Dances with scabs

In this final article, Mike Macnair draws some conclusions from the history of Trotskyist entry into the Labour Party

The narrative given in the first two articles in this series has been bald and simplified, and has abstracted almost completely both from the political disputes on international issues within and between the groups; and from the theoretical and empirical arguments offered for and against Labour Party entry.[1] The point of doing this is that putting the whole narrative together, and abstracting from the disputes and arguments, makes certain recurring patterns stand out.

The first is that there is one and only one example of a successful Trotskyist entry tactic in the Labour Party: the Grant group/Militant Tendency between the late 1960s and the late 1980s. Almost every other Trotskyist group that went into the Labour Party declined or at best gained nothing or very little from doing so, in spite of ephemeral successes.

The Workers International League, which made the first real growth beyond very small and localised groups, was effectively an open organisation. The capitulation of the Revolutionary Communist Party majority was due to pressure from the Fourth International and the failure of the open party perspective, not due to the success of the Healy-Lawrence entry project: hence Healy-Lawrence’s need to purge the Club in 1950 to create an artificial majority.

The Healyites were at a low ebb in 1954-55 and ‘broke through’ by recruiting ex-CPers after 1956, followed by semi-open work in the youth. The Cliffites stagnated in entry through the 1950s and grew from semi-open Young Socialists, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and industrial work in the early 60s, the International Marxist Group from Vietnam solidarity work in the later 60s and the turn to open youth work. The small long-term strategic entry groups, like the old Revolutionary Socialist League (mark two) Left Faction, Socialist Current, the Discussion Group and the Bulletin group-Socialist Labour Group (there were and are others!) began as micro-groups, remained micro-groups and faded away, as their adherents died or lost heart.

If we ask why the Grant group succeeded, the answer is that it built a sect by recruiting newly radicalising youth and indoctrinating them in Grant-think before exposing them to larger politics. It was able to do this because it was left alone in the Labour Party Young Socialists. The Healy Workers Revolutionary Party after it became a cult in the early 70s did the same thing in the WRP-controlled YS. In both cases it was possible to pretend that no other Marxist/communist/Trotskyist groups really existed. The Socialist Workers Party since its party turn has always wanted to do the same thing - but never quite succeeded in walling off its members from the rest of the left.

If we ask why Militant was left alone, the answer is in the first place that its immediate competitors had turned to open work (which was at first almost equally successful). Why was this? The history makes it very clear that it is extremely difficult to carry on with active entry work when Labour is in government. The RSL (mark two) failed and broke up in 1940-43. Healy’s entry was, as I have said above, actually unsuccessful, because it was ‘after the fair’: the real moment of life and discussion in the Labour organisations was 1944-45, not 1945-51. The 1964-70 Labour government saw an extensive exodus of Trotskyists to open work. The 1997-2010 government saw almost all the few remaining Trotskyists leave.

Secondly, until a late stage Militant as Militant carried out merely propaganda work (in the form of resolutions, as well as of publications) and did not actually interfere with the projects of the old CP Broad Left. Indeed, in the unions it participated in the Broad Lefts, and the ‘Enabling Act’ line was only very marginally to the left of the CPGB programme, The British road to socialism. Hence it was protected by the Broad Left, until its collapse, from being purged from Labour.

Once the Broad Left collapsed, the now much larger Militant Tendency was forced to face real political choices in the 1980s ... and was driven towards exit from Labour.

Broad fronts

The second pattern is the ephemeral quality of Trotskyist broad-front approaches in the Labour Party. The Militant Labour League was a mere front for the Bolshevik-Leninist Group and RSL (mark two). The official lefts’ use of Healy’s Socialist Outlook was brief. Lawrence and his group became merely fellow-travellers. The Week lost its broad front character with the International Group-IMG’s Vietnam turn, and Ken Coates integrated himself into the official left. The RCL took over Chartist ... but the majority became Eurocommunists. Socialist Organiser became a party paper for Sean Matgamna. Labour Herald collapsed with the WRP. Campaign Group News expressed the turgid line of the official lefts and the evolution of John Ross and co towards ‘official communism’. Briefing became, for a short time, a party paper of the ISG; in its subsequent reincarnation it is closer to what Campaign Group News was: a platform for (less eminent) official lefts, which does not animate an organised movement.

