Overcoming the enemies within
The left must unite in order to change the relationship of forces both within and outside the Labour Party, argues Mike Macnair
In a recent letter to the Weekly Worker Arthur Bough argues that “the best route to the majority of workers within the workplace, within the communities, remains the Labour Party” - though he considers Labour no different from the US Democratic Party except for the (relative) absence of millionaires (Letters, April 19).
The argument is in substance a dogmatic assertion of a one-sided version of Marx’s and Engels’ arguments in the middle and later 19th century, supported by some citation-grazing, without any attempt to relate the theoretical underpinnings to the course of events since then and the consequent present political conditions. Comrade Bough’s claims are, first, philosophical; second, political; and third, historical.
First, he claims that “Those who believe they can simply short-cut this reality by proclaiming their own new workers’ party essentially base themselves on idealism, not Marxist materialism. They do not see that the dominant ideas are based upon material conditions within society. A workers’ party can act via a dynamic, dialectical interaction with the class to stimulate the class struggle, but it cannot substitute for it. To change the dominant ideas, it is necessary to change material conditions, which means addressing the immediate problems of ordinary workers on a daily basis, by encouraging and facilitating their own self-activity.”
The CPGB agrees with comrade Bough that a ‘new mass workers’ party’ cannot be conjured out of thin air when the large majority of the class continue to regard Labour as in some sense ‘their’ party. However, as comrade Bough presents his argument, it would make of Marxism both a vulgar determinism and at the same time, in relation to a workers’ party acting to “stimulate the class struggle”, a voluntarism.
Comrade Bough’s formulation that “the dominant ideas are based upon material conditions” is a vulgarisation of Marx’s and Engels’ “The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class. When people speak of the ideas that revolutionise society, they do but express that fact that within the old society the elements of a new one have been created, and that the dissolution of the old ideas keeps even pace with the dissolution of the old conditions of existence” (Communist manifesto chapter 2).
The quotation makes clear that comrade Bough’s inference does not follow. The society is in process of change, and in consequence the dominant ideas are themselves in process of change: the process of change raises up negations to them and they do not go unchallenged.
Within this framework, we approach the old problem of the relative significance of ‘structure’ (the material and social limits on our available choices) and ‘agency’ (the choices we actually make). Marx and Engels sometimes express themselves in violently deterministic ways, but it is clear from their political practice that they did not, in fact, hold a systematic determinism.
The political consequence comrade Bough draws from his argument is a variant form of economism. Both the original Russian economism and the ‘revolutionary economism’ (Reidar Larsson’s phrase) offered in different ways by Ryazanov and by the Trotsky of Our political tasks similarly drew economistic conclusions from over-deterministic analyses of the relation of mass ideas and material conditions. With comrade Bough the version is close to the Proudhonists’ fetishism of cooperatives and ‘political indifferentism’.
He tells us that “Marxists do not believe in parliamentary socialism, and our perspective is not simply one of transforming the Labour Party ...”; and “The true function of a workers’ party in the parliamentary sphere - both at a local and national government level - is to act to legitimise the actions of the workers outside those parliamentary structures, to use them as a tribune to promote and organise the workers’ struggle.”
This is again a half-truth. In the first place, “Marxists do not believe in a parliamentary socialism” muddles the difference between, on the one hand, the belief in a socialism introduced within the framework of the constitution; and, on the other, the idea that communists winning an electoral (not necessarily a parliamentary) majority might be a decisive moment in the end of today’s ‘capitalist old regime’.
Secondly and more fundamentally, the problem is how to “legitimise the actions of the workers outside those parliamentary structures”. Under the existing regime, the actions of the workers outside the parliamentary structures are delegitimised not only, or even mainly, by parliamentary speeches against them and by statutes passed by parliament. They are also delegitimised by the operations of the corrupt, advertising-funded media and the corrupt, ‘free market in legal services’ judicial system. To the extent that they are delegitimised by parliamentary speeches and by statutes, the positive legitimacy asserted by (Tory, Labour or coalition) governments against strikers and against democracy in the workers’ movement (through statutory regulation and judicial review of the constitutions and actions of workers’ organisations) is based on these governments’ claims to represent the majority in the society via their electoral victories.
The task of “legitimising the actions of the workers” therefore involves efforts both to create workers’ press and media, and to delegitimise the existing constitutional order: the politicians’ false claim to a majority mandate, the corrupt press’s false claim to represent their readers, the judiciary’s false claims to represent unbiased justice or to ‘merely apply the law’.
If the Labour Party was a new movement created out of a recent mass shift to the consciousness of the need for a workers’ party independent of the capitalists, certainly the right way to go would be to agitate for these tasks exclusively, and patiently, inside the Labour Party. But it is not. It is a long-established institution controlled by a professional bureaucracy, deeply committed to the British constitution and hence against workers’ democracy, and a component of the capitalist two-party system which generates fake ‘majorities’.
Now it might be that the history demonstrates that there is no route to a workers’ party which does attack the constitution, rather than backing constitutional attacks on the workers’ organisations, except through the existing mass party. This is what comrade Bough argues from the history: “Engels’ recommendation to Eleanor Marx and her comrades was to keep a distance from all of these sects, including those that called themselves Marxist, such as Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation, as well as the Independent Labour Party, and instead to go directly to the mass of workers, who at the time were organised within the Liberal Party, and particularly the liberal clubs. In the end, it was this strategy and, from it, the decision of the trades unions to create their own political party, separate from the Liberals, which created the real mass movement for the creation of the Labour Party.”
The problem with this narrative is that it is flatly false history. Outside Britain, the German Social Democratic Party was created when the 1875 fusion of ‘Eisenachers’ and ‘Lassalleans’ which Marx and Engels opposed, gave the fused group the ‘critical mass’ to go beyond thousands to tens of thousands. Bebel and Liebknecht had proved themselves better judges of what was possible. The pattern was repeated in several other European countries, and in the US too (though the combination of the split after 1917 and the rise of the US to world dominance aborted the development of the US Socialist Party into a mass party). In contrast, the Georgist electoral movement Engels recommended to Florence Kelley Wischnewetsky in the letter comrade Bough cites was a flash in the pan.
In Britain, Engels’ political judgment led him momentarily to side with William Morris and co’s Socialist League, which was soon captured by the anarchists and duly collapsed, while Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation, though sect-like, obtained a real working class base in London and in the north-west. In Scotland and Yorkshire the Independent Labour Party was also until 1900 independent of the Lib-Lab trade union leaders. There is, indeed, no reason to suppose that the trade union leaders would have moved beyond Lib-Labism without the success of the socialist groups (SDF, ILP, etc) in local elections in the 1890s, which began to put pressure on the union leaders’ ability to deliver the working class vote to the Liberals.
Structure and agency again. The history shows that the outcomes are not only a matter of objective dynamics, but also of subjective choices. It is true that the left is not objectively in a position to replace Labour with a ‘new mass workers’ party’. But it is in a position to change the relationship of forces both within and outside the Labour Party by uniting itself to fight openly for Marxist politics. Its refusal to do so is a matter of the subjective choices made by small groups due to a false conception of the ‘revolutionary party’. Those subjective choices are made equally by ‘revolutionary Marxists’ inside the Labour Party - and as much by ‘independents’, actually sects of one member, like comrade Bough, as by the leaderships of the left groups.