First Published: Marxist-Leninist Quarterly No. 7, Summer 1974.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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The 7th Labour Government was returned to Parliamentary office with the declared intentions to:
a) Bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families;
b) Eliminate poverty wherever it exists in Britain and commit ourselves to a substantial increase in our contribution to fight poverty abroad;
c) Make power in industry genuinely accountable to the workers and the community at large;
d) Achieve far greater economic equality in income, wealth and living standards.
e) Increase social equality by giving far greater importance to full employment, housing, education and social benefits;
f) Improve the environment in which our people live and work and spend their leisure. (The Labour Party Manifesto – 1974).
The above aims, written in the language of gradualism and reformism are, even so, very laudable, and would understandingly gain the support of very many workers who had no knowledge of the integrity of the leaders of the Parliamentary Labour Party or more importantly any objective analysis of the treacherous role played by Social Democratic policies in the long history of the British working class movement. The 1974 Manifesto ends with the following:
The task will not be easy. But we repudiate the despairing gospel preached in some quarters that the British people cannot govern themselves and that they have lost the art to act cohesively, through their various democratic institutions, as a civilised community. That charge comes most insultingly from a Conservative Government which has adopted so many devices to corrode or destroy the power of those democratic institutions local authorities, the Trades Unions, the House of Commons itself. These are the very instruments which Labour will use to restore and enhance the power of British democracy.
No Marxist would consider that the aims and the methods described to achieve them is a step on the road to Socialism. But it is necessary for revolutionaries to understand that the sentiments expressed in the Manifesto were a reflection of struggles inside the Labour Party and Trade Unions against suppression of working class rights and organisations, and against the autocratic and blatant class collaborationist policies of Labour leaders. There are few indications that the many people who have fought, and continue to fight, inside the official movement, for progressive policies, have begun to make the all important decisive break with Social Democracy and to come to grips with Marxism-Leninism as the ’educator, organiser and agitator’ in the fight for Socialism. The prime responsibility for this necessary and qualitative shift lies on the shoulders of the existing Marxist-Leninist Movement in Britain.
Our ability to gain credibility and leadership among the working class, both inside and outside the formal official Labour movement, will very largely be determined by the methods we use to expose and smash the grip that Social democracy has on the organisations and consciousness of the British Working Class. Whatever methods are evolved in this crucial aspect of the struggle, it can be said with certainty that to dismiss Social democracy and its prime British expression – the Labour Party – as being irrelevant to the struggle for Socialism is to ignore British Working Class history and to rely upon spontaneous class development in a period of intense crisis for the ruling class. If revolutionaries, through fear of contamination, refuse to enter the arena of Social democracy, and confine their involvement with the decision making processes of the official Labour movement to critical readings of the reports in THE TIMES or the GUARDIAN, they can rest assured that in protecting their own purity they will be leaving the door wide open for the forces of extreme reaction – jingoism, racialism and ’discipline of the militants’ – to gain dominance, as Social democracy shows its true colours as bourgeois democracy collapses under the stresses of the capitalist crisis. Neither can the M/L movement adopt the objectively contemptuous attitude to the working class as displayed by the Communist Party of Great Britain and some Trotskyist organisations (notably the Revolutionary Workers Party) in seeing the struggle as primarily a question of the role of the present leaderships of the official movement. The hold that Social democracy has in Britain goes much deeper than indicated by a reliance on the capture of official positions by militants (C.P.G.B.) or to present the failure of all working class struggles to develop into massive and conscious confrontations with the British state as solely the responsibility of treacherous social democratic leaders. R.W.P.)
