Labour dead end and our strategy
Chris Strafford takes issue with the CPGB's aim of transforming the Labour Party
The Labour Party represents a particular challenge for the revolution in Britain. It is to the detriment of any Marxist to ignore the fight to supersede it and replace it with a Communist Party.
At present there is no wave of workers joining and resuscitating constituency Labour Parties and strengthening links with the trade unions. The Labour left - whilst relatively large, compared to the left outside the party - is still small, diminished in stature and organisational capacity and, further, for the most part terminally wedded to reformism, compromise and ultimately class treachery. Democracy in the party is still a distant memory, conference is more of a rally than a decision-making body, the trade unions and local parties have little influence on the parliamentary party and the leadership.
Throughout the Labour Party debate within the CPGB there have been attempts to denigrate and beat down a phantom left in our organisation. There have been silly accusations of “leftism”, “anarchism” and even the branding of the anti-Diane Abbott minority as “archetypical left-communists”. In the Provisional Central Committee perspectives document the organisation is asked to “guard against impatience, frustration and childish leftism ... Inevitable amongst those with a low level of theory and little understanding of Marxism.” Apparently the criticisms and questions that have arisen in and beyond our ranks are down to a lack of Marxist theory and not the confused and contradictory line taken up by the PCC-led majority.
The charges levelled at us are easily brushed off. They did, however, divert the discussion away from the fluctuating positions of leading comrades who dodged the substantial arguments around backing Diane Abbott for Labour leader. Unfortunately the discussion suffered, as our accusers’ understanding of leftism and the left-communist tradition owed more to Wikipedia than serious study. Something which was also demonstrated by left-communist comrade James Tansey in the pages of our paper. The article on ‘leftism’ by Jack Conrad knocked down straw men and did not deal with the arguments of internal critics and left communists.
Those who are arguing for greater intervention in the Labour Party grossly misrepresent and ignore Lenin’s advice to communists in Britain. Lenin argued that the Communist Party should affiliate to and work within the Labour Party so long as they “retain complete liberty of agitation, propaganda and political activity. Of course, without this latter condition, we cannot agree to a bloc, for that would be treachery.” This freedom does not currently exist and furthermore we are not in a position to form any kind of serious bloc with the Labour Party, as suggested by Lenin. Our organisation, and the wider left, is in no position to support Labour like the rope that will hang it at present. In the future we may be at that stage and we may be confronted with such tactical choices. There have been attempts to use Lenin’s advice and Comintern policy, while discarding crucial elements and distorting what is used.
The situation we face both nationally and internationally is also drastically different. Schemas cannot simply be transplanted from history; they must face up to today’s reality. In the 1920s, the proletarian movement internationally was inspired and energised by the victory of the October revolution. This sent Labour and social democracy on a leftwing course to head off the revolutionary movement and the formation of the new Comintern-affiliated parties. Labour was a genuinely mass force that dominated workers’ lives, uniting cooperatives, the unions, clubs for camping, etc with a voice in parliament. This situation made work in the Labour Party a necessity to win those workers who were moving leftwards from Labourism to the newly formed CPGB.
To pursue such a strategy within the Labour Party with all the current restrictions in place is a certain dead end. Despite this, we have seen arguments for the left to form a historical re-enactment society. Jack Conrad argued that “we can hold up [the National Left Wing Movement] as something that could be repeated.” As I argued in my previous article, the NLWM sowed confusion and built illusions in the left Labour and union leaders in the most crucial period of working class struggle. Through the NLWM the communists subordinated themselves and the broader movement to the Labour left and trade union leaders, who unsurprisingly betrayed the class.
Historically the left wing of the Labour Party has been a force of compromise and treachery in the workers’ movement. This left wing that was lionised by the CPGB during the General Strike has shown itself time and time again to be a poor ally. By placing hopes of change in a Labour government the Labour left has entered into almost any agreement with the right wing of the party to become electable. This symbiotic relationship is used by the right wing to put boots on the ground come election time and present a left cover when in opposition. If we are to overcome this relationship it will require the determined work of many thousands, eventually millions, of communist-led workers.
Communists should not be in the business of building up the Labour left; nor should we create halfway houses outside Labour. It is right and a duty to work with Labour members and organisations like the Labour Representation Committee in struggles. Instead of rebuilding a Labour left that will lead us to disaster, we must fight for an explicitly communist programme and organisation. It should not be up to communists to extend the life of an atrophied and spent social democracy within the movement.
Labour Party theses
Since adopting the new theses on the Labour Party, the leadership has taken to giving advice to ‘Labour Marxists’. In reality this means comrades pretending to be Labourites with a Marxist twist. Which is no surprise, considering the numerical weakness of Marxists and the anti-communist bans that result, to quote the theses, in “keeping one’s ‘true’ politics under wraps, burying oneself in the bowels of the Labour Party”.
