First Published: The Marxist, No. 15, Autumn 1970.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE was submitted to us before the General Election last June, in reply to the argument presented by Dick Jones in issue Number 13. Because of limited space we were unable to publish it in our last issue. Although the election is past we feel that the questions raised in comrade Jones’ original article need the fullest discussion and we have therefore decided to print Sean McConville’s contribution even though it was written in the pre-election period and is to some extent dated. We hope to continue the discussion in future issues of The Marxist and we will be happy to consider for publication articles and letters from our readers. – THE EDITORS
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LENIN’S ARTICLE, Left Wing Communism, is nothing less than a detailed guide to revolutionary tactics in the European situation. Yet its title is very often used by the revisionists as a kind of slogan or fetish against Marxist-Leninists. It is also used to try to justify the ’left’ labour-revisionist alliance strategy of the Communist Party of Great Britain, by means of statements torn entirely from context. It is as well to begin by making clear that this is not the dispute with Dick Jones (Marxist Number 13). His argument is that it is easier to expose Labour when they are in power. People can learn from their own experience in such a situation, and this is the most advantageous and efficient learning that can take place. He opposes both Parliament and Social Democracy and supports the line of revolutionary seizure of power and proletarian dictatorship. With this proviso as his position, we must none-the-less state that we disagree with his specific tactical line, and the purpose of this article is to try to show the sources of his error and to offer an alternative view on the tactics for the next Parliamentary election, in the context of a broader consideration.
To avoid the accusation of formalism it is necessary to consider the essence of Lenin’s article, the end to which his tactical advice was directed. It is further necessary to consider the relationship between the tactics advocated, and the concrete political circumstances which gives meaning to those tactics.
Most generally the article had the intention of detailing those tactics necessary to bring about revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeois state. It is a handbook for revolution; particularly concerned with pointing out ’the nature of the scientific Communist outlook, in contrast to the various ’abstract’ or ’pure’ versions being put forward at the time.
The collapse of the Second International and the mass betrayal by socialist ’leaders’ in various countries with regard to national chauvinism and parliamentarianism, had’ produced a situation in the international movement very similar to that existing today: New parties, new principles’ and tactics were being worked out in conditions of reaction from, and abhorrence of the opportunists and betrayers. Deep revolutionary feelings of groups and organisations often took the form of indiscriminate rejection of all institutions and tactics seen to be connected with the opportunists. As Lenin points out this is ’infantile’, i.e. a feature of the movement at its early stage, and incorrect in that it does not distinguish between the form and content of tactics. In form, there might be similarities between the tactics employed by revolutionaries on the one hand and opportunists on the other, but in content and intention, there was all the difference in the world.
Groups of Marxist-Leninists in Britain and other countries have recently had similar experiences. Reacting from the betrayal of the modern revisionists, they have dismissed a whole range of tactics, not differentiating their content when applied in a revolutionary manner, from the formal similarity to the tactics of modern revisionists.
However, vital differences in the concrete situation in Britain and the world must be analysed before the essence of Lenin’s advice may be separated from the specific form that it took at the time. With regard to Britain, Lenin was writing at a time when there had been no experience of a Labour Government. There is a qualitative difference between this, with its implications for the masses and the experience that advanced class elements had had of the Labour leaders opportunistic nature. Lenin was concerned to show that despite their exposure to such advanced elements, it was necessary, essential, for the Labour Party to ’be exposed in action, as a government.’
. . . I want with my vote to support Henderson in the same way as a rope supports a hanging man ... The impending establishment of a government of Hendersons will prove that I am right, will bring the masses over to my side, and will hasten the political death of the Hendersons and the Snowdons ... (Left Wing Communism, English edition, Peking 1965, page 90.)
. . .if Henderson and Snowdon gain the victory over Lloyd George and Churchill, the majority will in a brief space become disappointed in their leaders and will begin to support Communism, (or at all events will adopt an attitude of neutrality towards the Communists) ... (Left Wing Communism, page 85.)
This last statement gives a clear indication as to the particular political context in which Lenin was writing. Not only was it a time when the masses had not had the experience of Labour as a government, which would lead them to reject illusions about it, it was also a time of impending parliamentary and political crisis.
In Great Britain . . . conditions for a successful proletarian revolution are clearly maturing. (Left Wing Communism, page 86.)
