Ted Grant

Problems of Entrism

Written: March 1959
Source: original internal pamphlet

It is necessary, at various stages, to re-examine and analyse the principles, policies and tactics of the Movement both for the benefit of new members, and to consolidate and refresh the ideas of the basic cadres. In the light of recent events (Newsletter Industrial Conference, formation of the Socialist Labour League), and because of the relative lull in the Labour Party at the present time, this seems to be a suitable time to re-examine some of our basic conceptions on the problems of work in Britain.

To the sectarian splinter groups on the edge of, or to the left of the Fourth International (the Workers League, the Socialist Workers Federation and other tiny grouplets), the problem is posed in the simplest of terms: the Social Democracy and Stalinism have betrayed the working class; therefore the independent party of the working class must immediately be built. They claim the independence of the revolutionary party as a principle, whether the party consists of two or two million.

They do not take into account the historical development of the movement of the working class, which conditions the tactics, while maintaining the principles of the Marxists. Without flexible tactics it is impossible to win or train the forces which must be won before a revolutionary party can be built.

Unfortunately, the movement of the working class does not proceed in a straight line. Otherwise, all that would be necessary would be to proclaim from the street corners the need for a revolutionary party – as the SPGB has proclaimed for 50 years the superiority of Socialism over capitalism – but with completely barren results.

We have to start with an understanding of the working class and the Labour Movement as it emerges historically, with the consciousness determined by objective conditions on the one hand, and the betrayal of Stalinism and Social Democracy, which for us are objective factors, on the other hand; and the weakness of the revolutionary forces, which also becomes an important factor of the historical process. How to overcome the weakness and isolation of the revolutionary movement, whilst maintaining its principles intact, is the basic task of this epoch.

Alas! The movement of the working class rarely moves in a straight line. Otherwise capitalism would have been overthrown decades ago. The betrayal of the Revolution by Social Democracy in 1914-20 led to the formation of the Communist International, which was intended as an organ of World Revolution. The degeneration of the Revolution and the subsequent betrayal of Stalinism had its consequence that the world proletariat was disorientated.

However, it is one thing for the cadres of the revolutionary movement to understand the role of Stalinism and Reformism; it is a different matter for the masses, and even for the active advanced guard, who in general only learn by experience.

The victory of Hitler and the failure of the CI [Communist International] to learn the lessons of these events, marked the end of the CI as a weapon for the overthrow of capitalism and the inauguration of a new society leading to the setting up of a Socialist system.

It was this that led the Left Opposition to declare for the formation of new revolutionary parties and the new International. Neither the Labour Party nor the Communist Party could serve the needs of the Socialist revolution. But it is a long way from proclaiming the need for a revolutionary party to being able to form one with a mass basis.

Historically, the Marxist Movement has been thrown back. It is isolated from the main currents of opinion within the Labour Movement itself.

It was under these conditions that the problem of Entrism was raised by Trotsky. It is significant too, that it was first raised in relation to problems in Britain, which perhaps is a pointer to future perspectives.

Here we can only give a brief sketch of the history of entrism in Britain, dealing with the most important points only, which are of interest for the purposes of clarification and discussion.

The question was first raised in relation to work in the Independent Labour Party.

As a result of the experience of the Labour government of 1929-31 and world events of that period, the catastrophic slump, the rise of Fascism in Germany, faith in Reformism was shattered among many sections of the movement. Opposition to the policy of surrender and retreat of the MacDonald government crystallised, in the Labour Party, within the ranks of the ILP.

The ILP split from the Labour Party (on the wrong issue, at the wrong time, and without mobilising support in the broad Labour Movement). This meant that tens of thousands of workers organised in the ILP were moving in a revolutionary direction, away from Reformism and towards Marxism. At this stage their ideas were muddled; half revolutionary, half reformist. They could be won for the revolutionary programme, be absorbed by the perversions of Stalinism, move back to reformism, or lapse into apathy. The issue was not at all a settled one.

