The following article was published in Proletarian Revolution No. 52 (Summer 1996). In analyzing the defeat of the British Labour Party’s left at the hands of the Blair leadership, we predicted that the centrist “far-left,” confronted with the decay of social-democracy, would turn to the building of new reformist parties rather than fighting for a revolutionary party. The founding of the Socialist Alliances and Scottish Socialist Party, each with a reformist program, has confirmed our prediction. Its international significance has been proven by the recent announcement in Australia that the Democratic Socialist Party and the International Socialist Organisation have concluded an agreement to form socialist alliances in that country as well.
The class struggle has reached a turning point in Britain. The working class is looking to regain its fighting strength after years of setbacks. At the same time, the old apparatus of the Labour Party left, which has been responsible for the defeat of every major working class struggle in Britain this century, is breaking up. Once a force within Labour and the unions, the left has been crippled by successive attacks from the party’s right-wing leaders. Now, with Labour likely to replace the Tory Party as the Queen’s government after the next elections, the party’s leaders have escalated these attacks in preparation for governing on behalf of British imperialism.
In response, Arthur Scargill, head of the National Union of Mineworkers and a leading figure of the Labour left, has called on unions and leftists to break from Labour and build his new reformist Socialist Labour Party (SLP). But most of his old allies have called for continued allegiance to Labour. On the far left, Britain’s centrist groups – those that cover their reformist practice with revolutionary words – are divided over which of the two reformist trends to follow.
The crisis of the Labour left gives revolutionary workers an exceptional opportunity to chart a course of struggle free of Labourism. This article aims to contribute to this task and to draw the lessons that can be used by revolutionaries the world over to deal with their reformist misleaders.
The Tory Party government under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher seemed invincible during the 1980’s. Her attacks on welfare, privatizations and successful confrontations with the unions earned her the title of “Iron Lady.” The “Thatcher boom” saw profits rise steadily.
But by 1990 Thatcher’s government was in crisis. Britain had entered its longest post-war recession. The capitalists’ need to further integrate into the European economy seemed threatened by her hostility to the European Union. And the Tories’ Poll Tax, an austerity attack on the entire working class, was defeated by a mass struggle, forcing them to avoid any more major clashes. Seeing her now as a liability, the Tories replaced Thatcher as party leader with the pro-European Union, less provocative but also less decisive John Major. Just when capital needed a strong government the Tories showed increasing indecision and weakness.
The British ruling class looked to Labour for an alternative. But it has always been wary of Labour, whose union base makes it more subject to pressure from the working class. So capitalists sought a new Labour leadership that was not only committed to austerity but that could also be trusted to suppress working-class pressure.
The Labour tops under Neil Kinnock had tried throughout the 1980’s to earn this trust by attacking the power of the unions and the left in the party. But even when they won, they did so only after lengthy battles, showing that they were not in complete control. And they still covered their attacks with talk of significant reforms, when the ruling class demanded uncompromising austerity.
With new Labour leader Tony Blair, many capitalists feel they have found their man. Immediately upon winning the party leadership, Blair set out to show the ruling class that he would make a decisive break with past appeals to the working class with promises of reform and socialism. Instead, he appealed to “disaffected Tory voters,” making clear he would not reverse Thatcher’s anti-working class measures but would rather create opportunities for the “aspirant classes.”
Blair knew that while he could win enthusiasm from the bourgeoisie, to implement his policies with confidence he needed to attack Labour’s left. He aimed not to inflict a smashing defeat on the unions but to separate the leaders who could be relied on to restrain working-class opposition from those who would not so readily sell out.
The battle Blair chose was over Clause Four of Labour’s constitution, which formally committed the party to collective ownership of the economy and a redistribution of wealth. His plan worked: while Scargill led the left in calling the attack on Clause Four “a declaration of war” on “the very soul of the Labour Party,” Blair triumphed thanks to the support of most of the union leaders, who accept austerity and aim only to limit it. As the bourgeois Economist enthused:
In two months, Mr. Blair has achieved more than Mr. Smith [Labour’s previous leader] in two years.... Clause Four stands for Labour’s intellectual debt to Marx, for its origins as a party of struggling proletarians, for the politics of protest and confrontation.
Blair continues to make clear that his government will offer workers little. He has refused to commit himself to a minimum wage unless it has the approval of big business. He opposes re-nationalizing industries privatized by Thatcher. He is committed to maintaining the Tories’ anti-union laws. He repeatedly reminds the public that the “trade unions can expect no special favors from a Labour government”. The Financial Times summed up:
The direction in which he seeks to lead the people’s party is away from state socialism, trade union dominance, high taxation, carefree expenditure, acquiescence in inflation, class warfare and some of the expensive but anachronistic traditions of the 50 year-old welfare state. It is towards becoming the party that tackles crime, supports the family, restores civic society, reconstructs the constitution and pursues social and economic objectives that are little different from one-nation Tories.
Thus Blair has succeeded in winning the support of a significant sector of the British ruling class. Increasing numbers of capitalists are declaring their support for Labour. Tony Benn, leader of the Labour left, while somewhat exaggerating the unanimity of Labour’s capitalist support, nonetheless showed some insight when he wrote:
The British establishment believes that Major is not strong enough to make the cuts in the welfare state that they need. They believe that New Labour will. They are giving full endorsement to Labour for that reason – they think it will be strong enough to attack these gains of working people. (Weekly Worker, October 19, 1995)
Many leftists see Blair’s revision of Clause Four as proof of a fundamental change in the nature of the Labour party. Having previously seen Labour as a workers’ party capable of leading the struggle for socialism, they now see it as similar to liberal capitalist parties like the U.S. Democrats.
But this is not a correct understanding of Labour, past or present. Labour has always been different from bourgeois parties like the Democrats. Not because of its politics, which have always defended capitalism in practice, but because of its organizational relationship to the working class.
Built by the unions in the early 1900’s, Labour has always relied on them for active support and funding. This led many socialists to mistakenly think that the Labour Party was a genuine political party of the working class. But Labour has never represented the proletariat’s anti-capitalist interests. Rather, it has expressed the pro-capitalist interests of the more privileged labor aristocracy and union bureaucracy, who have a stake in the system. As Lenin noted, no matter how many workers joined Labour, its petty-bourgeois reformist leadership meant that it was a capitalist party:
Of course, most of the Labour Party’s members are working men. However, whether or not a party is really a political party of the workers does not depend solely upon a membership of workers but also upon the men that lead it, and the content of its activities 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 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 organization of the bourgeoisie, which exists systematically to dupe the workers.... (Collected Works, Vol. 31, pp. 257-8.)
Lenin correctly saw Labour as a roadblock to revolution that workers must learn to destroy in the course of their struggle to build the revolutionary party.
