Chris Harman & Pete Goodwin


Why you are wrong

(December 1981)

From Socialist Review, No. 38, 14 December 1981–13 December 1981: 10, pp. 21–23.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Tariq’s argument for joining the Labour Party rests on an analysis ‘of important developments in British politics.’ We think the argument is wrong.

First, because there are some serious flaws in Tariq’s analysis of current political developments.

Second, and more fundamentally, because even if he were right on every point about current developments, that still leaves a yawning gap at the end of his argument.

We will start with current developments. Tariq makes a lot of the growth of the SDP. Of course he is right that earlier this year we grossly underestimated their electoral prospects. Now, after Warrington, Croydon, Crosby, and a host of council by-elections, we are more than ready to eat humble pie. Tariq is right that the SDP does pose a desperately serious electoral threat to Labour.

But he is wrong about the likely consequences of this for Labour. He (and, he claims, Tony Benn) ‘understand that Labour’s only serious electoral chance lies in turning the entire organisation into a gigantic lever of popular mobilisations, championing the causes of all sectors of the oppressed and offering a governmental perspective of real change’.

The SDP threat will therefore, in Tariq’s view, make it in the interests of even the most craven electoralists to move left. Hence his optimism about continued advance by the left in the party.

All the evidence, however, points to the SDP threat having exactly the opposite effect. It is reinforcing the traditional calls for party unity. To Tariq and us, Michael Foot may sound pretty pathetic when he claims to speak for ‘the sick and tired brigade’. But he is getting an increasing echo.

Clearly Foot already has the ‘soft lefts’, the Kinnocks and the Silkins, sewn up. But the pressure for ‘unity or else we’ll throw away the election’ is already making inroads into the ‘hard left’. The Labour Co-ordinating Committee declares a moratorium on discussing whether Benn should stand again for deputy leader. Bennite GLC councillors mutter about Ken Livingstone opening his mouth at the wrong time. One could give a lot more examples.

Above all there is the fairly miserable record of the reselection conferences. Tariq should read the interview with LCC secretary Nigel Stanley we publish in this issue. As Nigel makes clear ‘there is a mood for compromise.’ The nearer the election gets, and the more the SDP threat firms up, the more that mood will eat into the Bennites.

But it is not just the SDP threat that will tame the Bennites. It is also the trade union bureaucracy. Traditionally the trade union bureaucracy has been the power behind the scenes in the Labour Party, emerging more openly when the party is in difficulties. Things are no different today. Not even the extreme right wing of the union bureaucracy shows any serious sign of decamping to the SDP. The union bureaucracy has now got what it wants in the Labour Party in terms of Michael Foot as leader and the Alternative Economic Strategy (TUC style) as policy. A large chunk of it would no doubt be quite happy to see Denis Healey fall under a bus tomorrow. But above all it wants unity round Foot (or if he can’t do the job Silkin or Shore).

Tariq would probably agree with this. But he underestimates its importance because he believes that Bennism ‘is nor at the present time an expression of the left bureaucracy of the labour movement’.

Of course, not every Bennite is a trade union bureaucrat. But Bennite politics is very closely linked to the left trade union bureaucracy. It draws some of its strongest support from middle levels of bureaucracy. It does not organise in opposition to its upper levels. It may be that sometimes it goes ‘too far’ for some of the top ‘left’ union leaders. But these now have a weapon, in terms of the ballots that delivered the NUPE and FBU votes to Healey, that they can use against the Bennites if they try and ‘go too far’ again.

The Bennites have two choices. Either they can take the struggle into the rank and file of the unions, which means not just fighting on Benn for deputy but on day to day economic struggles which most certainly would bring them into vicious conflict with the left bureaucrats. Or they can compromise. All the traditions and ties of the Bennites indicate that most of them will choose compromises although occasionally rebelling against its consequences with wild, but shortlived, swings to the left.

One other point about current developments. For all its real importance, the growth of the new Labour left still leaves the Labour Party an electoral machine, with a low level of participation in its month to month activities and dominated by the politics of committee and manoeuvre. Calls for a ‘mass campaigning party’, from for instance Peter Hain, have not made more than the tiniest dents in that.

So we think Tariq has seriously misestimated the prospects for the Bennite Left in the Labour party. For the reasons we have given we believe that the vast majority of the Bennites will be willingly or unwillingly drawn into the ‘bureaucratic dance’ once again. That they will, however grudgingly, unite behind a leadership centred on Foot-Shore-Kinnock et al., in which honoured seats are kept for Healey and Hattersley (and Benn if he behaves). This process is already well under way.

But suppose it is we who have got this wrong. Suppose the Bennites do continue to ‘blast away’ and suppose they blast their way through’ to a Bennite leadership of the Labour Party. And suppose that this transformed Labour Party wins an election and forms a government. And suppose that it does indeed start pushing through a popular, radical reformist programme.