So Lenin’s advice was given at a time of impending parliamentary crisis, when the main factor likely to assist the bourgeoisie was the deceiving nature of the Labour Party, which had not as yet been in power. The situation today is very different. There have been six Labour governments, and although one may detect in embryo a parliamentary crisis, the crisis of capitalism has yet to be focussed on the political level and at parliamentary institutions in particular.
As for Lenin’s hopes, the history of the working class movement in Britain has yet to be analysed in a Marxist way. For one reason or another working class experience of social democracy was not crystallised at that time, and political mass learning did not take place in the manner in which Lenin predicted.
Lenin focussed on the Labour Party because of its importance for the bourgeois constitution, for parliamentarianism. Without Labour, the bourgeoisie would have been faced with incredible difficulty in maintaining the parliamentary form. (Of course fascism in one form or another would have been introduced, but this was seen as a one-way ticket.) We too must focus our attention on the main element of the bourgeois state, and from that point analyse its supports and weaknesses.
Monopoly capital depends on Labour today, not only in the political sense (though it is getting sterling service there), but in a more profound and long term sense, ideologically. Labour is the continuing testament to the openness of the corridors of power. If it no longer conveys notions of fundamental change to the electorate, it does demonstrate that power is not held in a few hands, and that by waving tweedledum at tweedledee the electorate have some control over their own fate. (In some trifling and marginal areas this maybe true.) They can choose between the brand names –Tory or Labour. This illusion of choice, reinforced by the legitimacy and continuity that the bourgeois constitution bestows is the basis for the very existence of parliament. And parliament is the anchor upon which the shifting ship of state depends. Changes here, brought about by crisis and precipitating further crisis, can have only two outcomes – open fascism or revolutionary change. Labour and its equivalent in other countries, is one of the basic factors for the continuance of bourgeois society.
From this position it is correct to state that in Britain now parliamentarianism and social democracy are inextricably linked. Dick Jones accepts this position but he obscures the actual nature of the relationship by describing parliamentarianism and social democracy as ’twins’ and ’synonymous’. This implies parity of importance of institutions. In some ’democratic’ capitalist countries parliament exists without social democracy. In none do they exist without an equivalent. The label, i.e. ’Labour’, ’Democrat’, ’Nationalist’ etc., is immaterial, as long as in accordance with their specific historical background, the people accept it as it is presented, an indicator that they are really free to choose. This is an important distinction to make, because it means that the politics and traditions of such parties are of subordinate importance. It also means that we should concentrate our attention on a destruction of the formal aspect of social democracy in Britain, that is to say, upon the illusion of freedom, upon its constitutional role.
Here the situation differs considerably from the twenties and even thirties. At that time, change, not preservation of the bourgeois state, was a basic component in the appeal of Labour to the working class. It was necessary at that point to concentrate political energy upon the exposure of the specific programmatic claims of Labour. The task has shifted now, and it is in some ways more simple. The myth of real difference between the two parties is no longer central in terms of programme. It is now possible to move to a direct attack on parliamentarianism, without having to expose the bogusness of the Labour claims to socialism.
Dick Jones says: ’This vast section will demonstrate its faith in Parliament and the Labour Party, no matter how cynically some may do it, by turning out in their millions in the coming general election.’ It is the nature of the faith, as indicated above, that is the important question. The faith is not the socialist intentions of the Labour Party. (How many workers after these years of Labour ’socialism’ have any idea of what real socialism is?). But it is in the freedom that parliament represents. They choose the lesser of two evils, and sometimes the difference between the two evils is so small in their minds that they will choose because of the voice or face or some irrelevant personal aspect of the party leader. It is not faith in socialist claims and promises that we have to attack, therefore, but perception of the situation as being a choice between two evils, according to the rules of the game. The only way we can do this is by offering an alternative – don’t play the game, don’t be forced into a false and hypocritical ’choice’.
Two further points must be made in passing. The description, ’Parliamentarianism and the Labour Party are synonymous’ is used to imply that exposure of parliament must be by way of exposing Labour, and it has been indicated that a distinction must be made between the exposure of Labour in a formal sense, which is necessary, and exposure of claims to socialism which is not necessary. This statement has another aspect to it though. It implies that a campaign to persuade workers not to vote is motivated by a refusal to utilize parliament, to the maximum extent to which it can be used. This is not so. A campaign seeking abstention is directly concerned with parliament, and with basic exposure of the fraudulent nature of the bourgeois state. It has as its basis the conception that it is not the superfluous ’exposure’ of Labour that is needed, but the mobilization and education of numbers of people, in a clear demonstration that the illusion of the ’sacred freedom to vote’ no longer holds. It is based on the notion that it is no longer Labour, but the parliamentary process that must be shown to have lost the confidence of the working class. A refusal to become involved on the parliamentary issue would take the form of ignoring the election altogether.