The orientation towards the Labour Party has opened up a fierce debate within Communist Students. The decision to affiliate to the Labour Representation Committee and the motion on democratising the Labour Party moved by CS at LRC conference was opposed by the overwhelming majority of CS comrades. Apart from this being the position of the LRC already, it is an attempt to re-orientate CS to Labour work with no real discussion and the complete absence of policy agreed at any of CS’s conferences.
The agreed theses have been presented by some PCC members as a strategy document for now, whilst others consider it a strategy document for a future Communist Party. This demonstrates shifting positions and the subsequent confusion within our ranks. It is a compromise of differing views and analysis stuffed with half-truths and historical inaccuracies, not least when it comes to the experiences of the CPGB in the 1920s. The proponents of this re-emphasis have clung desperately to the idea that the National Left Wing Movement was overwhelmingly positive. This is a ridiculous understanding for Marxists - during its NLWM turn the ‘official’ CPGB subordinated itself to the trade unions and bred illusions in trade unionism.
The theses also neglect over 80 years of Labour history and governments. Apparently understanding the Labour Party in the 1920s is sufficient to develop an approach today. It clearly is not. The reality of the party today does not live up to the illusions held by some comrades and that is why, in the theses, history stops with Labour being a mass movement with genuine mass participation of millions of workers across the country in the theses. The decisive battles of the last century where Labour has consistently undermined struggles and utilised them for election victories are ignored.
The comrades take on Lenin’s advice to help put Labour in power in order to break illusions in them. Labour has been in power several times since Lenin’s advice in the 1920s, yet Conrad et al ignore this and pretend it has no impact on communist understanding of the Labour Party. Workers voting Labour today do so knowing that the party is led by treacherous careerists, but is generally the least worse option. In the 1920s voting for Labour was an expression of the positive and militant mood of the working class in opposition to the capitalist offensive against the revolutionary wave. However, the constant betrayals have had a qualitative effect on working class support and have numerically reduced Labour and the unions by millions. But the illusions remain and one of the engines in building such illusions is the Marxist left itself. We currently see the opportunist slogans for general strikes and to bring down the Tory-led government, implicitly anointing Labour as the only credible political solution. On a higher level those for further intervention also help strengthen illusions with talk of “rebuilding”, “transforming” and “winning” the Labour Party.
When communist organisations adopt a strategy they must have an eye on today and an eye on the future. We must look after the long-term interests of the movement, whilst clarifying the role of communist praxis today. A key problem with the theses are that they are excessively vague and lack any actionable content. This gives the PCC carte blanche when deciding the practical interpretation of the theses. This is bad for democracy and gives space for individuals to interpret the theses how they want.
The most realistic excuse for the new theses is that they are only actionable if and when revolutionaries unite and we have some semblance of a Communist Party. If the left unites it could have a serious impact on the Labour left and could potentially be a force to spread Marxist ideas in the trade unions and the Labour Party. In this regard it is wrong to rule out Labour work in principle. It is, however, tactically wrong for communists to organise work in Labour currently and a strategic error to fight to rebuild the Labour Party, which, far from undermining Labourism, will only strengthen it.
Unity with the right
There is a tedious tradition on the British left to describe anything with more than three people from different organisations as a united front. Even when alliances are forged with businessmen and government-funded bodies, sections of the left try to sell them as united fronts. The Socialist Workers Party’s Unite Against Fascism incorporates everyone from prime minister David Cameron to strike-breaking Liberal Democrat councillors, to the SWP’s faux-Trotskyist leaders like Martin Smith. The united front as laid down by the Comintern has been twisted and diluted to fit and legitimise all manner of opportunist turns.
The question of a united front with the Labour Party throws up even further problems. The Bolshevik advice to British communists is contradictory and at times out of touch with the realities of the post-1918 Labour Party. No leader of the early CPGB or the Communist International proposed turning the Labour Party into a “permanent united front”, as comrades suggest.
Graham Bash and Labour Briefing are probably the most notable purveyors of such politics and his arguments emerged in the late 70s. At Communist University in 2005, Bash explained that the “centrepiece of the building of the revolutionary party is the struggle within the rank-and-file bodies of the Labour Party and trade unions, as embryonic and potential forms of proletarian state power”.
At the February 13 2011 CPGB aggregate Conrad argued that the task of communists is to fight in the Labour Party to “transform” it - not into “an alternative Communist Party”, but into a permanent united front, ending in a situation where there is a “Labour Party led by communists, led by a mass Communist Party”. The Labour Party would then be won to a communist programme, which would be utilised by the class for revolutionary purposes. We have already seen that the Labour Party is not just a collection of workers’ organisations and we saw in the 1926 General Strike that Labour represented the most serious obstacle in the minds of workers to transforming their Councils of Action into bodies of proletarian power. Permanent unity with the Labour left, the trade unions and centrist socialist organisations would be detrimental to future struggles and to the ability of workers and a future Communist Party to act independently.
