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The Alliance for Workers' Liberty

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Debate: the Socialist Alliance and the labour movement

An exchange between the AWL and the CPGB

CPGB criticises AWL: 'Rerunning Labourism'

Weekly Worker 380 Thursday April 19 2001

Two recent articles on the future of the Socialist Alliance pose the question - what type of party do we need?

The Alliance for Workers' Liberty and the International Socialist Group have written articles outlining their perspectives for the future political orientation of the Socialist Alliance. There are differences between the two. However, both share a fundamental poverty of vision and a fatal softness on Labourism. Two crude assumptions underpin this opportunism.

First, that a form of Labourism is an unavoidable and inevitable 'stage' that the workers' movement in this country must chug through. Given this mechanical perspective, both groups seem determined to re-invent Labourism in some form, given the advanced stage of de-Labourisation of Blair's party. To justify this, both alibi the treacherous history of the Labour Party in the 20th century, dressing it up as a slightly inadequate, but basically 'OK' workers' party. More than that, by omission they aid the ruling class's attempt to bury the history of the only genuine workers' party to have been built in this country during the last century, the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Second, implicit in both pieces is a corrosive pessimism about the prospects of revolutionaries being able to gain a mass audience for our politics. The unwritten assumption is that the revolutionary programme is not a strategic battle plan for the class as a whole, but an esoteric, almost masonic document for those interested in 'that sort of thing'. At some point in the future, we are assured, it will become 'appropriate' for revolutionaries to reveal their revolutionary programme, but for now warmed-over social democracy and sub-reformism will do.

What is the Labour Party?

Both the AWL and the ISG misrepresent what the Labour Party actually was from its foundation. The AWL is the most explicit when it states that, 'The Labour Party, for all its innumerable faults, was established as the political wing of the trade unions, as a way of representing the labour movement, and working people in general, in politics - It was the party of the workers, independent of the liberals and Tories' (Action for Solidarity March 23 - all AWL quotes from this issue unless otherwise stated).

The existence of this workers' party meant, 'through the unions, and at a constituency level, working class people could directly get involved in politics, and with some hope of influencing things. Labour MPs and local councillors were supposed to represent working people. And they did, after a fashion.'

Blair's success means that now 'the labour movement, in effect, no longer has a political wing - even in the inadequate way it used to'. Thus, 'recreating such a political wing is a big priority for labour movement activists - something which can represent the mass of working class people in politics'.

Of course, this misleadingly one-sided characterisation of the Labour Party flatly contradicts the understanding that informed the early years of the Communist International and the work of the young CPGB. Lenin, at the Second Congress of the CI in 1920, intervened in debate between two British communists - John McLean (not the more famous John Maclean, who was already beginning his sad journey to left nationalism) and Willie Gallagher - on the question of affiliation to Labour. It is worthwhile quoting the man at length to leave no room for misinterpretation. Frankly, his contribution reads as though he were directly answering the AWL:

'First of all, I should like to mention a slight inaccuracy on the part of comrade McLean, which cannot be agreed to. He called the Labour Party the political organisation of the trade union movement, and later repeated the statement when he said that the Labour Party is the 'political expression of the workers organised in trade unions' ... [This view] is erroneous - Indeed, the concept 'political department of the trade union movement' is erroneous. Of course, most of the Labour Party's members are workingmen. However, whether or not a party is really a political party of the workers does not depend solely upon a membership of workers, but the content of its actions and its political tactics. Only this latter determines whether we really have before us a political party of the proletariat. Regarded from this, the only correct, point of view, the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party because, although it is made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie. It is an organisation of the bourgeoisie, which exists to systematically dupe the workers' (VI Lenin CW Vol 31, Moscow 1977, pp257-258).

Does the AWL believe that the Labour Party fundamentally changed its nature after these words were written? Perhaps it believes Lenin was wrong when he wrote them and the role of communists in Britain was in fact not to form a separate and distinct Communist Party (which, because it is highly organised and programmatically armed, can raise intervention in the Labour Party from the woefully amateur to the professional).

In or out?

Of course, it is often argued by pro-Labour groups that Lenin actually intervened energetically in the debates of the early CPGB to insist that it must apply for affiliation to the Labour Party. This is true. The task of overcoming Labourism positively, of breaking the hold of these types of ideas over the mass of our class was and is the strategic task of communists in Britain.