In 1932 the Trotskyists in Britain had been expelled from the Communist Party (for advocating a united front with the socialists in Germany and Britain). They launched a monthly paper but still remained isolated from the mainstream of the working class movement. Under these conditions, Trotsky suggested to the British comrades that the most fruitful field of work in Britain would be among the leftward moving workers in the ILP.

Unfortunately, the most experienced leaders of the Movement resisted and tried to maintain an independent organisation (not for very long – they soon entered the Labour Party, and later their organisation was dissolved) and only the younger and less experienced entered the ILP. Only modest successes were recorded. In the next period the ILP began to melt away as a serious force due to vacillations and the confusion of the leadership.

By 1935 the Labour Movement had began to recover from the debacle of 1931. And with the decline of the ILP and the prospect of only negligible further gains, if not losses, in this stagnant milieu, Trotsky raised the question of entry work in the Labour Party. The successes of the LP in the local elections, the strikes, the possibility of civil war which seemed to loom ahead – all would have their reflection in the ranks of the LP and make the best elements receptive to revolutionary ideas. However, they would not listen to a tiny organisation outside the mainstream of the Labour Movement. The problems of building the revolutionary tendency was the problem of penetrating the Labour Movement, especially the politically-conscious sections organised in the Labour Party. The LP, as the political expression of the organised trade union movement, represented the organised working class and sections of the unorganised workers as well. Thus the only way in which the work of revolutionists would not be stultified was within the mass milieu. We must learn to express revolutionary ideas in a language workers would understand, skillfully fighting the Reformists step by step, but without abandoning revolutionary ideas or perspectives.

Comrade Trotsky suggested bringing the experience of entry into the ILP to a close, and conducting work in the Labour Party.

The history of the subsequent period demonstrates that at that stage this was the correct tactic.

The working class does not come to revolutionary conclusions easily. Habits of thought, traditions, the exceptional difficulties created by the transformation of the Socialist and Communist traditional organisations into obstacles on the road of the revolution; all these have put formidable obstacles in the way of creating a Marxist mass movement.

All history demonstrates that, at the first stages of revolutionary upsurge, the masses turn to the mass organisations to try and find a solution for their problems, especially the young generation, entering politics for the first time. The experience of many countries demonstrates this. In Germany, despite the fact that the Spartacists represented tens of thousands of revolutionary workers steeled in the struggle against the First World War, and despite the fact that the Social Democratic leadership betrayed the workers in supporting the war and opposing the revolution of 1918, it was to the latter that the workers first turned after the outbreak of the revolution. It required years of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary struggles (apart from the mistakes of the leadership) before the CP was transformed from a small party to a mass movement.

This experience of every revolutionary awakening in the last 50 years in Europe demonstrates the truth of this theory. With the tiny forces we are able to mobilise at the moment, it would be laughable to suppose that the development of the revolution in Britain will follow any other course. Even as an independent force – if we had the forces and resources – it would be necessary to take this process into account. How much more so when, in relation to the problems posed by history, as yet we are a tiny handful. The task is to convert this handful into an integrated group with roots in the mass movement and then, from a cadre organisation, into a wider grouping, leading to the development of a mass organisation. How this is to be done is the main tactical consideration which dominates the work of the organisation at this stage.

Turning back to the historical question of entrism. From 1936-9 this problem was posed by the developments in Britain. It is not our intention to deal with the disputes of that period within the Movement, which are only of historical interest. But the outbreak of war in 1939 cut across the process and gave a different turn to events.

And here the problem of tactics as tactics, and not as once-and-for-all fetishes, shows its real importance. The Labour and trade union leaders entered a coalition with the capitalist class, and at a later stage entered the government under Churchill. The Labour organisations declined in activity and as live, functioning organisations. The youth was in the armed forces. Later, the CP, with the entry of Russia into the war, became the most zealous strike-breaking organisation. This gave tremendous opportunities for independent work. The biggest successes of Trotskyism in Britain were obtained during this period. The WIL, which formed the main part of the Revolutionary Communist Party at the fusion of Trotskyist forces in 1944, had changed its tactics in the early part of the war as a result of the experience of the objective situation. From the militants in industry and the trade unions the beginnings of a vanguard were created. But even at the height of the successes of the RCP, in discussion of the problems of entrism, the basic question of the probable entry of the revolutionary forces into the LP was posed. In discussions on the question, it was explained that even if a small party of a couple of thousands were to be created, it would not be sufficient for the tasks posed by history. If a Left Wing of some tens of thousands were to arise in the LP under the hammer blows of events it would be necessary, where affiliation could not be obtained, to enter for the purpose of influencing these elements into moving in a revolutionary direction; though, of course, at that stage the main emphasis was on the building of an independent party.