But Labour also embodies an organizational gain of the working class. Without a party of their own, British workers previously could only choose between bourgeois parties in elections – thus sacrificing their independent organization at the polls. To express the contradiction between its bourgeois political character and its organizational base in the working class, Lenin called Labour a “bourgeois workers’ party.”
The Leninist understanding of Labour has been confirmed by the class struggle in Britain over the following 75 years. Labour has always been loyal to the capitalists, including rescuing them from the two major crises it faced since the Second World War. The post-war Attlee government defused a growing strike wave and massive radicalization of workers. Promising socialism, Labour could grant workers major concessions like full employment and health care, based on the economic boom. At the same time it used the army and police to repress more radical struggles.
Then, when the post-war boom turned to crisis and strikes crippled the Tory government of Edward Heath in the early 1970’s, Labour again took power promising socialism. But the governments of Wilson and Callaghan gave workers a crippling wage freeze, mass unemployment and brutal cuts in social services through their “Social Contract.” Thus they paved the way for Thatcher.
Free of any illusions in Labour, we can see that the “socialist party” many on the left mourn never existed. Labour’s socialist rhetoric was always a lie, so Blair’s attacks on it do not represent a fundamental change in the real character of the party. Moreover, it is quite possible that under pressure from a mass working-class upsurge in the future, even right-wing Labour leaders will again turn to militant and socialist rhetoric to deceive the workers.
Moreover, the unions still maintain their decisive bloc of votes at Labour conferences, and workers can still join the party through its local constituencies. Thus Labour still allows for the possibility of the working class forcing to the head of the party the reformist leaders it may look to in the future. A negative confirmation of the fact that the leaders have not severed the party’s reliance on the working class is that Blair could not have revised Clause Four without union support.
For Labour to be transformed into an open party of the bourgeoisie like the Democrats, it would have to fundamentally change its organizational relationship with the working class. This can happen only through a momentous clash between the party and the class. Labour’s relationship with the working class, embodied in the union bloc vote, gives workers the option of testing their leaders by placing them in power. Whether workers should exercise this option is a tactical question, but revolutionaries must fiercely defend the union bloc vote within the Labour Party from the modernizers’ attacks so workers can use it if necessary.
While the right-wing changes in the Labour Party under Blair are not fundamental, they are important. Blair’s revision of Clause Four does mark a watershed – in the decline of the left within the Labour Party.
Through every betrayal and attack on the working class led by the Labour Party, its left wing (as well as every major left group outside its ranks), has refused to break from Labour. This treacherous loyalty has been crucial to Labour’s ability to defend bourgeois rule. For example, the key to Attlee’s success in restraining the working class was the Stalinist Communist Party, which wielded its power in the union bureaucracy to prevent any struggle that threatened the Labour government. Similarly, through its control of the shop stewards’ movement, the CP was decisive in enforcing the Wilson/Callghan government’s Social Contract. When the working class erupted in the 1977 “Winter of Discontent,” every major left group maintained support for the Labour government. Because the CP had lost influence over many radicalized workers, more radical-talking centrists were decisive in misleading the struggle by supporting Labour.
Following the collapse of the Callaghan government and the rise of Thatcher, the Labour left led by Tony Benn had a brief rise in influence within the party. It won increased control by the party conference over the parliamentary wing; its choice for party leader, Neil Kinnock, was elected. In 1981, the left reached its peak when Benn ran for deputy party leader and lost by a hair. He immediately called for “unity” under “the existing policies and leadership” rather than a continued struggle against the right wing of the party.
The party leaders saw in Benn’s call for unity the weakness that would allow them to undercut the left in order to prepare for running a capitalist government. Kinnock attacked the unions’ bloc vote, driving it down from 90 percent of conference votes to 70 and then 50 percent, and launched purges against radical leftists in the party. But the party left still called for unity and supported Kinnock.
The retreat accelerated following the miners’ strike led by Scargill in 1984-85. Faced with a massive mobilization of workers against Thatcher’s government, Labour opposed the mine closures but also opposed the strike that challenged the government. When huge police mobilizations brutalized and harassed strikers and their supporters, Kinnock condemned both workers and cops for the violence.
The leaders of the Trade Union Congress (TUC) shared Kinnock’s desire to contain the strike. But the fierce struggles of the miners and their many working-class supporters opened up an opportunity to fight against the TUC leaders for a general strike. As a prominent workers’ leader, Scargill, by leading a fight against Kinnock and for a leadership committed to mass action and class-struggle policies, could have won masses of workers from the grip of the Labour leadership. Such a struggle could have defeated the Tory attacks and rallied the class for a fight against the whole capitalist system.
But Scargill was committed to the strategy of electing Labour and pushing it to the left – not pushing it aside for the workers to advance their struggle and build a revolutionary party. He knew that a mass working-class challenge to the TUC and Labour leadership threatened his reformist perspective. So he covered up the TUC leaders’ refusal to support the strike, defending them from criticism and opposing those who fought for a general strike. When the Labour leadership came up for election, Scargill joined the rest of the left in supporting Kinnock unanimously. He prefered to see his union gutted than to unleash a mass struggle that could threaten the Labour bureaucracy.
Thus the Labour left’s craven loyalty to the leadership paved the way for the rout it has suffered under Blair. Now, its rank-and-file base of support is crumbling: almost 40,000 have left the party in reaction to Blair’s policies and the left’s failure to pose a real alternative – most no doubt demoralized by the experience. The Labour left is in its death agony. Responsible for derailing every major working-class struggle in Britain this century, it must be buried once and for all, lest it lead future struggles to ruin.
Scargill now wants to revive the Labour left in a new party safe from the attacks of the Blairite “modernizers.” He has split from Labour and launched the SLP. But the “socialism” of Scargill’s SLP is no alternative to Labour. Scargill has made clear that he wants a return to the “socialist commitment” of old Labour. Far from reassessing the left-Labourite politics that have proved so hopeless, he wants the Labour left to revive its old policies in a new party.
The “socialist” policies Scargill has advanced are at best a reformist pipe-dream. For example, he says “a Labour Government could solve unemployment even within a capitalist society – overnight, provided it introduced a four-day work week, banned all non-essential overtime, and introduced voluntary retirement at age 55,” as well as rebuild the National Health Service and improve education. But British capitalism cannot afford these concessions. On the contrary, it can only survive by cutting spending on the “social wage” – education, health care and other services – and by cutting workers’ regular wages by increasing unemployment.
These austerity policies are a matter of life and death for capital. The ruling class will use all the powers at its disposal, including the armed forces, to prevent decisive pro-working class policies from being enacted – as the experience of coups and counterrevolutionary putsches around the world proves. However, the only means Scargill suggests for winning his program is electing the SLP to parliament. His parliamentary reformism leaves state power in the hands of the capitalists and blinds the workers to the need for their own revolutionary party. Most importantly, it does not include mass struggles, the only way the proletariat can become sufficiently organized and politically conscious to defeat the capitalists and build socialism.
