

In practice both parties when in government betray their ideologies and their supporters; and their ideas become intermingled, and indeed they may change historical places. Thus in the US the Democrats originated as a party of liberty, but became by the 1840s the party of order; the Republicans also originated in the 1850s as a party of liberty, but by the 1930s - partly due to the need to respond to the workers' movement - they had changed hats again. However, the underlying themes constantly resurface, in countries with profoundly different histories and cultures.

The numerical growth of the working class relative to the other classes necessarily entails the idea that the interests of the working class should somehow be represented in politics - even if, as was commonplace before the 20th century, electoral systems are designed to prevent workers actually having the vote.2 But both the party of liberty and the party of order can make electoral claims to "represent working class interests". The party of liberty does so directly through its democratic and egalitarian ideology, and as a result tends to have more working class support. But the party of order can also do so, through its ideology of national unity, its religious ideas and its residual attachment to pre-capitalist guild corporate regulation, whereby it sells itself as an opponent of the brutal market capitalism: hence, for example, Tory support for limits on working hours in the 1840s and the "Tory Democracy" of Disraeli and Randolph Churchill in the 1870s. This phenomenon has taken diverse forms since - perhaps the most striking is Peronism in Argentina.


Precisely because of this political flexibility given by the internal political contradictions of parlia-mentarism, capitalism does not spontaneously throw up workers’parties, even "bourgeois workers' parties", in the same sense that it spontaneously throws up trade unions, cooperatives, etc, as forms of working class self-defence. Workers parties emerge because of the conscious action of working class activists and voters - the ideas in their heads and their willingness to act on them, and the spread of these ideas in localities, within countries and between countries.

Of course, these ideas in a sense reflect, and help people to act upon, the material reality of a class society with which working class people are confronted. But the mere presence of flint in the human environment does not allow the creation of stone tools without someone in our very remote past thinking of making tools from flint and how to do so, and these ideas spreading among the human population. In the same way, the presence of class antagonism in society does not automatically imply the creation of workers' parties: the idea of an independent workers' party has to be invented and spread.

The Labour Party is a case in point. After the concessions of 1867 (household franchise) and 1872 (legalisation of trade unions) and the witch-hunt of the First International, the British trade union leaders of the 1870s-90s lived comfortably as "non-political" who leant towards the Liberal Party, like their equivalents in the US today with their relations with the Democrats. The new mass unions, at first radical, were after their initial struggles soon absorbed into the dominant trade union politics. "Labour representation" meant, mainly, working within the Liberal Party to promote labour interests and candidates.

Meanwhile, however, the rise of the German Social Democratic Party and the economic concessions made to the workers even during the period of the Anti-Socialist Law began to spread, even into Britain, the ideas of socialism and independent working class repres-entation. In spite of its sect character and Hyndman's Tory-Socialist leanings, the British Social Democratic Federation from 1884 grew and sank roots in London and Manchester. The Scottish Labour Party was founded in 1888 and the Independent Labour Party in 1893 - the latter with the aim "to secure the collective and communal ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange". By the late 1890s the ILP and SDF were achieving significant results in local elections at the expense of the Liberals, while there also developed a serious socialist minority in the Trade Union Congress.

The formation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 was both an initiative of the socialists and a response of the Lib-Labs. This second aspect was reflected in the 1903 secret non-aggression agreement with the Liberals which allowed the election of 29 MPs and formal establishment of the Labour Party in 1906, and in the fact that - beyond directly economic issues - the Labour MPs down to World War I routinely voted with the Liberals. The point, however, is that it would not have happened without the more general spread of socialist ideas, and the minority activity of the socialist groups campaigning in their own names over a period of several years.

Before 1914 we cannot accurately speak of Labour as a mass workers' party. The organised membership was that of the affiliated groups, mainly the ILP, and to vote Labour was in substance to vote Lib-Lab. The moment at which the idea of an independent Labour Party becomes a mass idea is 1918. The dialectic is the same as in 1900, but in a different form and on a larger scale. The war involved an attack not only on the lower sections of the working class, as Lenin argued, but on the whole of the class. The working class, including the "labour aristocracy", responded with the formation of the illegal shop stewards' movement and similar initiatives (eg, Glasgow rent strikes).

The Russian Revolution triggered a very wide-scale radicalisation. To hold its ground, the Labour leadership was forced to move at least ostensibly to the left. The result was the creation of the Labour Party as a membership party - and the carefully Lassallean clause four: "To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service."3

The significance of these developments is not that the Labour Party had become a revolutionary party, or even a socialist party in the pre-war continental sense. On the contrary, the formation of the mass Labour Party was precisely as a "bourgeois workers' party" and on the basis of Arthur Henderson’s participation in the wartime government and the trade unions' involvement in the management of war production. The Communist Party was to be wrong-footed by the formation of the first (minority) Labour government in 1924 and its openly pro-capitalist and pro-imperialist policy.4 The significance of 1918 was, rather, that the idea of an independent workers' party became a mass idea.

