Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Why We Won’t Vote Labour

A Reply to Dick Jones by the Brent Marxist Industrial Group

First Published: The Marxist, Vol. 1, No. 14, Spring 1970.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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IT CAN HARDLY be disputed that Lenin’s ’Left Wing Communism’ is the work most frequently quoted by the revisionists when they seek to excuse or cloak their betrayal of Marxism. We are not of course implying that it is in itself a revisionist document, or that the author of the article ’As a Rope Supports a Hanging Man’ is a revisionist.

We maintain that although the tactical principles outlined in Lenin’s work are still valid conditions have so changed that most of the specific tactics advocated have outlived their usefulness. This is to be expected with the passage of time. It is not the fault of Lenin if we insist on using old tactics in new and different conditions.

The main purpose of ’Left-Wing Communism’ was to encourage the adoption of correct tactics by the Communist Parties in order that they could more speedily destroy the influence of the reformists.

As far as Britain is concerned the whole issue centres around the question of who shall be in the effective leadership of the working class. In this respect, how different is the situation now from what it was in the early 1920’s?

Then, the more politically conscious workers were in the main strongly influenced by the reformist ideas put forward by the Labour Party and readily accepted its leadership. It was also widely believed that the necessary changes in society could be brought about by getting legislation passed through Parliament.

Lenin expressed the opinion that the best way to assist the workers to overcome these reformist illusions would be to encourage them to achieve the aims which they had set themselves, namely the return to parliament of a Labour majority and the formation of a Labour Government.

The sole reason for this tactic was to hasten the situation in which the working class would reject the leadership of the reformists and come over to a more revolutionary position.

The success of the tactic depended upon the existence of a mass movement fighting for working class demands, so that the failure of the parliamentary leaders to implement these demands would hasten their own exposure. It also required that the revolutionary elements should persistently explain the reasons why these leaders inevitably betray the working class. This involves a consistent exposure of reformist ideas in such a way that they are replaced by revolutionary ideas as part of a continuous process of development.

The newly formed CPGB failed in this task, with the result that the short term, immediate demands of the movement came to be seen as ends in themselves that, given patience, could be obtained peacefully by means of legislation enacted by a future Labour government.

As a result, the energies of the movement became primarily directed towards obtaining a Labour majority in Parliament and the tactical demands came to be adopted as the strategy of the movement. The CPGB formalised this position in ’The British Road to Socialism’.

As a result, the energies of the movement became primarily directed towards obtaining a Labour majority in Parliament and the tactical demands came to be adopted as the strategy of the movement. The CPGB formalised this position in ’The British Road to Socialism’.

As long as this attitude continues to dominate the movement it is inevitable that the mass struggle will be regarded only as auxiliary to the manoeuvres of the parliamentarians, instead of parliamentary tactics ’being subordinated to the needs of the mass struggle outside.

This creates a situation in which mass struggle is frowned upon and even actively discouraged in case it may lose electoral support. The classic example of this was the official of the AEU (as it then was) who advised some strikers to go back to work in case it prejudiced the chances of a parliamentary candidate, The rub is that he was a prominent member of the CPGB and it was their candidate that he was concerned about.

As long as this attitude predominates, the effective leadership of the movement remains in the hands of the parliamentarians.

The betrayal by the Labour Governments of 1924 and 1929 were excused on the grounds that they were hindered from carrying out Labour policies because they depended upon the parliamentary support of the Liberals.

This was of course only an excuse, not a reason. The 1945 and 1950 Labour governments, backed by a Labour majority, were not able to use this excuse when they too failed to carry out their election promises.

It is important to note that after a period in office, when the Labour party reverts to the role of ’Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition’ there always appears to be a shift to the left and a growth in the influence of the left wing of the Party. The general object of this exercise is to try to prove that the Labour Party has learned from the ’mistakes’ of the previous Labour governments, and if re-elected will resolutely oppose the monopolies, redistribute the national income in favour of the poor, repeal antitrade-union legislation etc.

Thus the role of the ’Left’ (and this includes the CPGB) is to keep alive the illusion about the Labour Party moving to the left, so that support can be obtained for the return of yet another ’right wing’ Labour government which will inevitably carry out essentially the same policies as its predecessors.

Following the experience of the 1945 and 1950 Labour governments, enthusiasm for Labour leadership was wearing thin and it was only when ’left-winger’ Harold Wilson came into the leadership that illusions began to grow again and another Labour majority was obtained in Parliament.

The deepening crisis of British imperialism and the consequent restriction which it placed on the freedom of the ruling class to manoeuvre made it inevitable that disillusionment would be rapid, and it is significant how quickly support for the Wilson government evaporated.

As a result, the energies of the movement became primarily directed towards obtaining a Labour majority in Parliament and the tactical demands came to be adopted as the strategy of the movement. The CPGB formalised this position in ’The British Road to Socialism’.

Our contention is that the tactics advocated by Lenin have achieved their purpose, that masses of workers have recognised the treachery of the Labour leaders and are now actively engaged in objectively opposing their leadership.