Such policies were an important factor in Scargill’s misleadership of the miners’ strike in the 1980’s. Coal mines were an obsolete and inefficient enregy source, and the capitalists wanted to shut them down and wipe out thousands of jobs. Socialists defend every worker whose job is under attack. But while capitalists use technological advance to raise profits and increase unemployment, socialism would make use of such advances to supply society with its needs while freeing us from the burden of overwork. The necessary work will be divided among all, and none will suffer.
But Scargill’s solution was for the capitalist state to subsidize the coal industry to cover the costs of its inefficiencies. This is not a socialist but a state capitalist policy – and as the collapse of the statified capitalist Stalinist economies showed, that leads to economic catastrophe. Under capitalism, socialists must demand that the state maintain the jobs of all workers until it can guarantee other employment. The miners’ struggle could have proved the possibility of the socialist policy of jobs for all through a sliding scale of hours and won the support of the masses, had a genuinely revolutionary party leadership been there to fight for it. While the strike won widespread support among workers, it could never have sustained and expanded this support with a policy that meant draining the economy to support unnecessary jobs.
State capitalist policies like to tie the working class to the capitalist state through its “benevolent” protection. In this way they undermine the workers’ independent class organization and spur the growth of nationalism (for example, by promoting tarriffs against cheaper energy imports), encouraging workers to see foreign workers as competitors rather than class brothers and sisters.
Indeed, having always emphasized the need to fight for a “socialist Britain”, Scargill is now becoming more overtly nationalist. His Discussion Paper on the SLP, for example, cites as Labour’s worst betrayals of the working class not its maintenance of Thatcher’s anti-union laws, privatizations, racist immigration laws or repression of Northern Ireland’s Catholics – but the reversal of its old “Little England” nationalism in favor of support for the European Common Market! In blurring the class line and emphasizing British nationalism, Scargill even diluted his beloved Clause Four. The version the SLP adoped replaces the old text’s promise of economic justice to the “workers by hand or brain” with similar promises to the “British people.”
The most controversial debate at the SLP’s founding convention in May was over immigration policy. The SLP leaders argued against a proposal to oppose all immigration controls as anti-working class and racist. They claimed an SLP government would need “non-racist” immigration controls, since these would be necessary to prevent right-wingers from fleeing a future socialist government in South Africa! The fact that the SLP leadership resorted to silly arguments – why would rightists flee a socialist South Africa to a supposedly similar Britain with the SLP in power? – shows that the SLP is a nationalist party hoping to ally itself with backward workers fearful of competition from “foreigners.”
Thus Scargill’s program does not express the historic interests of the working class. Rather, it attempts to artificially sustain the partial privileges of a relatively small strata of workers through protectionist policies that aim to hide from the world market rather than overthrow it.
Scargill knew that by breaking from Labour and leading a party that claims to fight for socialism, he would raise expectations among many workers who want to fight capitalism. But while genuine socialists base their confidence on such workers, Scargill sees them as a threat. He knows that with a renewed sense of class power, many workers will go beyond reformism and look for a revolutionary road to socialism. The miners’ struggles taught him the need for a strong bureaucracy to restrain workers from going too far.
That explains why he first turned to the union and Labour left bureaucracy to build his SLP. Rather than hold public meetings, he organized secretly with select union and Labour bureaucrats to found the party, starting not with a program for socialism but with a constitution aimed at ensuring a compliant membership.
It was inevitable that the SLP would attract many of the far-left groups that have been driven from the Labour Party and were looking for a new home. Scargill understood this and feared that they would encourage dissent within the ranks of his party. So he included a clause in the party constitution that bans from membership any member of another political organization: leftists who want to join would have to first leave their organizations or see them dissolve. This is a more dictatorial constitution than Labour’s, serving to rule out factions and any challenge to Scargill’s leadership. The point was not to keep leftists from the party but to ensure that any who joined would be thoroughly housebroken.
Nevertheless, many self-proclaimed Trotskyists volunteered to help build Scargill’s SLP. While some smaller groups enrolled their individual members and dissolved their organizations to do so, the larger ones remain outside.
Necessary as it was for Scargill, excluding the left posed an immediate problem: in the absence of significant support from within the union and Labour-left bureaucracies, Scargill’s SLP would fail to attract members. A number of middle-ranking NUM officials joined, along with over half the executive board of the Rail and Maritime Transport Workers union, but they did not bring many workers with them. And Scargill was abandoned by most of his old allies of the Labour left. Tony Benn, for example, actively opposed the SLP and asked “left wingers to stick with Labour.” But Scargill still hopes to win sections of the Labour left. Accordingly, he is making sure the SLP does not antagonize them by criticizing their actions in parliament or the unions and has promised that the SLP will not oppose “socialist MPs” in any election.
With little support, Scargill led the SLP in running in a by-election in February. The seat the SLP chose to contest was Hemsworth, which includes many of Yorkshire’s mines and thousands of ex-miners and their families who had fought in the miners’ strike. If the SLP was to find a base anywhere, it would be here. It chose Brenda Nixon, ex-leader of Women Against Pit Closures, as its candidate, and was greatly assisted by left groups Scargill had excluded from the SLP’s ranks, who campaigned for the SLP uncritically.
However, the SLP failed to win any significant support in the working class. It received 5.4 percent of a low turnout, while Labour increased its vote slightly to 71.9 percent. In this pro-Labour working-class electorate, even the Tories and the Liberal Democrats outvoted the SLP!
This failure should have been little surprise. The SLP posed a passive parliamentary road to winning improvements in living and working conditions not fundamentally different from what Labour offers. But workers understand that if any such improvements are to be gained through parliament, the maximum number of seats must be won. Knowing that the SLP could not win the election, they chose Labour. “Better vote for Labour who won’t be as bad as the Tories than waste a vote on a party with better policies but no chance of implementing them,” many undoubtedly reasoned.
The largest far left group that rallied to Scargill’s call for the SLP was Militant Labour. For decades ML had lodged in the Labour Party, claiming a long-term perspective of transforming it into a revolutionary party. It held that the masses of workers would flood into the ranks of Labour at the onset of any mass struggle, overwhelming the right wing and moving naturally towards socialist consciousness. Such a perspective was the trade mark of all of ML’s affiliates around the world – from supporters in the U.S. working with union bureaucrats to build a reformist labor party, to South Africans inside the bourgeois African National Congress.
While inside Labour, Militant increasingly adapted to reformism, politically and organizationally. It held that socialism could be built in Britain without a violent revolution to smash the capitalists’ state power. It capitulated to British imperialism, refusing to fight for Irish self-determination and for the defeat of British imperialism in its war with Argentina in 1982. When the Labour leaders launched one offensive after another against it in the 1980’s, ML retreated. It accepted losses like the destruction of Labour’s youth organization (which it dominated) as the price for remaining inside until the masses would flood in.