The structure and understanding of the Working Class Movement in Britain has been formed over centuries of class struggle practically uninfluenced by the ideas of scientific socialism. In the battles in the Trade Union Movement of the 19th century for the creation of a political party that would express the view of the organised working class, Marxists were hardly in any position of influence. It is true that both Marx and Engels devoted considerable time and effort to the campaign for the formation of a workers’ Political Party, but in the event when the Labour Party was formed in 1906 it was dominated by Trade Union reformism, Co-operativism and Fabianism. Since then the Labour Party has gained and held the allegiance of the vast majority of the working-class who are consciously opposed to Toryism and the establishment. The betrayals of the Working Class by the Hendersons, Macdonalds, Attlees and Wilsons could have been foreseen by anyone with an understanding of the realities of class power and a knowledge of the composition and aims of the Labour Party, long before the first Labour Government in 1924. Indeed, as early as 1920 Lenin exposed the role of the Labour Party in his famous work – “Left Wing Communism – an Infantile Disorder”; he also, of course, fully recognised the influence that Social democracy had in the Working Class Movement and that in order to combat it, it was imperative that revolutionaries entered the arena of social democracy in order to destroy it.
... but – and this is the whole point – we must not regard that which is obsolete for us as obsolete for the class, as obsolete for the masses. It is precisely here that we see that the “Lefts” do nor know how to reason, do not know how to conduct themselves as a Party of the class, as a party of the masses. You must not sink to the level of the masses, to the backward strata of the class. That is incontestable. You must tell them the bitter truth. You must call their bourgeois-democratic and parliamentary prejudices. But at the same time you must soberly observe the actual state of class consciousness and preparedness of the whole class (not only the Communist vanguard), of all the toiling masses (not only of its advanced elements). (Lenin – ’Left Wing Communism’)
Lenin’s advice was undisputedly correct over fifty years ago. Today with the 7th Labour administration in office and fifty years of failure by the Communist movement to fulfil the tasks set it, how much more important it is for the M/L movement to firstly understand the depth of social democratic prejudice existing in the Working Class and secondly, the opportunities presented to it in its ability to draw upon the experiences of not only the present Labour Government but also the previous six. Many people in Britain who claim to be Marxists will shout from the roof tops their desire to smash capitalism and will portray the Labour Party as an agent of the bourgeoisie, but will not be familiar with either the Labour Party manifesto or the decisions of the 1973 Labour Party Conference, or of prime importance, have any understanding or knowledge of the alignment of forces in the official movement that have determined the present policy position of the Labour Government. It is impossible to imagine how these self-styled Marxist-Leninists will be able to demonstrate to themselves let alone to the masses the treacherous role of betrayal that this Labour Government will continue to play for its full term in office.
The decision of the 1973 Labour Party Conference and the 1974 Election Manifesto were probably the most progressive policies adopted by the Labour Party since 1945 and if they were to be honoured would undoubtedly be met by bitter opposition from the entrenched big business and financial interests in Britain and abroad. However, the reality of the situation is that the Labour Party leaders were negotiating with the International Monetary Fund for a massive loan to over come “Britain’s crisis” almost before they took office in February 1974. The terms for such ’assistance’ can only mean an intensification of the attacks upon the living standards and organisations of the working class. For the Labour Party to enact even a moderate reformist programme of some benefit to the working class during a period of intense problems for monopoly capitalism – massive balance of payments deficit, raging inflation, lack of investment in basic industries etc. would require the support and involvement of the working class outside of the apparatus of State Government developed in Britain over the centuries. This, of course, would be a complete departure from the whole philosophy and actions of the L.P. since its formation, because for all its twists and turns on policy matters central to its whole existence has been a complete adherence to the Parliamentary system of Government. In other words, the dependence on the approval of the Monopoly Capitalist State machine for any measures on which it legislates.
The 1974 Manifesto states:
...Labour’s determination to ensure not only that the North Sea and Celtic Sea oil and gas resources are in full public ownership, but that the operation of getting and distributing them is under full Government control ....
