Labour needs Marxism
Workers must aim to take the organisations of the movement - including the Labour Party - away from the bureaucracy's control. Alex John reports on last weekend's aggregate of CPGB members
Welcoming the recent formation of Labour Party Marxists (labourpartymarxists.org.uk), comrade John Bridge opened a full day’s discussion on the Labour Party at the Sunday October 9 CPGB aggregate in London’s Conway Hall. “It is more than timely for Marxists to actively intervene,” he said, when capitalism is not only deep in crisis, but in visible decline as a social system, and the Labour leadership, together with the whole trade union bureaucracy, is under pressure from below.
Labour has always been a bourgeois workers’ party dominated by pro-capitalist leaders, and it remains so today. Tony Blair’s dream of breaking the trade union link has not been fulfilled. Overcoming Labourism in the opposite direction, by breaking the rightwing grip, is a strategic task for communists.
Lenin urged the early CPGB to seek affiliation to the Labour Party. The rebellious Left Wing Movement of Labour Party organisations achieved a circulation of 100,000 for its Sunday Worker, edited by communist William Paul. The London Labour Party and about one third of constituency parties were expelled for refusing to accept the exclusion of CPGB members. This is an example we should seek not to copy, but to emulate. When the CPGB closed the LWM in 1929 - on instructions from Comintern in its sectarian ‘third period’ - this was an “idiotic blunder”, said comrade Bridge.
Praising the report of Labour’s conference written by delegate Jim Moody and published in the Weekly Worker (October 6), comrade Bridge said he had followed conference on TV - and found it excruciatingly boring. A few 16-year-olds were on display, having their “William Hague moments”. Speakers from the floor, apparently randomly picked by the chair - “that gentleman there ..., that lady there ...” - almost always turned out to be carefully selected and on-message. The real differences of opinion had been suppressed. The hall was often half-empty, as delegates escaped the tedium of the media show to talk politics with each other - elsewhere.
The Blair-Brown conflict is continuing with new faces, commented comrade Bridge. While Blair had sought the rebirth of Gladstone’s Liberal Party, Brown had emphasised “Labour values”. Although Ed Miliband won the leadership contest by positioning himself “a cigarette paper’s width” to the left of his brother, he still operates within the paradigm of ‘triangulation’ - chasing the centre votes and therefore in effect taking for granted the working class base. He may be pulled to the left or right, but we do not expect principled working class politics from him.
In a recent issue of The Socialist, said comrade Bridge, under the telling title ‘Can Labour be reclaimed?’, Peter Taaffe, general secretary of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, replied to a reader who had expressed “frustration with the Socialist Party stance towards the Labour Party”. A “counterrevolution” had occurred in the party, but comrade Taaffe did not say exactly when. Labour had ceased to be a bourgeois workers’ party, and is now just a bourgeois party. Surprisingly, however, comrade Taaffe wanted to have his cake and eat it, said comrade Bridge. “If a mass workers’ party is not urgently built,” wrote comrade Taaffe, “the impulse for a new party could come from within even a bourgeois party” - as in 1974 with the overthrow of the Greek colonels, “the mass socialist party, Pasok, was born from a left split in the liberal capitalist party, the Centre Union.”
“Conversely,” continued comrade Taaffe, “if Labour is to be ‘transformed’, as some [a veiled reference to those like Labour Party Marxists] still hope, then this would effectively mean setting up a new party, which by standing on clear socialist policies would represent a clear break” (The Socialist September 21).
Comrade Bridge pointed to “a clear lacuna” in comrade Taaffe’s argument: he did not mention the trade unions in the Labour Party. In fact the affiliated unions were able to amend Refounding Labour to win - as the product of Peter Hain’s consultation is now called. Instead of the new category of supporters encroaching solely on their own representation in the party, the unions successfully insisted (in pre-conference behind-the-scenes negotiations) that it will also take equally from the shares of CLPs and of MPs in the party’s electoral college.
Furthermore, the bourgeoisie has largely withdrawn its financial support, so Labour is more dependent on the trade union bureaucracy, and “he who pays the piper calls the tune”, said comrade Bridge. Ed Miliband is currently under left pressure from the unions. He denounced the June 30 actions, but not the united pension strikes coming on November 30. And deputy leader Harriet Harman has indicated - if the unions ballot, and if the government “remains unreasonable” - Labour will back the action.