A few years ago, ML split. A minority led by Ted Grant was prepared to stay in Labour no matter what, while the majority led by Peter Taaffe saw that if the organization was to be salvaged, ML would have to leave Labour’s ranks. Since then, the Grantites have disintegrated and the Taaffeite ML is left as an independent political organization without an independent political perspective. ML saw in the crisis of the Labour left an opportunity to recruit from people leaving Labour’s ranks but not breaking from their old Labourite politics. So they raised the idea of a new non-revolutionary mass party before the 1995 Labour conference.
ML had planned to vote for Blair’s Labour Party in the next election and then try to launch a new party, but they leaped at the opportunity to support Scargill’s SLP. Overlooking that their old policy of transforming Labour into a genuine workers’ party had proved bankrupt, ML now echoes Scargill in saying that the Labour Party has undergone a “decisive, qualitative change in character” and is now not fundamentally different from the U.S. Democrats and other capitalist parties. (Socialism Today, December 1995.)
When they wrote that an SLP “must not be a British Labour Party Mark II,” ML appeared to express the desire of revolutionary-minded workers who want to break from reformism. ML does not want an openly pro-capitalist leadership nor another purely parliamentary party. But their perspective leads directly to the same reformist dead-end. ML raised no criticisms of the program Scargill previewed in his Discussion Paper, nor does it argue that the Scargill leadership had to be fought if the SLP is to really represent the interests of the working class. Rather, ML aimed to build the SLP on Scargill’s reformist program – and to push Scargill to the left if not to replace him at some indefinite point in the future. Such a strategy could only serve to build support for Scargill’s bureaucratic misleadership, setting up the working class to be trapped in the reformists’ grip when they rise in struggle.
Despite their pleading for Scargill to reconsider, ML was effectively excluded from the SLP. But they remain undeterred from their perspective of building a new reformist party. On the one hand, ML enlisted in the SLP election campaign in Hemsworth, refraining from criticizing the SLP on any fundamental question besides its undemocratic rules. It even cooperated with Scargill’s edict that SLP campaigners not distribute anything other than official SLP literature. On the other, ML has turned to building left-unity groups called Socialist Forums and Socialist Alliances around the country, describing them as “vital preparatory work for the formation of a new party of the left capable of gaining mass support for socialism.” (Socialism Today, February 1996.) They aim to build these groups and then pressure Scargill to allow them into the SLP.
That ML’s strategy leads to a death-trap for the working class is made clear by their frequent suggestion that Italy’s Rifondazione Comunista (RC) is a model the SLP should follow. But RC has already proved that new reformist parties are no alternative to old ones. In parliament, RC voted last year for Prime Minister Dini’s austerity program and thereby saved his bourgeois government. This year it supports the popular-frontist Olive Tree coalition, whose victory was celebrated by financiers worldwide, with good reason.
The danger posed by Scargill’s SLP and Militant Labour’s support for it is this: a new reformist party threatens to rescue the capitalists by derailing the mass working-class struggles now on the horizon. Revolutionaries must unequivocally oppose the creation of such a party.
How revolutionaries oppose reformist parties is a tactical question based on the relationship of the party to the working class at different times. For example, when decisive layers of workers are entering the ranks of a reformist party, revolutionaries can join them, to fight by their side for policies and tactics that answer the immediate needs of the entire class. In this way, we can expose the reformist leadership by showing that they oppose such a program, thereby proving the need for the revolutionary party. Or, when key layers of workers hold the illusion that electing a reformist workers’ party will advance their struggle, revolutionaries can advocate critical support for the reformists. In doing so, we openly warn that the reformists will betray the workers, but we seek to prove this by putting them to the test of office.
Scargill’s call for the SLP is a response to Blair’s attacks and the left’s failure to defeat them. It is not a creation of or even a reaction to a radicalized and mobilized working class. We have seen no suggestion that a new layer of militants is being attracted to the party. Nor are illusions in the SLP a decisive factor holding back any layer of workers from rallying to the revolutionary party; the reformists who sit atop the SLP are unchallenged. Under these conditions, to support the SLP by joining or advocating electoral support for it is to help build a trap to snare the working class in the future.
But this does not mean that revolutionaries should refuse to participate in meetings and events organized around the call for an SLP. We should intervene in such meetings in order to solidarize with the desire of workers to break from Labourism and fight for socialism – and to make clear that Scargill’s SLP means no such thing. Revolutionary intervention would also make it more difficult for any far-left groups that have entered the SLP, since it could expose their opportunism to their own supporters.
In certain situations, if some workers do have illusions that the SLP represents a break from Labourism and a step toward a real socialist party, revolutionaries could advocate policies for the SLP or raise demands on its leaders to prove they don’t stand for a break with Labour’s basic politics. If the SLP had attracted a number of such workers, revolutionaries should have found a way to have comrades present at the SLP convention, for example, in order to participate in the struggle over the party’s program.
Revolutionaries could have raised and supported motions on basic revolutionary policies as well as tactical questions. For example, the current strike by dock workers in Liverpool is not being supported by the Labour leaders or the union they belong to. Revolutionaries could demand that Scargill & Co. condemn the union leaders, call on other unions to support the struggle and join in organizing solidarity actions like mass pickets. We would warn that Scargill and the other reformist leaders will betray such a struggle and would argue that this adds further proof of the need for a revolutionary party.
The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) is the biggest party to the left of Labour in Britain today. It opposed Scargill’s SLP with the pseudo-revolutionary objection that because Scargill wants his SLP to run in elections, the SLP will inevitably be reformist:
In words it is possible to talk about combining serious intervention in the elections with struggle outside the [House of] Commons. In practice the two pull in opposite directions. The search for votes pushes a party towards a softening of its message, towards a search for accommodation with the union leaders in order to secure backing and finance. The alternative is to center on struggle and to recognize that in any situation short of an insurrection revolutionary socialists will appeal to only a minority of the class. (Socialist Worker, Nov. 25.)
However, it is Scargill’s politics and not whether the SLP contests elections that makes his party reformist. The argument that participation in elections leads inevitably to opportunism is nonsense that has no place in the Marxist tradition. From the Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma, to the Third and Fourth Internationals of Lenin and Trotsky, participation in elections was advocated as an opportunity for revolutionary, anti-electoralist propaganda and agitation.
Indeed the revolutionary party should contest elections at the first opportunity, with the aim of gaining a wider audience for its revolutionary ideas. It is an indictment of the SWP that it does not do so. The SWP’s real opposition to Scargill’s SLP and running in elections comes not from the left but from the right, because central to their political perspective is political support for the Labour Party. The SWP hopes to recruit by posing as the “best builders” of day-to-day trade union struggles and political protests. In immediate struggles they base their tactics and demands not on what is objectively necessary for victory, but on what they believe workers are ready to accept. This most often means raising no more than the demands and tactics already being raised by the union leaders.