Events on a world scale took a different direction than was or could be foreseen by the Trotskyists in the prewar period. Stalinism in Russia and the East, Reformism and Stalinism in the West, were temporarily strengthened by a whole series of factors.

In Britain, this was reflected in the victory of the Labour government. Coming to power at a time of boom caused by the destruction of war, the Labour government of 1945 functioned under entirely different conditions from those under the Labour government of 1929. The ruling class had lost confidence as a result of the changed status of Britain in the world. Nominally a victor, Britain had nothing but losses to put in its balance sheet as a result of the war. The basic industries had been allowed to decay, with antiquated equipment, and starved of capital. For Britain to compete in the markets of the world she needed cheap coal, transport, steel, electricity, etc. Private enterprise would not have been willing to lay out the enormous sums required to modernise these industries. Hence the tolerance, or lukewarm opposition of the capitalists to the nationalisation of industries. The wave of revolutionary awakening had spread all over Asia, including India. The ruling class realised the impossibility of holding down these areas without a long and full scale war, which Britain could not sustain. Hence the conceding of control to the Indian, Burmese and Ceylonese capitalist classes. With the huge profits being made by big business, and on the basis of expanded economic activity, crumbs could be afforded as concessions to the working classes. On this basis, the Labour leaders, in the early years at any rate, could introduce certain reforms, such as the National Health scheme. The loans and Marshall Aid extended by America also bolstered up the economy. American capitalism had no alternative than to underwrite the British Labour government. But the fact that in large measure the Labour government had carried out its programme and that, thanks to overtime, women working, bonus schemes and a sellers market with the chronic shortage of labour, conditions improved in comparison with prewar, especially with the disappearance of unemployment, meant that illusions in reformism were strengthened within the organised working class. Thus the opposite condition prevailed than had prevailed with a Labour government working under conditions of slump.

Under such conditions, the revolutionary tendency tended to become isolated. This is not the time nor the place for an analysis of the mistakes of the RCP and the Movement generally at that time. But one thing has been demonstrated by historical events; the conditions for entry, as worked out by Trotsky in the past, did not apply. These conditions can be summarised as:

(a) Pre-revolutionary or revolutionary situation.

(b) Ferment in Social Democracy.

(c) Development of a Left Wing.

(d) The possibility of the rapid crystallisation of the revolutionary tendency.

None of these conditions existed at the time. Healyites in the RCP first raised the question. Their perspectives were false. By 1950 they were explaining in a document for their Congress that the issue was Socialism or Fascism within a year. There were to be no more general Elections, etc. Their perspective was based on a complete misjudgement of the situation.

However, once the RCP had dissolved and all the forces of Trotskyism were in the Labour Party, the problem of how to work in the party and with what perspective was a very vital one. It is necessary to understand that our own forces are too weak to create a left wing of mass proportions. Our job is to win over the most advanced elements and create cadres within the Party. At the same time, on the basis of our work and our political positions, gaining positions in the local Labour Parties, Wards, General Management Committees, etc. This is all preparatory work for the major job in the future. On the other hand, to dress ourselves in the clothes of Left Reformism over a period would be disastrous. All the adventures of the Healyites in this respect ended ingloriously. It is true that the conditions for entry, as Trotsky outlined them, are still not present, but it would be the height of stupidity to abandon work in the LP now and launch into independent adventures after a decade or more of work there. The conditions for independent work are not favourable either. Whatever may have been gained by remaining independent in the past, tremendous gains cannot be expected in the immediate future. For any such gains would be disproportionate to the future possibilities in the Labour Party.

