Labour debate: diversionary and doomed to fail
Labour is not moving to the left or opening up, says Chris Strafford. We need a rethink and a plan B
In October last year comrade James Turley confidently announced: “Now that Labour is in opposition, however, there is a good chance it will shift to the left - in some ways, it already has.” A claim echoed in numerous articles, discussions and meetings by the CPGB majority.
Yet after over a year of Labour in opposition can anyone honestly claim that the party has moved to the left? It has been a year of dithering at the top, insignificant increases in membership and the implementation of savage cuts by Labour councils for working class communities. Labour is waging war hand in hand with the Tories against the working class. We are not witnessing an opening up of the party or the democratic reforms that could enable trade unionists, the left and the masses to organise within the party in defence of the working class. In fact we are seeing further attacks on democracy and a Labour Party that is at all levels lining up against workers entering into struggle.
In 1919 former dockers leader James Sexton MP said: “By a strike as a means of political action, they would be going in a direction which would bring a big risk of breaking up their organisation, letting loose forces they could not control, and asking for civil war in the country”. Even the most leftwing of MPs and Labour leaders have consistently opposed the class struggle. Remember that the darling of the left, Tony Benn, sent armed police to break the Windscale strike in 1977. The current Labour Party leadership is doing nothing new in condemning strike action, as it did in the lead-up to June 30. The strikes gave the working class a very valuable lesson: the Labour Party has again lined up with the class enemy and will seek to sabotage our resistance when we fight back. Workers are learning this lesson. Will the communists?
The uprisings in the Middle East, the general strikes in southern Europe and the emergence of the anti-cuts movement in Britain are carried out independently from, and in many cases against, the traditional reformist parties that claimed to represent the working class. With the prospect of the biggest strikes for a generation in the autumn, communists need to pursue a policy to strengthen and generalise the fightback. We must not repeat the mistake of diverting the movement into the hands of the Labour Party and the bureaucracy.
Ben Lewis in his short report on last month’s Coalition of Resistance conference asks: “Would it not be an idea to join with other unions and have an impact on Labour itself, fighting against the scab approach of Ed Miliband?” This is one of the more interesting arguments that the CPGB majority has used. Get all of the unions to be affiliated to the Labour Party in the hope they would make their voices heard. A somewhat strange demand, as the Labour link is consistently being deployed to stymie action in the affiliated unions. Instead of having a few unions that do act independently and do take serious national strike action, we would be left with more unions that increasingly mirror Unison and Usdaw.
Arguing for unaffiliated unions to join the Labour Party is at present a distraction from the real tasks at hand. If further affiliations are successful they will only bolster the bureaucratic prison working class resistance is trying to escape. It would strengthen the leaders who occasionally talk left but offer no action beyond prayers for a Labour government. Which might cut a bit less over a few more years than the current government. Furthermore such appeals rest on the idea that the Labour Party is the party of the working class. The Labour Party has always been the political expression of the trade union bureaucrats, who in substance have an identical approach to Miliband and Balls. Giving the trade union leaders a greater say in Labour policy will be no more than a new coat of paint for the attacks.
Labour Party democracy has always been somewhat of a chimera that has sent revolutionaries on a long march to nowhere. Only four years ago at the Bournemouth conference what was left of the old structures was obliterated - contemporary resolutions can no longer be submitted and voted on. Instead such issues will be dealt with by the national policy forum. This attack removed any chance of little communist groups having any serious impact in the Labour Party, as even the most leftwing of CLPs lost their means of addressing the national membership.
Ed Miliband is set to further reduce the influence of the unions and affiliated bodies in what will be the biggest shake-up since 1918. The new measures would reduce the unions’ 50% vote at conference and see Unite, Unison and GMB general secretaries losing a large proportion of their block vote. There would also be a new membership tier, enabling people who register as party supporters to vote in elections for a new leader. This attack on democracy is supported by the right wing in and outside the Labour Party. It also goes some way to demonstrating that even out of office the Labour Party does not automatically move to the left, nor open up so that the left can make an impact. We must not repeat the mantras of decades long passed that have proven wrong hundreds of times; we need a radical rethink.
In workplaces and the unions communists have clear tasks. Rebuild working class solidarity on all fronts, redouble our efforts to bring together all workers into assemblies, whether they belong to a union or not, and set about the creation of communist cells in workplaces to spread our ideas and participate in the fight against the bosses. We need to lay the foundations of a movement that is not simply waiting to be called out on strike or on a march around London, but can act and think for itself. A small example of the kind of solidarity we need to implant in the every workplace can be found in the recent wildcat strike in the Royal Mail in London.
Whilst the CPGB majority calls for us to turn to Labour, we must remember that a more urgent task is to rebuild a basic level of class solidarity and that “what workers in Britain need, if they are to overthrow capitalism and build socialism, is a Communist Party, not a reformed Labour Party”.
Pericles once warned Athenian citizens in the build-up to the Peloponnesian war: “I am more afraid of our mistakes than our enemy’s plans.” The same warning needs to be extended to those that struggle for a socialist revolution. Believing that the Labour Party can be transformed into a revolutionary organ is a recurring mistake in our movement.