Importantly, the SWP opposes raising class-wide political demands like a sliding scale of hours to provide jobs for all – demands that can link the partial demands of the workers today to the need for centralized political solutions to their whole class’s needs. Instead, until the working class is ready for revolution, the SWP will support Labour as long as possible. It combines militant Labourism with a separate organization to corral those who understand that one day workers will have to go beyond Labourism.
Now confronted by Scargill’s SLP, the SWP can’t point to any immediate concrete political differences. It has recently been raising the slogan, “Hate the Tories? Worried About Blair? Join the Socialists.” Scargill’s SLP could well say: “Hate the Tories? Hate Blair? Join the Socialists” -— a slogan to the left of the SWP! Indeed, Scargill has accurately condemned those on the left who continue to support Labour under the guise of uniting against the Tories – when Labour itself is planning to attack the working class. And with a leader so associated in workers’ minds with big strikes, the SLP could have a more militant image than the SWP.
Thus Scargill’s left split from Labour threatens the SWP’s raison d’etre as a separate organization. The SWP’s argument that the SLP’s participation in elections would make it reformist and therefore no real alternative to Labour is a desperate, artificial objection raised to preserve the SWP’s independent bureaucratic apparatus.
Confirming their hypocrisy, when the SWP felt pressure from members attracted to Scargill’s SLP, it too enlisted in the SLP’s Hemsworth election campaign, offering few criticisms of the SLP’s reformist program.
The SWP was particularly vulnerable to Scargill’s challenge because it has been moving to the right as a result of its loyalty to the Labour Party. In the past, the SWP did not have to work so hard to convince workers to vote Labour; today it finds itself drawn into the vacuum left by the decay of the Labour left.
Consider the role of Paul Foot, a leading SWP figure who has been particularly responsible for arousing support for Labour. Following a series of uncritical interviews with leaders of the Labour left in the SWP’s magazine, Foot wrote a column entitled “Ten Things Everyone Should Know About the Labour Party”. The first of the ten is:
Labour, which is linked to organized workers, is better at any time than the Tories, who are linked to organized capital. (Socialist Review, October 1994.)
In fact, Labour governments are no less capitalist than the Tories. Moreover, as the SWP once admitted, many Labour governments have been worse for the working class than the Tory governments that preceded them. The fact that Labour is not funded by organized capital in no way negates its role as bourgeois agents, as Lenin repeatedly explained.
Foot went on to describe how without mass struggle pressuring the party, Labour governments are forced by the ruling class to act in its interests. Indeed the SWP increasingly argues that what Labour needs to beat the Tories is struggles by rank and file workers. It encourages workers to launch workplace struggles in order to support Labour.
Labour victories at the polls need to be reinforced by real labour victories.... Defiance, if widespread enough, would start to win concessions and victories. These will be worth in real ideas and in real votes a hundred times the lead in the opinion polls, and will lay some sort of foundation for a Labour victory which could mean something. (Socialist Review, June 1994.)
In another article, Foot extends this analysis, previewing how the SWP will act under a Blair government. First he paints past Labour leaders as sincere but incapable of implementing the policies they wanted because they never had control of the economy. Foot again volunteers the working class as Blair’s best hope for political success, even though he admits that Blair is no friend of the workers:
Particularly if he is successful in taming any industrial action or confidence before his election, Blair will find himself at the mercy of an arrogant and contemptuous ruling class, eager at once to humiliate him and subdue him to its purpose. All the signs are that he will be a willing captive.... Tossed about like a cork in a whirlpool, he will jettison one commitment after another until, no doubt, he will start to study how his illustrious predecessor Ramsay MacDonald escaped a similar plight and stayed in Downing Street at the head of the Tory party. It won’t be long into a Blair government before the Tories and their press start to howl for a government of national unity. (International Socialism 67.)
This is nonsense. The British ruling class is increasingly looking to Blair as their leader because he is committed to their needs and represents the potential for a stronger, more stable capitalist government than the Tories. While they may wish to push Blair to launch even greater attacks on the masses than he plans, they will hardly seek to humiliate him. On the contrary, they will look to support his government against the threat of mass working-class struggles.
The greatest danger in Foot’s argument is that it suggests that not only are the Tories and “their system” the main enemy of the working class right now, but they will still be so under a Blair government. The logical extension of the SWP’s advocacy of working-class struggles in support of a Labour victory is that the immediate task of the workers’ movement if Blair wins would not be defense against attacks led by Labour, but defense of Blair against the capitalists.
And Foot almost explicitly blurted this out:
The economic state we’re in – and the whole history of Labourism this century – points to the inevitable collapse of a Blair administration, with horrific social consequences. This will not just be a personal tragedy for Tony Blair. The pit into which Tony Blair will certainly fall beckons all of us. The failure of a government in which so many socialists and trade unions have placed their faith could lead to widespread cynicism and pessimism.... In its basic electoral support and in its links with the unions, Labour is still a party with working class roots. When Labour does well at the polls, its worker supporters feel better, more confident; and when Labour goes down, its supporters go down too.
Workers should draw their confidence from their collective power as a class, certainly not from capitalist parties like Labour. Seeing workers placing their faith in Labour, the SWP’s Foot calls for a campaign to support Labour so it won’t disappoint them, instead of seeing the need to fight against these deadly illusions.
The working class’s fate is not tied to Labour. A Blair government would itself launch attacks against the working class and would aid the capitalists in their attacks. Workers will have to respond with mass struggles, which would have the potential to bring down the Labour government; that would be a victory and a big step toward revolution. Foot’s argument suggests that when Blair attacks the working class, this can be countered by fighting to force Labour to take on the Tory capitalists. This policy could lead the SWP to oppose tactics like the general strike needed to defeat Blair’s attacks – because they potentially threaten the Labour government.
A group that appears to be well to the left of the SWP in Britain is Workers Power (WP). Indeed, before Scargill called for his SLP, when only far-left groups like ML were calling for a new mass party, WP seemed prepared to adopt a revolutionary attitude toward a new reformist party:
The job of revolutionaries is not to give credence to the remnants of Stalinism and left reformism but to fight them, ever more vigorously, for the support of the layers of young workers who are disenchanted with the established workers’ parties.
The “workers’ party” tactic of [ML leader] Taaffe ... offers the left fakers a new lease of life when what we want to serve on them is a death warrant.
Only revolutionary socialism can meet the challenge of a new generation looking for socialist change.
If left reformist currents emerge from decaying Labourism and Stalinism we must relate to them – not in order to shore up doomed projects of “real Labour,” “True Labour” or “Socialist Labour” parties – but to assist the best militants amongst them to make a clean break with reformism....