There is nothing dogmatic in defending the Comintern understanding of the united front as a temporary agreement of workers’ organisation around specific struggles, so long as it gives a positive guide to communist work under differing circumstances and is not used as a straitjacket. The united workers’ front has to be temporary in order to maintain communist independence and stop the political subordination of the Communist Party to social democracy or Labourism. There is no struggle that requires permanent unity with the Labour Party or its affiliates. The logical conclusion of a permanent united front - that is, permanent unity - is essentially liquidation. Existing as a simple faction of the Labour Party means being permanently tied to reaction and at times a capitalist government. When Rifondazione joined the coalition government in Italy, this paper correctly attacked the decision and betrayal. Would it be any different for a Communist Party in Britain to be a constituent part of a Labour government if the bans and proscriptions were removed and we had communist Labour MPs? No.
Leon Trotsky explains why the split in the movement is necessary and why we can only conclude temporary agreements with other proletarian forces in volume 2 of The first five years of the Communist International in 1921: “We broke with the reformists and centrists in order to obtain complete freedom in criticising perfidy, betrayal, indecision and the halfway spirit in the labour movement. For this reason any sort of organisational agreement which restricts our freedom of criticism and agitation is absolutely unacceptable to us. We participate in a united front, but do not for a single moment become dissolved in it. We function in the united front as an independent detachment. It is precisely in the course of struggle that broad masses must learn from experience that we fight better than the others, that we see more clearly than the others, that we are more audacious and resolute. In this way, we shall bring closer the hour of the united revolutionary front under the undisputed communist leadership.” And later: “In the event that the reformists begin putting brakes on the struggle to the obvious detriment of the movement and act counter to the situation and the moods of the masses, we as an independent organisation always reserve the right to lead the struggle to the end, and this without our temporary semi-allies.”
Conrad has borrowed a Bashite conception that places Labour Party general committees where the soviets stood in the Russian Revolution. It was perhaps a reasonable mistake in the 60s and 70s, but today it is out of touch and long passed its sell-by date. This illusion itself is founded on Tom Nairn’s and Perry Anderson’s thesis that saw the Communist Party as an alien in the British labour movement and stated the impossibility of building a party outside Labour because of the peculiar conditions of British trade unionism.
This ignores the reality of working class struggle in Britain, where in key battles workers have gone beyond the unitary structures and established their own organs. Seeing the Labour Party as nothing more than a collection of unions, socialist clubs, co-ops and the left is a mistake, as Mike Macnair explains: “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.”
Our comrades argue for the winning of Labour “for Marxism”. This apparently is done by driving out the right wing and removing the bans and proscriptions. However, it maintains organisational unity with the rest of the treacherous sections of the Labour Party and the trade union bureaucracy. This strategy, taken to its logical conclusions, would be a repudiation of the split in the workers’ movement that opened up because of World War I and the Russian Revolution. This split was essential in rescuing Marxism from the reactionary clutches of Bernstein’s reformism and Kautsky’s stale dogmatism. There must be no going back.
Prioritise fight against austerity
The debate over Labour is crucial at the moment. We have seen mass demonstrations by students and their supporters and strikes have been increasing. It is clear the resistance will grow and the March 26 TUC demonstration showed emphatically that new forces are entering the movement.
The CPGB’s response has been lethargic, to say the least, whether in the anti-war movement or at anti-cuts conferences. Comrades should listen to Sinead Rylance’s call to step up our game. At our February aggregate we agreed two measures to strengthen our work, but we must go further and place work in the anti-cuts movement as the most crucial arena for communists in the coming period. It also gives us a greater opportunity to speak with the thinking sections of the Labour left. Those who are genuinely committed to fighting for socialism and the cuts will not be found in dull CLP meetings of half a dozen people, but in the meetings and demonstrations of hundreds, thousands and hundreds of thousands of workers and students.
We need to choose our political priorities according to where our forces can best make an impact over the coming months. The Labour Party is not one of these places: a mere handful of comrades will be wasting their time and resources preaching to a party that is devoid of democracy and a Labour left that is subjugated to the right wing in the hope of another Labour government.
We must engage with those in Labour. The reality of the trade union link and the continued class identification with the party by millions of workers rules out ignoring Labour. That is, unless we wish to build a sectarian organisation with few or no links in the class. This understanding does not, however, mean entry work, where comrades fight for a radical version of Labourism or pretend to be something else.
In the future, work in the Labour Party may be essential for our project, but it will require the energies of many thousands of communist-led workers, not the pitiful numbers the Marxist left in the Labour Party can muster today. The precondition of Labour work by communists has to be complete liberty in the Labour Party and the unity of revolutionaries into a common party armed with a Marxist programme. A Communist Party. To seek to cut corners and jump ahead will not only lead to political mistakes, but is a criminal waste of energy at a time when the broader movement is stirring to fight the Conservative-led government.
- ‘Organising for things to come’ Weekly Worker March 31.
- ‘In defence of left communism’ Weekly Worker November 4 2010.
- ‘Lessons of Lenin’s Leftwing communism’, Weekly Worker October 14 2010.
- CPGB e-list, September 25 2010.
- ‘Wedded to left reformists’ Weekly Worker January 20.
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- ‘Dances with scabs’ Weekly Worker November 11 2010.
- Letters Weekly Worker December 9 2010.