It is necessary to restate that the united front must be a temporary agreement between sections of the class that are in reformist and revolutionary organisations. It is not always a mistake either to ditch or build on tactics and positions adopted for a different period. Yet on the united front the left has consistently tried to transform the understandings of the majority of the Communist International into theoretical camouflage for opportunism. The best example of this is the attempt by John Rees and the Socialist Workers Party to paint the cross-class Respect as a united front of a special kind. A position rightly exposed and demolished by writers in this paper. Now these same comrades are attempting to commit an equally mistaken and backward re-imagining of the united front.
The majority comrades argue that under British conditions the Labour Party will serve the same function as the soviets did in Russia. For this to happen they argue for Labour to be captured and transformed into a “permanent united front”. This is supposedly done through Labour general committees. James Turley argued that what “Labour offers us is a potential building block for working class power”. A strategy whose only notable adherent is the Labour Briefing group. At Communist University in 2005 Graham 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”. In that sense he and several comrades have adopted a Bashite illusion on how the Labour Party can be used for revolution. Fortunately the majority comrades have not yet gone as far as the Labour Briefing group in taking the new line to its logical conclusions.
The “permanent united front” position that comrade Turley defends in his response to my previous article is mistaken and backward. His errors on this are not surprising, considering that, when I debated the comrade at the 2011 Communist Students national conference, he did not know that he had voted for this, or even know it is contained in our recent perspectives document. Comrade Turley is mistaken when he says that I dismiss this revision of the united front simply on the basis of Comintern decisions. In assessing what tactics are useful to maintain and to reject from previous struggles we should test how they can move us forward in the present. The united front must be a temporary agreement in order for revolutionaries to clearly distinguish our programme and our vision from that of the reformists. By discarding this approach the CPGB majority has started down the road of communists simply acting as a leftwing tendency in Labour - the long road of reversing the break in the movement between reformists and revolutionaries finishes in the dead end of liquidation.
No doubt the irony of this turn is not lost on many readers, considering that those same proponents of permanent unity within Labour today fought a bitter struggle against the trajectory of the Eurocommunist-controlled CPGB to work as a leftwing ginger group in that party.
The united front method was developed to overcome the isolation of the communists, the Soviet Union and national parties, during a period of intense reaction. As Trotsky pointed out, “The possibility of betrayal is always contained in reformism. But this does not mean to say that reformism and betrayal are one and the same at every moment. Not quite. Temporary agreements may be made with reformists whenever they take a step forward.” It is in a non-revolutionary period that parties of revolution must be built by breaking the hold of social democracy and Labourism over the working class. That is, we must demonstrate to the widest sections of our class that only a Marxist programme can win more than temporary gains.
It is with this in mind that comrade Turley rightly points out it was a strategy that saw the period after 1921 as a pause. Trotsky and the revolutionary currents of the Comintern correctly saw a revolutionary situation on the horizon. The war threat, the rise of fascism, the popular struggles in the colonies and maintenance of a politically organised working class did point to a second October. You do not have to look far to see that Trotsky and his co-thinkers were correct. There was a revolutionary situation caused by World War II, yet these movements broke out and were smashed not by the capitalists, but by the remnants of the Second International and the Stalinists. The French Stalinists, capital’s fifth column, are an example of treachery that stymied and diverted the revolutionary spirit of the class. As workers took control of factories, the PCF moved against them, acting as the gendarme of Charles de Gaulle and the Allies.
It would be mistaken and hypocritical if I were arguing that the Comintern strategy from the 1920s should simply be superimposed on today’s conditions, as comrade Turley seems to think. Just a cursory glance at my previous article would reveal that I argued: “Schemas cannot simply be transplanted from history; they must face up to today’s reality.” Under current conditions and the absence of a communist party of any serious size or weight amongst workers, no communist organisation could form a united front with trade unions or the Labour Party. Holding such a position is on a par with believing that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden. However, this does not lead to the position adopted by the CPGB majority of engaging with Labour small in number and hamstrung by the numerous and growing anti-democratic measures within Labour.
There are important lessons on the limits we must impose on communist work within organisations like Labour and the trade unions. For example, communists can stand and argue for revolutionary politics in the unions. Something that can be done largely free of bans and expulsions. Is this the case within Labour? Are there any moves to open up the party to the left? Could we organise with “complete liberty” as communists within Labour? No. Comrades within Labour would be isolated and forced to push left Labourite politics by the structural limitations in which they operated. Recognising such a basic fact of reality quashes any ideas that working within Labour is no different from working within the unions.
What the CPGB majority is arguing is nothing more than worn out and repackaged appeals to ‘capture’ the Labour Party. Obviously such fantasies have not been realised and will not be: instead, as Ralph Miliband explained, “it is the obverse phenomenon which has very commonly occurred: namely the ‘capturing’ of the militants by the Labour Party. This is not only true at the parliamentary level, though it is there that it has been most obviously true. But it has also occurred at the grassroots: people on the left who have set out with the intention of transforming the Labour Party have more often than not ended up being transformed by it, in the sense that they have been caught up in its rituals and rhythms, in ineffectual resolution-mongering exercises, in the resigned habituation to the unacceptable, in the cynical acceptance and even expectation of betrayal.” It is possible that individual communists may go native - that is the case with any organisation, including Labour Party Marxists, or even the likes of Socialist Appeal, that enter Labour with confused politics, very few activists and crucially no base or support within the working class.
