Intervention, not incoherent abstention

James Turley replies to critics of the CPGB's project to transform the Labour Party

Two articles appeared in the last Weekly Worker which were sharply critical of the Communist Party of Great Britain's perspectives on work in the Labour Party.

Comrade Dave Vincent objects to our reading of Labour's political dynamics in the present situation - in particular the notion that it is in some way shifting to the left. Comrade Chris Strafford, one of a minority of CPGB members who oppose our perspectives, raises objections of two kinds: theoretical and political criticisms of our aims with regard the Labour Party on the one hand; and practical objections to attempting to carry out this strategy in the present conjuncture on the other.[1]

Moving left?

Comrade Vincent is certainly not under the impression that Labour is, as Eddie Ford put it in our paper, "taking on redder hues".[2] This being the Labour Party, there is no shortage of evidence for his view; comrade Vincent mentions Ed Miliband's statement rejecting the use of industrial action to bring down the government, and his extremely lukewarm opposition to the cuts - 'Too fast, too deep, too soon' is the official mantra. His article was written, I would guess, too early to take in Miliband's recent fawning appearance before the British Chambers of Commerce.[3]

This is all true enough - 'red' Ed is certainly not in a mood to burn all his bridges with the bourgeoisie and middle England. What comrade Vincent misses, however, is that these features are broadly true of Labour left shifts past, though they have never been so unabashed as they are today, in the aftermath of Kinnock, Blair and Brown. When Labour tacks left, this is always fundamentally a pose - an attempt to rally an energised and angry population to the Labour rosette, all the better to dampen that enthusiasm with another wonderful Labour government a few years down the road.

In this respect, it is simply impossible to deny that Miliband, and especially pro-Labour union leaders, are posing left. The very idea of Tony Blair appearing in public to address a mass protest - even a hypothetical one which targeted Tories rather than his own government - is basically absurd. (As an experienced trade union militant, comrade Vincent does not need me to tell him that Brendan Barber's acquiescence in calling that mass demo in the first place is quite an exceptional moment in that dozy bureaucrat's career.)

To that appearance, we might add Miliband's disavowal of the Iraq war, and his leadership campaign, which attempted to open up some distance from the New Labour project of which he was previously an architect - all attempts to neutralise him in the eyes of those alienated by Labour in government.

He is not attempting to dress himself as a full-blooded socialist, of course. Nevertheless, every concession to his left - no matter how meagre - carries the risk of incurring the wrath of the bourgeois media, especially its far-right daily rags. The Mail has painted Miliband as a closet Bolshevik so many times that one almost expects them to forge another Zinoviev letter. The conditions of opposition, in the contest of broad anger at a government without a clear mandate by any measure, nonetheless make these concessions necessary.

One might then wonder: if Miliband's salutations to the suffragettes and MLK are so much ingratiating hot air, why should we care that he bothers to make them? What, as the old saying has it, does it all have to do with the price of eggs?

The problem for us is that - contrary to the position of much of the far left - Labour remains an integral part of the British workers' movement. It may be the most politically degenerate section, the most integrated into the British state; but the flipside of that fact is that it is also one of the most powerful and influential. Like the proverbial butterfly of chaos theory, indirectly triggering a hurricane with a flap of its wings, an incremental shift in the political profile of the Labour Party can have far-reaching consequences for the rest of us.

Miliband's meagre left posturing strengthens the hand of those leading union bureaucrats whose basic strategy, in all such situations, is to 'wait for Labour' against their more militant members who wish to build serious, politically radical resistance to the government now. They strengthen their hand, for that matter, against the more radical union tops (Serwotka, Crow and the rest). And electors in wider society - especially those who abandoned Labour during its last spell in government - will feel more comfortable in marking their cross for Labour at the next opportunity, if not overly enthusiastic.