However, it is worthwhile remembering the context of the affiliation tactic as advocated by Lenin. Here was a party that had not yet been put to the test of forming a government, that still allowed communists and revolutionary organisations to openly operate in its ranks and was then talking very left in order to retain its influence amongst the wide swathes of workers in Britain that had been influenced by the Russian Revolution.

Clearly, Lenin regarded the exceptional tactic of affiliation - a move he regarded as only applicable in Britain - as a manoeuvre to speed up the process of exposure and disintegration of the Labour Party and the winning of the mass of the working class to the leadership of the communists. Affiliation would give the CPGB a far wider audience for its revolutionary message. On the other hand, if the CPGB were turned down, he believed that 'we shall gain even more, for we shall at once have shown the masses that [the Labour leaders] prefer their close relations with the capitalists to the unity of all workers' (cited in Jack Conrad Which road? London 1991, p229).

So, if accepted, the CPGB would have gone into the Labour Party all guns blazing. It was essential that in any bloc or affiliated relationship with Labour, the communists had to 'retain complete freedom of agitation, propaganda and political activity. Of course, without this latter condition, we cannot agree to a bloc, for that would be treachery; the British communists must demand and get complete freedom to expose [the Labour leaders]' (VI Lenin Left wing communism: an infantile disorder Moscow 1970, p90).

The formation of the CPGB and the type of tactics advocated to it by influential leaders of the Communist International like Lenin were premised on understanding the Labour Party as 'a thoroughly bourgeois party' (Lenin). If that understanding is true, why should 'the aim of the Socialist Alliance - be to revive that original idea of the Labour Party, only better, and equipped to deal with the 21st century reality' (AWL)? The AWL is trying to rewrite history - not very convincingly.

The AWL replies: 'Fight for workers' representation'

The Alliance for Workers' Liberty argues that the trade unions should combat their exclusion from politics by the Blair faction. They should fight for their policies in the New Labour structures. Since the Blair faction has made it clear that it will respond to such a fight - even on a limited scale - by cutting New Labour's trade-union link altogether, and prepared its paths for doing so, we must understand that this orientation means splitting New Labour and creating a new workers' party.

We fight within the trade unions for democracy and for working-class policies. We argue for a Marxist programme for the future new workers' party. We sum this up by calling for a workers' government.

We do not walk away from the labour movement. We argue for the labour movement to fight the Blair faction's attempt to walk away with labour's apparatus of political representation. We fight - across the board, in elections and inside the trade unions - to reassert independent working-class political representation.

This the perspective show 'a fundamental poverty of vision', 'a fatal softness on Labour', and 'corrosive pessimism', or so claims an article in Weekly Worker of 19 April, variously attributed to Ian Mahony in the print edition, and to Mark Fischer in the web edition.

What is Mahony/Fischer's rich-visioned, hard, and healingly-optimistic alternative? Weekly Worker wants to move 'towards a Socialist Alliance party'. So do we. But the purpose and necessary activity of such a party must be to inform and organise the struggle in which the labour movement transforms itself into an independent political force. It is not a choice - either party, or perspective for the labour movement. The party is nothing without the perspective; the perspective is nothing without the party (or beginnings of a party) to fight for it.

The way Weekly Worker puts the question of the party in its 'What We Fight For' column is wrong. 'Our central aim is to reforge the Communist Party of Great Britain. Without this Party the working class is nothing; with it, it is everything'. Rather as without an umbrella the working class would be wet; with it, it stays dry.

But a genuine working-class party cannot be something which well-wishers may or may not supply to the working class - making the working class 'everything' or 'nothing' depending on whether it receives this boon. And a working class which is 'nothing' without a party - how would this nullity ever develop a party, or provide the elements and lessons which form the organised revolutionaries and their work to build that party?

To want to 'reforge the CPGB' is odd. The CPGB was, throughout all living political memory and 80% of its entire history, a despicable counter-revolutionary force, and for its earlier 20% far from an ideal model. The odd formulation can be explained only by the fact that that CPGB uniquely fitted the bill of a 'party' supplied to the working class by external well-wishers - or, rather, ill-wishers, in the Kremlin, without whose subsidies and prestige it could not conceivably have continued through so many betrayals and arbitrary shifts of line.

