Ted Grant

The I.L.P. at the Crossroads

Written: April 1945
Source: Workers’ International News, vol. 5 no. 8 (April 1945)
Transcription: Francesco 2008
Markup: Manuel 2008

The most important item on the agenda at this year’s I.L.P. Conference is the question of its relations to the Labour Party.

The N.A.C. has put down a resolution asking for the I.L.P. to apply for affiliation to the Labour Party on the same basis as existed before the I.L.P. voluntarily disaffiliated from the Labour Party.

In making such a complete reversal of the position which it adopted for so many years, one would expect that the leadership (which occasionally makes references to Marx and Lenin as its guide) would draw up a balance sheet of the period since the separation.

The only leading member of the I.L.P. who has attempted to explain the reason for the change, was John McGovern at the I.L.P. Summer School of August 1944. In dealing with the history of the I.L.P. as reported in the New Leader of August 19th, 1944, he made reference to the achievements of the I.L.P. since disaffiliation:

“He considered the position of the Party at the time of disaffiliation and confessed that he thought ‘The I.L.P.’s case was so clear that every intelligent worker would have to accept the I.L.P. attitude and philosophy, and desire to build with it a strong working class movement in this country. A large number of people encouraged the Party at that time to believe that this was true, and got it to leave the Labour Party and then proceeded to work their own way back Into that Party. In those days we went round the country as an independent working class party, and thought that once the faith of the workers in the Labour Party had been destroyed we would be able to transfer these workers from the Labour Party to the I.L.P. It now transpires that we made errors both in judgment and in policy’.”

“Comrade McGovern began a critical examination of the party policy after disaffiliation, and stated that ‘one early mistake was our association with the Communist Party, especially at a time when there was tremendous antagonism in this country against the C.P. In many areas where the I.L.P. had an agreement with the C.P. a large number of members left the Party. This series of united fronts prod uced small effects, but drove out many workers’.”

“Believing that self-criticism in the Party was necessary, the lecturer went on to consider the internal struggles in the Party, instancing the R.C.P., the Trotskyists, and later the disputes between Stalinists and Trotskyists within the Party, which re sulted in ‘purges’ and loss of membership. He stated that he had been asked on many occasions, by those who appeared to accept as logical the Party position, what guarantee he could give that the development of the I.L.P. would not be similar to that of the Labour Party, and he considered that he could give these individuals no guarantee such as they asked.”

Without giving an analysis of the evolution of the I.L.P., McGovern echoes the criticism made by Leon Trotsky long ago. Here Marxist theory demonstrates its superiority over centrist empiricism.

Trotsky had pointed out that the manner, the timing and the issue on which the I.L.P. left the Labour Party were not such as to make the position clear in the eyes of the masses. The issue on which the split occurred—that of refusing to accept the discipline of the parliamentary Labour Party by the I.L.P. M.P.s—was not sufficiently clear cut to gain the sympathy and support of the masses. The naive confession of McGovern as to his belief in the automatic turning of the masses from the Labour Party to the I.L.P. is a faithful reflection of the illusions of the entire leadership at the time of the break. A belief which was entirely alien to the teachings of Marxism.

The masses do not automatically accept a Party—even if it has a correct policy and programme—but must be won to the programme as a result of correct strategy and tactics. Only if the revolutionary Party has a firm theoretical basis and an understanding of the method of approach to the masses—blurred neither by sectarianism nor opportunism—can it prepare for its historic task, the overthrow of capitalism.

Trotsky warned the I.L.P. that their association in a united front with the Stalinist Party (which had since the capitulation of the German C.P. become a thoroughly reactionary obstacle in the path of the working class) would be disastrous for it. Trotsky suggested that the I.L.P. turn its back on the—at that time—tiny C.P. and face towards the mass organisations of the Trade Unions and the Labour Party. But the I.L.P. leaders paid no heed. They continued their association with the Stalinists and as late as 1935-36 participated with the Stalinists in the ill-fated “Unity Campaign” together with the Socialist League. This was at a time when the Stalinists in Spain were already campaigning against the brother Party of the I.L.P.—the P.O.U.M.—as “Trotskyist-fascist” and “Fifth Columnists”! To this day the leadership of the I.L.P. has not made an analysis of the mistakes made in this period.

