Principled opposition, not constitutional cretinism

Mike Macnair explains what is wrong with 'a Labour government for its own sake'

Labour Party Marxists, a group within the Labour Party which is politically close to the CPGB, has put forward the following motion to the AGM of the Labour Representation Committee:

“The Labour Party should only consider forming a government when it has the active support of a clear majority of the population and a realistic prospect of implementing a full socialist programme.

“The Labour Representation Committee does not aim for a Labour government for its own sake. History shows that Labour governments committed to managing the capitalist system and loyal to the existing constitutional order create disillusionment in the working class and lead to Tory governments.”

Comrade Stuart King of Permanent Revolution has described this motion as “surely the craziest to come out of the CPGB stable for some time! The LP has never had the support of ‘a clear majority of the population’. Even in 1945 it only got 48% of the vote. Is [LPM] suggesting that with a 150-seat majority Labour should have abandoned its 1945 manifesto, remained in opposition and put the Tories into government? That policy really would have been rewarded by the voters!

“Interesting to see as well that the CPGB apparently now thinks that, once Labour has a clear majority of the population, it will have a ‘realistic prospect of implementing a full socialist programme’. And the capitalist state, ­ its corporations, its army, police, secret services, judges, etc will sit back while the full socialist programme to expropriate them is carried out? What a piece of parliamentary cretinism, worthy of the old CPGB’s British road to socialism.”

The identification of LPM with the CPGB is, of course, false; but the CPGB has no hesitation in solidarising with LPM’s proposal. Comrade King’s comment is no doubt an example of the type of hot-off-the-keyboard, unthought-through comment that flies around cyberspace; but it is worth a response, because it beautifully displays something very common on the far left: a combination of ‘parliamentary cretinism’ (his first paragraph) with ‘anti-parliamentary cretinism’ (his second). This widespread combination helps to explain the inability of much of the far left to think clearly about the Labour Party.

The motion is making a case for two points. The first is for real democracy - majority rule - as opposed to playing within the rules of the capitalist constitutional game. The second is that the workers’ movement needs a principled opposition in parliament, which gives solid political backing to the organisations of the working class on the ground against the state, the judiciary and the media. This will be more useful to the workers’ movement than a Labour government committed to managing the capitalist system in the ‘national interest’ - like those of Attlee, Wilson-Callaghan and Blair-Brown.

The case for this approach has three levels. The first is concerned with our aims as communists. The second is the nature of the capitalist constitutional game. The third is concerned with the present situation of the workers’ movement.

The aim of socialism

In our What we fight for column we say: “Socialism represents victory in the battle for democracy. It is the rule of the working class. Socialism is either democratic or, as with Stalin’s Soviet Union, it turns into its opposite.”

We take this point entirely seriously. In the first place, the working class as a class cannot defend its interests except through collective action and organisation - through trade unions, cooperatives, mutuals, tenants’ associations and so on - and collectivist political parties. But this organisation is not like the ‘natural’ collectivities of family and so on. It involves the voluntary choices of individuals to join, to stay members and to be active. Neither Labour, nor the trade unions, nor co-ops, nor left groups can take their members for granted. Without democracy, these organisations will wither away - as, in fact, under the rule of the labour bureaucracy, membership and participation have declined; and among the far-left groups, the rule of the petty bureaucracies leads to endless splintering into ineffective groupuscules. All the more, the working class needs democracy in its state if it is to rule.

Secondly, the question of communism is posed because of the growing irrationality of capitalism as an order for organising human collective activities. The crisis which has moved from a property crash to a banking crash, to a crisis of state debts is the immediately obvious symptom, but there are many others: the tendency to polarisation between rich and poor on both national and global scales, the inability to act effectively on human-induced climate change, and so on. All these are the necessary result of the dominance of private choices with a view to maximising profits.

The necessary alternative is that we should take fundamental choices about investment and economic activities collectively. But to take these decisions collectively is necessarily to take them democratically. This is the fundamental lesson of Stalinism. When information and decision-making power is monopolised by a minority (the bureaucracy), however much it may claim to be socialism, it is, in fact, a form of private ownership of the means of production - by the bureaucracy as a collectivity and by individual bureaucratic clientage chains. The results are different irrationalities from those of capitalism, but - as the fall of the USSR demonstrated - the differences do not represent a serious, permanent alternative to that system.

Democracy involves majority rule. It is more than just majority rule, because it involves the right of all to participate in political decision-making. But it does necessarily involve majority rule. It is for this reason that “victory in the battle for democracy” necessarily involves “the rule of the working class”, which is the majority class. As long as the interests of the propertied minority are to be protected from majority decisions, there can be no democracy.

