Ted Grant

The I.L.P. in Transition

Written: May 1943
Source: Workers' International News vol. 5. no. 11 (May 1943)
Transcription: Lisi 2004
Markup/Proofread:: Emil 2006

[Editor's note: There are a few words missing from the text. The places where this occurs are indicated by square brackets.]

The I.L.P. Conference this year provides instructive material on the evolution and direction of this Party. Under the influence of the beginnings of mass radicalisation of the working class, the I.L.P. is increasing its membership and its influence fairly considerably. For the first time for years the finances of the Party are in a sound position. Taking all these factors into consideration the leadership seems to have regarded with satisfaction the proceedings of their Jubilee Conference.

The changes in mass consciousness in Britain are revealing themselves in many ways. A political ferment and awakening is taking place among large sections of the working class. The middle class is beginning to break away from allegiance to the traditional parties of British capitalism, as the growth and success of the Common Wealth movement [1] has shown. The by-election success of the anti-Government candidates, on a vague programme of pseudo-Socialism or social reform, has shown the steady drift of the masses towards the Left and towards Socialism. Among the basic mass of the Labour workers a feeling of disgust and uneasiness at the association of the leadership with the Tories in the government has been growing. The masses are beginning to discern the real meaning of the coalition with finance capital. A movement for the ending of the electoral truce is gaining momentum among the workers in the Trade Unions, Co-operatives and within the Labour Party. It is on this background of the beginnings of mass upsurge, that the I.L.P. has gained its modest successes.

A comparison between last year’s Conference and the one just held indicates the effect that these developments are having externally and internally on the I.L.P.

At the last Conference a sharp swing to the Left was to be observed among the membership and a process of differentiation taking place. For the first time for years real lively discussion and a critical attitude on the part of the membership could be seen. A tendency to seek a policy reflecting a genuine revolutionary solution towards the problems facing the working class. As a reflection of this a left-wing tendency was crystallised, weak and inexperienced perhaps, but orienting itself on the platform of Bolshevism. Faced with a growing opposition of this kind, the leadership revealed itself in its true Centrist character, though this time garbed in a cloak of sectarianism. The basic issue at last year’s Conference was the question of the Socialist Britain Now Campaign [2] and the problem of the Labour Party. The young left wing put forward the correct Marxist position—the need to conduct agitation among the masses around a programme which would have as its key issue, the demand to the labour leadership to end the coalition and wage a struggle for power on a Socialist Programme. The leadership of the I.L.P. recoiled from this with horror though refusing to face up to the problem of how to expose the Labour leadership.

Nothing could reveal the difference between Marxism and Centrism better than the attitude towards this question. In it is summed up the tremendous gulf that lies between an assimilation of Leninism and a serious attitude towards the problem of preparing and organising a Party of the Socialist Revolution, and the superficiality and shallowness of Centrism. For this question—the key question of revolutionary policy for Britain—and the methods adopted to approach its solution contains within itself the necessity to understand and appreciate the mode of development of the working class towards the socialist revolution, an appreciation of the meaning and role of reformism, the necessity to educate the masses through their own experience, and an understanding of the decisive role which a party armed with a correct policy and method, can and should play in such a situation.

Despite the leadership, the delegates striving to find a way out of their isolation from the masses which the Socialist Britain Now Campaign signally failed to dispel, passed the resolution of Labour to Power on a Socialist programme [3] by a big majority, without perhaps clearly understanding this policy.

The twelve months that have passed since then have confirmed completely the correctness of the analysis made by the Fourth Internationalists. Even the leadership of the I.L.P. has become aware of the sterility of their previous policy. The progressive movement of the Trade Unionist and Labour workers away from the strangling embrace of the coalition with Big Business and towards class independence, has already reached such proportions that they are beginning to observe what is taking place beyond their noses. Large numbers of Union Branches, Labour Parties and even some individual leaders of the L.P. and Trade Union movement, under the pressure of the mass feeling, have come out against the coalition. Alas! They have not even given a single thought or a glance in the direction of the Socialist Britain Now Campaign. Naturally, this development which they had not foreseen, has thrown the leadership off balance. A Marxist leadership could predict, assess and help to accelerate the awakening of the Labour masses and simultaneously warn and prepare them for the inevitable sell-out of the Labour leadership. In that lies the essence of the policy of Labour to Power [4]. Not so the leadership of the I.L.P. Trotsky once said sectarians were really opportunists afraid of their opportunism. That is especially so with the I.L.P. leadership, except of course that their opportunism is really organic. If their previous sectarian attitude had even a grain of sense or the semblance of an argument in its favour it was in pointing out the dangers of a mass reaction and disillusionment and despair on the part of the masses at a new betrayal on the part of the Labour leadership. It is precisely this aspect of their argument that they have cast aside.