The last point made in this quotation from McGovern is an entirely sound one. No party in the world, subjected to the constant pressure and corruption of the capitalist environment, can guarantee itself against degeneration, even though it be the most tested revolutionary and Marxist Party developed in history. The possibility always exists of the Party becoming a tool of the capitalists, as are the Labour Party and the Communist Party today. The only precautions that those desiring to build a revolutionary party have, is to ensure that the Party is based on the principles and the methods of Marxism; to ensure, on that basis, that every point of view within the Party is thoroughly aired and discussed. Only by complete democracy in the Party which permits every member or grouping the right to bring forward their point of view, can a live, watchful and educated rank and file be created which will have full confidence in the leadership and simultaneously guard against the possibility of degeneration. These are the only moral and honest means of ensuring a united party and a correct policy. These were the methods of Bolshevism in its great days, and without which the Bolshevik Party could never have been built and succeeded in achieving the conquest of power. The stifling of democratic rights by Zinoviev, and later by Stalin—in itself a reflection of processes taking place within the country—paved the way for the complete disintegration of the mightiest revolutionary weapon the world has ever known. As McGovern has hinted, unfortunately the leadership has not always allowed the full freedom of criticism which is necessary in any party which desires to transform itself into a revolutionary party. In a bureaucratic attitude on the part of any leadership, is contained an uneasiness in the correctness of its policy, past and future.

In preparing to re-affiliate, nowhere has the leadership of the I.L.P. explained the differences, if any, between the situation either of the I.L.P. or the Labour Party which would justify re-affiliation on the same terms as led the I.L.P. to disaffiliate in 1932. Much water has flowed under the bridges since those days; but the character of the Labour Party and its leadership has not changed basically in the interim, except perhaps that the leadership has become even more reactionary than formerly.

And while there have been many profound changes in the composition and outlook of the rank and file of the I.L.P. the leadership has remained basically with the same outlook as when it was in the Labour Party. They have never broken with reformism, but have maintained a middle way position between reformism and Marxism. This, and only this, explains their present attitude towards the Labour Party and affiliation to it.

In 1935, Comrade Trotsky wrote in “Once Again: the I.L.P.” in reply to the question, “Should the I.L.P. seek entry into the Labour Party?”

“At the moment the question is not posed this way. What the I.L.P. must do if it is to become a revolutionary Party, is to turn its back on the C.P. and face the mass organisations. It must put 99 percent of its energies into building up fractions in the Trade Union movement. At the moment I understand that much of the fractional work can be done openly by I.L.P.ers in their capacity of Trade Union and co-operative members. But the I.L.P. should never rest content; it must build its influence in the mass organisations with the utmost speed and energy. For the time may come, when, in order to reach the masses, it might enter the Labour Party, and it must have tracks laid for the occasion. Only the experience that comes from such fractional work can inform the I.L.P. if and when it must enter the Labour Party. But for all its activity an absolutely clear programme is the first condition, a small axe can fell a large tree only if it is sharp enough.” [source]

What Trotsky is developing here is the idea that affiliation or non-affiliation is not a principled question, but one of tactics. For the revolutionary party, the problem reduces itself to one of how best to reach and influence the mass of the workers and win them to revolutionary socialism. But before one can do that, it is necessary to have a Marxian programme which decisively differentiates the Party from all other Parties, especially from Labour reformism.

Yet even in its hey-day of “revolutionary socialism”, the I.L.P. never completely broke from parliamentarism and reformism. Today, after 13 years of separation from the Labour Party, the New Leader of March 31st 1945, published on the eve of the Conference to decide the question of affiliation, can write:

“Labour Follows I.L.P.”

“The I.L.P. Conference meets at Blackpool at Easter. The Labour Party Conference meets in the same place at Whitsun.

“The preliminary agenda of the latter Conference has just been issued, and it is interesting to compare it with the agenda of the I.L.P. Conference.

“Similar subjects are dealt with, and on domestic issues—housing, monopolies and land, for example—there is little difference in principle between many of the resolutions on both agendas. It is when one passes to the resolutions on the Peace and the treatment of Germany that the difference becomes most marked, though even here the Labour Party agenda includes resolutions which express the international socialist attitude.

“The truth is, however, that the Labour Party agenda is always better than Labour Party policies.”