It is mistake to claim that opposition within the CPGB to working within Labour under current conditions comes down to an individualist and moralistic position that communists must never lie. The key problem for the handful of Marxists in the Labour Party is not that they cannot pass on secret reports of what are no doubt exciting CLP meetings, whilst lying to other party members about their real political affiliations. The key problem is that the politics they can legitimately argue without being expelled or censored is extremely limited. The insistence on complete liberty of agitation by Lenin, that I and others defend, is an absolute necessity if communist organisations are to have an impact within the movement and the Labour Party. I am not aware of Marxists in the Labour Party attempting to test such restrictions and where they have made interventions it has been to push rightwing versions of Marxism similar to the politics peddled by the existing Labour left.
Only mass action can change this situation, but currently such action is being carried out beyond and importantly against Labour in power in town halls up and down the country. Whilst this is not a static situation, it is delusional to currently place Labour at the heart of resistance to austerity, when it is in fact a willing enforcer of capitalist attacks on the working class.
A further point needs to be made on Lenin’s proposals to British communists. Comrades have attempted to use Lenin’s advice and the CPGB’s tactics in the 1920s as part of the foundations of the new position. It is correct to point to British exceptionalism and the creation of the Labour Party as somewhat unique. The exceptional organisation of the working class movement in Britain does require a serious approach to Labour and the unions. What is required is a struggle to overcome Labour, not to “reform”, “transform” or, in the words of Jack Conrad, pursue “a long-term strategy aimed at driving out the pro-capitalist right and winning the Labour Party for socialism”.
Thanks to this mistake, coupled with the intentional ignoring of the subordination of the CPGB and the working class to the trade union bureaucracy during the 1920s, we end up at a backward position that a younger Jack Conrad correctly derided: “Of course, such ‘British exceptionalism’ was very limited. Affiliation was always viewed as a tactic, and a short-term tactic at that. There was never any Militant-style idea of winning the Labour Party, let alone winning it to take the lead in the fight for socialism.”
A different way forward
Conrad et al’s new position is a shift away from seeing Labour as an obstacle to viewing it as a potential tool for revolution. A fantasy that only the moribund Communist Party of Britain and small groups of Trotskyists cling to. This shift must be challenged by comrades in and beyond our ranks.
Against the move towards Labour we must fight for a policy of embedding communists in everyday struggles. Though few in number currently, communists can have an impact if we seek to engage trade unionists and workers with a political alternative to Labour and Labourism itself. Our strategic orientation must be to the broad movement, the trade unions, the anti-cuts committees and the divided revolutionary left. We have to move from simply reporting on the anti-cuts movement to playing an active part in its day-to-day running and actions. Here we can raise the politics that are necessary - what we are lacking is the tools to do so. As the CPGB we can take small steps in this direction. Our paper needs to be more outward-facing and we need to produce accessible pamphlets on topics such as the capitalist crisis to educate ourselves and others. We should be holding regular stalls and make an attempt to build regular communist forums with other groups.
The left at present is a cesspit of social democracy, opportunism, bureaucracy, petty Stalinist-style party regimes with competing sects that have no tangible base within the class. This isolation and sectarianism cannot be overcome by embedding ourselves in the Labour Party. What we need is unity on the ground, at the base of the unions, in workplaces and within the anti-cuts committees as a step towards forging a serious fightback. Practical unity, even on a small scale, can open up opportunities for discussions and steps towards the unity of revolutionaries.
- ‘Osborne the butcher’ Weekly Worker October 21 2010.
- C Rosenberg 1919: Britain on the brink of revolution Manchester 1987, p71.
- ‘COR conference: missing perspective’ Weekly Worker July 14 2011.
- See ‘Ed Miliband plans to curb union hold over Labour’ The Guardian August 3.
- ‘Wildcat strike at Royal Mail office gets the goods’: libcom.org/news/wildcat-strike-royal-mail-sorting-office-gets-goods-10062011
- J Conrad Which road? (third edition), London 1991, p204.
- ‘Intervention, not incoherent abstention’ Weekly Worker April 14 2011.
- ‘Labour and revolutionary strategy’ Weekly Worker September 22 2005.
- The debate can be heard at communiststudents.org.uk/?p=6519
- L Trotsky The Third International after Lenin (1928) : www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1928/3rd/index.htm
- ‘Labour dead end and our strategy’ Weekly Worker April 7 2011.
- VI Lenin Left wing communism: an infantile disorder: marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/ch09.htm
- R Miliband Moving on: marxists.org/archive/miliband/1976/xx/moveon.htm
- Quoted in report of CPGB aggregate, ‘Winning Labour for the working class’ Weekly Worker October 21 2010.
- J Conrad Which road? (third edition), London 1991, p229.