Precisely because democracy involves majority rule, the idea that one could create democracy without majority support is utterly illusory. A ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ which was a minority dictatorship over a hostile majority - even a rather narrow majority - would rapidly become a ‘dictatorship over the proletariat’.

Hence a Labour government (however leftwing), or a communist government, which did not have clear majority support among the population, could not introduce a full socialist programme. The result would at most be Stalinism.

Note that this is not only true of a government elected with minority support (however large the Commons majority it received as a result of the first-past-the-post electoral system). It is, in fact, equally, if not more, true of a government which came to power through a general strike and was created by the national coordination of councils of action; or of one which was thrown up by an unexpected insurrection against a tyrannical regime created by a military coup, or grew out of a ‘prolonged people’s war’ against such a regime.

Rules of the game

‘Parliamentary cretinism’ consists in the belief that the working class movement ought to abide by the rules of the capitalist constitutional game. The approach was originally developed in the Second International on the basis of false suggestions by Marx and Engels that the constitutional rules of the US, Britain and perhaps the Netherlands would allow the workers’ movement, if it could assemble a majority, to take power without breaking the constitutional rules.[1] It was revived by the Eurocommunists on the basis that the experience of Stalinism and the lack of mass support for socialist revolution in the west showed that the workers’ movement needed to give ‘credible commitments’ to what Eurocommunists called ‘socialist legality’.

The idea is given a certain pseudo-plausibility in Britain by the fact that - as indicated above - the rules of the electoral game can give the largest minority a huge Commons majority and thus the (conventional, not legal) right to form the government. And this happened to Labour in 1945, and again in 1997. Suppose for a brief moment that we disregard the nature of socialism, just discussed, and accept as ‘socialism’ a regime of bureaucratic statisation. Surely a Labour government with a large majority could bring in ‘radical socialist change’ in this sense?

The idea is a misunderstanding of the constitutional rules of the game, and was already such a misunderstanding when Marx and Engels made their suggestions.

‘First past the post’ is not democratic. In 1945 Labour obtained 11,967,746 votes, 49.7% of the popular vote, and won a huge parliamentary majority. In 1951 Labour obtained 13,948,385 votes, 48.8% of the popular vote. The Conservative vote recovered, but only to 13,717,850 votes, or 48.0% of the popular vote. Nonetheless, the Conservatives obtained a parliamentary majority. If you accept the rules of the game, the Labour Commons majority of 1945 might be a mandate for radical change; but the Tory Commons majority of 1951, where the Tories were not even the largest minority at the polls, would equally have to be a mandate for its radical reversal.

‘First past the post’ is, moreover, part of a constitutional package. You do not get to accept part and reject part. At the most immediate level, in reality, a Commons majority is not a parliamentary majority. The House of Lords was until recently dominated by hereditary peers. It is now a gerontocratic institution appointed by a patronage system. Even if it was elected, the electoral schemes on offer are designed to counterbalance the possibility of a radical (rightist or leftist) Commons majority.

Assume a majority was somehow obtained in the Lords. The queen retains extensive legal reserve powers. Conventionally, these are only used on the advice of the sitting prime minister. But this is convention, not law. As the Australian Labor government led by Gough Whitlam discovered in 1975, the difference is quite real: the queen in England, or her governor-generals in Australia, etc, can sack a government which has a clear lower-house majority and dissolve the parliament at the time most propitious for an opposition election victory.[2]

Assume the Lords passed the relevant acts to introduce a purely economic ‘socialism’ and the queen assented to them. It remains the case that legislation has to be ‘interpreted’ by the judiciary. In the judicial process, individual capitals are directly represented by paid agents, and only these paid agents can become judges.[3] The result is that legislation is routinely interpreted to minimise its impact on capital.

I stress routinely. A few recent examples: in Tiensia v Vision Enterprises in 2010, the court of appeal interpreted the 2004 legislation providing for protection of tenant deposits so as to deprive it of all practical effect. In Independent Schools Council v Charity Commission, last month, the Upper Tier Tax Tribunal neutered the effect of the Charities Act 2006 on private schools. In AXA General Insurance v Lord Advocate, also last month, the supreme court of the UK said that it would not overrule an act of the Scottish Parliament which reversed a prior judicial decision and in doing so disadvantaged the insurance companies - but that it could do so, on the basis that the insurance companies’ ‘human rights’ were violated by the legislation, in an appropriate case.[4]