This is not at all as the writer of these lines infers: that the Labour Party rank and file is adopting a revolutionary position, and therefore the resemblance. It is because the I.L.P.’s position remains basically reformist that the comparison becomes possible.

The content of the resolutions put before the Labour Party Conference this year do not differ from those put forward on any previous years, including the year of disaffiliation, 1932. It remains incomprehensible then, why the I.L.P. disaffiliated at all, if this argument is accepted. No more annihilating criticism could be made than that the resolutions are not much different from those on the Labour Party agenda.

We Trotskyists have been attacked consistently by the I.L.P. leaders for our criticisms of their attitude towards the Labour Party, which veered from left to right. Thus Trotsky said in the same interview quoted above:

“The basic error which was made by some I.L.P.ers who withdrew critical support [of the Labour Party] was to assume that the war danger necessitated a change in our appreciation of reformism. But as Clausewitz said, and Lenin often repeated, war is the continuation of politics by other means. If this is true, it applies not only to capitalist parties, but to social democratic parties. The war crisis does not alter the fact that the Labour Party is a workers’ party, which the Government Party is not. Nor does it alter the fact that the Labour leadership cannot fulfil their promises, that they will betray the confidence which the masses place in them. In peace time the workers will, if they trust in social democracy, die of hunger; in war, for the same reason, they will die from bullets. Revolutionists never give critical support to reformism on the assumption that reformism, in power, could satisfy the fundamental needs of the workers. It is possible, of course, that a Labour Government could introduce a few mild temporary reforms. It is also possible that the League [of Nations] could postpone a military conflict about secondary issues—just as a cartel can eliminate secondary economic crises only to reproduce them on a larger scale. So the League can eliminate small episodic conflicts to generalise them into world war.

“Thus, both economic and military crises will only return with an added explosive force so long as capitalism remains. And we know that social democracy cannot abolish capitalism.

“No, in war as in peace, the I.L.P. must say to the workers: ‘The Labour Party will deceive you and betray you, but you do not believe us. Very well, we will go through your experiences with you but in no case do we identify ourselves with the Labour Party programme’.” [source]

What a world of difference between this revolutionary attitude, and the open, boastful identification of the “revolutionary” programme of the I.L.P. with the reformist programme of the Labour Party! The I.L.P. objected to giving critical support to the Labour Party in those days because the Labour Party policy was one of support for imperialist war. Today, after the Labour Party has dirtied its banner a second time in support of the capitalists in war, the I.L.P. gives them a clean bill of health as “Socialists”. They prepare for the coming General Election by rushing to get on the bandwagon of the Labour Party. Not that the Labour Party will cease to support imperialist wars—that would be too much to expect from the new found socialists—but after all, the attitude towards war is only a mere difference of opinion in the eyes of Brockway these days. The Labour Party inside or outside the Government will continue either as a governing. Party or as a “loyal opposition” to support the blatantly imperialist war against Japan in order to aid the capitalists in getting back the loot and the slaves which the Japanese capitalists have grabbed from them.

Yet it is not so long ago that the leaders sought with might and main to differentiate themselves from what they described as the “doomed” Labour Party. During the first phase of the war, Brockway, Ridley, Padley and others vied with one another in predicting the collapse of the Labour Party. The I.L.P. then developed the idea that the masses would by-pass the Labour Party, and come straight to the side of the proponents of the “Socialist Britain Now” campaign. Today, that campaign has been relegated to the limbo of centrist Lost Causes. It has been quietly buried without fuss or explanation. At the time of its inception, it was subjected to a Marxian criticism, and its inevitable demise was predicted in the columns of Workers’ International News and the Socialist Appeal.

The ultra-left notion, that because the Labour Party had betrayed the workers, all that was necessary was for them to hang out a signboard “Socialism Now”, received its crassest expression in the articles of the sectarian, Ridley. Let us see what he wrote because he gave a finished expression to all the mistakes of the I.L.P. leadership; their inability to understand the problem of the Labour Party and how to face up to it. Criticising the Trotskyists who were demanding that the Labour leaders end the shameless coalition with the capitalists and wage a struggle for power on a socialist programme, as a means of educating the workers through their own experience, Ridley gleefully jibed:

“In fact, everything indicates that this war will mark the end of the Labour Party just as the last one did that of its liberal predecessor, despite the valiant efforts of the Trotskyists, to revive the fast putrefying corpse. The spirit died in it long ago. After all, even Christ gave up the dead as hopeless after three days!” (New Leader, February 21st, 1942).