This dynamic is not immediately obvious now (though it is worth noting that Labour's vote held up well in its heartlands at the last general election, and a decent showing in May is very likely), with the relative radicalism of the anti-cuts movement still outstripping the tameness of the Labour leadership. If, however, we do not manage to defeat the cuts, the battered masses will look to any 'realistic' alternative when we finally come to the polls. Conversely, if we do defeat the government and trigger an election, the Labour electoral machine will come into its own. In either situation, the trade union officials can be relied upon to fall into line, and the masses can look forward to years of disappointment under Miliband.

Intervention in Labour is important, then, not because it is now suddenly a viable vehicle for socialism - any group or individual who believes that is naive in the extreme. It is because Labour is - and always has been - a strategic obstacle to socialism, which Marxists will have to deal with one way or another.

Comrade Vincent does not see it this way: "I have argued before that socialists/Marxists should be relating to those joining anti-cuts protests who are not Labour Party members rather than wasting time with 'Labour Party no matter how bad' useful idiots (to capitalism), who foster illusions in Labour." This implicitly erects a Chinese wall between Labour and the rest of the workers' movement. It is a misleading assessment for several reasons - firstly, would he apply this test to union members who supported Labour? If not, why do so when it comes to the anti-cuts movement - which enjoys (often mealy-mouthed) support from many Labour-affiliated unions?

Secondly, 'Labour Party no matter how bad' is indeed an unhelpful perspective. Yet that kind of inviolable tribal attachment surely does not exhaust the range of reasons for individuals to engage in the Labour Party. Presumably some people expect it to actually do something; others will have a project to make it do something, even if that project is hopeless. It is quite as necessary to have the argument for Marxist politics with these people as with those on the non-Labour left. Useful idiots? Perhaps - but no more so than those who are suspicious of political organisations tout court, whom we must also convince of the need for a Communist Party.

Selling out?

Of course, establishing that we need some kind of intervention in the Labour Party does not establish any particular strategy for implementing one. Chris Strafford objects to the strategy outlined in the CPGB theses on the Labour Party, on a number of political, historical and theoretical grounds. Unfortunately, his line of argument is tenuous in places and leads him to make some pretty wild claims.

Given his hostility to the CPGB theses, it is perhaps ironic that many of his initial arguments against intervening in Labour - a bet carefully hedged by saying that one day it perhaps will be necessary - hinge around the traitorous nature of the organisation on the one hand; and the historic uselessness of the Labour left in checking the right, or even giving the party any direction beyond the extraction of modest concessions, on the other.[4] On this, comrade, we are all agreed (see theses 6 through 8 for a less confused run-down of the typical functioning of the Labour left-right split).

Yet it does not follow from this that Marxists have no stake in the relative balance of forces between left and right in the Labour Party. Our aim is to build a substantial Marxist wing in Labour (something rather sniffily dismissed by comrade Strafford as "comrades pretending to be Labourites with a Marxist twist"). In this respect, the overall balance of forces is a practical consideration - when Labour shifts to the left, it becomes easier for Marxists to operate in the Labour Party (it is no accident, for example, that the high watermark of the entrist Militant Tendency came in the early 1980s). In reality this is true of society as a whole; when even the most dead-end leftisms have a wide influence, it becomes easier for us to make our particular case.

Comrade Strafford, however, does not seem to take seriously at all the CPGB's stated intention of building a Marxist wing of Labour - in, but not of, the Labour left. He wheels out Lenin's condition for Labour-affiliation in the 1920s - the CPGB must "retain complete liberty of agitation, propaganda and political activity". 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". Thus, with the dull compulsion of the inevitable, comrades will have no alternative but to pretend to be "Labourites with a Marxist twist".

The truth is that, unlike entrist groups for whom the world outside Labour is almost inconceivable, we do retain complete liberty of agitation and propaganda. Ed Miliband cannot shut down the Weekly Worker. He cannot stop all his lay members from promoting and distributing it. That, precisely, is the point of organised and disciplined Marxist intervention within Labour, and indeed the collective endeavour of communist politics as a whole.

