Return to liberal roots

In the run up to the Labour Party’s special conference this weekend, we spoke to Mark Fischer, National Organiser of the CPGB, about the significance of the clause four debate and the tasks posed for the working class in the face of Blair’s ‘new’ Labour

As we go to press, the outcome of the debate over clause four remains to be seen. But what do you think Blair’s campaign to alter it signifies?

Primarily, it is indicative of the current level of the class struggle. We have seen the virtual disappearance of the working class as an independent and organised group acting even within the parameters of bourgeois society, let alone as any sort of conscious alternative to that society.

The old clause four was introduced in 1918 as a constitutional sop to the working class, to divert them from Bolshevism. The Russian Revolution the year before attracted huge sympathy from workers around the world - including in Britain. Labour hurriedly adopted a state capitalist ‘socialism’ to retain the loyalty of the working class, to ensure that militants did not move to explicitly revolutionary conclusions.

Remember, before 1918, Labour had no commitment to socialism of any sort - it had explicitly rejected it at its founding conference. The party had originally developed ‘out of the bowels’ of the trade union bureaucracy. This stratum had initially looked to the Liberal Party for its support.

The establishment of Labour was therefore a step forward. But it did not at that stage mark a qualitative split from the politics of liberalism.

In 1918, under pressure to maintain its mass working class base, the Labour Party was forced to make a concession to socialism, to adopt clause four. It was a sop to a restless working class.

Today, the working class presents no militant threat to the established order. Blair’s campaign is therefore a sop to the ruling class - further proof (as if it were needed) that Labour will be a party fit to run British imperialism.

What effect will the dropping of the clause have on the working class?

In itself, little or nothing. Dropping it or keeping it is irrelevant to the capacity of the working class to struggle and win. And that is where socialism comes from, not some arcane and obtuse clause buried away in the statutes of a party that has consistently shown that it is in the business of running capitalism.

On the other hand, the dropping of the clause can affect us indirectly. For three quarters of a century, this clause has provided generations of leftwingers with an excuse - frail though it is - to stay in the orbit of the Labour Party, to argue that the interests of the working class and the fortunes of Labour were in some way synonymous.

When it is dropped - and I think it is certain to go - what will these comrades then do? They have some very serious thinking to do. If they reach the right conclusions, the working class can actually be strengthened.

Is ‘Labourism’ dead then? Will we be dealing with a qualitatively different type of political animal?

We have to be careful. The Labour Party is not synonymous with clause four. Yes, the form that the Labour Party is now adopting is in a certain sense a repetition of the past - we have called it a return to its roots as a ‘Liberal-Labour’ party. But in fact, the changes are being prompted by the current realities of the class struggle.

And those realities can change. Adopting the clause in the first place in 1918 illustrated one of the key features of Labour - its ability to adapt, chameleon-like, to its surroundings. When those surroundings are radiating red once more - when the class struggle hots up and workers start to search out for revolutionary answers - Labour will change again.

Under those conditions, we should not be surprised if Labour went beyond the staid, technocratic language of the Webb-Henderson clause four. After all, didn’t the great traitor himself - Ramsay MacDonald - actually support calls for ‘workers councils’ or soviets in Britain in the momentous year of 1917? We all know why, of course.

Labour will re-invent its left wing; if it is under any pressure from a left alternative it will duck and dive to retain the loyalty of people who hope for progressive and socialist change.

And - if we let it - it will betray those hopes over again for the umpteenth time. The Labourite dragon will have to be slain; it will not curl up and conveniently die for us.

What about the left? Most have backed the campaign to defend clause four, despite its anti-communist origins. If it is dropped, where will they end up?

I fear that they will lurch further to the right. Clause four provided them with a ready made excuse. It was the codification of the socialist illusions that the masses were supposed to have in Labour.

Who on earth has ‘socialist illusions’ in the Labour Party now - except perhaps the left itself?

Tony Blair blithely admits his admiration for Thatcher. The old clause four is dropped. Labour promises to run the ‘market economy’, to sack workers and appease big business.

Unless you are from Mars - in which case you are unlikely to qualify for a vote - there will not be one person supporting Labour in the next general election who expects Blair, Prescott and Blunkett to fanfare the socialist dawn for us. People will vote Labour because they will have the thoroughly bourgeois, ‘common sense’ illusion that it will run capitalism more ‘nicely’ than the Tories.

They are in for a shock of course, but that is not the point.

To continue their support for Labour, the left would have to go through some rather uncomfortable theoretical hoops. The crap about ‘socialist illusions’ will have to be junked for a start. The left will have to admit that what actually guides its practice in relation to Labour is not revolutionary or socialist tactics, as recommended by Lenin. It is the disastrous bourgeois method of choosing the ‘lesser of two evils’.

What do you mean by that?

I mean accepting the agenda set before us by the ruling class and trying to pick the least obnoxious, the least unpleasant for the working class. While we are trapped in this method, while we don’t actually strike out for what is needed by our class - not simply what is on offer - the working class we are all supposed to be in business to serve will stay a slave class. It will never break the chains of capitalism.

Now is the time for organisations like the Socialist Worker Party to put their money where their mouth is. Prattle about building a “socialist alternative” to Labour is cheap when it prefaced by ‘Vote Labour, but ...’.

Under the specific circumstances pertaining today, it is quite clear that building an alternative and voting Labour are not complementary halves of some neat algebraic tactic. They are actually counterposed: they contradict each other.

What should the left actually do?

The answer has to be to reforge the Communist Party. That is the central task facing all of us.

This is not some sectarian self-promotional project dreamed up by the individuals currently elected to the Provisional Central Committee of our organisation. This is a task for the advanced section of our class. That includes people in the SWP, Militant Labour, etc.

If the SWP, for example, took the step of standing candidates against the Labour Party - whatever our disagreements with this organisation - this would be an important step forward for the class as a whole and we would welcome it as such. It would be a step objectively towards Leninism, towards communism, away from the poison of Labourism.

This is the context in which we view the furore around clause four. Of course, we don’t support the rightwing attacks on it. But the campaign to defend it has actually strengthened these harmful illusions in Labour, in its ‘socialist soul’.

This is what weakens our movement. The constitution of Labour, who wins the next election - none of that matters in itself. What must concern us is the combativity of our class, the state of its organisations, its ability to fight, struggle and win.

Intrinsic to that must be the question of a Communist Party, a mass combat organisation of the workers. We have to get off this merry-go-round. The working class must have an alternative, not simply to the incumbent government of the day, but to the system, to capitalism.

That alternative never has, never can be offered by Labour. We need a Communist Party. That might sound a little trite as an answer, but actually it is not. It is a profoundly true abstraction: now it needs to be made a reality.

We call on all partisans of the working class to join us in that struggle for the future.