It might be pointed out that this is not the most foolish statement made by leaders of the I.L.P. Padley, Brockway and others all argued that to give support—critical support at that—to the Labour Party, and demand that they take power on a socialist programme, would be to deceive the workers and sow illusions in the Labour leaders who had betrayed the workers. If there was a grain of sense in their arguments of that time, it was that the reactionary reformists of the Labour Party could not fundamentally alter the conditions of the masses when in power. Now, they have thrown overboard the only correct part of their criticism, and have fallen into the very abyss which they claimed the Trotskyist policy would lead to. They now deceive the workers into believing that the Labour Party can accomplish the Socialist Revolution.

Thus, insofar as their policy can affect events, they smooth the path of reaction, both inside and outside the Labour Party.

Trotsky once wrote that a sectarian is merely an opportunist afraid of his own opportunism. We have seen what Ridley wrote in the past. Let us hear his words of wisdom today. In the New Leader of June 20th, 1945, Ridley writes:

“The Labour Party is the mass Party of the British Trade Unions, and, in general, of the more politically conscious workers. It is also ‘His Majesty’s Opposition’. For which reasons it occupies an important contemporary role in British politics. It has this great advantage over the Tories that it still commands an extensive reserve of enthusiasm and moral idealism amongst its rank and file. Though it must be added that the present leadership of the Party hasn’t a glimmering of a notion as to what to do with this great potentially socialist and revolutionary force. This last fact was very obvious at the recent Labour Party Conference, where not so much a gulf, as an abyss, divided the platform from the rank and file.”

Not so much a gulf as an abyss separates the Ridley of 1945 from the Ridley of 1942. But let us go further:

“The question of the survival of the Labour Party, and the possibility of its continuing to play any role in the Socialist transformation of British society depends upon whether the rank and file of the Party can throw up a new leadership which adequately reflects, and will continue to reflect in or out of office, its point of view, free from the domination of the Trade Union bureaucracy. And this, in its turn depends on whether the Labour Party regards itself as a federal structure, including all Socialist trends, revolutionary as well as reformist; or whether, as at present, as an intolerant monolithic top-heavy structure committed to endless compromises, and to the philosophy of a dead age, itself the product of extinct material conditions.

“The next General Election may put the Labour Party in power. Then will come its supreme test, for 1945, unlike 1924 and 1929-31, is an age of revolution versus counter-revolution, and any British Government (of whatever shade) must choose one or the other camps.”

The miracle is achieved; Ridley has succeeded in bettering the accomplishments of Christ! Whereas Christ gave up hope for the dead after three days, Ridley has revived the stinking corpse after three years! Naturally, under such circumstances, the smell is overpowering.

Think of it. Ridley parades as a Marxian historian, and yet raises the question as to whether the Labour Party in power will support revolution or counter-revolution!

The Labour Party, as a party, will always act to defend the “democratic” counter-revolution against the proletarian revolution in a revolutionary situation. In power, the Labour Party, with or without a majority, would act as it did in 1924 and 1929. That there would be splits and revolts within the ranks, even at the top, inside and outside Parliament in such an event, is an entirely different question.

What would be the attitude of a genuine revolutionary party towards the problem of affiliation? In order to disguise its complete and unconditional surrender to the reformism of the Labour Party, the I.L.P. leadership suggests that it will affiliate only after the truce has been broken and the coalition ended. Why? The Labour Party will still be the same Labour Party, except that with a fake “opposition” to the Tories, the leadership will be even more dangerous than before. It can allow itself the luxury of criticising the Tories, which can lead the rank and file to believe that the Labour Party leaders intend to wage a real struggle for Socialism. But at the coming General Election, the Labour Party will not, and cannot put a fighting Socialist case, for fear it may gain a majority. And it fears that a majority would expose its incapacity to carry through any large scale measures against capitalism and in the interests of the working class. Nor is there any absolute certainty that the Labour Party may not enter another coalition after the election, although this is unlikely because of the pressure of the rank and file.

Would the I.L.P. in that case, disaffiliate from the Labour Party? You would search in vain for an answer to this question from the pro-affiliationist wing of the I.L.P.