Maxton, at the recent Jubilee Conference, spoke of the “revolutionary potentialities” of the Labour Party. Brockway, at the public rally in the evening spoke of converting the Labour Party to Socialism. Thus it is that the leadership tramples on and hastily abandons the position of yesterday. One thing, and one thing only, remains the same. The decisive refusal under any and all conditions to expose the real nature of the Labour leadership.

Last year when the leadership found itself in a tight corner over the question of why they refused to put forward the idea of Labour to Power, while at the same time they refrained from putting up candidates against the Labour Party at by-elections, Maxton unctuously explained that “they did not have sufficient money”. Brockway gave the same explanation at a Socialist Britain Now Conference when confronted with the question by the Trotskyists. But if this were so the leadership had the responsibility to raise seriously before the membership at the last Conference, the need to collect money for the purpose. Their failure to do so was, at best, a dereliction of duty. However, a contrast between the last Conference and the Jubilee Conference will demonstrate that this was a simple but very unprincipled manoeuvre designed to cover up their affinity to the Labour bureaucracy. Brockway and the Centrists internationally have spilled no little ink in their virtuous indignation at the so-called “amorality” of Bolshevism-Trotskyism. The tactical “means” of the revolutionists are distorted and falsified and pictured as “dishonest” and for this reason unlikely to achieve the desired “ends”. But when it suits their own ends, the I.L.P. leadership are prepared to use precisely the “dishonest” means which they so falsely attribute to the Trotskyists and Leninists.

Never under any conditions could Bolsheviks stoop to methods such as this. The prime task of the revolution after all, consists in the education of the masses and of the Party. Not having any real principles the Centrists cannot explain honestly their stand on a question of this sort because their whole position consists of evasions and subterfuges. To make a principled stand would force them to take outright the reformist or the revolutionary position. The solution of the N.A.C. [4] is simply to avoid the issue and to deceive their own members. Thus awkward thoughts and moods on the part of the membership are avoided. In this way does I.L.P.ism differ from Revolutionary Socialism in its attitude towards the membership of its party and towards the working class.

This happy solution of the problem was not open to the leadership this year. To use the excuse of “lack of money” would be too blatant in [the] face of the financial resources they hold, and even the most inexperienced delegate would not have believed it. A resolution was put forward from one of the Scottish Branches suggesting that if the truce was upheld at the Labour Party Conference, the I.L.P. should contest by-elections against the Labour Party as well as against Tories. Naturally, the platform opposed this with all the strength at its command. Maxton, in moving the rejection of amendments which castigated the role of the Labour leadership, argued that the Labour leaders in the main, were decent, well-intentioned fellows and the rank and file labour workers were as much to blame as the leaders for the situation today! Thus the I.L.P. places the deceiver and the deceived on the same level. What then, is the function of leadership? Perhaps the leadership should follow the rank and file. Thus it is that Maxton, Brockway and the other leaders of the I.L.P. reveal their real lack of elementary Marxist training. But the rejection of the resolution to put up candidates on Maxton’s excuses at this Conference, is a clear indication of the real policy of the N.A.C.—the policy of left flank of Labour reformism!