The converse of this point is the relative success of ‘official communist’ influence in the Labour left. The Trotskyists were already fighting against the odds against CP fellow-travellers in the 1930s Socialist League. The decision of John Lawrence and his group to become CP fellow-travellers reflected the real relation of forces in the 1950s Labour left. The case is still more transparent in the era of the late 60s-70s Broad Left.

The phenomenon is even present now. In spite of the liquidation of the party and the character of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain as a mere fragment of the old party, today’s official lefts are far more like CP fellow-travellers than Trotskyists, and better understood as trying to revive the old Broad Left than as trying to build something new.

If we go a step ‘higher’ in the level of the analysis, we can see that the Trotskyists succeeded when they could grow directly at the expense of the old CP: in 1941-45, in the wake of 1956, in the wake of 1968. In the first case the CP also grew, even more dramatically, but lost enough support to its left to allow the WIL to be the first viable Trotskyist group. In the second the CP declined. In the last case the CP also grew, but merely slightly: to have grown at the same rate as the Trotskyists would have taken it up towards 100,000.

Fantasy parties

The third visible pattern is the recurring tendency for the left to announce the death of Labour and the need for a new Labour Party ... only for this view to be falsified, as left-right fights begin in the Labour Party or ejection from office causes the party as a whole to move its rhetoric left and begin to support grassroots activities.

This pattern began with the Communist Party’s ready acceptance, almost without resistance, of the ‘third period’ line during the 1929-31 Labour government, and the Independent Labour Party’s walk-out from Labour in 1931-32. It was repeated with the 1940s RCP’s insistence - until the wave of leftism in Labour in 1944-45 had actually passed its peak - on the greater opportunities of open work. It was repeated again in the turns of the International Socialists and IMG in the late 1960s, which was accompanied with the production of real evidence about the hollowed-out character of the constituency parties and ward branches, and with extravagant rhetoric about Labour’s ‘new’ role as managing capitalism.

It is obviously not possible to categorically assert that the similar claims made by the Socialist Party in England and Wales at present have a similar character. It is possible that the coalition will break up within a year of its formation and Labour get back into office; or that more acute economic crisis or other events will produce a ‘grand coalition’; and so on. But, assuming Labour remains in opposition, it is, I think, fairly predictable that (1) Labour’s rhetoric will move left; (2) its membership and political life in the constituencies and branches will increase; and (3) Labour activists and MPs will be found participating in grassroots campaigns against the Con-Dem cuts, and so on. If Labour remains in opposition and none of these happens by 2015 then - assuming I have not become unemployed - I will pay £50 or the equivalent in 2015 money to the SPEW fund drive. I think it is a pretty safe bet.

A distinct phenomenon, but one which is related to the history of Trotskyist relations with the Labour Party, is the tendency of Trotskyist groups to declare themselves to be ‘the revolutionary party’ which is in immediate contention with Labour for the leadership of the masses. The RCP in 1944-45 is again a classic example; the 1973 transformation of the Socialist Labour League into the WRP and the 1976 transformation of the IS into the SWP provide two more. The 1996 turn from Militant Labour to the Socialist Party has the same character. The 1981 transformation of Frank Furedi’s Revolutionary Communist Tendency into the Revolutionary Communist Party rendered what was already absurd merely absurdist.[2]


Why, in theory, should these patterns be found? There are two distinct groups of issues. The first concerns the relation of communism to the Labour Party and the theoretical underpinning of the united front policy. The second is distinctive to the Trotskyists, their relationship with Stalinism/‘official communism’ and their early history.

Labour is a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’. I have argued in a pair of articles in this paper in 2009 that the traditional argument for this view is unsound, but that there are good reasons for still using the formula.[3] The point is that the Labour Party is a workers’ political party which is tied to and ultimately controlled by the capitalist nation-state: not that such parties are, as Lenin mistakenly argued, a phenomenon peculiar to imperialism.

