Dreaming of 1945

The time for reformist timidity is long passed, argues Maciej Zurowski in his report of the Labour Representation Committee's annual conference

The Labour Representation Committee, rather than being a single tendency body, serves as an umbrella for a variety of groupings and individuals, primarily those in the Labour Party who consider themselves to be on the left. As such, it hosts an array of left Labourites, Marxists, Stalinites and Trotskyites, all of whom enjoy an uneasy alliance under what is essentially a ‘British socialist’ platform.

Nominally, its function is what Andrew Fisher, the opening chair at the November 19 LRC annual conference, held in the University of London Union, vaguely described as pushing the Labour Party “in a more socialist direction”. In contrast to the staged and stitched-up ‘conferences’ of the ostensibly revolutionary sects - take, for instance, the Socialist Workers Party’s annual rallies - the LRC’s annual conference does provide some room for contending viewpoints, even if motions have to be proposed in three and a half minutes and subsequent contributions squeezed into two.

Labourite unity

And so, the first half of the day was kicked off by John McDonnell’s typically eloquent account of the technocratic euro zone coup. Comrade McDonnell demanded we support direct action and Occupy protests, while simultaneously advocating sustained, traditional trade union and political party organisation to the new blood of resistance - this was echoed later on by an Occupy guest speaker who admitted that his movement might have “the energy, but not necessarily the brains, experience and leadership”.

Beyond November 30, McDonnell argued, there should be more days of industrial action, and a dialogue about an unspecified “new model of society” should be held - a view that, for better or worse, no-one in the hall could disagree with.

Graham Bash of Labour Briefing spoke in a similarly crowd-pleasing fashion, rallying the assembled LRC members to a “fight for a Labour government ready to take on capital”. It was unclear what type of Labour government he meant and how we would get it. Even more ambiguously, comrade Bash alluded to necessary “alliances with those who will not be with us all the way”.

Despite the sometimes vagueness of their statements, most speeches from the straightforward Labourite camp were competent - although a breathless contribution from Hackney LRC offered vapid agitprop worthy of an SWP rally: capitalism is in crisis, we were thunderously informed (who would have guessed?), so it was time we “reclaimed our party”.

If the latter was an instance of intellectual underkill, the Islington North CLP’s motion was a textbook example of political sneakiness. Sound bites such as “Inequality is bad and is something that we should do something about” - a truism if there ever was one - should have rang everybody’s alarm bells. The motion itself contained a lot of fluff about setting the budget in a way that does not hit black people and women the hardest, but effectively amounted to an underhand attempt at whitewashing cuts deemed to be ‘fair’. A ‘fairness commission’ is what these slippery comrades would like to set up, and we are pretty sure they could even get George Osborne to sign up.

Labour Party Marxists delegate Stan Keable took the opportunity to alert even the most somnambulant socialist in the house to the motion’s treacherous content. But, in a surprising and highly unfortunate development, the motion was carried. That’s right - ‘Labour’s resistance’ had no trouble voting for a motion that Ed Miliband might have slipped in when he thought no-one was looking. The climate thus set, MP Katy Clark could get away unchallenged when she naively stated that now even the Blairite Progress group was “changing” and coming out “in defence of the workers” - as if the leftish posturing of career politicians in opposition was some act of great significance. The Tories, argued Clark, just don’t provide the “growth that we need” - and that’s about as militant as it got.

Following this, not even NEC candidates Gary Heather, Christine Shawcroft and Patrick Hall could shock us when they announced that they would not publicly condemn Labour councillors who implemented cuts. Further contributions, advocating good old bureaucratic voluntarism as a method to overcome the organisation’s poor gender balance (“we need to be more inclusive”), gave this part of the conference precisely the soft-left sheen that it deserved.

Marxist confusion

The only left groups to submit motions in their own name were the New Communist Party, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, and the new kids on the block, Labour Party Marxists. The good news first: the AWL’s very decent motion for Europe-wide working class unity and against EU withdrawal was carried by 72 votes to 60, with several dozen abstentions. That’s no mean feat, seeing as the hard left in and around LRC is still considerably tainted by nationalism and, in more than a few cases, nostalgia for Stalin’s failed national-socialist model.

Despite pleas to abandon this “divisive” motion, one contributor from the floor correctly pointed out that the time to raise the question of Europe is now - in fact, with the background of the euro zone crisis, there has never been a more pressing time. This, we are happy to conclude, must have dawned on more than a few LRC comrades, giving the organisation a position on Europe that is now to the left of the SWP/Alex Callinicos line. Of course, we have many points of contention with the third-campist AWL, but we do welcome the call to “organise public meetings and debates about Europe across the country”. If the LRC leadership makes this a reality, such events would provide us with plenty of opportunity to debate the AWL’s less appetising Atlanticist birthmarks.