Workers and youth who are being radicalized and will be radicalized by the coming struggles do not need to be dragged through the experience of a party led by the Benns, Livingstones and Scargills of this world ... before they can experience a real revolutionary organization. (Workers Power, September 1995.)
But as soon as Scargill made his call for an SLP, WP sang a different tune. In their first response, they wrote that the growing numbers of workers rejecting Labour:
... need a strong, well-organized socialist voice and an organization to organize and lead their resistance. That is why Workers Power welcomes Arthur Scargill’s call for discussions on the left to consider the establishment of a Socialist Labour Party. We will participate fully in the process of consultation and debate ... in the run-up to the planned launch of the new party in May 1996. The key question for this debate is, what kind of party should socialists be aiming to establish in May? (December 1995.)
Communists might welcome Scargill’s call for an SLP – as an opportunity to expose him and his ilk to a wider audience of workers. But that was not what WP meant. They welcomed Scargill’s call for an SLP as an opportunity to take a step forward with him toward building a big revolutionary party (see below).
WP did say that while his call was an “understandable” reaction to Blair’s charge to the right, Scargill was “mistaken” in thinking that Labour once had “socialist roots” that could be returned to. But pointing to an “understandable” mistake sounds like a comradely difference of opinion rather than an expression of mortally opposed perspectives – reform versus revolution.
When workers initially react to Blairism by wanting to return to “old Labour,” we recognize their mistake and understand why they think that way – because in the wake of the defeat of past struggles they honestly cannot see an alternative. However, Scargill was until yesterday part of the old Labour apparatus that betrayed those struggles and is wedded to the same reformist politics that led to defeat. Typically, WP fails to distinguish between the honest mistake of workers and the corrupt politics of Scargill, leaving revolutionary-minded workers good reason to think that Scargill might correct his error through the course of struggle like the masses of workers will. And, continuing to avoid criticizing Scargill on fundamental questions, WP failed to criticize the poisonous nationalism of Scargill’s SLP Discussion Paper.
WP took this opportunistically mild attitude toward the SLP because they were preparing to join it and encourage all workers to do the same. From the start they promoted the illusion that the SLP could be turned into a revolutionary party:
Arthur Scargill’s announcement of his intention to found a new Socialist Labour Party (SLP) presented enormous potential for socialists in Britain. For the first time in decades, a trade union leader with national influence had issued a call capable of rallying serious forces on the left wing of the labour movement.
Workers Power responded positively, declaring ourselves prepared to engage in such a process with the aim of promoting the formation of an SLP on the firm foundations of a program for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and the socialist transformation of society. (Workers Power, January 1996.)
By not pointing to the need to politically defeat the Scargill leadership, WP created the illusion that Scargill was moving left and could be won to supporting a revolutionary program. WP could perhaps claim that by these statements they meant that they would oppose Scargill’s “mistaken” politics and seek to convince those workers attracted to the SLP that it should adopt a revolutionary program. But that is not what they said, nor is it consistent with their reluctance to criticize Scargill on fundamentals.
It took months for WP to state that their aim for the SLP to be a revolutionary party was not Scargill’s – after Scargill had effectively banned left groups from the SLP and the project appeared moribund. Even then, they avoided saying so in their main article on the SLP, preferring to bury the idea in a separate polemic with the SWP:
They [the SWP] have no rounded alternative to [Scargill’s] left reformist vision for the SLP and therefore cannot fight him for the political heart of the project. Only a revolutionary program provides such a means. (ibid.)
When WP did attack a reformist perspective for the SLP, they aimed their fire not at Scargill but at Militant Labour. WP criticized ML’s aim of building a reformist “viable weapon” for socialism (as ML used to refer to Labour) and in particular for suggesting Italy’s Rifondazione Comunista as a model for the SLP.
But, tellingly, WP did not attack ML on the most important point: that ML supported Scargill’s call for an SLP and volunteered to build it. No wonder: Militant Labour wanted to enroll in the SLP and push it to the left; Workers Power wanted to do the same but push it a little further. Thus, just as Scargill threatens the SWP, ML presented WP with a perspective from which they could not differentiate themselves in any concretely meaningful way. No wonder WP considers Militant moving left and worthy of appeals for unity. (Workers Power, April 1996).
After another month had gone by in which Scargill had the SLP adopt his reactionary constitution, WP shifted again. They wrote that the way Scargill had established the SLP, pre-purged of Militant and other left groups and on a reformist Labourite program:
... suggests that he has not broken from his old belief in socialism from above: through elections, with mass organizations placing mass pressure on elected MPs.... Scargill’s attitude is in keeping with his whole political method. We are not surprised by it.... Scargill has created a miniature left reformist party. (February 1996.)
It is heartwarming that WP was not surprised when Scargill was revealed to be the same treacherous bureaucrat he has always been. But we could understand if WP’s readers were surprised: after all, WP had only one month earlier told them that Scargill was creating an “enormous potential” to build a revolutionary party. (As we show below, WP often employs this fake “we told you so” hindsight to cover their opportunist adaptation to the Labour Party.)
Why the change? Like ML, WP gave Scargill the opportunity to avoid revolutionary criticism if he would only return the favor by allowing them into his SLP. Once Scargill rejected their advances, WP chose to save face by denouncing him.
But WP has not given up on the SLP turning into the revolutionary party. After discussing the reactionary policies adopted by the SLP at its founding convention and noting that a motion for a clear policy of socialism through revolution got only 10 percent of the vote, WP concluded:
Yet there is a significant minority of the party who see the need to go beyond left reformism and commit the party to the goal of revolution. They need to get organized and continue the campaign for revolutionary policies. They are the great hope for the future of the SLP and of all those who see the need for a mass revolutionary party in Britain.... One thing is certain: the struggle for the political soul of the Socialist Labor Party has only just begun. (June 1996.)
Precisely wrong! The SLP’s founding convention confirmed what should already have been clear: the SLP is a reformist party with an entrenched bureaucratic leadership and no immediate prospects for mass support. Rarely are political lessons more obvious: it is wrong to attempt to advance the revolutionary party from within the SLP. Any worker who previously hoped otherwise should break from the SLP and fight for the revolutionary party outside. The SLP is an obstacle to the building of the authentic revolutionary party which can only be strengthened by the participation and support of revolutionaries.
While revolutionaries believe this policy is correct, it is not an ultimatum. If some workers honestly do maintain the hope of transforming the SLP, revolutionaries would not ignore them. We would continue to engage them in discussion and common struggle where possible. But unless there is a drastic change in the nature of the SLP, revolutionaries should not do this from within the SLP.
Averaging slightly more than one position on the SLP per issue of their paper, Workers Power is pulling out all stops to prove once again that centrism vacillates. It offers no alternative to workers rejecting Militant-style capitulation to Labour.