Among my conclusions were: (1) that the essential tie of Labourism to the bourgeoisie is through nationalism, legalism and class-collaboration; and (2) that the bourgeois/workers contradiction in Labour is not necessarily expressed in the form of left/right division, but is also or instead expressed in the form of leftwards and rightwards movement of the party as a whole, depending on whether it is in opposition or government.

This understanding allows us to explain the problems of entry projects in periods when Labour is in government (the party as a whole moves right, not merely the right wing) and hence the sterility of strategic entry (Militant being the exception which proves the rule, caused by the unusual circumstances of the 1970s).

It also lets us see why Trotskyist ‘broad front’ projects fail. The Labour left, to the extent that it remains within the circle of nationalism, legalism and class-collaboration, is umbilically tied to the right. For the Labour left merely to organise and campaign for its own purposes is therefore in the medium term merely to prepare the next generation of the Labour right (Ramsay MacDonald; Harold Wilson and Barbara Castle; Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock) and to reinforce Labourism as an instrument of capitalist rule. For communists (and therefore for Trotskyists) there is an irreducible choice between organising and campaigning for our purposes - independent class politics, proletarian internationalism and workers’ rule through radical democracy - and organising and campaigning for Labour left politics - constitutionalism, left versions of nationalism, and class-collaboration. It is this choice which means that broad fronts in the Labour Party either break down and turn into party fronts or end with the Trotskyists becoming bag-carriers for the official lefts, merely adopting their politics.

In a sense, the same is true of Eurocommunism. The very success of the Broad Left in the late 60s-early 70s sucked the old CP into the frame of reference of Labour’s internal struggles and thereby neutered the partial support for independent workers’ organisation that the CP could provide before 1975.

Broad fronts of the militants who want a serious fight and union democracy are a perfectly reasonable tactic in the trade unions. But transplanting this tactic into a bourgeois workers’ party like Labour, is much more problematic. (I should say that, though the reasoning and evidence is very different, this conclusion is merely that of Trotsky’s 1930s critique of those of his co-thinkers who proposed broad-front left projects: especially of Raymond Molinier and Pierre Frank.)

United front

Among bourgeois workers’ parties Labour is peculiar (as the Comintern leaders pointed out in 1919-20) because it claims to be a united front of all the British workers’ organisations, a claim reflected in its affiliate structure.

The 1919-20 discussion in the Comintern is, in fact, slightly misleading, because it largely assumed the character of the pre-1918 Labour Party. Since 1918 Labour has claimed not only to be a united front, but also, and contradictorily, to be an individual membership party founded on an ideological programme (clause four and its replacement, and so on). This second claim is reflected not only in clause four, etc, but also in the system of bans and proscriptions: initially in the form of bans on ‘communist’ organisations.

Nonetheless, the original ‘French turn’ was argued to be an application of the united front ‘from the inside’. And the policy of the united front has since the 1930s been offered as the principled basis of Trotskyist entry projects and a reason for rejecting open work.

There is a problem with this argument, in relation to the basis of the united front policy itself. I argued the essentials of the point in my book, Revolutionary strategy (London 2008), chapters 5 and 6. The policy of the united front is necessary because a higher form of unity, in a single democratic party, is not available.

It is not available because the rightwing leaders of the former united parties insist on a dictatorship over the party backed by the capitalist state, and split if they do not get their way (or sometimes merely if the left challenges them). Thus the leadership of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) in 1916 expelled the left, which formed the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD). The minority opposed to the left at the Tours congress of the French SFIO in 1920 walked out. The Labour Party leadership rejected the nascent Communist Party of Great Britain’s application for affiliation, and went on to put in place bans and proscriptions of ‘communist and communist-affiliated’ organisations.

In more recent times, the founders of the British Social Democratic Party walked out of the Labour Party in 1981 because in their view the left had got too strong - even though it had not obtained actual control. In response to this walk-out, the accompanying media campaign and the resulting severe defeat of Labour in 1983, the so-called ‘soft left’ round Neil Kinnock went on to a large-scale systematic purge of Militant.