Comrade Strafford seems to have lapsed into that oldest of sins in the bourgeois social sciences: methodological individualism. From that perspective, the idea that Labour Party Marxists might have to tell one or two fibs about their broader political affiliations to throw witch-hunters off the scent amounts to a wholesale capitulation to social democracy.

It matters not that several present-day members of the CPGB (including three Provisional Central Committee members) spent their politically formative years engaged in an illegal factional struggle in the old 'official' party, and seem to have gotten out alive without becoming Euros. It matters not that it was necessary for CPGB supporters to lie even to join Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party. The latter's bans and proscriptions were effectively copied and pasted from the Labour constitution - yet apparently intervening in the Labour Party is the high road to liquidation.

That this line is manifestly unsustainable does not mean that there is no danger of comrades 'going to the dark side', as it were - yet the collective division of labour among CPGB members and supporters is as good a bulwark against it as it was against comrades 'going native' in Respect or the Socialist Alliance.

Transforming Labour?

Comrade Strafford's most substantial objection is to the end goal of our intervention in the Labour Party, summed up by the CPGB theses thus: "The Labour Party can be made into a real party of labour. By that we communists mean establishing the Labour Party as a united front for all pro-working class partisans and organisations. Undemocratic bans and proscriptions should be rescinded and all communist, revolutionary socialist and left groups encouraged to affiliate."

This line has come to be known in our ranks and periphery as that of the 'permanent united front'. It is not the perfect name, but in my view comrade Strafford is correct to differentiate it from the classical conceptions of the united front (if very wrong to reject it out of hand on that basis). "No leader of the early CPGB or the Communist International proposed turning the Labour Party into a 'permanent united front'," he writes - and to my knowledge, he is correct.

He further argues: "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." Once again, more or less correct - except that this is not quite the Comintern understanding either.

Given comrade Strafford's insistent accusation that we are attempting to re-enact the struggles of the 1920s, it is ironic that he should miss, precisely, a key aspect of the context of the Comintern propositions regarding the united front. He notes correctly that social democracy retained its existence as a "genuinely mass force", against communist expectations that the betrayals of 1914 and 1917-19 would cause its credibility among the working class to evaporate. Thus, the united front policy was a reaction to an ebb in the revolutionary tide.

Yet everywhere in the Comintern's perspectives down to 1935 at least (and in the writings of Trotsky until his death) is the expectation that capitalism is in terminal and quite immediate decline; the unspoken assumption of the classic writings on the united front is that revolution will be on the agenda in not too much time.

So, while part of that policy has enduring resonance to this day in its immediate tactical usage - temporary unity around specific actions - it is somewhat sundered from the strategic conception in which it was to fit: unity of the workers' organisations to form a 'workers' government' against the attacks of the capitalist class.[5] There are important ambiguities in the workers' government slogan in any case;[6] nonetheless, if the united front is to have strategic importance today, it requires a justification independent of the classic Comintern theses.

In order to establish such a justification, it is necessary to take a step back from the immediate issues here. The united front is, at its core, the united action of different sections of the working class in defence of the interests of the class as a whole. It is not a particular organisational form, but rather an arrangement of forces which will take one of several possible forms.

On this basis, Trotsky writes perceptively: "… just as the trade union is the rudimentary form of the united front in the economic struggle, so the soviet is the highest form of the united front under the conditions in which the proletariat enters the epoch of fighting for power. The soviet in itself possesses no miraculous powers. It is the class representation of the proletariat, with all of the latter's strong and weak points. But precisely and only because of this does the soviet afford to the workers of diverse political trends the organisational opportunity to unite their efforts in the revolutionary struggle for power."[7]

The soviets in 1917 were not simply a wing of the Bolshevik Party. All manner of political tendencies were represented there - from Bolsheviks to Christians and anti-Semites. This was not viewed as a dilution of their political authority, but an opportunity for the Bolsheviks to reach even the most backward layers of the class and win them over.