What happens then?

As Tariq quite rightly notes, this will upset the ruling class. In the London clubs and at society balls, in officers messes and at legal dinners, there will be open talk of resistance. The Telegraph, the Mail, the Express will shriek bitterly. There could even be abortive attempts by sections of the ruling class to unseat the government immediately.

But the bulk of the ruling class – the most experienced capitalist class in the world – will react rather differently. The inner enclaves of the Bank of England, the CBI, the treasury, the big banks, will endeavour to work out a coherent strategy for dealing with the government. If indeed it has popular support they will disown any premature attempts against it.

Instead they will put it quite bluntly to the radical ministers that they will cooperate with them – providing the cooperation is reciprocated.


In this way they will embroil the government in their own tentacles, progressively reducing its opportunities for radical action at a later stage. Meanwhile, they will expect that as the ‘normal’ symptoms of capitalist crisis continued to express themselves – aggravated by the lack of confidence of big sections of capital in the government – unemployment will grow, prices will soar, the government will lose its popularity, and the ground will be prepared for a more direct ruling class assault upon it at a later stage.

This scenario is not based upon idle speculation. It is based upon past experience of radical reformist government coming to power with mass backing. It is what happened, for instance in Germany when the Kaiser’s rule collapsed in November 1918. The great industrialists, the state bureaucrats, the officer corps, were prepared to cooperate with a ‘socialist’ government that had just banished the emperor (not merely the House of Lords) – and for the first few weeks there were not only right ‘socialists’ in that government, but men like Emile Barth, a leader of the Berlin revolutionary shop stewards, compared with whom Tony Benn seems like a member of the Primrose League.

But the ‘socialists’ had to pay a price for this cooperation. They had to turn against their own followers, with Barth, for instance, denouncing workers who went on strike for ‘besmirching the revolution with wage demands’.

A similar scenario was played out in Spain in the summer and autumn of 1936. In most of the major cities that made up the Republican zone at the beginning of the Civil War, power lay with workers organisations. Who more natural to come to head the government than Largo Caballero, a former socialist minister, like Benn, swinging very much to the left as a result of his experiences in office, boasting his agreement with State and Revolution – and gaining from the Tariqs of 1936 the title of ‘the Spanish Lenin’.

What remained of the state machine and the bourgeoisie in the Republican zone had little choice but to cooperate with Caballero. This did not, however, prevent them laying down terms for their cooperation. Caballero had to agree to an ending of the ‘excesses’ carried through by the workers movement, to the condemnation of ‘wild expropriation’ of property, to the imposition of discipline in the Republic’s armed forces, the placating of those foreign powers who might conceivably support the Republic.

The example of Chile is much more recent, and people should need no reminding of it. However, a certain amount of rewriting of history has been taking place on the left of late, and certain points have to be emphasised. For two years the Chilean bourgeoisie did collaborate with Allende – in order to entrap and deal with him at a later stage. In return ‘all’ they demanded was that Allende do the reasonable thing – condemn strikes like those of the copper miners that were ‘damaging the country’ and recognise the ‘constitutional’ and ‘non-political’ character of the armed forces. This Allende gladly did – he was after all a reformist, who believed in reforming institutions, not in revolutionary change.

The end result in each case was far from the revolutionary outcome Tariq implies is inevitable. In Germany the left socialists were forced out of office after eight weeks, the right socialists after 18 months. In Spain, Caballero and the left socialists were allowed to remain in office eight months, before giving way to progressively more right wing governments. In Chile the generals literally did support Allende as a rope supports a hanging man: in September 1973 men who had sat in his own ministries and maintained discipline in ‘his’ armed forces organised the bombing of his presidential palace, and the murder of tens of thousands of worker activists.

Is there anything in Bennism to indicate that it would, if left to itself, lead to a different outcome?

Tariq claims Bennism is a ‘reformist’ but ‘not a bureaucratic’ current. If it ever comes to power, it is its reformism that will matter. For it means that even if it treads on a few House of Lords corns, it will, willingly collaborate with the main sections of capital. For this is something already written down in black and white in its programme.

Amazingly, Tariq nowhere refers to the actual ideas propagated by the Bennites. Yet these are explicitly collaborationist ideas. What else is the Alternative Economic Strategy than a scheme to pressurise big business into working with the government and the unions? What else does Tony Benn mean when he talks about ‘the democratic tripartite principle’? Why else continual harping on about ‘planning agreements’? Why else do none of the ‘hard’ Labour lefts call for more than 25 per cent public ownership and then go on to argue that their programme of economic nationalism will benefit all of British industry (including the 75 per cent that would continue to make profits for private capital)?