The second point is that a relatively small section of workers and other elements do still believe in Labour as a path to socialism. They are rank and file members and political supporters. While in some ways these people are more advanced than the abstainer, in other ways they are more retarded. They have an affinity to socialism, and recognise it as the only alternative to the present situation. However, they are still at the stage of belief in Labour’s claims and socialistic promises. In this regard they are more retarded than those who take a lesser-evils view, or those who take the view of a plague on all your houses. They are to be found particularly in the unions, and recognising their position, different tactics must be applied in order to manifest to them the nature of the social democratic union leaders. In all though, the half-spoken view that a Labour deceived man is better than a Liberal or Tory deceived man must be dragged into the open. Such a view is and has been a serious impediment to mass work. It is based on the notion that there is a left to right continuum, and that judgement can be made in degrees. This is fallacious, there are qualitative differences between those who support the revolutionary path, and those who do not. The working man or woman who supports a ’left’ MP is as much “out in the cold” as one who supports a foaming at the mouth right wing tory, despite subjective motivations and intent.
The view which has been put forward here of disillusionment with the socialistic promises of the Labour Party can be taken a stage further. A section of the electorate have developed their disillusionment and have ceased to participate in the game of charades. From the 1950 election to the 1966 election, the percentage of those bothering to vote has declined from 84 per cent to 75.8 per cent. This is without encouragement from any political party or group, and in the face of all the hysteria whipped up by the mass media. A bourgeois commentator Professor R. Rose, writing in the Times (March 11 1970) says:
Another indicator of dissatisfaction with the party system is the decline in turnout at every general election since 1950. Among twenty nations only five have a higher proportion of voters staying away from the polls at general election time. A generation ago it was fashionable to argue that low turnout was proof of popular satisfaction. People did not vote because they had nothing to vote against. Fashions change in universities as well as parliaments. Today such apathy is often considered a sign of disengagement from the system.
If such people can come to make such an analysis is there any excuse for Marxist-Leninists to dawdle behind? Worse still, in the face of the failure of all the propaganda organs to stem a decline in the vote, who is going to volunteer for the position of a modern Canute?
Discussion on the question of voting or abstention at the next election is in itself somewhat misleading unless an attempt is made to provide a broader context. A positive contribution of Dick Jones’ article is that it shows the necessity for work to provide a concrete programme of tactics on as broad a scale as possible at national level. A possible negative outcome of the article might be concentration of attention on the very narrow and restricted question of electoral tactics. It is important to emphasise Lenin’s statement:
. . . The action of the masses – a big strike, for instance – is more important than parliamentary activity at all times, and not only during a revolution or a revolutionary situation. (Left Wing Communism, page 55.)
The problem of the next election is a problem leading immediately to mass work and mass organisation. It is easy enough to say what is needed in mass organisation, but that is not the point being made here. The next election and our activities in connection with it must be seen as an opportunity to begin to build a mass movement. It is not merely a question of organisational discomfiture at the lack of a line, but a question of utilizing any and every opportunity we have of communicating our distinctive and correct outlook, in tactical form, to the greatest possible number of people. It is in this light that the line must be put forward – ’DON’T VOTE, ORGANISE!’
This is no plea for apathy or political somnolence. It is a slogan whose implementation depends on the transformation of opting-out abstention into opting in abstention. It requires a direct and vigorous campaign, to the limit of our resources to give a specific political character to abstention; to encourage abstention, and to explain the full and correct political significance of abstention to those who now do so.
But this is only half of the slogan – the other half calls for organisation. The beginning of this organisation will come from the campaign itself, but it will have a positive, constructive and aggressive character, and should not be limited to mere reaction to the election. As has been said above, the Labour Party is a critical feature of parliamentary ’democracy’. The call to organise would have the strategic objective of doing as much damage, on as wide and deep a scale as possible, to the Labour Party as an institution. It would seek maximum destruction and discrediting. The task of smashing the Labour Party is complex, and not just a matter of shouting slogans. A Campaign must have objectives at various levels, therefore. It must be combatted at both national and local electoral levels. This must be in the slogan of abstention. Should conditions permit in the future we should stand a few anti-parliament and anti-council candidates. At the organisational level we must win over or neutralise rank and file membership. The tactics here are assorted, but for example joining, disrupting and bringing out branches etc. in particular circumstances, might be considered. Again, slogans about the evil of social democracy are not enough. We must appeal to the political consciousness of the rank and file, to their sense of class solidarity and desire for socialism. A most important organisational aspect of the Labour Party is in trade union links. These must be severed, and at the same time, other political links must be created. The political levy, and the possibility of local autonomy in its spending, might be considered here, and tied up with the notion of militant and political workers’ associations.