Full party unity, with the social democrats, in other words, is available if and only if you are willing to accept that the right wing, the direct agents of the capitalist class, remain in control and above the rules: or if, like most of the small-scale, long-term entry groups, you are so trivial that you fall below the radar of the right wing and the capitalist press.

It is for this reason that it is not sectarian to insist, as the early Comintern theses did, that the only acceptable united front proposals are ones which preserve the liberty of the communists to organise, to call themselves communists, and to call the right wing scabs and capitalist agents. Unity has always been and remains available on the right’s terms - that is, that the capitalists shall control the workers’ party. Such unity is wholly worthless from the point of view of the interests of the working class.

The consequence is that entry is only an application of the united front tactic if - as was the case in the original ‘French turn’ to the SFIO - the party you enter is prepared to give you rights to organise as an open faction.

Entry under conditions where you are entering illegally, banned by the bureaucracy, may be a useful tactic to try to get ideas into circulation among the members of the party entered - just as an organisation which is banned by law and fully clandestine must use all sorts of trickery to get its ideas into circulation.

But it is not an application of the united front policy. The united front means unity in diversity. To fight for the united front by entering a party is to claim the right to exist as an organised faction which is prepared to call the leadership scabs when it is necessary.

Full entry under ban is, therefore, an abandonment of the united front tactic. The reason is because it is an abandonment of the claim to the right to organise and to criticise.

Suppose, for a moment, that we achieved a fighting and democratic unity of the existing self-identified Marxist left in Britain on the basis of Marxist principles. Such a party, starting with a few thousand, would rapidly grow to say, 10-20,000. It would still, however, be faced by the problem of the Labour Party’s 150,000-odd individual members and above a million affiliated members.

Would it be right for the 20,000 to enter the Labour Party? The answer is, if and only if it was possible to obtain the abolition of the bans and proscriptions and the right to affiliate. Otherwise, to enter is to concede from the outset the right wing’s right to make the rules and limit the scope of organisation of the left.

Of course, the organisation of an illegal fraction in the Labour Party is not open to this objection. The open party continues to demand affiliation; the fraction seeks to spread communist ideas within the Labour Party. The moral justification of this clandestine conduct, when discussing with Labour Party members, is that the Labour Party is and has been since 1920 engaged in double standards. The affiliate structure is a big lie as long as the bans and proscriptions remain in place.

This argument may seem in itself pretty abstract. But the practical consequence is that through full Labour Party entry under illegality the communists (Trotskyists) cannot appear under their own name unless they are so trivial as to be ineffective. They have to be clandestine ... or paint themselves as left Labourites, as in the various ‘broad front’ projects. The result of the camouflage is that, over time, they become left Labourites and not communists (Trotskyists).

In reality, Militant Tendency members, while pursuing a ‘party’ project in the Labour Party rather than a ‘broad front’ one, also had to paint themselves as left Labourites through the ‘Labour to power on a socialist programme’ and ‘Enabling Act’ schema. This schema involved - and, to the extent that it is maintained, still involves - lying to the working class about the actual and current behaviour of the English judiciary, the senior civil servants, the media and so on. It also involves self-deception about the probable behaviour, in the event that Militant got as far as winning control of the Labour Party and a majority in the House of Commons, of capital (disinvestment), landowners (a new and more ferocious Countryside Alliance) and the security service and armed forces (coup plots more serious than those which were actually projected against Wilson in 1974).

The schema was based on what Clement Attlee’s Labour government did (and what it could have done). But the reality is that what Attlee’s government did and could have done was possible because the British working class was overwhelmingly under arms, and in the ‘soldiers’ parliaments’ of 1944 the soldiers were beginning to think politically. And it was possible because the Red Army had reached the Elbe and ‘containment’ of the Soviet regime was the only serious option for global capital, and this meant massive concessions to the western European working class.

Again in reality, Militant’s vision of a legal­ take-over of the Labour Party and, thence, of the constitution, was proved false by the limits of Militant’s own actions in the leadership of Liverpool city council and the actions of the media, the judiciary and the labour bureaucracy in the 1980s. But no real balance-sheet of the error has been drawn. Socialist Appeal remains within the Labour Party without a serious project; SPEW projects the creation of a new Labour Party based - again - on the trade union bureaucracy and on Labourite ideology.