When push comes to shove, moreover, capitalist firms are perfectly willing to just break the law to get their way - as happened in the dispute over Sunday trading in the early 1990s - or to back elements of the petty bourgeoisie in doing so, as the oil companies backed the fuel duty protests in 2000.[5]

The point of all this is that it is not necessary to go on about the 1973 Chilean coup (as we on the far left did at great length in the 1970s) as a threat to a hypothetical socialist government. The ordinary routine operation of the British constitution shows that it is far from true that, as Engels wrote of France, Britain and the USA in 1891, “... the representatives of the people concentrate all power in their hands, [and] if one has the support of the majority of the people, one can do as one sees fit in a constitutional way ...” It was already untrue then, when in R v Bunn (1872) Brett J deprived the Trade Union Act 1871 of all its force by simply redefining why trade unions were criminal conspiracies.[6]

On the contrary, the rules of the constitution give effect to the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie: that the capitalist class is above the law and has a veto on the law.

Now in a sense this is to make a similar point to that which comrade King makes in his second paragraph. However, it is subtly but deeply different. Comrade King is repeating the standard far-left line about the danger of a coup (without mentioning Chile): ie, unconstitutional action by the capitalists, on the basis of the assumption (reflected in his first paragraph) that a “full socialist programme” means merely expropriations rather than the overthrow of the constitution and the creation of thoroughgoing radical democracy.

My point is, in contrast, that the introduction of a full socialist programme - or anything more than managing capitalism in the ‘national interest’ - substantively involves the overthrow of the present constitution: both because socialism can only be democratic if it is to be socialism (the first point), and because the existing, so-called ‘democratic’, capitalist constitution is not democratic, but minoritarian - specifically the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

How this bears on the question of a popular majority for a full socialist programme is this. Imagine a Labour government which came to power with a genuine intention to execute radical economic projects, but without majority popular backing for the overthrow of the constitutional order (even if we could call this overthrow ‘root and branch reform’, as did the radicals of 1640-41 to avoid the word ‘revolution’). Such a government would rapidly find itself either overthrown in a constitutional way (like Whitlam, who was no hard-line leftist) or forced to toe the line of managing capitalism in the ‘national interest’ (like the first Mitterrand government in France in 1981-83).

This would happen because, even if the government had a clear Commons majority, it would have no political legitimacy for coercing the unelected elements of the constitution; and these unelected elements would expect to be able to veto the radical economic projects or water them down to the point at which they posed no threat to the continued rule of the capitalist class.

Where, in contrast, there was a clear popular majority for socialist change, which recognised the character of the present constitutional order as a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, this popular majority would necessarily extend well into the lower ranks of the state apparatus. It would provide the basis to arm the working class and disarm the capitalists through the break-up of the coherence of the ‘security forces’; to paralyse counter-offensives through unelected parts of the constitution; and to organise counter-mobilisations against ‘Countryside Alliance’ opposition, fuel duty protestors, and whatever similar rightist mobilisations of sections of the petty bourgeoisie the capitalists might promote.

The third level is the question of how we get to such a popular majority. And here is where the question of a commitment to principled opposition - as opposed to ‘anything for the sake of a Labour government’ - comes in, and so does the relation of the motion to our present circumstances.

No through-roads

The ‘official’ CPGB’s British road to socialism projected the road to socialist transformation as running through the creation of an ‘anti-monopoly alliance’ or people’s front, leading to a leftwing Labour or left coalition government. The programme of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, now renamed Britain’s road to socialism, still does so, with relatively minor refinements and updating.[7]

There are many problems with this document. Crucially, its defence of the idea of socialism in a single country commits Britain’s road to socialism to utopian economic projects and reactionary nationalism, whose effect is to weaken the working class by dividing it. But for present purposes the critical issue is the document’s attempt to construct a gradualist approach to the question of socialist government. We are first to get a ‘leftwing’ government; then, the responses of capital and the state core will force the mass movement to take action and the government to move further left.

In practice, this means that the masses are to be conned into thinking that they are getting a Labour government which will govern in the British ‘national interest’ - in a more leftwing way than prior Labour governments; but will find that what they are actually getting is a communist government aligned with Cuba, China, etc.

This is a project which has been tried repeatedly by ‘official’ communist parties much stronger than the Morning Star-CPB (which is a sect smaller than the Socialist Workers Party). It has invariably failed, with certain exceptions. The exceptions are essentially cases where the ‘left’ coalition government was a mere front for a Communist Party which based itself on Soviet troops (most of eastern Europe and North Korea) or on prior victory in civil war by internal communist armed forces (Yugoslavia, Albania, China). In the exceptional cases what was produced was, of course, Stalinism. In the usual case what was produced was something like the normal outcome of a leftwing socialist government: economic disruption, leading to loss of legitimacy, leading either to a coup or to constitutional restoration of capitalist order.