It took 3 Labour Governments to nationalise the coal industry, and it only then took place when the industry had so stagnated that it was no longer a viable proposition for private capital to make the necessary investments in order that coal could be an efficient prop to the rest of the privately owned manufacturing industries. How many Labour Governments will it require before the booming profits of the oil companies operating in Britain are brought under “full public ownership”? Are these Companies who in the first few months of 1974 made larger profits than ever before, and whose budgets exceed those of many States, going to stand idly by whilst their “Midas Touch” investments are taken out of their hands? Or more relevantly, is a Labour Party with its complete commitment to bourgeois democracy’ and with its track record of seventy years going to embark on that challenge? In such a situation it is imperative that the Marxist-Leninist Movement is seen by the forces who have fought for the inclusion of such a clause in the Labour Party Manifesto to be campaigning for the Labour Government to carry out its pledge. In this way we can in practice demonstrate the real class character of Social democracy and gain credibility in the struggle for Socialist consciousness in the working class movement. When Dennis Healey in May 1974 stated:
No-one now believes that profit is a dirty word, if profit is honestly earned and put to proper social use.
He gave revolutionaries a valuable weapon in the fight to break the stranglehold that Social democracy has over large sections of politically aware workers, who still see the Labour Party and Parliament as vehicles in the fight for Socialism.
For the M/L Movement to earn a position of leadership in working class struggle it is necessary for it to be active participants in all the economic/political struggles embarked on by the working class. An important feature in the coming months will be the campaigns inside and outside of the official movement for the Labour Government to honour its Manifesto and for it to be answerable to its policy making Conference. It will be an act of criminal infantilism for Marxist-Leninists to stand aside from these campaigns and to say that we know the inevitable role of Labour Governments, and therefore we will strand aside from these struggles.
Below are some of the key decisions made by the 1973 Labour Party Conference:
Conference instructs the next Labour Government to reintroduce food subsidies to enable a cheap food policy to be a central plank of its election Manifesto .....
This Conference declares its opposition to any wage restraint or incomes policy designed to solve the problems of the economy by cutting the standards of living of workers...
This Conference recognising the persistent increase in the inequality of incomes and in wealth in this country, reaffirms the principle of equality as a foundation stone of the Labour Movement . . .
The next Labour Government must therefore raise supplementary and National Insurance benefits and Family Allowances, which should also be payable for the first child,
1) This Conference considers that industry will best serve the people of the country when they control it, through public ownership.
2) Conference further believes in explaining all the benefits of a Socialist society and an economy planned for the needs of and under the control of the people.
Conference demands that the next Labour Government should eliminate private landlordism ....
...Conference further agrees that upon the election of a Labour Government all penalties, financial or otherwise, should be removed retrospectively from Councillors who have courageously refused to implement the Housing Finance Act 1972.
This Conference urges the next Labour Government to introduce a new Education Act which would make education effectively free for all children.
(This would include school uniform subsidies, free school materials, free school dinners, free school milk, free travel passes)
This Conference reaffirms the Conference decision that a Labour Government should submit the issue of the E.E.C. to the electorate for decision ....
Conference condemns the precipitate action of the British Government in recognising the military junta... and withholds all aid loans and credit from the military regime ...
a) recognising that the situation in South Africa is the key to progress or disaster in Southern Africa as a whole .....
b) calls upon the next Labour Government to take urgent action to reduce drastically British economic involvement in South Africa, to stop all British Government assistance to British firms wishing to trade with or invest in South Africa, to end all other financial links including export credits, loans and grants, to bring about the withdrawal of all or part of existing British investment and to establish machinery to prevent any further investment .. .
The above extracts from the 1973 L.P. Conference decisions demonstrate the area in which Marxist-Leninists can work and have a dialogue with many honest workers who still have a commitment to the Labour Party. These policies are not presented here as vehicles of achieving workers’ power, because indeed they are far removed from that, nor are they presented as issues around which we should campaign to make Social democracy and Parliament work in the interests of the working class but as a basis from which we can show the inability of Social democratic policies and methods to make any inroads into control of State monopoly capital ism. Therein lays a fundamental difference between Marxist-Leninists and the revisionist C.P.G.B.