The advocacy of such a campaign runs the risk of being accused of wishful sloganising, unless it is linked to specific features of the situation-here and now. It is not being suggested that million upon million of workers are within easy reach of our propaganda. With a clear commitment and with some initiative and imagination an impact far in excess of our size could be produced. We should be willing to accept tactical alliance with other organisations in pursuit of campaign objectives.
Two great tactical advantages which the ’Don’t vote – organise!’ approach has over the vote to expose line (the political case notwithstanding), may be also seen clearly when the specific nature of the situation at this time is looked at. Firstly, we could not, organisationally, influence or contact more than a few thousand workers in a vote to expose campaign. Yet they are the workers who are closest to us, and politically most advanced. They know the nature of social democracy. Are we going to ask them to recreate illusions long since shed, so that they may shed them again to demonstrate the efficiency of our formula? Secondly, the massive technical problem of putting forward the same policy – vote Labour – at the formal level, as is put forward by the whole spectrum of political dross from the CPGB to the Trots, to substantially the same audience does not arise. The essence of this problem – how to differentiate our own position – seems insoluble. With an abstain/organise approach such differentiation is immediately apparent. We do not put forward a retrogressive policy to advanced workers, and we have the possibility, if we make good use of every opportunity, of securing wide dissemination of our views.
What happens if our wildest aspirations are attained, if substantial numbers do not vote, and if we attract some of the responsibility for a Labour defeat? Will we be dismissed as ’lefts’ and ’infantile’? Unless it is posited that the working class position is basically different under Tory and Labour governments it seems hard to sustain this view. The styles certainly vary, and we can be sure of more obvious class conflicts, and a more direct state-worker conflict.
The Labour Party would certainly be demoralised, and this would provide an environment in which to attack and dismember it. The notion of it rallying around the ’left’ MPs is plausible, but it will not be Benn, Greenwood, Castle, Stonehouse and others of the litany long recited by the CPGB. We can choke these people with their public records, anytime. Other true guardians of the soul of Labour will emerge, it is true, but they will not have the same easy task as during the’ last Tory years. At no time then was there an organisation in this country dedicated to the destruction of the Labour Party, as a party, and the construction of a mass workers’ movement.
If Labour win, as they may do, the coming peaks of crisis for British imperialism will produce further and more serious attacks upon the working class. The corporate-state aspect of social democracy will become more and more discernable, and the task of exposing the bourgeois state will be facilitated in this way. Our record and our organisational work will give us the ear of wider sections still of working people.
It is advocated that a mass campaign be initiated, with the help of whatever tactical alliances may be made, and utilising every suitable avenue to secure publicity on the slogan – ’Don’t vote, organise!’ This campaign to be seen as truly mass, with mass as opposed to restricted parliamentary objectives. The response in at least three areas that have been canvassed to some degree, Bristol, London tenants and Yeovil, should be immediate and productive. It is held that the case for such a campaign is abundantly established on both the political and organisational levels, and that it has reality and feasibility overwhelmingly on its side.
In terms of the Marxist-Leninist movement, a particularly important benefit must be noted. It presents a means of combating doctrinarism and isolation which is a prominent and destructive aspect of the present state of the movement. It offers a means of overcoming dogmatism whose manifestation often takes the form of mechanical reference to Marxist texts in response to contemporary problems, or an introverted club mentality characteristic of those who are saved despite the world.
This is not yet a revolutionary period, but events move fast, and crises mature overnight. It is worth remembering what Mao said of mass work at a similarly volatile time:
Every revolutionary party and every revolutionary comrade will be put to the test, to be accepted or rejected as they decide. There are three alternatives. To march at their head and lead them? To trail behind them gesticulating and criticising? Or to stand in their way and oppose them? Every Chinese is free to choose, but events will force you to make the choice quickly. (Report of an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan.)
This was true of the mass movement in China’s countryside. It is also true of the increasing rejection of political charades by great numbers of the people in this country.