The underlying problem is partly the global relation of forces, and the fact that global capital disposes of the means to disrupt effectively the economy of any single country which goes up against it. It is for this reason that we in CPGB argue for European-wide action of the working class, rather than arguing like the Morning Star for withdrawal from the European Union in the illusory belief that the London offshore centre and its attached UK territory is somehow more progressive than the European capitalists.

But the more immediate problem is that of political legitimacy. Like a left Labour government which tried to bring in a purely economic ‘socialism’ of bureaucratic statisation on the basis of a mere Commons majority, the Morning Star-CPB’s ‘left government’ would find that it had not prepared the political ground for the struggle against the constitutional order and its unelected elements. If anything, the reverse: by representing the pre-1972 political order as more democratic than the political order created by EU entry, this line would strengthen loyalty to the monarchical-bureaucratic-judicial ‘rule of law’ constitution and make it harder to mobilise against these elements.

The standard Trotskyist alternative paradoxically displays the same problem in an opposite form. The form is the belief that, since at the end of the day the present constitution is a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, the fundamental questions will be decided ‘out of doors’ by mass action, especially strike action. But, like the CPB, the Trotskyists are very reluctant to address the constitutional questions directly.

The Transitional programme, ‘transitional demands’ or ‘transitional method’ supposedly requires revolutionaries “to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demand and the socialist programme of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.”[8]

Broad working class masses are not generally engaged by the constitutional questions, and working class (as opposed to student) mass mobilisations almost entirely take the form of strike action over economic demands. Hence, Trotskyists’ construction of ‘transitional demands’ operates on a strategy of transforming the economic struggle into the political struggle through ‘generalising’ these strike actions; this, in turn, will bring the need to create councils of action and politicisation through confrontation with the state.

This approach has the grave defect, which I have argued elsewhere, of providing no coordinated solution to the economic dislocation problems facing the masses which are posed by mass strike waves.[9] More immediately, it has exactly the same political legitimacy problem - that it appears to be trying to con the masses into taking power - as does Britain’s road to socialism. This legitimacy problem of ‘strike wave socialism’ has, like the failure of ‘national roads’ projects, shown up in history repeatedly. One of the more notable recent examples is that the enormous strike wave in May-June 1968 in France ended with - the electoral reaffirmation of the Gaullist regime.

The general-strikist strategy is implicit in Stuart King’s characterisation of LPM’s motion as “parliamentary cretinism”. It is this refusal of the constitutional issues and implicit general-strikism that makes it an example of ‘anti-parliamentary cretinism’: it asserts that under no circumstances could the action of a Labour government be relevant to the implementation of a full socialist programme.

Where the Trotskyist left goes beyond general-strikism it collapses with remarkable rapidity into variant versions of Britain’s road ... These are usually licensed by ‘united front’ theory; but can be explained by ‘transitionalism’, as in the case of the Militant/Socialist Party in England and Wales ‘Enabling Act’ conception, which would collapse through political illegitimacy more immediately than the Morning Star-CPB version. The extraordinary feature of the present-day SPEW is to marry this strategy to a project of reinventing Labour on the basis that the present party has become purely capitalist ... so that SPEW could return to entry in a new ‘old Labour’ party.

Rebuilding the movement

The fundamental distinction between Marxist communism and earlier utopian forms is that Marxists believe that the working class could take over the running of society from the capitalists: and this would make possible a society which was not the ‘barracks socialism’ run by an unaccountable elite proposed by (some of) the utopian socialists.

The basis for this belief is that in the Marxist view the working class is defined by separation from the means of production, and so the working class as a class cannot defend its interests except through collective action and organisation - through trade unions, cooperatives, mutuals, tenants’ associations and so on - and collectivist political parties. This working class collective activity under capitalism forms the basis of the possibility of the working class taking over the running of society as a whole - moving from self-organisation to the beginnings of a ‘cooperative commonwealth’. The point is well made by Arthur Bough in the second part of his October 13 article in this paper, in which he moves from what has sometimes in his past writing seemed like an exclusive focus on co-ops to the idea of rebuilding the workers’ movement as a whole.[10]

The organisation which is thrown up in strike movements has a strong tendency to be ephemeral. Rather, the sort of organisation which can create a solid workers’ movement - and at the end of the day a real majority for socialism - is precisely the ongoing organisation of trade unions, co-ops, mutuals, workers’ papers and so on, and workers’ political parties. It is if the working class is organised as a class that it can project its own leadership of the society as a whole, and hence create a real popular majority for socialism - and that it could spread its ideas into the armed forces and face down the capitalists’ paid agents in the unelected part of the constitution.