Tariq writes (in City Limits, 27 November) that ‘at the last Labour Party conference a new socialist party could be seen struggling to emerge from the shell of Labourism’.

But as a revolutionary of 14 years standing, he should recognise that even if he is right, it is a reformist ‘socialist party’ – one whose ideas would lead it to fall straight into the trap of collaborationism that destroyed the left socialists in Germany, Spain and Chile physically as well as politically.


Collaborationism is not something which we can merely foresee happening in the distant future. Where the labour left hold control of local councils, you can see it in the here and now. Livingstone’s GLC has seen no way to improve London’s transport services other than imposing increases in the rates – a regressive, anti-working class form of taxation (as Jim Kincaid showed in SR of July). At the same time, its ‘solution’ to unemployment in London is to pay a left academic £25,000 a year (again out of workers’ rates) to ‘attract’ private industrialists to invest in the city. Is it surprising that it is seen as sufficiently distant and remote for a proportion of working people to vote social democratic? What happens with Bennism in one city, can happen just as easily with Bennism in one country.

It is, of course, true that as a hypothetical left Labour government runs into trouble, there will be bitterness among its supporters, with arguments about alternatives, and even wild talk from ministers. But that is not at all the same thing as the bulk of its supporters – let alone its key figures – moving over automatically to a politics that goes beyond collaborationism in time to prevent disaster. People do not move over to see the need for revolutionary measures against capital merely as a mechanical reaction to the failure of reform.

There has to be a pole of attraction arguing for quite a different sort of politics – a pole that exists in every workplace, every shop stewards committee, every locality. And the argument to be effective cannot be a purely ideological one. It has to be an argument in practice as well as theory, basing itself upon working class struggles against the effects of collaboration, organising these struggles, giving them direction, showing that in the self activity of workers there is an alternative to what the left parliamentarians offer them.

Tariq will, no doubt, claim that it is possible to build that alternative pole of attraction inside the reformist party. Yet all past experience shows otherwise. The left inside a reformist party spends its time arguing with the leaders in the membership meetings and committees. It does not go out to organise workers in the factories and housing estates for immediate struggle against those leaders. That is why, although there have often been cases where large sections of reformist parties have split off in a revolutionary direction after reformist policies have led to defeat (Germany and Italy in 1920-21), there is no case of the left within a reformist party being able to develop an independent revolutionary politics in time to prevent defeat.

Things can be no different with the British Labour Party. The experience of nearly 80 years is that revolutionaries who join it with the best intentions soon get entrapped into its structures, seeing the battle to pack out GMCs and selection conferences as more important than those on the factory floor.

The very structure of the Labour Party ensures this. It is built upon the separation of the political and the industrial – of politics and workers’ struggle. Being ‘practical’ in Labour Patty terms means using the affiliated trade union bodies to support what you are doing in parliament, the local council or the GMC, not proving the relevance of your political beliefs by leading the day-to-day struggle of workers. Tariq will be as much subject to this logic as anyone else. We can say with certainty that the longer he remains in the Labour Party, the less he will resemble the revolutionary we used to know.

Tariq has one argument left to him. The revolutionary left has become a ‘ghetto’ (his phrase in City Limits), ‘qualitatively in the same league’ as it was back in 1967 when we used to produce Labour Worker.

Things may seem like that to someone who has been in the IMG, which with 500 members is still little bigger than IS (as the SWP was called) was then. But it does not at all seem like that to us. The SWP is a small party with only 4,200 members, and we have only grown slowly over the last couple of years. Nevertheless, we manage to have a presence in 90 per cent of the workers’ struggles that takes place – if not leading them, at least providing fraternal advice that makes sense to many of those involved. That is a qualitatively different situation to 1967.

The place our members spend their time is not ‘the ghetto’, but the picket line, the shop stewards meeting, the anti-Nazi demonstration, the student occupation (although Tariq does not seem to notice it, such things still occur), the CND activity. In all of these we can work alongside and discuss with people who are influenced by Benn – but without suffering the constraints which inevitably impede the arguments of socialists who join the Labour Party.


If Tariq had chosen to join the SWP rather than the Labour Party, he would have been working alongside Bennites, but arguing against them, he would have been agreeing with them on the need for a better world, and then arguing that only revolutionary action, not reselection or deputy leadership elections, could get it. He would have been insisting that the road to revolutionary action starts now, with every act of workers resistance, however meagre, and he would have become obsessed with the tactics and strategies needed to lead that resistance to victory – something the Bennites hardly think of.

As it is he mutes his criticisms of Benn – he does not mention his nationalism or his faith in class collaboration – as if you need to drop arguments of principle in order to fight alongside people against common enemies.

Well, we have not needed to drop such arguments. We hope, even at this 11th hour that Tariq will think again about following a course that leads to doing so.

Last updated on 5 October 2019