The Labour Party is not a party of labour in the strict sense, but a party of the labour bureaucracy. It is composed essentially of two parallel structures - the federal affiliate structure, which maintains historic links primarily with the unions, but also with the cooperative movement and certain political factions (the Fabians and so on); and an individual membership structure, which gives it a certain reality as a political party of the state. Each is used to quell the radical elements of the other - trade union block votes suffocate initiative in the constituencies, and the bans and proscriptions designed to preserve the specific political character of Labour partly sustain the hold of the bureaucrats over the unions.

The 'individual membership party' side of Labour is less useful to us. After all, we want a mass-membership Communist Party, and having also a mass-membership Labour Party of a comparable character amounts to a colossal duplication of effort at best, or otherwise an expression of the malign influence of the labour bureaucracy. The affiliate structure, however, has a certain use - as a point where diverse organs of proletarian struggle come together in some kind of unity, to fight for workers' interests against the capitalists, and fight among themselves for hegemony. In other words, the Labour Party could become a united front in the sense that the soviets were - an alternative centre of governmental power, for whose leadership communists really could meaningfully compete.

Thus, comrade Strafford's jeremiads about unity with the centrists and the right miss the point. The avowedly pro-capitalist right of Labour is simply going to have to go - they need unity with communists like they need a hole in the head. As for centrists, left-reformists and the rest: diplomatic unity with such layers is to their advantage, not ours, and to be rejected. That is not the unity of the united front, however, whether in its short-term or permanent, 'soviet'-style forms. It is not the unity we fight for.

I - and the CPGB majority - do not mean to look into our crystal balls and tell comrades with faux certainty that this is how the British revolution will pan out. Maybe the 'British soviets' will be … soviets, in the more commonly accepted sense; or maybe they will grow out of other organs of struggle not yet seen. That, however, is not the point. We have established the need for communists to intervene in some way to neutralise Labour as a threat to the revolution; even comrade Strafford accepts that, in an abstract and distant way.

The question is: what do we do with Labour? Strafford cites various Comintern documents to suggest that we split it, outrun it, leave it to wither in our dust. But why destroy something that might be useful? The liquidation of Labour as even the thoroughly bourgeois workers' organisation it is now would not be a step forward for the working class. We would have to find some other way to give the basic struggles of the workers a political form. What Labour offers us is a potential building block for working class power - worse than useless without the mass action of revolutionaries, of course, but nevertheless real in the longue durée.

From this perspective, it should be clear that much of what comrade Strafford writes in order to characterise our position is extremely tenuous. An analogy is drawn with Graham Bash and the comrades at Labour Briefing - fair enough in some respects, if of limited value, given the vast differences between our two currents. Somehow, however, in comrade Strafford's mind these differences have disappeared. We are accused of having a "Bashite" conception of using Labour's general committees (which just about still exist) as prototypical organs of power.

In a final twist of the non-sequitur, the CPGB is accused of subscribing - through our unconscious 'Bashism' - to the Nairn-Anderson thesis on premature British development! Somehow, the organisation whose endless calls for a mass Communist Party are one of the most persistent irritants to the ostensibly Marxist left in Britain (one such call, naturally, is in the Labour theses), has accidentally adopted the view that "the Communist Party [is] an alien in the British labour movement" and accepted "the impossibility of building a party outside Labour".[8]

Sorry, comrade - it just won't wash. Classical Marxism has long accepted the distinctive character of the British Labour Party[9] - long before Tom Nairn and Perry Anderson over-egged the pudding in the 1960s and 70s.

Wasting resources?

The other set of comrade Strafford's objections are more practical. On the one hand, he doubts that Labour Party Marxists, given scarce human resources and the very obvious lack of a mass character, can make an impact in the highly bureaucratised Labour machine; and further suggests, like comrade Vincent, to make fighting austerity the key priority. On the other, he complains that the CPGB theses are ambiguous in important ways: they are short on "actionable" content, and it is unclear whether they are to guide us in the immediate term or a hypothetical united Communist Party in the future.