The resolutions which the leadership pushed through indicate that the realisation of the barrenness of the Socialist Britain Now Campaign and its obvious impotence to win the masses, has led to a capitulation to the Labour bureaucracy. It is clear that at the first convenient opportunity the I.L.P. will re-affiliate to the Labour Party. This will probably come at the moment when the sweep of the mass movement compels the Trade Union and Labour leadership reluctantly to end the coalition with the Tories. From the point of view of the Labour bureaucracy, if the I.L.P. were really a revolutionary force, they would oppose re-affiliation tooth and nail. But it is precisely the lack of a real consistent revolutionary policy which would entail as one of its indispensable prerequisites an implacable struggle against the Labour Leadership, which will secure a smooth passage for the I.L.P. They will not and cannot raise the question of affiliation by appealing to the rank and file to support them on a revolutionary policy, thus raising the same issue as an important means of educating mass opinion, but will rely on negotiations with the Labour leadership, negotiations which all the indications show, have already been taking place.

If the I.L.P. were a revolutionary party affiliation under such conditions would be disastrous. But precisely because it is not revolutionary, the move of the I.L.P. towards the Labour Party is a progressive step and can have progressive repercussions. It can promote a rapid differentiation within the I.L.P. This does not mean of course, that the revolutionary wing of the I.L.P. should refrain from fighting for a principled fusion and accept the attitude of the leadership as at all progressive. On the contrary, they must intensify the struggle to expose the capitulation of the N.A.C. and educate the widest sections of the party cadres. Once inside the Labour Party, the evolution and crystallisation of the wings will be speeded up. The leadership will be reinforced by such “Lefts” as Cove, Messer and others in the Labour Party.

A big section of the Left workers in the Labour Party tend to gravitate towards the I.L.P. While the leadership would more and more adapt itself to the Left reformists and the policy of the I.L.P. would swing sharply to the right. This in its turn would inevitably result in accelerating the education and regroupment of the revolutionary socialist elements within the I.L.P. With the necessity to wage a struggle against the now left reformist leadership, the ideas of the nascent Left wing would be clarified. It would, if it was not to decay and disintegrate completely, find the road to the methods and principles of Bolshevism.

The danger is, however, that the confusion of the ultra-lefts will add further to the lack of clarity, by their opposition to re-affiliation. The palpable opportunism of the leadership may drive a section of the best elements in this direction. Although, of course, after an initial opposition the ultra-lefts will inevitably capitulate to the leadership. Unless the revolutionary wing succeed in clarifying the issues in the coming months, some of the proletarian elements will be driven along the road of organisational adventures which can only retard the building of the revolutionary party which in turn can but be the party of the Fourth International.

This Conference, far more than the last, revealed the I.L.P. in a state of flux. The discussions and the proceedings revealed a state of tremendous confusion in the minds of the delegates and even more so in the leadership. Not a single issue was debated in a manner which would clarify the problems raised and lift the rank and file delegates to a higher political plane. The time of conference was wasted on trivialities while the leadership [?] and slurred over principled issues. The leadership used the overloaded agenda, which contained dozens of trivial amendments which could easily have been disposed of through the Standing Orders Committee. The result was that on some of the basic resolutions and amendments, no real discussion took place. Half an hour was allotted for the discussion on India, including a speech from the platform! Even on some of the [?] basic resolutions no thorough discussion could take place. The result was to reduce some of the Conference proceedings to little less than a farce. The leadership has full responsibility for this situation, which suited them completely. Because of this the tendencies at the Conference were not as clearly marked out from one another as they would otherwise have been. What discussion did take place though, was sufficient to reveal the heterogeneous character of the composition of the I.L.P.

The pacifist tendency, though obviously on the downward grade, was vociferous and still retained a substantial support. But the working class core of the I.L.P. has been moving steadily away from this position. The parliamentary group and the N.A.C. betrayed by their speeches that nothing fundamental separates them from the reformism of the Labour Party. The leadership revealed itself as rather nervous at the prospect of a discussion on basic principles.

The left-wing tendency moving in the direction of Bolshevism, though young and inexperienced in the face of the old and experienced parliamentarians such as Maxton, made a far bigger impression than at the previous Conference. They were clearly finding their feet and securing more support and clearer support in that section of the Conference looking for a genuine Left lead. In addition, they showed a growth of confidence in themselves and their case and stood up well to the leadership, who tried by numerous tricks to put them off their stride. Unfortunately, the Left wing in the I.L.P. is not homogeneous and there is a weak but distinct tendency towards ultra-leftism.

