First Published: December 1981.
Source: Published by the Workers Socialist League.
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Workers’ Socialist Review is the magazine of the Workers’ Socialist League, formed by a fusion of the International-Communist League and the old Workers’ Socialist League on July 26th, 1981.
Fusions of groups of revolutionary Marxists are rare events. This one involved the largest numbers of any fusion in Britain since that in 1944 which created the Revolutionary Communist Party.
It was not a sectarian fusion. We have not created a new self-proclaimed revolutionary party which will needlessly counterpose itself to the existing labour movement. Central to the coming together of the two groups was agreement that the ferment in the labour movement now, on democracy and on questions of policy, opens the possibility of a fundamental political and organisational self-recreation of the labour movement.
Reformism as a workable policy is dead in Britain for this historical epoch. Even minor reforms now can only be won by mass mobilisations and struggles: they can be consolidated only if the working class takes state power.
In response to the decay of British capitalist society, which has already reached the stage of convulsions, the labour movement is trying to shed its past and to rearm itself politically. That is the significance of the struggles in the Labour Party. It is the significance of the ferment of discussion around different versions of the Alternative Economic Strategy. In this situation the place of Marxists is in the mass working class movement – to help the left in the trade unions and in the Labour Party to organise itself and to win the labour movement for Marxist politics.
For without revolutionary Marxist politics the working class will not be able to fight its way out of the stagnant jungle of putrefying capitalist society.
That is the task for which the new WSL has been founded by militants active in the struggle to politically reorient and regenerate the British labour movement, so that we have a socialist alternative to Thatcher and to Thatcherism.
The following speech by Alan Thornett was delivered at the public rally held in Birmingham on October 10 1981 to launch the new WSL. It explains what the WSL is and what it must do in the period ahead.
Marxists have a basic starting point to all of their struggles and ideas – that the working class is a revolutionary class and as such is capable of overthrowing the capitalist system and establishing the socialist order.
It is a fundamental truth from which we draw the strength to face the daily struggle. It allows us to see our victories and defeats within the class struggle within the context of an entirely achievable strategic objective.
It is an outlook which gives Marxists something unique among all political tendencies in the workers’ movement – an unshakeable confidence in the working class as a revolutionary force.
It is something we have to defend every day against those who tell us that the working class are so imbued with the ideas of capitalism that they can always be diverted at the crucial point. They are usually the same people who say the working class won’t fight in order to cover up their own refusal to lead.
We have to explain that our confidence springs not from romanticism but from Marxism as a scientific theory. That we see the working class as an exploited class, driven by the realities of class society into conflict with their exploiters – not just at the point of production, but at the level of government.
This does not mean that workers are consciously seeking revolution – it means that the working class are objectively revolutionary.
It means that at moments of history when all the conditions are present, the overwhelming power of the working class, as the producers of all wealth, can be harnessed to make a revolution.
October 1917 changed the world because it showed it could be done.
But, as everyone knows, that revolution took place when all the conditions for the seizure of power were present. Not just the disintegration of capitalism. Not just a rise in the consciousness of the working class. But also the leadership in the form of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party – the most developed leadership the working class has ever produced.
It points to our task today. To produce a leadership on Bolshevik lines. A party built in that tradition which can lead a successful socialist revolution when the revolutionary moment comes.
But that as everyone knows is easy to say but very difficult to accomplish in practice.
The revolution of 1917 has undergone a deep bureaucratic degeneration. To build a revolutionary party today means building a Trotskyist party which addresses itself not only to leading the social revolution in the capitalist countries but also the political revolution in the deformed and degenerated workers’ states – something which the events in Poland today have shown to be entirely possible.
It means building parties which are not nationally based parties, but parties built as part of a revolutionary international, with a perspective of world revolution.
It means building parties of a particular type. Not parties which remain isolated from the working class, or at best on its periphery, but parties established and developed within the working class itself – rejecting a sectarian approach to the mass movement as Lenin did in ‘Left Wing Communism’.
It means building parties based on a programme which is not only adequate to the needs of the working class today but raises the consciousness of the workers and takes them in the direction of power.
It was our joint conviction on this approach which made the fusion between the old WSL and the ICL possible.
Both movements were convinced that in Britain any serious development towards a revolutionary party would have to be built with a fight inside the unions and would have to have a correct attitude towards the Labour Party.
This is something which has not been achieved in any adequate way by any previous Trotskyist grouping in Britain.
The fusion therefore creates a unique opportunity in Britain – to build a party which has an open and non-sectarian approach to the working class but at the same time fights on firm programme and principles.
It is also self-evident that unique conditions exist in the present period for such a development.
You don’t need me to tell you about the Thatcher government: monetarism; the 4% wage norm: de-industrialisation of the economy; three million unemployed; the destruction of the social services; legislation against the unions; and plunging living standards.
We have Reaganism in the USA and the drive towards the Third World War, with the biggest rearmament in history, talk of tactical nuclear wars and aid to every dictatorship in the world.
We have economic crisis gripping the entire capitalist world. Falling living standards in the major capitalist countries and grinding poverty in the underdeveloped countries.
But even these unique conditions do not of themselves resolve the problem of how the working class can fight back. The question of leadership comes up at every stage.
A number of conditions have to be present. It is necessary to grasp very clearly the intimate connection between the programme and demands you advance in today’s struggles and the strategic goal of social revolution.
That means a very clear grasp not only of the demands of the Transitional Programme but more importantly how they are used in practice in the day to day struggles of the working class.
It means for example having a very clear understanding of the power and relevance of a transitional demand like ‘open the books’.
Take the state-owned industries.
Workers are confronted with a picture of bankrupt industries unable to meet even a fraction of the claims made by the trade unions. But what is the reality?
