Tariq Ali


Why I’m Joining the Labour Party

(December 1981)

From Socialist Review, No. 38, 14 December 1981–13 December 1981: 10, pp. 20–21.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

For a long time Tariq Ali was probably Britain’s best known revolutionary. Now he has decided to leave the International Marxist Group and apply for membership of the Labour Party. Here he argues with us that his decision is a correct one – and Pete Goodwin and Chris Harman reply, restating our case for building an independent, revolutionary

‘Neither to laugh nor to cry, but to understand’ (Spinoza)

In a letter to The Guardian (23 November 1981) Chris Harman suggests that by joining the Labour Party I am abandoning Marxism and repudiating the core of my remarks made during the ‘debate of the decade.’ If this were true then, of course, there would be no point in argument. I could be easily denounced as another in the long line of revisionists, social-traitors, renegades, etc., and that would be that. But Chris Harman is fully aware that matters are not so simple.

When I first came to Britain in the mid-sixties one of the first left papers that I found being thrust down my neck was Labour Worker (if I recall correctly the seller was Ian Birchall) which was littered with articles bearing the signature X or Y or Z with the Constituency Labour Party they belonged to mentioned in brackets.

True that was a long time ago and we have seen many changes since that time. One of these is that the far left is stronger than it was. But are we qualitatively in a different league?

I think not. Even if all the far-left groups were united they would still not be as strong (especially in terms of a proletarian cadre) as was the Communist Party of the twenties.

The point I am trying to make is the following: we are confronted with a crucial strategic choice today and if the wrong decision is made (as it was at the recent SWP conference) then there is a real danger of isolation, reinforcement of a ghetto mentality and objective pressures in the direction of becoming a sect.

I have always been in favour of a strong collaboration with the SWP and its predecessor and my attitude has not changed because I have left the IMG. It remains the same.

The debate between us revolves round analysing the important developments taking place in British politics.

Socialist Review as well as other journals on the left (including the Labour left) tended to dismiss the formation of the SDP as an irrelevance. In Gang show on the road?, you refused to accept the challenge being posed to the traditional bureaucratic leadership of the Labour Party. You wrote:

The apparently impressive showing for the centre party in opinion polls is almost certainly not going to be translated into any electoral success. Just ask the simple question: can Jenkins or Williams stand anywhere against sitting Labour MPs and win seats? The answer must be ten-to-one against success for them.

The string of SDP successes in local elections in Labour strongholds is an ominous pointer in another direction. You subsequently corrected your misestimate and the last issue of SR accurately described the class character of the SDP. It should have made an additional point, namely, that the SDP electorate has a multi-class character. Unfortunately it has received tens of thousands of working class votes. In reality what is taking place is the emergence of a purely bourgeois alternative to the Tories.

It is the defection of a representative layer of the Labour right to form the SDP that confronts the labour movement with its most severe crisis since the thirties. The traditional leadership is assailed from the right by the SDP and their supporters in the Parliamentary Labour Party, and from the left by a rank-and-file led by Tony Benn.

This crisis won’t blow over quickly. It has deep roots in British capitalism’s paralytic disorders and the prolonged experience of the Wilson-Callaghan Labour governments. What is really taking place is that the entire tradition of Labourism is being called into question on the left as well as the right.

The Character of Bennism

Many of the points made in Socialist Review’s special issue on Bennism in July are uncontroversial. But you are wrong in relation to the likely impact of a Bennite programme on the ruling class.

The central characteristic of Bennism is that, while it is undoubtedly a left-reformist current, it is not at the present time an expression of the left bureaucracy of the Labour movement. The hysteria which greeted Benn’s decision to stand as a deputy leader from left bureaucrats is well-known.

What this crucially important fact indicates is that the movement can either continue to move leftwards or become a left cover for the bureaucracy and a future Labour government. In my opinion the activity of socialists is not unimportant in determining the direction such a movement takes.

Left programmes can be anathema to the dominant sections of the ruling class without playing a reactionary role at any given moment in the class struggle. The Bennite programme possesses both these features.

The Bennite programme is left, reformist in its aims and methods: it does not involve the expropriation of the capitalist class or the replacement of the capitalist state by a proletarian one. Consequently its strategic methods are rooted unambiguously on the grounds of the bourgeois legal and parliamentary order. The apex of Bennism, is legislative action by a Labour government backed by strong popular support and implemented by the state bureaucracy under mass pressure through the established legal-constitutional methods.

At the same time, Benn’s programme of reforms will meet fierce resistance from the capitalist class and its state bureaucracy, partly because of the socio-political content of the measures themselves – which would hit sections of the capitalist class – and more importantly because of the popular political impact of Bennism which could throw up powerful working class currents on the left and throw the bourgeoisie on the defensive.