We will take the second point first. Comrade Strafford believes he has identified an inconsistency: "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." In truth, this dichotomy amounts to a misunderstanding. The theses contain a number of observations on the nature of the Labour Party, and propose an 'end goal' for intervention in it - the much-maligned 'permanent united front'.

The latter will not be achieved without a mass Communist Party. Yet we can begin groping towards it with the forces we have now. It is only a waste of effort if it entails cessation of our propaganda for a united Communist Party. It does not - therefore, it is not.

The same goes for the lack of "actionable" content. "This gives the PCC carte blanche when deciding the practical interpretation of the theses," worries Chris. "This is bad for democracy and gives space for individuals to interpret the theses how they want." In a sense, however, that is the point. Our culture is not one where the central committee is to breathe down every comrade's neck; groups of comrades assigned a particular sphere of work are expected to use their initiative, a precept which goes for the PCC quite as much as anyone else.

A comparison: the CPGB has discussed, in similarly general terms, the matter of student work and the opportunities and challenges represented by campus activism. The result has not been comrade Strafford receiving detailed orders about how to participate in Communist Students - quite the opposite: he and others used their initiative and built a decent branch in Manchester. The theses are supposed to guide comrades, and make them accountable to the organisation, not provide "carte blanche" for the PCC to lead them by the nose. Comrade Strafford, after all, is quite free to argue that our interventions are not an acceptable interpretation of the theses, and fight a political battle on those grounds.

As for whether it is all a waste of time, given the balance of forces - this is a short-termist perspective. No, Labour is not currently an hospitable environment for Marxists. There is no way to turn it into one, however, if Marxists are not prepared to put in the hard yards, and build themselves as a meaningful alternative to Labourism in the Labour left. The flipside of it is that the argument is quite as true of the trade unions - in some ways more true. Comrade Strafford would not argue, I hope, against the need for communists to slog away at democratising the unions, even given our meagre forces. Thus, all other things being equal, our meagre forces are no argument against trying to influence Labour.

As for the battle against austerity, here comrades Strafford and Vincent are united on the same error. Counterposing work in Labour (especially the Labour left!) to work in the anti-cuts movement is - again - an unjustified abstraction. All manner of forces have been pulled into this movement, and that includes sections of the Labour Party - even 'Red Ed' has to pay it guarded lip service. The opportunity is there to make an impact - in particular localities, and even on a grander scale than that. To reject it out of hand is inconsistent with activism in unions and even local anti-cuts committees - thus, however orthodox his references, comrade Strafford is committing a pretty classic leftist error.



1. D Vincent, 'Stop fostering illusions'; C Strafford, 'Labour dead end and our strategy', both Weekly Worker April 7. For a statement of the CPGB majority position, see the 'Draft theses on the Labour Party', October 21 2010.

2. Weekly Worker March 31.

3. The Guardian April 7.

4. The post-war welfare state and 'social democratic consensus', though a major disjunction in the history of capitalist Britain, was nevertheless modest compared to what might have been on the table in the aftermath of World War II, had the vast bulk of the European workers' movement not been basically carved up between social democrats and Stalinists.

5. See thesis 11 from 'Theses on Comintern tactics': www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/4th-congress/tactics.htm.

6. See M Macnair, 'The minimum programme and extreme democracy' Weekly Worker May 18 2006.

7. 'What next?': www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/germany/1932-ger/next02.htm#s8.

8. Needless to say, Graham Bash, Tom Nairn and Perry Anderson have come in for heavy criticism from us before - see M Macnair, '100 years hard labour?' Weekly Worker September 28 2006.

9. Eg, K Kautsky, 'Sects or class parties' (www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1909/07/unions.htm). Kautsky proposed the admission of Labour to the Second International - with Lenin seconding.