The Observer commissioned a very interesting study of the financing of the state industries – which is worth referring to.
The overall assessment made by the team was that the state industries are “a money lender’s paradise”.
The returns from the 23 industries they covered ranged from a total joint profit of £800 million to a joint loss of £1½ billion, depending on how the figures were calculated.
But even if we take the highest loss figure we then find that the same 23 industries paid £3 billion to the banks in interest charges over the same period.
And that is without opening the books. The £100 million interest charges BL pay to the banks, for example, would more than meet this year’s claim, which management calculate .at £80 million.
The open the books demand means that workers reject the management’s figures and propaganda and take an important step in the direction of workers’ control.
The working class emerge to confront the class enemy – as the steel workers did last year – only to be split and divided and contained by their own so-called leaders.
Workers occupy to defend their jobs like at St Benedict’s, Longworth, St Mary’s, Lee Jeans and Laurence Scott, only to enter into immediate conflict with the officials who want to call the action off or leave them isolated and open to being smashed by the state.
The TUC has disappeared from sight since the Tories were elected. The TUC conference refused to lift a finger against Thatcher. They have talks with Thatcher and come out saying ‘there is light at the end of the tunnel’.
In local government, left Labour councils – even the best of them – refuse to act as working class leaders and confront the government. Instead they rely on a policy of rate increases.
The deepening economic crisis makes the reformists even more reluctant to fight. Their politics paralyse them when they are faced with the viability problems of the capitalist system or of the individual employer.
So what effect has this had on the working class? It has caused anger and frustration and it has allowed the Tories to rampage almost with impunity – the only major defence of jobs was the stopping of pit closures by the threat of a miners’ strike.
But it has also created explosive pressures inside the working. The youth riots were a reflection of these pressures and produced a gut reaction to the degradation imposed on them by capitalism.
But again whilst these developments create favourable conditions, they do not resolve the question of revolutionary leadership.
Because the hard fact is that the problem of working class leadership cannot be reached without the development of a Trotskyist party, extensively rooted in the working class.
So what kind of party do we need and how do we achieve it?
Firstly we have tried to present at the Rally today some of the areas of work the WSL is involved in: Work in the unions, in rank and file groupings; support for the anti-imperialist struggle in Ireland; the struggle in Poland; our work on women’s oppression; solidarity work with the oppressed; work among youth; gay rights; work among the unemployed.
We have tried to show that these major and very diverse areas of work are brought together by the unifying factor of the party. All these areas of work are woven into the party’s strategic objective – the mobilisation of the working class for the seizure of power.
But they have to be woven into a party of a particular type – a vanguard party – the party Lenin fought for.
But even that presents a problem, because every group calling themselves Trotskyist would regard themselves as a vanguard – but clearly most of them are not. So what is a vanguard party?
First of all it is not a matter of being out in front of the working class. Many groups are out in front of the working class – some so far that the working class would need a radio telescope to make contact with them – and we could all put names to those.
To be a vanguard party it is a matter of being in the leadership of the working class, and that is something quite different.
But developing a party that can actually lead workers is a difficult question. It means establishing a record. It means winning the confidence of sections of workers on the leadership you give and the programme you advance.
Such demands, like cost of living clauses, or occupations, if carefully presented and correctly fought for, can both challenge capitalism and the existing consciousness of the working class.
That kind of struggle, alongside a struggle at every level in the unions, particularly on trade union democracy which has now been opened right up by the struggle inside the Labour Party, could soon establish Trotskyists in positions of leadership.
We want to build a party with its roots in the working class and its sights set on social revolution.
To do this it has to be a disciplined party, not authoritarian, but a party in which maximum discussion takes place on policy and programme and is then capable of the disciplined implementation of that programme.
Workers in struggle are not looking for a discussion shop – they are looking for a serious leadership organisation.
We have to take the question of government and the struggle inside the Labour Party very seriously.
If Thatcher is removed in the course of the wages struggle this winter or even if she is removed at the next election and a Labour government elected, what kind of Labour government is it going to be?
That is the issue which lies behind Tony Benn’s challenge for the deputy leadership and all the recent struggles on democracy.
Will the policies decided by the Labour Party conference be the ones contained in the party manifesto and carried out by a Labour government – or will the right wing leadership go their own way as they have in the past.
We have supported the democratic reforms and the Benn campaign all the way and will continue to do so. The democracy movement that he has come to represent has rocked the labour movement to its foundations, not just the Labour Party but the trade unions as well.
It means we can now fight for the kind of policies we want to see a future Labour government adopt.
But Tony Benn is not a Marxist. We strongly disagree with the programme he advocates for a future Labour government.
As everyone knows he stands on the alternative economic strategy, which does not challenge capitalism and contains reactionary nationalistic demands like import controls. Tony Benn makes the nationalistic call for a national liberation struggle in Britain.
Whilst supporting Tony Benn as the best of the lefts and recognising his contribution on democracy, we fight relentlessly against such positions. They are not just inadequate, they are wrong. They lead right back into the capitalist blind alley of reformism.
We have to fight not for a Labour government of the old type – or a left Labour government to implement the Alternative Economic Strategy – but for a workers’ government – a government committed to the working class, responsive to the labour movement, and controlled by it.
To the left in the Labour Party we say the same as we say to the left in the unions – we will fight with you when you fight. We are with you all the way on democracy. We will fight with you against racism and fascism. If you will stand with us, we will stand with you in solidarity with all workers in struggle.
But there is a difference between us – and we make no bones about it. We are Marxists. We are revolutionaries. Our strategic goal is workers’ power. We will not go just a part of the way – or even half of the way – we are going all of the way and we are going to build the party to do it.