In the period of the first two post-war Labour governments the leadership of the Labour Party was generally accepted and it was able to carry out the temporary suppression of the Malayan national liberation struggle, play a leading part in the establishment of NATO, support German rearmament, and institute a wage freeze without encountering active, widespread opposition. Support for struggles in defence of living standards was weakened by the desire of workers to avoid ’embarrassing’ the Labour Government.

This is no longer the case; workers are now prepared to fight for things that are in direct opposition to those desired by the Labour government and the majority of the trade union leaders.

This struggle results in sill intensification of the contradictions between ’left’ and ’right’ trade union leaders, between trade union leaders and the Labour government, and between the Labour Party membership and the Labour government.

These contradictions arise from the conflicts of interest between them when they consider the most effective ways of attempting to contain the growing struggle. They are an indication of the extent to which social democracy has already been discredited.

In view of this, the question needs to be asked, how long must the policy of ’voting Labour to smash Labour’ be carried on?

There will never be a time, as long as capitalism exists, when everyone has rejected the leadership of the Labour Party, therefore acceptance of this policy as a permanent tactic can lead to an infinite number of variations, each leaving the leadership of the struggle in the hands of social democrats of one shade or another.

For instance a Labour defeat at the next General election would again provide the motive for a ’shift to the left’. As it would be unlikely that such a move within the existing Labour Party would cut much ice with many workers it is possible that ’Unity of the left’ as advocated by the CPGB might well provide the basis for a new alliance.

Would we then be expected to assist such candidates into parliament in order to expose them?

This whole concept is outdated because, for one thing, it fails to take into account the development of political consciousness of large sections of workers who refuse to give their loyalty to any of the existing political parties, but who judge people by their actions, not their promises.

It is extremely likely that large numbers of workers will continue to vote Labour at the next election. The fact that they do so, yet actively oppose Labour policies shows that although they may regard a Labour government as the lesser of the two evils, they certainly do not accept its leadership. That is the point.

Participation in Parliamentary elections

Whatever our attitude towards Labour candidates, it may be argued that Marxists should themselves participate in Parliamentary elections in the sense of putting forward candidates.

Lenin made the important distinction between the obsolescence of capitalist parliamentary democracy in an historical sense, and whether it is obsolete in the shorter term political sense. He posed the question, ’Is it obsolete for the masses?’ In our, opinion a further question needs to be asked, ’Is it obsolete for those monopoly sections of the capitalist class which are becoming more dominant in Britain?’

In the 19th and the early part of the 20th century parliamentary democracy provided the best political framework for the development of capitalism in Britain. It allowed the fullest democracy within the capitalist class, and also provided a means whereby demands for the vote put forward by other classes could be conceded with actual benefit to the ruling class in terms of the political stability of the system.

Since that time the general crisis of capitalism has deepened and the concentration of economic power into fewer hands is inevitably leading towards a corresponding concentration of political power.

For these sections of the capitalist class parliamentary democracy has outlived its usefulness and is proving to be an obstacle to its further development.

Government decisions on all important questions are taken in consultation with the main power groups involved, and only then are MPs informed. The monopolies and the Banks have a great deal more influence over Government decisions than those MPs who are supposed to represent the interests of the people.

Parliamentarians may complain, but they cannot prevent this development because it derives from changes within the capitalist system itself.

Increasing numbers are coming to realise that par1iament is ineffective, and are understandably losing interest in it.

This is shown in the declining proportion of the electorate which exercise the right to vote in parliamentary elections.


Voting in by-elections during the past twelve months shows that this trend is continuing.

In our opinion the lack of belief in parliamentary activity is more widespread than the voting figures show.

In this respect the principle contradiction appears to be between the widespread distrust of people who occupy positions of influence and authority within the establishment on the one hand, and, on the other, an almost superstitious belief that they cannot be dispensed with.

It is a contradiction between people’s experience, which tells them that the system absorbs any individual who becomes involved in its administration and does not rely for his living on taking part in productive work, and the body of ideas instilled since childhood, which makes them feel, in a vague sort of way, dependent upon some higher authority.

This contradiction cannot be resolved by claiming that candidates belonging to a new political party would behave any differently from the existing ones. This flies in the face of all experience.

It must be remembered that the British people have had an additional fifty years of experience of parliaments and parliamentarians since the days of Lenin, and although the mass of them do not yet see the alternative, it should not be assumed that they lack the capacity to understand what is taking place.

The present situation can be summarised as one in which the old party influences and localities are breaking down, but no new leadership has yet emerged to take their place.

Because of the absence of a unifying proletarian ideology and leadership the anger and frustration of the people are expressed in spontaneous outbursts against this or that aspect of capitalist exploitation.

This is a positive feature in that it contributes to the instability of the system and the militancy of the industrial workers stimulates other strata to take direct action on their own behalf.

Its negative aspect is that in the absence of a strong proletarian leadership the way is left open for these non-proletarian classes to be misled by capitalist propaganda into believing that the militancy of the industrial workers is going too far, and that a strong impartial government is necessary so that law and order can be restored.