In the meantime, to launch out with the main emphasis on independent work would damage the future work that could be conducted in the Labour Party. Thus we would obtain the worst disadvantages of both tactics. It will not be possible to re-enter easily under conditions of ferment in the LP, as Transport House would have a list of all prominent Trotskyists in the past period.

In any event, it is really an extraordinary performance when the objective situation is on the eve of transformation in the next period both nationally and internationally, with tremendous repercussions within the ranks of the Labour Movement, to abandon the field just when the possibility will develop for really fruitful work. Trotsky had explained how, in preparing for entry, people should be sent in to get the feel, see what the possibilities were, etc. Our [task] now consists of preparatory work for the next period. If we were an independent organisation at the present time we should be preparing our forces for entry. Far from withdrawing, we would be sending in more and more of our forces to prepare the way for total entry. Our forces in the LP would be able to inform us of the situation there, and at the first signs of a gathering storm we would have entered. Under the circumstances it is the height of folly, irresponsible ultra-leftism, to launch an adventure at the present time: an adventure that will favour Transport House in its endeavours to shackle the Left Wing. Nothing will be gained in the long run, and a great deal of damage will be done to the work in the Labour Party.

In addition, the rank and file would be entirely miseducated by these constant somersaults, and a demoralisation of the members would ensue. From every point of view the work is impossible without an understanding of the perspectives, whatever the momentary situation may be. Otherwise the work proceeds purely empirically as with the Healyites, in a series of convulsive leaps and jumps in all directions. The tendency is at the mercy of every episodic conjuncture and turn in events, blown hither and thither by momentarily favourable or unfavourable winds, instead of – while taking these into account in every-day work and explaining to the membership the meaning of all event – nevertheless fitting them into broad perspectives of the movement. It is the failure to understand the tactic of entrism, and its application, which has resulted in the new tactics of the Healyites. They will produce an abortion.

Our job in the preparatory period, which still exists, is the patient winning of ones and twos, perhaps of small groups, but certainly not the creation of a mass revolutionary current, which is not possible at the present time. To attempt to shout louder than one’s voice merely results in hoarseness and ultimately the loss of voice altogether. We have to establish ourselves as a tendency in the Labour Movement.

Opportunism is only the other side of adventurism. Both rise out of a false assessment of objective circumstances, or of a surrender to the immediate environment. That is why, without a firm theoretical basis and collective control of the movement, it is easy to succumb to one mistake or the other, from opportunist LP and TU tactics (the drive in the ETU and other unions for the elections of officials for the sake of capturing positions, without putting forward a clear revolutionary platform, and for horsedeals with all sorts of peculiar elements). Having burned their fingers, it is natural for the Healyites to recoil to ultra-leftism. The ostensible reason for rejecting any unity discussions whatsoever with the RSL was that the latter was in favour of a certain amount of open revolutionary work, all the work nevertheless being centred in the LP. Now we have the foolish tactics in the South Bank strike, the hysterical and meaningless rank and file committees (dealt with in the statement on the Newsletter Industrial Conference) embracing all trades and all sections of the workers. This has not succeeded in attracting more than a small section of the militants, but it has succeeded in jeopardising the future of work in the Labour Party.

With the Healyites, adventurism has gone hand in hand with opportunism. The support for splitting the dock workers in Liverpool, which has had such disastrous consequences, side by side with the opportunist tactics in the ETU.

For a quarter of the century or more the Labour bureaucracy has accumulated experience in fighting entrist and fraction work by the CP. In this struggle they have built a formidable machine skilled in fighting infiltration. To this must be added a decade of experience in fighting Trotskyism in the LP. This puts quite big difficulties in the way of organising on a national scale. That is why the tactics of the Healyites were irresponsible in the last period. If Transport House have held their hand until recently, only preparing for action against individuals, it is because they feel secure in their position. At the present time, with the capitulation of the Bevanites (apart from the ineffective Victory for Socialism group), the bureaucracy feels itself relatively secure. It is attempting to smother any opposition by calling for a rallying of the membership for a campaign to defeat the Tories in the coming general Election.