A central feature of this and previous Governments (both Labour and Tory) has been in the field of industrial relations. The term ’Industrial Relations’ has been used to euphemistically describe the diametrically opposed positions of capital and labour in industry. All the major political parties have through the various propaganda machines at their disposal attempted to blur the edges of industrial strife and to convince workers that we are all part of one nation and should work together for the common good. But no matter how successful the propaganda may have been in some areas, the realities of industrial life are that workers will continue to struggle for higher wages and better conditions and will create the type of organisation necessary for such struggles. Though it is true that very often the type of organisation will only be formed some time after the objective conditions have existed for its formation. In spite of the subjectively apolitical character of very many Trade Union leaderships and the consequent class collaborationist policies adopted by them, both Labour and Tory Governments in the interests of State monopoly Capitalism, have found it necessary to attempt to legislate against the Trade Unions. We had the ill-fated ’In place of Strife’ of Barbara Castle and the soon to be-repealed ’Industrial Relations Act’ of the Tories. The Labour Government is also pledged to a policy of non-interference in collective bargaining and consequently is banking on the ’Social Compact’ as the instrument to control the organised working class. Though as yet no details have been made known of what this means, we do know from past experience that it will be yet another attempt to use the formal structures and strictures of the official Trade Union Movement to control and discipline its members. Already Michael Foot (the leader of the ’Left’ Labour) has opened the campaign when he addressed the AUEW (Eng. Section) National Committee at the time it was deciding its attitude both to the C.S.E.U. wage, holiday, hours and equal pay claim, and to the sequestration of its funds by N.I.R.C. He preached moderation on both and asked for loyalty from the Trade Unions to their Labour Government. Whilst the AUEW responded to N.I.R.C. by a historic and successful strike, on the question of the C.S.E.U. claim following the advice of its President, Hugh Scanlon (the leader of the ’Left’ Trade Unions), it capitulated and in the words of Jim Griffin, one of its leading right wingers, it gave a ’victory to the moderates’. In reality it was the first victory of the unspecified ’Social Compact’. In the coming months the battle for direction of the Trade Unions in its dealing with the Labour Government will be crucial for the whole movement.
We know from past and bitter experience that TU leaderships will only on very rare occasions confront the power of the State and in some ways the struggles against the bureaucracies in TU leadership becomes even more difficult when a Labour Party is in Westminster. This of course is understandable if we realise the depth of loyalty to the organisations and methods of Social democracy inherent in the official working class movement. At the same time it gives to Marxist-Leninists tremendous opportunities to make inroads in the social democratic and parliamentary prejudices existing in the working class, and at the same time demonstrate the inadequacies of leadership based on reformism both in the Labour Party and in the Trade Unions. Again, if we as revolutionaries first stand aside from these struggles for Trade Union direction and consciousness, we will allow the forces of reaction and class cynicism to gain domination.
In 1924 the first Labour Government took office in a somewhat similar situation to the present administration. It was a minority Government, the British economy was in financial crisis, and the ever present struggle between capital and labour was becoming acute at the point of production. In the early days of the 1924 Government a strike of 110,000 dockers took place that was sold out within 3 days. At the time the architect of the sell-out, Ernest Bevin, is reputed to have said:
I only wish it had been a Tory Government in office. We would not have been frightened by their threats. But we were put in the position of having to listen to the appeal of our own people. (A HISTORY OF BRITISH TRADE UNIONISM – Pelling)
(Bevin of course was frightened by the threats of the Tories in 1926 when he played a prominent role in the sell-out of the 1926 Strike).
During this period of blatant class collaboration by Labour and TU leaderships a cynicism developed in the ranks of the working class towards what it had considered were its own organisations. In 1920 the TU membership in Britain was 8,348,000; by 1933 it had dropped to 4,392,000.
The fight for direction of the TU’s will not be successful if it is fought on the conscious basis of expecting Social Democratic TU leaders to lead struggles and activate campaigns to expose Social Democratic Labour Party leaders.