While Labour can be transformed into a real workers’ party, insisted comrade Bridge, it can never be “reclaimed”, because it was never just “a workers’ party, full stop”. Ralph Miliband (father of Ed and David) in his very useful 1960 book Parliamentary socialism, showed that the Labour leadership was “always shit”, but also that the reformist opposition on the left was never up to much. There was no ‘golden age’ to reclaim, when Labour was socialist or under rank-and-file control. Marxists must fight to transform the party because our task is to overcome Labourism and win the workers’ movement for Marxism.
Organising to fight the cuts, said comrade Bridge, is not in contradiction to fighting to transform Labour. Of the competing ‘united’ anti-cuts projects set up by left groups, only the Coalition of Resistance stood a chance of developing into anything, and then only on the basis of the backing of left trade union bureaucrats, who then call the tune. The anti-cuts movement is not a re-run of the anti-war movement. The ruling class is not split, as it was over the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Marxists in the Labour Party should fight openly for the full communist programme of winning the majority of the working class to overcome capitalism. That includes overcoming the bureaucratic sect mentality of the divided left, and uniting the left, presently inside and outside Labour, into a Communist Party. The task of defeating Labourism is a job for the whole of the revolutionary left, organised together as Marxists.
It would be “dishonest”, said comrade Bridge, for Marxists to stand as Labour candidates for local councils on anything less than a Marxist programme - and that is more or less impossible under the present party regime. In fact left MPs, like John McDonnell, can speak more freely than Labour councillors.
In the debate that followed, Yassamine Mather said that the non-Labour left had to be convinced to address the whole question. But Labour was not the only arena where Marxists should intervene, and she feared that if Marxist become active in the Labour Party it would limit the anti-cuts work they could do. Labour is very unpopular among anti-cuts activists, she noted. The “historical arguments” used by comrade Bridge for involvement in the party should be accompanied with “health warnings”.
Comrade Mather said that Ed Miliband’s remarks in his conference speech, which she summarised as “markets have problems”, reflected the confusion of the Brownites. Likewise, Ed Balls, arguing that “markets support public services”, was displaying “post-2008 madness”. Even Wall Street journalists are to the left of the two Eds, she said, in that they recognise capitalism is the problem. The trade union bureaucracy is saying ‘Tax the rich’ and calling for Keynesian solutions to produce growth, but this will not work. But these inadequate remedies are not accepted by the Labour leaders. And on the left - in the Labour Representation Committee, for example - arguing against Keynesianism produces astonishment, she said.
Weekly Worker editor Peter Manson rejected the idea that Labour members could not play a full part in the anti-cuts movement, and in their union. The Marxist left is small in number, but “our strength is in the power of our ideas”. The unions are the key to transforming Labour, he said. It is the union link which makes the party qualitatively different from the bourgeois parties.
For comrade James Turley, the left is “mired in sub-Keynesian gibberish” both inside and outside Labour. Keynesianism, to be implemented by the state, is an anti-working class idea, he said. The communist idea is that the working class is the agency for change. Comrade Turley added that Labour’s new ‘supporter’ category is “a nod towards the US system”, where the media determines atomised opinion.
I emphasised the need for Marxists to challenge the reluctance of trade unionists and anti-cuts activists to intervene in the Labour Party, which actually means leaving it in the hands of the bureaucracy. But the domination of Keynesian ideas across the spectrum of the left shows that we communists must concentrate our efforts on winning the left, inside and outside the party, for genuine Marxism and getting itself organised into a communist party, so that it will be capable of carrying out effective mass work, including transforming Labour.
In his reply comrade Bridge recalled how the Keynesian “alternative political and economic strategy” produced in the 1980s by right-moving Eurocommunists such as Sam Aaronovitch had been denounced by the Socialist Workers Party at the time, but is now “common sense” for SWP guru Alex Callinicos. Against the great challenge of capitalism in crisis, the left in its present condition is almost useless. Instead of challenging the dominant bourgeois ideas, most of the left is “putting salt into the sea”. Transforming the Labour Party will require not only winning the existing left to unite into a Communist Party, but then winning the majority of the working class away from Labourism, he concluded.