If our 'vision' for the labour movement suffers from poverty, Mahony/Fischer's suffers from non-existence, or, at the kindest, from 'party'-fetishism.

The CPGB has advocated that the Socialist Alliance prioritise formal-political (democratic) demands rather than 'economistic' concerns about the Health Service, education, trade union rights, and workers' representation. Is this the 'hard' alternative to our 'soft' perspective for the labour movement? I think not.

It does not uphold the Marxist idea that: 'The theoretical conclusions of the Communists are in no way based on ideas and principles that have been invented, or discovered, by this or that would-be universal reformer. They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle...' Rather, it prides itself on certain lines of advocacy whose special 'anti-economistic' virtue is precisely that they are oh-so-very 'political' that they do not 'spring from an existing class struggle' at all.

More exactly, the 'anti-economistic' virtue is not in the politics as such - the AWL shares the call for a federal republic, and so do many - but rather the act of putting such peculiar emphasis on the 'federal republic' and so on, counterposing these notions so much against other political ideas (such as a workers' government), that no-one in their right mind could ever arrive at such an emphasis 'spontaneously'.

When it strays into economic demands - on the minimum wage - again, the supposed virtue is that the wage figure is one specially calculated by the CPGB. It is a 'communist' estimate of the needed minimum wage, not that of any bureaucrat or bourgeois. An odd concept this: from a Marxist view, the idea of a special 'communist' calculation of a proper 'fair' wage level is a contradiction in terms, since 'fairness' for wages is by its nature bourgeois and the purpose of communist politics is to focus workers' needs beyond the wages system rather than on a particular wage level. But the CPGB substitutes an arbitrarily 'maximalised' minimum programme for transitional demands; it seeks a self-differentiation from the general labour movement on the figure for the wage demand, rather than on the questions of principle about how the demand is pursued; it defines the 'needs' which workers should assert in terms of a specially-calculated 'minimum wage' and ever-so-hotly-insisted-on formal democratic demands, rather than of a Marxist 'political economy of the working class' ('social production controlled by social foresight').

These politics involve a lot of noise about how 'revolutionary' the CPGB is, but do not venture into transitional demands. They limit immediate advocacy to a minimum programme, i.e. one compatible with capital. Not suaviter in modo, fortiter in re, but fortiter in modo, suaviter in re. The programme should be the brightest red on the cover, but pale pink inside. Not a workers' government, but instead a federal republic without class definition. Not so much mobilising the working class against capital, as appealing to the people in general against the state.

Mahony/Fischer misunderstands Lenin. Yes, we know Lenin's 1920 speech about the Labour Party being a 'thoroughly bourgeois party'. In fact, back in 1966, we were, I think, the first tendency on the British left to rescue this quotation from the archives and make it a reference point in current politics. (See our pamphlet, 'Marxism and the labour movement', or this website).

But it does not follow that Lenin's advocacy of the early (revolutionary) British Communist Party affiliating to the Labour Party was just a quick 'manoeuvre' or 'exceptional tactic' for the speedy 'disintegration' of the Labour Party.

Marxists had advocated that the trade unions form an independent labour party in Britain long before 1900. The formation of the Labour Representation Committee in that year was a victory for their struggle. Although the British Marxist group, the SDF, disaffiliated from the Labour Representation Committee soon after it was formed, much of the left in the SDF advocated affiliation. Lenin aligned himself with their views when, in 1908, he supported the admission of the Labour Party to the Second International. The fiercest opponent within the SDF of national affiliation to Labour, Harry Quelch, nevertheless participated regularly and prominently in national Labour Party conferences as a London Trades Council delegate. The SDF was generally active in local Labour Parties. The major component of the CPGB formed in 1920 was the British Socialist Party, a continuation of the SDF left - which was affiliated to the Labour Party.

In 1920 Lenin could see Communist affiliation to the Labour Party as not just a continuation of this longstanding Marxist approach, but also as a relatively short-term tactic, because he foresaw successful working-class revolution soon in other European countries. Disintegration? Trotsky, writing in 1926, saw it rather as a matter of the Communists winning the same leading role in the broad Labour Party as had the ILP faction of Ramsey MacDonald before them. In any case, it didn't happen. The German revolution was defeated. The Russian revolution succumbed to Stalinism. The Labour Party did not disintegrate.