The confusion within the membership, the hurried nature of the discussions, all led inevitably to the victory of the platform. Voting at Conferences very often does not give a clear indication of processes taking place, and especially is this so where the differences are not clarified. On those issues where a fair amount of discussion took place, the left-wing opposition, in all its tendencies, generally secured 40 or 50 votes, that is from a quarter to a third of the Conference delegates. However, this would not necessarily be a clear assessment of the strength of the opposition.

The confusion of the leadership on even elementary questions was indicated in the discussion on Fascism. A Marxian amendment was moved showing how fascism arose as a mass movement after the failure of the working class to take power in a revolutionary crisis through the failure and sabotage of its organisations; its difference with the rule of capitalists under bourgeois democracy lying in the complete destruction of all organisations of the working class. As usual with the leadership they opposed this amendment and managed to confuse content with form. The so-called “planning” of the State under fascism, which has its counterpart in the bourgeois democratic state machine at the present time they have identified as the essence of fascism. The result of all this confusion is seen in the fact that a delegate could get up on the day after the discussion and blandly announce that fascism, if the masses were not vigilant, could be introduced by the Tories, and even more as a menace, could be introduced by the Labour Party! This statement went by without disturbing the platform in the least and without any comment on their part whatsoever. And why not? Ridley writes the same sort of arrant nonsense in the pages of the New Leader without comment or reply from the Editorial board. So light-minded are the leadership of the I.L.P.! They are preparing to enter a party which apparently can impose fascism! Thus they teach and educate the members. Here, Comrade Maxton, lies precisely the task of leadership. Conferences in a Bolshevik Party are not meant for the purpose of merely pushing through resolutions and policy, but through discussion they act as a means of clarifying the understanding of the advanced elements in the party as to the basic problems facing the workers. The delegates in their turn assist in educating the rank and file on their return to the Branches and thus enrich and strengthen the Party.

The confusion of course, arises from the position of the leadership. On the Beveridge Plan they took an out-and-out reformist stand, exactly that of Marton; in the House of Commons, which differs in no wise from that of the Labour Party or the Stalinists. Pious references, after lauding the Beveridge Report, to the realisation that Socialism alone could solve the problems of the workers, could easily be paralleled in the statements of these other organisations. The leadership managed to force through their position again mainly due to the restricted period given to discussion.

The only reference to C.P. affiliation to the Labour Party was made by John McGovern who announced that affiliation by “gangster Communism” would mark the end of the Labour Party. While we can agree wholeheartedly with a denunciation of Stalinism, such a method of approaching the problem is the worst that can possibly be made. Hundreds of the mass organisations of the working class have passed resolutions in favour of affiliation and the idea of “unity”. Mere denunciation of Stalinism will not convince the workers who support or sympathise with their application. The present position of the I.L.P. on this is even worse than their previous silence. In its Editorial Column the New Leader quotes the threats of the Transport Union’s bureaucrats to disaffiliate if the C.P. should succeed in gaining a majority for its application. Instead of castigating these leaders, who are from a different angle just as reactionary as the Stalinist leadership, the New Leader quotes this as an indication that C.P. affiliation would disrupt the Labour Party! This argument will certainly render more easy a future application for affiliation from the I.L.P. But it has nothing in common with a revolutionary attitude towards the question. The threat of these Trade Union bosses, who incidentally have not consulted their members on the question, is reactionary through and through. Their objection to C.P. affiliation is not made at all because of the present strike-breaking policy of the C.P. but from the viewpoint of conservative bureaucrats. Certain sections of the trade union bureaucracy have come out in favour of C.P. affiliation largely because they believe that the C.P. will serve as a means of disciplining the workers. There is not a pin to choose between all these bureaucrats. Our attitude of supporting the affiliation as a means of facilitating the exposure of all these gentlemen and the revolutionary regroupment of the workers’ movement is the only principled Marxist one, and the only one which can clarify the issue for the workers.

Incidentally, we notice that the I.L.P. leadership has no qualms in denouncing the treacherous Stalinist Leadership! In this connection we may note that the booklet published by the I.L.P. to celebrate its Jubilee, proudly quotes the I.L.P.’s rejection of Lenin’s attitude on this question.