Throughout its history, regardless of whether masses of workers have been moving away from Labour – even when Labour was in power and viciously attacking the workers – Workers Power has always called for electoral support. Given its particular left-wing rhetoric, WP is still more likely to tail the development of a new, superficially more radical reformist party than to continue clinging to Labour. But for the time being, following the failure of Scargill’s SLP to gain substantial support, WP will continue with Labour.
WP has already declared its intention to vote for Blair’s Labour in the coming elections; it likewise advocated voting for Labour in the Hemsworth by-election contested by the SLP. WP claims that this is the only way to expose “the illusions that millions of workers have in Labour.”
In the meantime, WP calls on workers to join them outside and inside the Labour Party in a fight for “a series of demands that will force a Labour government to act in the interests of the millions of workers it claims to represent.” Specifically, WP advocates demands for a wealth tax and “nationalization under workers control” in order to solve unemployment, a minimum wage almost double what Labour is considering, expanded education and health care, millions of new homes and even that Labour “abolish” the House of Lords and the Monarchy! (Workers Power, November 1995.)
To raise demands on reformists when workers have no such illusions only serves to create those illusions – as if Labour would ever fight for such policies! In fact WP knows that workers do not hold such illusions. As they wrote to explain why workers did not defend Clause Four:
The thing most Labour-voting workers want now is a Labour government. It is nothing new for them to be prepared to see Labour’s policies move right to achieve this.... Many Labour activists think that if dropping a set of words, which never achieved anything in practice, will ensure a Labour victory then that’s better than another five years of Tory rule. Wider layers of Labour voters have been convinced that nationalization and state socialism are outmoded, and believe that the Labour Party needs a “modern” economic program with a managed market. (April 1995.)
If the masses of workers in Britain today thought that a Labour government would advance their class’s struggle, revolutionaries could advocate voting for Labour, going through the experience of electing a Labour government with them in order to prove that Labor will betray. However, the sentiment WP describes expresses the fact that many workers are cynical about their own class’s ability to defeat Tory government attacks and so are looking to Labour as a lesser evil, particularly now that Labour has the backing of more sections of the bourgeoisie and middle classes. WP’s description of the reasons why workers voted for Labour in Hemsworth confirms this:
After 17 years of Tory rule, most workers continue to see Labour as the best chance of getting rid of this hated government. Despite widespread misgivings about Blair, there is a general feeling that with Labour in office, many of the blows inflicted by the Tories on jobs, services and living standards will be halted, or at the very least cushioned. (March 1996.)
To endorse Labour under these conditions is not to solidarize with struggles of the working class that are bound to collide with their illusions in Labour. Rather, it is to encourage workers’ lack of confidence in their class’s ability to defeat the attacks from the Tories and the capitalists.
The electoral support for Labour among many workers belies the profound cynicism and distrust in it throughout the working class. A sign of disenchantment was the conference of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers Union recently, which voted overwhelmingly against a motion calling for it to “campaign positively” for a Labour government. Alienation from the entire political system is widespread and concentrated among those with the least stake in it: the unemployed, the youth and the racially oppressed. For example, 44 percent of youth (18-25 years) do not vote, not counting those not even registered.
Revolutionaries must face reality squarely and explain to their fellow workers that in all likelihood, there will be no workers’ party worth voting for in the coming elections. This makes the need for revolutionary-minded workers to come together to build such a party all the more urgent. And with large numbers of workers holding an explosive rage toward their exploitation and oppression, there is tremendous potential to build a revolutionary leadership. For socialists to encourage a Labour vote might easily confuse the relatively small layer of workers now looking for a revolutionary alternative. And WP’s line threatens far worse in the future.
If elected, Blair’s Labour government will likely face a mass workers’ struggle at some point. If such a struggle is successful, it could rally wider forces to beat back all the attacks on workers and threaten the Blair government. With Labour holding a weak grip on the working class, the capitalists will need a parliamentary diversion to the workers’ mass struggles – a left Labour leadership.
While revolutionaries will need to fight such a trap for the struggle, WP’s position directly encourages it. By arguing for the need to fight within Labour over a program like that cited above, WP sets itself up to direct workers into supporting and joining the Labour Party (to fight to move it left under a new leadership) – just when mass struggles will be showing workers’ ability to build a revolutionary alternative.
WP’s potential for such treachery was shown when it refused to call for a general strike against the Callaghan government during the 1977 mass struggles against its attacks; WP did not want to threaten a Labour government, preferring to encourage workers to vote for Labour. Thus WP adds a more left-wing echo to the SWP’s pre-emptive calls to defend Labour against the Tories and push it to the left.
The rightward drift of Labour and the crisis of its left wing gives those who have placed their hopes for socialism with the Labour Party good reason to be cynical. But for authentic revolutionaries who look to their class, the working class, as the force for revolutionary thought and action, there is reason for enthusiasm and optimism.
Today, the British working class is seeking to regain its strength after the many defeats inflicted over the last twenty years. Both the SWP and WP expect the class struggles in the coming period to be characterized by isolated economist efforts. But the economic crisis, mass unemployment and the determination of bosses and politicians to deepen the attacks will mean that such struggles will not be able to win as often as in the past. More likely, workers will hesitate to launch struggles without a feeling of power and will more readily respond to opportunities to fight for broad demands that can unite broad numbers of workers.
Until these struggles break out and the real masses of workers enter the struggle, it will be impossible for revolutionaries to win a mass audience. Today, only a relatively small layer of politically advanced workers who hate the Labour Party and are looking for an alternative can be won to building the revolutionary party. They must not be allowed to be confused by the centrist left into thinking that there is some reason to remain loyal to Labourism either by continuing to vote for them and trying to push them to the left, or by building a new left Labourite party like Scargill’s SLP. Revolutionaries must raise on their banner clear slogans that express that Socialist Revolution is the Only Solution to the workers’ needs, and that the central task of all class-conscious workers is to Build the Revolutionary Party of the Working Class and Re-create the Fourth International.
When the working class does not look to a recognized leadership and is reluctant to launch struggles without a feeling of real social power, slogans of mass struggle are particularly important. Revolutionaries must be sensitive to the peculiarities of each workers’ struggle and propose the tactics best suited to immediately advancing each. But a key idea must be the need to spread the struggle and mobilize the greatest number of workers in pursuit of the working class’s needs. That is why revolutionaries in Britain should popularize the idea of the general strike in their propaganda. Every major struggle in Britain – from the 1977 Winter of Discontent, through the struggles to defend the coal mines from privatization, to the struggle against the poll tax – has shown the potential and need for a general strike.
The general strike alone solves none of the problems of the class struggle. But at the same time that it answers the basic needs of workers when they begin defensive struggles – unity and power – by mobilizing the entire working class against the capitalists and their government, it clearly poses the question – who leads and who rules?