If we draw a simple balance sheet of where we are in relation to workers’ organisation the answer is not strong. The Labour Party reached its apogee as a mass organisation in or around 1945 and has been withering away into a bureaucratically controlled shell ever since. The trade unions continued to grow in strength and to some extent in self-organisation down to 1974, when the Wilson Labour government’s ‘reforms’ in the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act and Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act shifted power massively from the grassroots to the bureaucracy. Since then, they too have tended to wither at the base and in mobilising ability in spite of still having impressively large membership numbers.

The cooperative movement was weakened in a major way by the creation of the welfare state, and the Co-op has almost (not quite) been reduced to a bureaucratically controlled retailer. The 1960s-70s also saw the effective end of labour-movement press outside the far-left groups, as the bureaucracy settled for tightly controlled (and therefore unsaleable) journals and the illusory hope of getting a fair hearing through the capitalist/corrupt advertising-funded media. And so on.

The task facing the workers’ movement if it is to counter the enormous shifts of wealth and power towards capital which have taken place since the 1970s is, therefore, to rebuild itself from top to bottom or, to put it another way, from the ground up, as a democratic, self-organising movement.

If we ask why the movement has withered, the answer is actually largely a story of the proactive intervention of the capitalist state and media to increase their ability to intervene in the internal affairs of the workers’ organisations, in support of the dictatorship of a bureaucracy which is increasingly integrated in the general managerial-bureaucratic stratum in society as a whole.

As long as this process continues, the mere election of a Labour government is guaranteed to be a government further to the right than Blairism. It does, in fact, continue: Miliband’s ‘supporters’ category is a first step in giving Rupert Murdoch control of who is Labour leader.

Reversing the process involves efforts to rebuild the movement at the most basic level on the ground. But not just such efforts. The movement on the ground needs the support of a political party which gives unambiguous solidarity - against government and bureaucratic regulation, against the judiciary and against the capitalist media - and constantly seeks to expose the corrupt character of these institutions as agencies of capital. To engage in such a political project necessarily also involves putting forward an alternative to the capitalist political order, at the level of both the British and the EU constitutions: working class rule, or socialism.

Such a project means committing to a role in the immediate future of principled opposition; because, as I have just said, any Labour government based on a coalition or minority rule, however leftwing the original intentions of the participants, will soon fall or be turned into something like or something worse than Blairism. Rebuilding the labour movement is only possible from opposition, and from willingness to oppose the dictatorship of the bureaucracy within the movement, which is a form of the intervention of the capitalist class in the movement.

For the LRC to commit itself to fighting for principled opposition and against the chimera of a ‘left Labour government’ without a real popular majority would, then, be for the LRC to commit itself to the real, possible struggle to rebuild the movement and to playing, as far as its small forces allow, the role of a political tribune in defence of the autonomy of the workers’ movement from the capitalist state and media. It is this basic choice - between principled opposition in order to rebuild the movement and an illusory hope for a somehow more leftwing Labour government - which LPM’s motion presents.


  1. Eg, K Marx, ‘La Liberté speech’ (1872): www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1872/09/08.htm; F Engels, ‘Critique of the draft Social Democratic programme of 1891’: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1891/06/29.htm
  2. Summary at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gough_Whitlam#Constitutional_crisis. The action was politically possible because Labor, though it had a majority in the House of Representatives, did not have a popular majority.
  3. M Macnair, ‘Free association versus juridification’ (2011), Critique Vol 39, pp79-80.
  4. Tiensia [2010] EWCA Civ 1224; ISC v Charity Commission [2011] UKUT 421 (TCC); AXA v Lord Advocate [2011] UKSC 46.
  5. Sunday trading: hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1993/nov/29/sunday-trading-bill; fuel duty protests: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuel_protests_in_the_United_Kingdom
  6. M Macnair, ‘Free association versus juridification’ (2011), Critique Vol 39, p66.
  7. Available at www.communist-party.org.uk/home/index.php under the tab ‘Socialism’.
  8. L Trotsky Transitional programme (1938), section 3: www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/tp/tp-text.htm#mt
  9. M Macnair Revolutionary strategy London 2008, chapter 3.
  10. ‘The crisis is financial, it is not economic’ Weekly Worker October 13. I certainly do not mean by this approving citation to indicate that I accept the arguments of the first part of comrade Bough’s article or that I agree 100% with the second part.