During an interview with “Lenin and the Executive of the Communist International which Radek was then secretary, to which they submitted a series of questions and brought back the terms of affiliation now known as “The 21 Points”, decisively rejected at the I.L.P. Conference the following year…” (the following ideas were developed)

“…it was not considered essential that the I.L.P. should leave the Labour Party, but if it remained affiliated it would be expected to continually fight against its policy and its personnel, acting upon the assumption that its leaders were treacherously betraying the working class movement. To this Wallhead replied that he could not conceive the I.L.P. pursuing a policy of that description…”

This among other things, prevented the affiliation of the I.L.P. to the Communist International in its revolutionary period. Much water has flown under the bridges since those days. There have been revolutions and counter-revolutions and the world has been plunged into a new imperialist war. But the I.L.P. leadership has not understood or been changed by these events and has not altered its attitude. In 1920 they rejected the Leninist position and moved from the middle of the road back to a reformist position. On a new level the I.L.P. leadership is repeating its history. But this time with different results which will be entirely unexpected to the leadership.

This Conference clearly indicates that the evolution of the I.L.P. is being speeded up. The leadership has the illusion that their apparent victory at the Conference has ensured a big growth and a pleasant haven within the Labour Party at a later stage. Nothing could be further from reality. It is virtually certain that in the next period the I.L.P. will enter on a period of extensive growth, especially if the truce is broken and they affiliate to the Labour Party. However, coming events in Britain will put every programme to the test. The revolutionary working class elements in the I.L.P. will inevitably, as they gather experience in the mass movement, correctly realise the real nature of Centrism.

The leading figures of the I.L.P. never tire of [?] the “internationalism” of the Party. This was emphasised by every leading speaker at the Jubilee Conference. In recent weeks Brockway has penned several articles on the question of the “New International” which completely shirk the issue. Instead of raising the question of their international relations and international programme for a full discussion at the Conference, the leadership evaded the issue completely. The Standing Orders Committee, no doubt reflecting the position of the N.A.C. (since the issue is slid over in that body’s report) rejected a resolution from a London Branch which would have raised the whole problem for a principled discussion. A reference back on this question was defeated by a little over a dozen votes. It is no wonder that the I.L.P. leadership avoids a discussion on internationalism. The fate of the essentially fictitious London Bureau, which Brockway piously refers as the I.L.P.’s national affiliates, speaks too much against the I.L.P.’s methods on the international arena. The American affiliate of the Lovestoneites which the I.L.P. boasted was stronger than the Trotskyists, committed the unprecedented step in the working class movement of committing suicide and dissolving itself. The Norwegian group long ago reverted back to the Second International. The German S.A.P. came out for support of the “democracies” in the war. The French group of Doriot finished up in the camp of fascism. The latest reports indicate that the former Swedish section has now fused with the Communist Party.

The best and most resolute party of the Centrists, the Spanish P.O.U.M. proved incapable of facing the test of the revolution and through its own vacillation and indecision, was largely responsible for the disastrous defeat of the Spanish revolution and its own destruction.

Within the I.L.P. there were as many groupings and tendencies moving in different directions as there were in the ill-fated London Bureau. The fact that the I.L.P. will in all probability gain tremendously in numbers and influence is the guarantee of the future. On the contrary, the process of differentiation and of sharp clashes between the differing and antagonistic groupings would be intensified by the incapacity of the leadership to give a revolutionary lead to the working class. The all-inclusive Bureau collapsed. The I.L.P.’s methods of building the International are precisely the same as its methods of building the Party. The all-inclusive Party will suffer a similar fate as the all-inclusive International.

However, there is a large and growing left wing in the I.L.P. composed almost exclusively of working class elements which is striving to transform the I.L.P. into a revolutionary socialist party. The main task of this grouping consists in theoretical education, training and hardening out of its forces. With correct and systematic work it should win the best elements of the I.L.P. workers towards a genuine Marxist policy. The debacle of the I.L.P. is inevitable. But the best elements inevitably break completely with centrism and find that the methods and policy of the Fourth International alone can build a revolutionary Party as an instrument for emancipation of the working class.