Focusing their action slogans on the unions, revolutionaries could popularize the idea of workplace strike committees and action councils to involve the great masses in the struggle, and workers’ defense squads to defend against the very real threat of police and other reactionary attacks. This advanced level of organization is at first necessary to execute the struggle most effectively, but when reformist leaders betray the struggle, these mass organizations can become the means for continuing the struggle.
Revolutionaries would explain how as a general strike mobilizes the masses and paralyzes the capitalists, these action councils could become organs of working-class power capable of posing a real alternative to the capitalists’ state power and the Labour and Tory parties. Any revolutionary aware of the danger of a parliamentary trap for the coming struggles will see the importance of spreading such slogans.
But ultimately, a mobilization of the working class can only be successful if it fights for demands that answer the needs of the great masses of workers, in particular the most oppressed and exploited. Thus, revolutionaries emphasize the need to transcend the partial and economistic demands characteristic of trade-union struggles by pointing to the need for class-wide policies like Jobs for All through a Sliding Scale of Hours and a Living Wage, the Repudiation of the Capitalist Debt and the Expropriation of the Banks and Big Businesses.
Revolutionaries would explain that a mass struggle for such demands would be able to prove to increasing numbers of workers that capitalism will have to be overthrown by a revolution that smashes the capitalists’ state power. A workers’ state that establishes a planned economy producing for human need, not profit, can answer the needs of the workers – but only if it is supported by the world socialist revolution which unleashes the productive power of the world economy. In particular, revolutionaries would counterpose key internationalist slogans like that for a United Socialist States of Europe and would call for an end to Britain’s racist, imperialist immigration controls. It would also oppose the capitalist European Union as well as to no less capitalist “Little Englandism.”
Revolutionaries will not hesitate to use elections and parliament to advance their socialist program and expose the reformist leaders and their parliament. But the great mass struggles in the factories and streets will be the birthplace of the authentic communist leadership of the working class. The bankruptcy of Labourite left reformism and centrism shows why revolutionary-minded workers should waste no time in rallying to the banner of genuine Trotskyism.
Stepping to the head of workers’ struggles with gestures of militancy and promises of socialism, the Labourites have betrayed the millions of workers who placed their hopes in them over the years. Left reformists pose a similar threat to the coming struggles of the working class. Thus the question of how to break the working class from reformist misleaders is decisive for revolutionaries today.
The masses of workers will only break from reformist leaders on the basis of their own experience of the class struggle. That is why revolutionaries advocate the united front tactic, whereby they join with the masses of workers and their reformist leaders in struggle in order to put their criticisms of the reformists to the test. As Trotsky explained:
The tactic of the united front still retains all its power as the most important method in the struggle for the masses. A basic principle of this tactic is: “With the masses – always; with the vacillating leaders – sometimes, but only so long as they stand at the head of the masses.” It is necessary to make use of vacillating leaders while the masses are pushing them ahead.... And it is necessary to break with them at the right time when they turn from vacillation to hostile action and betrayal. It is necessary to use the occasion of the break to expose the traitorous leaders and to contrast their position to that of the masses. It is precisely in this that the revolutionary essence of the united front policy consists. (Leon Trotsky on Britain, p. 255)
Most of the British left rejects this tactic in favor of a strategy of permanent support to the Labour Party: they refuse to break with Labour even when it has been openly betraying workers’ struggles. In their first response to Arthur Scargill’s call for the formation of an SLP, the Workers Power group seemed to make this same point, saying that Scargill’s call to break from Labour was long overdue:
The real problem is not the premature formation of an SLP. It could even have come too late.
If Militant had found the political courage to break with Labour during the struggles in Liverpool in the mid-1980s, and if Arthur Scargill and his allies in the NUM had made the call, tens of thousands could have broken from the grip of Kinnock.
As it is we remain in a period characterized by the legacy of defeats, retreats and sporadic resistance. (Workers Power, December 1995.)
But reader beware – the same criticism can be made of WP, which never broke from Labour during its betrayal of the miners’ struggle!
Just in case we had somehow missed a significant change in WP’s attitude, we wrote to them, challenging them to say when they had ever showed “the political courage to break with Labour in the mid-1980s.” We noted, for example, that “During the miners’ strike, wasn’t Workers Power saying that the class struggle had to be waged in the unions ‘and in the Labour Party’?”
Workers Power printed our letter (January 1996) and replied by saying that our “sectarian politics” prevented us from seeing the consistency between calling for a class struggle to be waged “in the Labour Party” and the argument for a “break with Labour.” WP now claims it had called for a “revolutionary break with Labour” in a passage from their pamphlet on the miners’ strike:
“The Bennite left has shown that despite its rhetorical ‘left’ positions ... faced with the threat of a split or all out war from the Labour right they will pipe down.” The pamphlet went on to call for a new revolutionary communist party.... WP’s approach aimed to break tens of thousands away from Labourism in struggle, by pursuing the civil war to the end. (Workers Power, February 1996)
But this is no evidence that WP broke from Labour! WP now says that it had “aimed” to break workers from Labour and that elsewhere it called for the building of a separate revolutionary party. It does not say, nor could it, that WP called on workers to break from Labour and not give it any form of political support.
WP could not find a single statement of theirs to this effect from over the last twenty years because none exists. They “aimed” to break workers from Labour by encouraging them to fight within Labour for socialist policies and by tirelessly voting for Labour in elections. The problem isn’t that WP hasn’t said that workers should break from Labour – but that, often in the same breath, they tell workers to continue fighting within Labour and outside it to force it to represent the needs of the working class.
As they wrote during the miners’ strike:
In the unions first and foremost – but necessarily and vitally in the Labour Party too – the class fighters must be rallied for a life or death struggle against the class traitors. Then we shall see where the waverers and appeasers stand. This strike has shown the working class doesn’t need a “broad church.” It needs a mass party of the class struggle. It needs a party dedicated to overthrowing capitalism.... To this end the militant miners and all their supporters should dedicate themselves in 1985. (Workers Power, January 1985)
WP is formally opposed to the perspective of trying to transform the Labour Party into a revolutionary party, but this is the implication of this statement and many similar ones. WP wants workers to break from Labour, but they themselves will not do so until the masses of workers have.
Typically centrist, WP is revolutionary in rhetoric but reformist in deed. They continued to support Labour even when it was attacking the working class – for example, when they voted for the Callaghan government in 1979 – and blamed the workers for not being ready to break.
Trotsky condemned such behaviour in strong terms:
Temporary agreements may be made with the reformists whenever they take a step forward. But to maintain a bloc with them when, frightened by the development of a movement, they commit treason, is equivalent to criminal toleration of traitors and a veiling of betrayal. (The Third International After Lenin, p. 129.)
Workers Power does exactly that, and denounces us — for exposing their cover-up.