Idea of a workers' party

The idea of a workers' party goes beyond the idea that the interests of the working class should somehow be represented in politics, which - as I have just said - can be effectively appropriated by the ordinary discourse of the bourgeois parties of order and of liberty. It is the idea that the working class should organise itself to determine its own common interests and fight for them, as opposed to simply giving support to whichever of the party of order or party of liberty seems to offer the best deal for the working class. It is also the idea that the working class should represent itself: that is, that worker-militants can become elected representatives, etc. Put another way, it is the idea of working class political independence.

Now the logic of the working class organising to take political decisions for itself is that the workers' party needs radical democracy not subordinated to particular capitals (including media capitals), the state or the bureaucracy. The logic of identifying and pursuing the common interests of the working class is the recognition that these interests are common between workers in London, Paris, Tehran, Beijing ... And the logic of working class political independence is that the working class majority should take over the running of the society and reshape it in its own interests.

In this sense the idea of a workers' party is in itself in contradiction with capitalist rule - just as the idea of bourgeois city government was logically in contradiction with feudal seigneurial and clerical rule. It is so considerably more strongly than the idea of trade unionism, which is capable of being reduced to bargaining between the bureaucrat and the employer over immediate wages and working conditions: ie, the trade union as a form of "labour cartel". "Trade unions" can even be run as profit-making labour suppliers under the control of criminal gangs, as has happened episodically in the US.


The incorporation of a workers' party in the governing capitalist regime as a "bourgeois workers' party" is therefore a contradiction within a contradiction. This nest of contra-dictions expresses itself in several different ways. In the first place, there is a permanent contradiction within bourgeois politics about whether the advantages of a bourgeois workers' party outweigh the disadvantages, giving rise to episodic attempts to get rid of or marginalise bourgeois workers' parties.

The bourgeois character of the party is expressed in its instit-utional and political commitments to nationalism, legalism and class collaboration. Its workers' character is expressed in its basis in the mass idea of an independent workers' party.

This in turn is expressed in its name and constitution and in its core mass electoral support: ie, in working class districts masses of working class voters think that they should vote for a workers' party. It is expressed in the character of the local activists: ie, predominantly drawn from the skilled upper sections of the working class (including white-collar workers), many are prepared to give up money and time to construct an independent workers’party. And it is expressed in its core financial dependence on the working class in the form of members' subscriptions and trade union support: ie, sufficient numbers of trade union militants understand that they need to fund an independent workers' party.

The trade union link and the block vote are not essential; there are many bourgeois workers' parties globally which have much looser links with the trade unions. If anything, the block vote - controlled by the trade union bureaucracy - serves the bourgeois side of the contradiction. This reflects two facts. The first is that pure trade unionism is a more bourgeois form of politics than a bourgeois workers' party, as I point out above. The second is that a bourgeois workers' party, because it is a contradiction, requires tighter bureaucratic control than a simple bourgeois party.

This was already evident in the pre-1914 Labour Party in the form of executive control of parliamentary candidacies; central control has been steadily ratcheted up since, reaching extreme levels under Blair and Brown. The Tories and Liberals have to some extent copied the centralism characteristic of the Labour Party since 1924, but retain much higher levels of local autonomy; the Democrats and Republicans are far more loosely organised than any British party, and in many countries the parties of order and of liberty are no more than loose coalitions between smaller organised parties.

The bourgeois-workers' contradict-ion can take the form of left-right battles in the party. It does not always do so. Historically the Labour left is as much implicated in "bourgeois workers' politics" as the right: Ramsay MacDonald and Harold Wilson, as well as Neil Kinnock, originated as leftists (Tony Blair's sycophantic "leftist" letter to Michael Foot from 1982 is not an example, since it represents no more than careerism at work5).

Indeed, left-right battles in the party usually require some external ideological impetus: the direct or indirect interventions of the CPGB in the Labour Party in the 1920s, in the popular front period in the 1930s and in anti-war campaigning in the 1950s are all examples, while the guerrilla warfare over reselection and "Bennism" in the 1970s owed as much to the general rise of the far left post-1968 as to internal Labour Party dynamics. The collapse of the Labour left since the 1980s is primarily the result of the collapse of the "official" Communist Party, whose ideas animated the bulk of the "official left" and continue to this day to animate many of the ideas of the much smaller surviving Labour left.