On to the bad news: a motion by tankie survivors, the New Communist Party, which painted Gaddafi’s regime in quite agreeable colours, was carried by an impressive majority. Gaddafi provided a decent living standard for his pool of wage-slaves; he gave generous famine relief to other African countries. You’ve heard the song before, and it would not be worth further reciting, were it not for the fact that the motion also managed to call on that principled anti-imperialist body known as the United Nations to “defend the sovereignty of small nations”.

“There’s been a lot of compromisin’ on the road to my horizon,” sang Glen Campbell in his country pop classic, ‘Rhinestone cowboy’ - words that must ring particularly true if your theoretical road led from studying Marx and Lenin to endorsing Gaddafi and the UN. Is the fawning before Gaddafi’s achievements just plain, second-camp ‘idiot anti-imperialism’? Or have these people actually arrived at the conclusion that the working class will never emancipate itself and can therefore only hope to be policed by benevolent autocrats?

Whatever the case, the NCP was not alone in fostering illusions in bourgeois forces. It was when arguing against the Libya motion that the AWL came into its own, pushing its trademark ‘We don’t call for imperialist intervention, but refuse to condemn it’ line. Sometimes (most times?) Nato invasions create favourable conditions for working class struggle, we were told once again; so who are we to condemn the imperialist bloodbath in Libya? One AWL comrade gave us an allegory on the way: if the police attack fascists at a demonstration, he claimed, we don’t call upon them to stop because, after all, that’s where the repressive state apparatus hits the correct target. According to his twisted logic, it follows that we don’t oppose imperialist mass murder if a dictator is removed in the process.

Labour Party Marxists

Labour Party Marxists submitted a relatively brief motion, which rejected Labour governments that are backed by a minority of the population, loyal to the constitutional order and do not have a “realistic prospect of implementing a full socialist programme”. Such Labour administrations merely pave the way for the next Tory government and further attacks on the working class. The idea that no workers’ party should administer capitalism in the hope of handing down some reforms is, of course, socialist ABC dating back to way before the Second International. Short of being able to implement a “full socialist programme” backed by the majority of the people - which by definition involves breaking up the institutions of the capitalist state - it should continue to act as a party of extreme opposition.

In the run-up to the LRC conference Stuart King, a member of the Permanent Revolution group, referred to the LPM’s motion as a combination of “ultra-left abstentionism and parliamentary cretinism” which fails to address the question of the state and the armed people. I am in no position to tell whether the comrade’s remark was a genuine misunderstanding or a disingenuous put-down, though it is hard to imagine how a rejection of Labour governments that are “loyal to the constitutional order” could have escaped him. A political group which explicitly rejects the constitutional order, you would think, must aim to break up that order: ie, smash the state, including its extra-parliamentary institutions. How else could you interpret that formulation?

Either way, Labour Party Marxists can be grateful to the comrade for providing a test run ahead of the conference, illustrating how someone could ‘misunderstand’ what is being said in the worst possible way. Far be it for me to insist that one should, as Hitler recommended, always tailor one’s speeches to the biggest fool in the hall, but with only three and a half minutes to move a motion - let alone one coming from a new group that not many will have heard of - it is imperative to take great care about one’s choice of words.

Although the LRC has, as we have seen, more than its quota of reformists, Labour Party Marxists might have won over a good section of those present by a more comprehensive motion. A clear statement on the tasks of the working class vanguard operating in and outside the LP - rather than just a list of things that socialist should not do - may have gone a long way to clearly distance the group from Socialist Party of Great Britain-type utopians, who, with pure hearts and arms folded, have been waiting for the masses to vote for socialism for over 100 years.

LPM members appeared acutely aware that they will be judged by what they proceed to do and say in the forthcoming months. In my opinion, this should include an elaboration of their position on the state question. But they are on the right track - LPM comrade Jim Moody was elected onto the LCR’s national committee - but they will need to make their positions understood to many, including in two-minute sound bites.

Pedantry aside, the reason why the motion was not carried was, in all likelihood, due to concerns from the right wing of the LRC, not from its left. For all their socialist speechifying, the overriding leitmotif of the organisation is, before everything else, to get a Labour government elected. Despite the historical experience of the 20th century and, it stands to reason, against their better knowledge, the comrades hope that bad Labour governments will be followed by less bad ones, until one day - hey presto - we get a socialist one.

In this gradualist approach, our Permanent Revolution comrade does not differ significantly from the traditionalist Labourites who extolled the virtues of the 1945 Attlee government - you know, the NHS and all that - in speaking against the LPM motion. How much more, one wonders, must the European economy deteriorate to convince these comrades that there is just no point in dreaming of another 1945?