As the General Election approaches the whole of the capitalist propaganda machine will be working overtime to convince people that they will be really shaping their own destinies by using their vote.

We should not get involved in a campaign to get mass abstentions; this is not important at this stage. What is important is that we use the opportunity to point out that the capitalist state machine will continue to function whether people vote or not.

The failure of Parliament to promote the interests of the people effectively must be explained in a class way, that is to say we must combat the conception that if is all a question of ’the weakness of human nature’, for if we do not do so we open the way to the fascist idea that a strong government or superman is needed in order to exercise control over lesser mortals -for their own good, of course.

We should be able to help people to draw the conclusion from their own experience that all governments in capitalist society are for the express purpose of maintaining the privileged position of all those who own the wealth.

The class attitude towards Parliament should be extended to cover all forms of capitalist authority because it is only in this way that we shall bar the way to that ultimate form of capitalist authority, a fascist dictatorship.

In order to weaken and finally defeat this kind of authority it is necessary to cultivate contempt for it based on an understanding that it is unjust, against the interests of the majority of the people, and as a result is doomed by history.

All reactionaries are paper tigers. In appearance, the reactionaries are terrifying, but in reality they are not so powerful. From a long term point of view, it is not the reactionaries but the people who are really powerful (Mao Tse-tung).

The movement towards fascism is taking place as the monopoly sections of the capitalist class come to the conclusion that parliamentary democracy, notwithstanding its usefulness in previous stages of capitalist development, is now proving an obstacle to their drive to establish complete dominance over the rest of the population, including the smaller capitalists.

In the face of this growing power of the monopolists the CPGB and its ’left’ allies take the view that the masses of the population must be encouraged to use Parliament as a rallying point for all the antimonopoly forces. The theory behind this is that in this way the mass of the people will unite around parliament, establish a progressive government, and isolate the reactionaries. This is the core of ’The British Road to Socialism’.

It has more in keeping with the theories of Herr Duhring than those of Karl Marx.

These revisionists, who layout blueprints for people to follow, are so reformist in outlook that they cannot conceive any other way of advance than through Parliament. Consequently, when people insist on going their own way and disregard the blueprint, these revisionists blame the apathy of the people rather than acknowledging their own inability to understand the workings of the dialectical process in society.

They choose to ignore the fact that the British people have learned many lessons since Lenin wrote his articles on Britain, and imagine that their revisionist ideas will continue to hold back class struggle by diverting discontent into parliamentary and other constitutional channels.

When we say that the CPGB is essentially reformist, we mean that it distorts the Marxist dialectical approach and teaches that socialism will be brought about by a simple accumulation of progressive forces which will, when numerically strong enough, tackle the monopolies.

This is undialectical because it does not regard unity as a process of development through struggle, but simply as the result of a series of compromises between the industrial workers and other classes.

If widely accepted this would condemn the industrial workers to tail behind other classes instead of leading them.

It also fails to take into account the fact that the reactionary forces too will continue to grow and develop, resulting in an increased polarisation of forces, with the centre becoming weaker and more ineffectual. As it is these centre forces which form the bulwark of parliamentarism it is plain that Parliament will become less important to the main forces involved, the working class and the monopoly sections of the capitalist class.

In ’The British Road to Socialism’ there is the underlying assumption that the reactionary forces will lay dormant until such time as parliament can become ’the sovereign will of the people’.

The Marxist proletarian line must be based on Mao Tse-tung’s teachings on dialectics. It must be based on the understanding that the interests of the working class and those of the capitalist class are mutually exclusive, that they form two separate aspects of the fundamental contradiction in present day society, that each aspect contains its own internal contradictions and is subject to its own process of development, and that reactionary forces on the edge of extinction display a viciousness, born of desperation, which they have not seemed capable of hitherto.

In present circumstances, when the revolutionary upsurge throughout the world is increasing in scope and intensity, the British people are already showing signs that they will not lag behind, and we must ’take into account the effects on the mass struggle of any flirting with Parliament.

We have already expressed our opinion that Parliament is becoming obsolete as far as the two main contenders for power are concerned. It is also our opinion that in view of the increasing militancy of the industrial working class and its positive effects on the activities of the white-collar and professional workers, even the slightest danger of diverting this militancy into parliamentary or other constitutional channels must be resolutely opposed.

The whole of our (at the moment) very weak and divided forces must be concentrated on building the fighting unity of the industrial workers, .and, with them as the nucleus, a broader unity of all the antimonopoly forces on the principle of unity against the main enemy and of struggle against non-proletarian ideas amongst our allies.

The monopolists will pursue the struggle, not only by using their considerable economic strength to ’win friends and influence people’, but also by obtaining more direct control of the organs of state, particularly the armed forces, police, etc.

Our present task is to prepare the ideological and political groundwork for creating mass resistance to these reactionary forces whilst at the same time fostering all forms of day-to-day struggle on issues which concern the livelihood of the people.