Equally if not more important is the ability which bourgeois workers’ parties as a whole have shown - in the case of Labour, at least up till the late 1980s - to shift to the left in opposition.6 Just as the Labour or social democratic left is also implicated in “bourgeois workers’ politics”, so the political content of the left shift in opposition is usually little more than a rhetorical shift. More important is the fact that opposition frees the local Labour (in other countries, socialist or “official” communist) activists, and Labourite trade union leaders as well as activists, to represent their party as a workers’ organisation and as one which proposes an alternative to capitalist rule. It lets them engage themselves much more fully and explicitly in the sort of strike support, local activity, single-issue campaigns and so on which when Labour is in office is primarily carried on by the organised and unorganised far left.

As a result of failing to grasp this dynamic, the far left both within and outside Labour is often wrong-footed three times in the electoral cycle: once when Labour is about to lose an election and the mass consciousness of the need for an independent workers’ party leads to a return of working class votes to Labour; once when Labour shifts left in opposition; and yet a third time when Labour wins office and a rightwing Labour government is able, for a while, to turn off the extra-parliamentary struggle like a tap.

Still a bourgeois workers' party

We have now approached the concrete sufficiently to be able to form a judgment about whether the Labour Party is still a bourgeois workers’ party, or whether it has become simply a bourgeois “party of liberty” like the US Democrats. The answer is, in fact, clear. The name of the party still expresses the idea of an independent party of the working class. Even the watered-down Blairite clause four still characterises Labour as “a democratic socialist party”.7

The core voting base of the party remains the urban working class districts. The 1997 landslide made matters look different (as the 1945 landslide probably did, too). But suburban, small-town and rural areas remain very predominantly Conservative, in spite of the rise of the Lib Dems in the later period of the Thatcher and Major governments and down to 2005. This is very different from the much more complicated electoral picture in the US: though the Democrats have since the 1930s been the party of the poor and the Republicans the party of the rich, some of the wealthiest areas of the US show low party differentiation by wealth and overall vote Democrat.8 Such areas in Britain would be Tory or at most Lib Dem.

The core activist base of the party seems unlikely to have changed much. A great deal has been made of the decline in party individual membership figures from around 410,000 in 1997 to around 180,000 today. But the paper membership was 295,000 in 1983 and 265,000 in 1993. It was 408,000 in 1939, 218,000 in 1942 and 487,000 in 1945. The high point was 1 million in 1952, with a slow decline over the 1950s-70s.9

Labour Party membership figures before the introduction of central payment notoriously overstated real numbers, because constituencies bought a block of party cards each year to sell on a non-return basis, and a constituency had to affiliate with a minimum of 240 members (from 1956 this was increased to 800 and from 1963 to 1,000).10 Nonetheless the evidence rather strongly suggests that apart from a “post-war boom”, Labour’s paid-for paper individual membership has fluctuated between around 200,000 and 500,000; neither the gradual decline from the 1950s nor the dramatic decline since 1997 (after a rise in 1993-97) is the same thing as a collapse.

The activists have almost certainly always made up a much smaller number. They are also characteristically drawn from the more educated upper strata of the working class, which in the early 20th century meant mainly skilled manual workers and in the late 20th-early 21st white-collar workers of one sort or another. Nonetheless, it is certainly the case that the Labour Party mobilises for elections a great many more activists than the far left. The far left, of course, divides its potential output by sectarianism; but even the broad united campaigns of the Socialist Alliance and Scottish Socialist Party at their height were not in a position to mobilise numbers at all comparable to those turned out by the Labour Party.

If we suppose an average of 50 Labour Party activists per constituency, which is not a very large number, this would still produce around 31,000 across the UK - rather more than John McDonnell’s 2006 estimate of 20,000.11 Electoral success is correlated with ability to mobilise activists.12 It follows that Labour Party activists will be thicker on the ground in the working class areas Labour regularly wins - if not immediately in the “rotten borough” constituencies and wards where Labour has won large majorities on small total votes for donkeys’ years, at least in the surrounding areas from which they can be mobilised to get out the vote.

This picture is, again, a marked contrast with the US Democrats, whose core activist base extends far more strongly into the traditional small-business petty bourgeoisie, into the legal profession (which in Britain is very dominated by Toryism) and so on.

The Blairites certainly hoped to transform the Labour Party”s membership and the methods of campaigning so as to make the party more of a “party for all classes”. This idea continues to be reflected in Blairite MPs’ grumbles about Brown’s leadership. But the fact is that they failed to do so. The continuing downgrading of party democracy in favour of “consultation” and such-like - still ongoing with the decisions of the 2007 Bournemouth conference - indicates precisely that the party leadership cannot trust the activists to stay on-message: that the bourgeois-workers contradiction, requiring bureaucratic control, is still in place.

The finances show the same picture. Shortly before and for a while after 1997, the Labour Party was winning substantial donations from major capitals and capitalists. As the Labour government has gone on, these have increasingly dried up. The party has become as a result more financially dependent on the trade unions for its core funding. The Blairites and Brownites have stayed in control courtesy of the union leaders, who could at any time have cut off the funds until they went. This is an absolute contrast with the US Democratic Party, which certainly takes money from the trade unions, but receives and always has received far larger levels of funds from business. Here, as with the membership and the activists, the Blairite project of turning Labour into a “broad democratic front” has failed.