The Marxist-Leninist Movement must campaign for democracy in the TU’s and be seen as a leading force in. the fight against the collaborationist policies of the TU bureaucracies. This will be done only by campaigning from within and without the official TU’s on policies geared to, involve the maximum participation of the rank and file in the organisations that they have created and finance. The struggle for direction will be a decisive factor in determining the ground for the coming struggles with the Labour Government, the outcome of these struggles and the development of class consciousness amongst many militant workers who will find themselves in unexpected but bitter conflict with both their TU leaders and the Labour Government. The fight for direction of the TU’s cannot either be confined to the electioneering arena of obtaining TU official positions for militants. The record and role of the CPGB over many years has shown the futility and the dangers involved in these tactics. In the late 1940s the CPGB through its TU officials had a bureaucratic control of the ETU, the Fire Brigades Union, the Foundry Workers; they had extremely powerful positions in the National Union of Mineworkers, a strong position on the leadership of the AEU, and 9 members of the Executive Committee of the T&GWU. Today they have a much reduced position of influence in the official circles of the Trade Unions, and neither have they achieved any depth of political awareness amongst the rank and file that should have developed from such a strong organisational position. In real terms their political position in both the Trade Unions and the wider movement is one of being a left appendage to, Social democracy as expressed by the Labour Party. It is true to say that of all left parties and grouping existing in Britain the CPGB remains the most influential in the Trade Unions and consequently in the broad Labour movement though because as an organisation it has long since ceased to be a revolutionary organisation its influence is as described above and at best it plays the role of a left and sometimes militant ginger group. Evidence of its desire to be seen as a respectable influence in Social Democratic circles can be gauged by the treatment, or rather non-treatment, of leading ’lefts’ such as Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon, by the MORNING STAR on such issues of sell-out as the Ford strike of a few years ago (the first secret ballot due to legislation), Phase 3 legislation the last two CSEU claims and their advocacy of the Social Compact. However, there still remain many individual CP members who are militant and courageous fighters against the boss, and again the Marxist-Leninist movement must work in such a way as to win these people to revolutionary politics by involvement in the struggles for direction, democracy and consciousness in the Trade Unions.
The above is an attempt to pose some of the relevant questions facing the Marxist-Leninist Movement in its attitudes and tactics to a Labour Government in Westminster. I have dealt primarily with aspects of the struggle inside the official and existing working class movement; this of course is only one side of the all embracing struggle for a Marxist-Leninist party in Britain capable of winning the confidence and leadership of the working class in its struggle for power. It is, as Plekhanov pointed out, necessary for the movement to be shod on all four feet! To expose and defeat Social democracy in all spheres of the working class it will be necessary to build organisations and stimulate campaigns outside of the confines of what is possible in the official movement. These activities are-interrelated and the success of one aspect will be largely determined by the success of the others. A conscious revolutionary development in all aspects of class struggle goes hand in hand with the development of the programme and, organisation of a Marxist-Leninist Party.
Economic and political struggles of the working class in all arenas where they take place will reflect themselves by necessity in the organisational forms and political stances adopted by a revolutionary party. If that party stands aside from aspects of the struggle, of the class it claims to represent and be part of, for reasons of its own-purity, of conceit in the completeness of its own knowledge and analysis then it will be correctly rejected by the working class as having no credibility in its claims to be the vanguard organisation of the class.
Day-to-day propaganda and agitation must be of a genuinely Communist character. All press organs controlled by the parties must be edited by reliable Communists, who have demonstrated their fidelity to the cause of proletarian revolution. Dictatorship of the proletariat, should be, discussed not, simply as a set formula, but popularised in a way that will bring home its necessity to every-rank and file, working man and workingwoman, soldier and peasant... It should follow from the practical facts, systematically publicised, in our press…..Third International supporters must use every available medium – the press, public meetings, Trade Unions, co-operative Societies systematically and relentlessly to expose not, only the bourgeoisie, but also its abettors, the reformists of, every stripe and hue. (Conditions for affiliation to the Third International 1920).