Trotskyists are communists

Trotskyists think of themselves as a completely different party from ‘Stalinists’. In Britain, since the 1944-49 RCP, it has been relatively unusual for them to use the word ‘communist’ in their names - far more common are variant recombinations of ‘socialist’, ‘Marxist’, ‘workers’ and ‘international’.

To social democrats, anarchists and the broader world, Trotskyists are communists. A different faction of communists from the Stalinists, from the ‘post-Stalinist’ ‘official communists’, from Maoists (or, for the few who know of that tradition, from ‘left’ and ‘council’ communists). But still communists. The key is the attitudes to August 1914, to October 1917 and to colonial wars and ‘other’ overseas interventions. ‘Communists’ are people who think it was and is wrong to support your own country in imperialist wars, and who support the forcible seizure of power in October 1917 rather than opposing it in the name of ‘peaceful’ constitutional change, and - for anarchists - people who support the dictatorship of the proletariat. Before 1991 ‘Go back to Moscow’ was as commonly thrown at someone selling Socialist Worker as at someone selling a more ‘orthodox Trotskyist’ paper or, for that matter, the Morning Star.

It is for this reason that Trotskyist groups grew when they were able to grow at the expense of the old Communist Party. Until rather recently[4] it has always been many times easier for a Stalinist to become a Trotskyist than for a social democrat to do so. The political distance is smaller: to become a Trotskyist, the social democrat has to decide not only to fight capitalism, but also that Marxist political economy and insistence on the determinant role of class is a valid and relevant guide to action; that August 1914 was a betrayal; and that the October revolution showed a genuine possibility of the working class taking power, rather than being a mere putsch. By comparison, for a Stalinist to reject national roads, class-collaborationism and the dictatorship of the bureaucracy, and the body of smears against Trotsky, is a very much smaller gap to cross. After all, if you actually read Lenin, you may well not become a Trotskyist, but you will certainly find it hard to defend ‘official communism’.

Equally, this circumstance underlies the fact that Trotskyists have never been able to go round the ‘official communists’ by entering the Labour Party. On the contrary, they have always found themselves confronted by larger forces fellow-travelling with ‘official communism’. (Again, Militant being left alone in the LPYS is the exception that proves the rule.) For social democrats to become a Stalinist is a lot easier than becoming a Trotskyist: they do not have to abandon their nationalism or faith in the bureaucracy and bureaucratic methods, while the people’s front accommodates their instinctual belief that socialism is about the unity of classes, not the subordination of other classes to the proletariat.

Trotskyism grew when it could grow at the expense of ‘official communism’. This happened because in the eyes of most advanced workers Trotskyism was a faction of communism, not a fully independent party. This must raise a question mark over Trotsky’s decision in 1933 to denounce the Comintern as dead and call for a new International together with a short-lived group of centrist collaborating organisations - and then in 1934 to urge his supporters to take refuge in entry in social democracy.

Some ‘official communists’ claim that the sectarian policy the Comintern urged on the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in 1929-33 was merely a mistake, not a conscious betrayal. I reject this view. It is quite impossible, given the prior history, that Stalin and his associates actually believed that this line would lead to victory in Germany; or that the KPD would have insisted on sectarianism against the will of the Comintern leadership. Rather, after the SPD denounced the Rapallo treaty, it consciously decided to sacrifice the German workers’ movement to the perceived geopolitical interests of the USSR in an alliance with the German nationalist right wing. This was a larger-scale version of the earlier (1921) decision to play down the repression of Turkish communists in the interests of Soviet relations with Kemal Atatürk.[5] That this decision in the case of Germany was profoundly stupid (considered as cynical geopolitics) does not make it any less a betrayal.

However, that a split has a real principled basis does not prevent it from being premature. For a split in a political party to be timely, it has to be clear not only to the participants, but also to the party’s audience, that the issues in dispute involve fundamentally different aims. From this point of view, Trotsky’s 1933 successive denunciations of the KPD and Comintern had a principled basis - but were premature. It was not clear to broader layers of advanced workers that Trotskyism and Stalinism stood for fundamentally different political projects.