For a time it may succeed, or partially succeed, in this. The publication of the glossy pamphlet on Labour’s election programme will secure acceptance by at least the bulk of the membership in the hope that, with the election of the Labour government, things will undoubtedly improve.

It is just at this time that entry work in the LP will assume the utmost importance. For the first time, important gains will be possible on a national scale in the next period. Yet it is just at this time that the Healyites have in action shown their despair at achieving results. This arises from their previously incorrect perspectives, when they saw a mass Left Wing in every incident which developed in the LP in the last decade.

As things stand, it seems likely that Labour will win the next election, especially if the economy remains stagnant and unemployment reaches a million or thereabouts during the winter. Labour’s programme has something for everybody in it, and Gaitskell’s demagogic speeches on the television and in the country will have been noted by the rank and file. Should Labour win the next election, the bill will be presented by the workers accordingly. The advanced elements in the unions and LP will demand steps in the direction of socialism. The capitalists will be exerting pressure in their turn on the government, and the Labour leaders will be left floundering, with their reformist programme in tatters, in the middle. The political perspective of the next Labour government will rather be that of 1929 than that of 1945.

The demands of the workers, in the unions and the LPs, will gather strength and momentum, after the first period of shock and waiting watchfully for the promises of the Labour leaders to be carried out. The mass of the working class learns only from experience. This applies also to the more active and advanced elements in general, apart from the Marxist wing who are guided by theoretical calculations. The bulk of the nascent Left Wing are guided by practical considerations, and will judge the Movement according to the results achieved. However, they will be a receptive and attentive audience when reformism fails to deliver the goods.

Under conditions of crisis and struggle, there will be renewal of the entire Labour Movement. Shop stewards who have grown old and subservient to the management in those plants where relatively good conditions have been obtained in the past period will be shouldered out and replaced by younger militants; the local TU branch officials who do not reflect the changed mood of the workers will be removed. Delegates to the GMCs and city LPs from the TUs who today generally almost select themselves, because of the prevailing indifference in the union branches, would have to reflect the mood or find themselves removed. The wards and GMCs would reflect the new mood, and a strong, leftward moving opposition would develop. In any case the working class will fight, and the development of struggle will revitalise and renew the Movement; especially the youth, from whom the most gains have been made in the past period of work, would become radicalised and look for a Left Wing alternative.

Under such conditions a strong Left Reformist or even Centrist current, with a mass base, would be formed within the LP: a current similar to that which developed in the LP during the second Labour government, when they moved away from reformism. Had there been a Marxist wing, or even a strong fraction working within this milieu, the basis could have been laid for the development of the revolutionary party. A similar opportunity will reoccur in the new circumstances. This is the historical justification for the policy of entrism.

We will intervene in this current and try and fertilise it with the ideas of Marxism. The conservative outlook of the British working class and Labour Movement, which is historically conditioned by the developments of the last decades, can quickly disappear under the hammer blow of events. The advanced elements will be willing to listen to revolutionary ideas which can show a way out of the impasse in which the LP will find itself as a result of the policies of the leadership. Reformism will appear bankrupt to this important layer of the working class.

In this connection there is the lesson of the experience in the post-war period. Under the impetus of the revolutionary wave which swept Italy, the Social Democracy split between right and left, under Nenni. However, without any real revolutionary alternative presented to them, the movement was captured and became a fellow-travelling satellite of the Stalinists.

A similar danger exists in Britain, despite the strong anti-Stalinist reaction which followed the Hungarian events. What there is of a Left Wing is permeated by Stalinist ideas, especially on the question of foreign policy. Outside the LP, with the aid of the large number of fellow travellers and disguised Stalinists, unless they were actively combated within the Party, they might succeed in gaining control and stultifying the Movement. On the other hand any opposition Left Reformist current, which might under the hammer blow of events even split from the LP, could not maintain itself for long. It would either make the transition to a revolutionary position, lapse back into Reformism or rapidly disintegrate. Our epoch has no room for centrist formations of the lasting character. That is why the perspective for the next period opens up the prospect for entrist work to be really fruitful.