If the I.L.P. were a genuine Marxist Party, the problem would be approached from an entirely different standpoint. The Labour Party is the mass organisation of the working class. In order to win the workers to the banner of revolutionary socialism, it would facilitate matters if the revolutionaries had the right to put their point of view directly to the workers inside the Labour Party. If, given the right of criticism, affiliation would assist in educating the Labour Party workers. Under such circumstances, the rapid regroupment of the workers in the Labour Party around a revolutionary programme and banner would become a possibility. Fighting side by side in the ranks with the Labour workers, we would be in a better position to convince them of the necessity for a Marxist programme and the futility of reformism.

Thus the leftward swing of the workers would lead to a strengthening of the revolutionary tendencies within the Labour Party, without in any way sacrificing the principles for which we stand.

In approaching the Labour Party for affiliation all negotiations would be conducted publicly, in full-view of the workers, and the reasons for such a step honestly explained without in any way abandoning our revolutionary position, or our criticism and exposure of the Labour leaders. On these conditions, we would be prepared to affiliate, even if the Labour Party remained in the coalition.

Basically, our approach towards affiliation is no different than our approach to the problem of the Labour Government. Affiliation would have tremendous advantages in the establishment of a closer bond with the rank and file Labour workers. If the Labour leaders refused to accept us, the workers would see them as the splitters, especially if previously we had waged a campaign on the issue in the factories and trade unions, and secured some support among the Labour workers.

However, in spite of the opportunist approach of the I.L.P. leadership, the affiliation of the I.L.P. to the Labour Party would be a progressive step. Some comrades in the I.L.P. oppose affiliation because they correctly see in the policy of the N.A.C., a capitulation to the reformist Labour leaders. But in opposing the false reformist approach of the N.A.C., they make mistakes of a sectarian character. Even if the I.L.P. were a revolutionary Party, affiliation would be progressive. But with the present position, affiliation should help enormously in clarifying the situation within the I.L.P. and all the tendencies within it. There is no fundamental difference separating the Labour Lefts from the I.L.P. leaders. The differences between them are entirely artificial. There is no real political reason why they should not be together.

It is true, that the Labour leaders, or a large section of them, have their own reasons for desiring the affiliation of the I.L.P. They realise only too well that in the coming period those organisations which stood out against the war will become more attractive to the disillusioned workers and soldiers. In face of the coming upsurge of the workers, the Labour leaders will require a “Left” cover in order to retain the support of the masses. In their calculations, the I.L.P. will serve this purpose.

That was how the situation worked out after the last war, and they hope that history will repeat itself. However, the situation is entirely different today. The I.L.P. will enter the Labour Party on the eve of a tremendous ferment and explosion among the masses. Far from the tranquil existence anticipated by the I.L.P. leadership, the I.L.P. would inevitably act as the crystallising point for the awakening Labour workers. Both the fresh recruits, and the older stratum of industrial members will demand a revolutionary policy. Thus the differentiation within the I.L.P. would be intensified between the reformist wing and the revolutionary wing. The revolutionary wing, if it worked out a Marxist policy and programme, would enormously accelerate the revolutionary regroupment within the Labour movement.

Whether inside the Labour Party, or outside, the organic left-reformism or at best, centrism of the I.L.P. leadership stands in the way of the I.L.P. adopting a revolutionary position. Entry into the Labour Party will force them to show their hand. The best members will come to see exactly where the leadership really stands. The new and virile members who will enter the Labour Party would fuse with the I.L.P. Left wing. True, the I.L.P. would be flooded also by Left parliamentarians, pacifists and careerists. But these would rapidly separate themselves from the I.L.P. rank and file and become assimilated with the leadership, dragging it further to the Right. This again, would have its effects on the rank and file.

On the background of tremendous storms on the industrial and political fields, both the Labour Party and the I.L.P. will be shaken from top to bottom. Affiliation of the I.L.P. to the Labour Party seems to be a foregone conclusion: but it will neither avail the reformist leadership of the Labour Party, nor the centrist leadership of the I.L.P. It will act as an accelerator of all the processes of change and movement taking place within both organisations. The revolutionary workers in both parties, in the course of their own experience will begin to perceive that only the programme and methods of Bolshevism, only the programme of the Fourth International can lead to the overthrow of the capitalist system and the victory of the Socialist Revolution.