The effect of Trotsky’s and his immediate co-thinkers’ line and conduct after 1933 was paradoxical. In the first place, it did largely succeed in creating a (very small) international movement and cadre which defended the fundamentals of the politics of the first four congresses of the Comintern.


There is one major exception to this: the question of the united front. The groups which broke with Trotsky and the central Trotskyist leadership over the necessity of creating ‘broad fronts’ and diplomacy towards the left included Pierre Frank and Michael Raptis (Pablo). In the curious process by which the Trotskyist Fourth International was recreated in 1946-48, these individuals succeeded in stamping the broad-front conception on the reconstructed movement. With it came Dimitrov’s diplomatic conception of the united front.

There are problems with the ‘first four congresses’ line. I have addressed these in Revolutionary strategy and will not repeat the points here. It remains true that the line was and is massively closer to the fundamentals of Marxism than the line of the people’s front and national roads developed by the late Comintern and post-war ‘official communist’ movement.

On the other hand, the 1933 denunciation, and the following period of frantic efforts to construct the skeleton of an international, trained up a generation of cadre in false conceptions of the workers’ party and of splits. This generation included, in Britain, Healy, Cliff and Grant, who passed on this training to pretty much everyone who has followed them in the Trotskyist tradition.

I pointed out the main problem in the first article in this series. Trotsky was too much in thrall to an image that he had to follow ‘Lenin, the splitter’, and in too much of a hurry, in 1933-1940. As a result, the Trotskyist cadre were trained in practice that it was acceptable to split on tactical issues, and that it was acceptable to split prematurely when the issues were not fully clarified.

In addition, the abandonment of the project of the International Left Opposition in 1933 - taken together with the absence of a clear criticism of the 1921 ban on factions in the Russian CP and Comintern - expelled from the consciousness of the Trotskyists the idea of a public debate and a public faction within a common party. The only options were restriction to internal discussion - or a full split.

As far as British Trotskyists are concerned, the experience of the WIL-RCP confirmed these lessons. The WIL split was unambiguously premature. Yet the failure of the RSL entry project rewarded the WIL with an absolute predominance in the Trotskyist movement, which allowed it in 1944 to prematurely declare itself a party. Pretty much every Trotskyist organisation since has hoped to repeat the WIL’s success. Turn ‘outwards’ with the right tactic, ignoring your Trotskyist factional opponents, and you will be rewarded with sufficient preponderance to marginalise them.

Never again has it worked. Even when the SLL, IS or Militant were at their height of their influence, they still had Trotskyist competitors snapping at their heels ... to be encountered whenever the group went beyond its private ‘turf’.

The resulting dispersal of forces has precisely made all tactics towards the Labour Party - or, for that matter, the Communist Party - in the end ineffective. The Communist Party which did not disperse its forces could influence Labour from the outside. For the dispersed forces of the Trotskyists, there was no real political influence on Labour to be gained even from within.


  1. ‘In, out, shake it all about’ Weekly Worker October 28; ‘Entries and exits’ Weekly Worker November 4.
  2. The Scottish Socialist Party was briefly entitled to the name of ‘party’, because it did regroup the large majority of the far left - though in practice it was a ‘broad front’ left-nationalist party. The CPGB uses the name of a party, but we write in our ‘What we fight for’ column: “The Provisional Central Committee organises members of the Communist Party, but there exists no real Communist Party today.” We use the name to deny the right of the Eurocommunists to liquidate the CPGB and any claim of the Morning Star faction that it is the party.
  3. ‘Labour Party blues’ July 23 2009; ‘Making and unmaking Labour’ July 30 2009.
  4. The evolution of Eurocommunism since the 1970s has created post-communist trends which are more profoundly and consciously opposed to Marxism than classical post-1918 social democracy or even right Labourism.
  5. Loren Goldner (home.earthlink.net/~lrgoldner/turkey.html) defends the Soviet choice. My point here is not to endorse Goldner’s arguments, but to give a reason for supposing that interpretation of the 1929-34 policy in terms of Realpolitik is more plausible than honest belief in the policy.