On the other hand, if the failure of the Labour Leaders to offer a bold Socialist alternative, even in reformist terms, to the policy and programme of Toryism; their feeble opposition in Parliament; their failure to mobilise the workers for a real drive to get rid of the government, results in the unprecedented victory of the government in three General Elections, it will not alter perspectives in fundamentals. The struggle of the workers will then be in extra parliamentary terms on the industrial field. The Labour and TU bureaucrats under these circumstances would be compelled to swing Left, and swing the Party, at least in words, for a socialist struggle against the Tory government. The rank and file would be thoroughly roused and critical. Under conditions of struggle a Left Wing would rapidly be crystallised. Against an aroused working class the Tory government, after testing out the resistance of the workers, at a certain stage, depending on the economic situation would, if the opposition of the working class threatened to become too strong, with the government losing its support, try to bridle the masses through a Labour government. This is to prepare the way for reaction, and for more ruthless methods against the working class. On the other hand, if the Tories try to slug it out with the working class, this would be bound to be reflected within the ranks of the working class, and thus of the LP. The rank and file would become critical of the lack of fight of the leadership, and a ferment would commence in the ranks, leading to the development of Left Wing and revolutionary conclusions.

In any event the perspective is of a heightened class struggle finding its reflection within the ranks of the Labour Movement. This must be the basic perspective that we set ourselves.

Our day to day work within the TU branches and LP Wards and GMCs must be imbued with these ideas. At the present time, the Transport House bureaucracy relies only on a thin stratum of its members for its machine. The experience of the last decade has had its effect on the rank and file. Largely it is the full time officials and councillors on whom Transport House relies for its support. Not even on all these. Quite a big section, in various [local] Parties, supports the Left. Under conditions of crises, this stratum whose horizon is bounded by the routine of local affairs, would be affected by the mood of the rank and file. Meanwhile the weight of the bureaucracy is on this stratum, and the Wilson Report, with its separation in many instances of Trades Council from LPs, its breaking up of City LPs and greater emphasis on the Constituency Parties, lowers the specific weight of the TU delegate and raises the weight of the Constituency Party machine.

The Party requires the renovating breezes of the class struggle, which will put all shades and gradings in the party to the test.

We must look forward with confidence in our day to day patient work in Wards, GMCs, Trades Councils and Shop Stewards committees. Our general perspectives must at each stage be viewed in the light of events for the purpose of checking, renewing, correcting or extending the basic prognoses, as the cases may be.

One thing is sure. The present swing to the right in France and Europe, to a certain extent even Britain, will be succeeded by a terrific swing to the left. Events,events,events, will shake the LP to its foundations. The LPs and TUs will become forums for revolutionary discussion. The stagnant atmosphere in the party and country will be transformed.

As the result of the betrayals of the Bevanites, some of the Lefts have become discouraged and tend to drop out of the Party. They will be replaced by dozens, hundreds, and thousands of militants in the period that looms ahead. The experience of a strike is a valuable analogy. Every militant who has participated in a strike has experienced the quickening effect on the consciousness of the workers. They learn eagerly and quickly. In the course of action and discussion, they learn in days and weeks what might otherwise take years.

On a national scale, especially with Labour in power, with the remorseless pressure of the class struggle pitilessly putting all programmes and perspectives to the test, the result will be the same. The exceptionally favourable conditions that bolstered reformism in 1945 are extremely unlikely ever to recur in exactly the same form.

By working with the rank and file to return a Labour government, while criticising the inadequacies of the programme, at this stage we can prepare our basis in the areas where we work. Our day to day work must be linked with our perspectives indissolubly.

The most vital need for all revolutionists is a proper sense of proportion. On the one hand to have a proper sense of history – without this we are lost – on the other hand to find a bridge to the future, taking into account the present relaxation of forces. Our present forces and resources are extremely small. That has been the curse of the epoch. From our present forces and tasks we must work out a day to day perspective, without succumbing to the reformist environment which presses down on us in the present period.

The theoretical and independent work of education of our own forces must proceed simultaneously with our work in the LP. The one is as important as the other. Either on its own is inadequate if we are to fulfil the role laid on us by history.

March 1959