It is the closed and oligarchic character Of the British state that makes Benn’s radical-democratic reforms of the apparatus extremely frightening for the ruling class. Abolition of the House of Lords would certainly not cure unemployment (Denis Healey often makes this point!), but it would weaken the undemocratic bourgeois system of political domination and weaken the system of patronage which has served both the bourgeoisie and the labour bureaucracy so well over the past six decades.

The Bennite movement is a current in ferment, wide open to serious programmatic and strategic discussion and, in general, in favour of alliances with extra-parliamentary forces. At the same time it takes the battle inside the Labour Party very seriously and has little sympathy for ultra-left or anarcho-syndicalist ideas.

Benn’s support for measures of rank-and-file democracy initiated by the Campaign for Democracy in the Labour Party was of key importance in helping to push through the reforms inside the party. His opposition to the right-wing policies of previous Labour governments (as Paul Foot has pointed out in Socialist Worker he has moved closer to our view on that particular question since the ‘debate of the decade’) and his vigorous championing of conference decisions has created a new situation inside the Labour movement.

The size of Benn’s meetings in right-wing Labour strongholds like Newcastle and Leeds during the deputy leadership was incredible. Neither the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign nor the Anti-Nazi League had meetings of that size in provincial centres. Two thousand in Newcastle and four thousand in Leeds turned up to hear Benn despite the most horrendous campaign of press and media vilification. The bulk of them were active trade unionists. Many had not been to a political meeting for decades.

It is perhaps difficult for some to accept the fact that a political tendency inside the Labour Party can be reformist without being bureaucratic. The key to this lies in the fact that the great bulk of the politically conscious and advanced workers in Britain today are also reformist in their outlook.

This makes it possible for a reformist political tendency to remain closely linked to the advanced workers in the present phase of working class development, to express their aspirations and raise their level of struggle, without breaking with an overall reformist programme. In the long run, of course, such a combination would become impossible. What is more it needs to be stressed that Bennism has become a mass political force by firing at the right rather than the left, drawing wide new layers into the struggle for socialism and galvanising the base of the Labour Party.

It is true that in periods of opposition the bureaucracy as a whole traditionally shifts to ‘the left’ in order to repair damaged links with the base and to revitalise the old electoral machine for a new drive to win the next election. A key element of these left manoeuvres is that they have never involved trying to actually unseat the right in the PLP and the leadership. The right tolerates this verbal leftism in order to ensure that Phase Two of the manoeuvre can work. Phase Two occurs as the next election approaches. Left and right miraculously unite around an election manifesto with left phraseology and a battery of escape clauses which de facto give it a rightist substance.

This first ‘compromise’ is necessary for the party’s electoral unity and it leads to the second ‘compromise’ once Labour has won the election: a compromise between the right wing leaders and the state bureaucracy. The game then starts again.

This time, however, the bureaucratic dance has been less sure-footed. The key problem Benn poses for the left bureaucracy is that he threatens to break up this dance. Bennism threatens to replace a left manoeuvre to restore the rightist leadership’s authority with a left opposition to that leadership – an opposition going right through the next election and blasting away from Day One of a new Labour government or a new coalition which might attract the PLP right wing.

There is an important difference between Benn and previous leaders of the Labour left. In terms of a closer relation to Marxism both Bevan and Cripps were far more to the left. Cripps’ pronouncements in the thirties were far more radical than anything Benn has so far said. Bevan was a genuine working-class leader, who in his early days reflected an intransigence in defending the struggles of his class. The trajectory of both Cripps and Bevan was from left to right. Cripps became the exponent of austerity measures; Bevan deserted unilateralism and became a paid performer at Beaverbrook’s house parties in the country.

Benn has been radicalised through his experience in office. He has moved from the centre right to the left and the evolution is by no means complete. He has understood that Labour’s only serious electoral chance lies in turning the entire organisation into a gigantic lever of popular political mobilisations, championing the causes of all sectors of the oppressed and offering a governmental perspective of real change.

The rapidly changing political map of Britain is, of course, a reflection of the social and economic crisis. I would understand the SWP position much more if they had failed to see the setbacks suffered by the working class since 1974. But, in my opinion, the SWP’s estimate of the level of consciousness and combativity inside the working class is far more accurate than that of other groups on the left. That is why the attitude to the Labour Party is puzzling and can only appear to be a question of defending the SWP’s own apparatus.

The dialectic is of partial conquests; it is better to keep what we’ve got rather than risk losing it for something bigger of which we are not so sure. The current approach seems to be a combination of ‘the worse things get the better’ and ‘don’t be contaminated by the Labour left, but build the SWP’. For an organisation which has, in the past, derided such an approach this is not sufficient.

I am still confident that as the crisis continues to reshape British politics (in particular after the next elections) the SWP will change its orientation and perceive the crucial importance of developments in the Labour Party in repoliticising the most advanced layers of the working class. Then a new form of socialist unity will seem the inevitable choice.

Last updated on 5 October 2019