It may yet be that the Blairites will succeed in destroying the Labour Party as a bourgeois workers’ party. But if they do it will not be by turning it into a US-style Democratic Party: that project has failed and had failed by 2005. It will be by liquidating it as a party. There are signs which point in this direction: in particular the loss of Wales to the Tories and Scotland to the Scottish National Party in the Euro elections, and the fact that Labour has been hardest hit by the MPs’ expenses scandal, could result in Labour achieving such poor results in 2010 as to reduce it to third-party status. If that happens, a return to pure capitalist two-party politics might follow.


The Labour Party is still a bourgeois workers’ party. The way its destruction as a bourgeois workers’ party is presently posed is as its destruction as a party and with it the marginalisation in the British working class of the idea of a workers ’party. I discussed the main immediate implications of this diagnosis in last week’s article. There are, however, some more things which can be said about the longer term.

In the first place, in both Lenin’s account of bourgeois workers’ parties and the one given last week and here, the existence of bourgeois workers’ parties depends on the ability and willingness of the bourgeoisie to make concessions to the working class (or at least to sections of it). But this willingness is not unlimited. Intensified capitalist competition and recession reduce the willingness of capital to make concessions. And - as I said last week and above - in the long term the concessions and incorporation of bourgeois workers’ parties are symptoms of capitalist decline, as the capitalist class and state are driven, to preserve their rule, to turn to an artificial statist reconstruction of capitalism, a counter-reformation.

It is commonly inferred by leftists that the result of these trends will be to undermine the basis of the existence of bourgeois workers’ parties and more or less automatically force a turn to the left and/or a left-right split. This idea forms the basis of entry projects and of the Britain’s road to socialism approach. The same dynamic underlies the analysis current on the British far left outside Labour: as the space for reforms is exhausted, the bourgeois workers’ party turns into a bourgeois party and this creates political space for a new independent workers’ party of those still willing to fight for reforms.

Three things are wrong with these arguments. In the first place, as long as all existing concessions have not been taken away, the bourgeois workers’ party still appears to very many workers as an instrument of defence against the bourgeoisie’ s attacks, even if only to slow them down. It is, quite genuinely, such an instrument. New Labour in government has increased employment in the public sector, and has increased benefits to some of the poorest, even as it has continued Tory “reforms’ and the widening gap between rich and poor. For all Cameron’s touchy-feely talk, it is certain that a Tory government from 2010 would launch much harsher attacks on public sector workers and the unemployed. These circumstances cause Labour members and the more politically conscious trade unionists to hang onto Labour unity and the hope of Labour governments.

Second, the tendency of the bourgeoisie to take back existing concessions does in the long run undermine the bourgeois workers’ party phenomenon. But it does so because it objectively poses the need for the working class to overthrow the existing capitalist state system and take power internationally in order to defend existing gains. This objective need is one limb of a contradiction. The decline of a ruling class can end in revolution; but it can also end in “the mutual ruin of the contending classes’ or in a paralysed, immobile state which can only be overthrown from outside (Byzantium, pre-revolutionary China). The expression of this contradiction at the level of the bourgeois workers’ party is that if the need to fight to overthrow the existing state system is not grasped, the result will not be a new leftwing party, but the liquidation of the mass idea of an independent workers’  party.

Third and most fundamental. The bourgeois workers’ party is an idea which has gripped broad masses (the point Marx makes in the Critique of Hegel’s “Philosophy of right”: “The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism of the weapon, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses.”13). The idea of a workers’ party did not originate spontaneously. It was fought for by small groups for years before it began to grip masses, and without this activity it never would have begun to grip masses.

An alternative to Labour (inside or outside the party) will only ever grip masses if it is an alternative to the basic ideas of the bourgeois workers’ party - an alternative to Labourism. That was, in reality, already true of the Labour left: this trend was (and largely still is) animated by the ideas of “official communism”, which gave it a partial alternative to the classic Labourism of the right. It has to be fought for - now - by relatively small forces. If these forces were unified on the basis of the elementary ideas of Marxism, they could have some effect.

It is this which makes the efforts of the far left to construct new, and each time more rightwing, alternative versions of the Labour Party not only futile, but positively destructive. The basic alternative to Labourism is a workers’ party which is not only independent of the capitalists and bourgeois parties, but also independent of and opposed to the existing capitalist state; which stands for the working class to take over and for the international unity of the working class. But this, of course, is what the far-left groups refuse to fight for, instead trying to create left-Labourite fronts.

In doing so they make it all the more likely that the contradiction that is Labour will end in a defeat for working class politics: the loss of the mass idea of an independent working class party.