So, since Lenin's 'manoeuvre' did not work, we should go back to square one? Forget the longstanding Marxist approach, flag up our 'communist' party as against Labour's bourgeois party, and recruit people one by one? No. That would be just another version of the SWP's perspective, only coloured up more gaudily and stripped of the calculating practicality which tempers the SWP's attitude to the residual Labour left.

For the SWP, the great thing about the Socialist Alliance is that the 'crisis of Labourism' and the inspirational force of the 'new anti-capitalist militancy' are pushing people to the left, and the Alliance provides a convenient bivouac for them while they still hesitate about full-blown revolutionary politics.

This perspective (expounded in a recent article by John Rees, International Socialism 90) is questionable on the level of fact. Rees argues that the Labour Party has not fundamentally changed. The 'crisis' is that reformism no longer delivers reforms. That pushes some reformists to move left.

In fact the Labour Party has changed fundamentally, although the qualitative transformation into a pure-and-simple bourgeois party is not yet complete. Labour activists and supporters who now look to the Socialist Alliance mostly do so because their politics have not changed (while the Labour Party has), rather than because they have changed (while the Labour Party hasn't).

In the most-feted case, Liz Davies now supports the Socialist Alliance while describing herself as 'proud to be a left reformist'. Ten years ago, heavily immersed in the Labour Party, she would not have called herself a reformist. Nor was she one. I rather doubt that even now she is as 'reformist' as she makes herself out to be. In any case, if she has moved, it is to the right. Being in the Labour Party is not what defines someone as reformist!

Equally, a glance round any Socialist Alliance meeting will confirm that the Alliance's bulk is not that of 'new anti-capitalist' youth inspired by Seattle. The 'new anti-capitalist' sentiment among young people is of great importance for the development of a new generation of revolutionary activists, but to subsume every hopeful trade-union struggle, or every stirring of electoral rebellion, into a manifestation, expression, or consequence of this 'new anti-capitalism' is to make much more of it than reality warrants, and to replace class-based analysis by blurry populist agitation.

With the faulty analysis go faulty conclusions, on several levels. Political dialogue with Labour Party members, and with Labour-oriented trade unionists, is reduced to telling them about Blair's crimes and exhorting them to come over to something more left wing, instead of proposing political perspectives for the labour movement. Socialist Alliance work in the trade unions is reduced to a quick dash for support, rather than a steady effort to develop rank-and-file self-assertion. The Socialist Alliance election campaign is reduced to an exercise in getting as many votes as possible for a vaguely-defined 'socialist alternative' to the left of Labour. Political debate within the Socialist Alliance, beyond arguments about what formulas or buzzwords do or do not 'fit the mood' and catch left-wing votes, is dismissed as 'sectarianism' that 'puts people off'.

For the strategic task of actually developing 'the socialist alternative' - that is, of developing mass independent working-class political action and arming it with a programme of transitional demands - is substituted the short-span task of proclaiming that 'socialist alternative' on leaflets and posters. Questions of strategy and programme - or, simply, of where the Alliance goes after the general election - are blanked out.

The CPGB and the AWL have at least one important area of agreement as against this SWP approach, when we both insist on the importance of open political debate. But the false idea that going for a left-wing pole ('communist party' or 'socialist alternative') is an alternative to, and mutually exclusive with, fighting for a self-transformation of the labour movement, seems to me to be common.

A better guide, I think, is Marx and Engels. 'The Communists are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the lines of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement. The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: Formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat'.

Or Trotsky: 'At the Second Congress [of the Comintern, in 1920] Lenin was for the independence of revolutionary parties. That party, created under the hand of Lenin, has become the greatest barrier to the new revolutionary movement. It is a new situation now... We are convinced of the necessity of an independent party. But how to build it? Public opinion... is against us... When we climb up a cliff we must search for crevices, for footholds... If we consider the Fourth International [i.e. the Marxist nucleus] only as an international 'firm' which compels us to remain independent propagandist societies under any conditions, we are lost. No, the Fourth International is a programme, a strategy, an international leadership nucleus. Its value must consist in a not too juridical attitude... We must aim far. We must be patient, wiry...'

Martin Thomas