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International Socialism, Autumn 1965


Editorial 3

Why Labour?


From International Socialism, No.22, Autumn 1965, pp.3-4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


This journal has, in recent months, come in for more criticism than usual over its declared support for the Labour Party. The criticism is understandable, if misguided – the record of the present Government, even on the most favourable interpretation (given all the ‘inheritance’, the position of sterling, etc.) contains noth-ing to commend itself to socialists – indeed, on all sorts of issues where real alternatives were easily open to the Government, it has chosen the most reactionary course available: immigration is the most vivid example. To document the ‘failures’ would produce an even blacker record than this journal predicted – and at no time did International Socialism suggest that the possibilities for reformist action facing a Labour Government would be anything but trivial. This contention was not based upon sour grapes or sectarianism, but followed from our analysis of the development of modern capitalism, of social democracy and Britain in 1965 – of the alternatives and possibilities open to even the most sincere reforming Government. We argued accordingly that only a revolutionary policy, encompassing the whole of society and rooted in the real needs of the working class, would be capable of overcoming the insuperable barriers to reform – getting the whole loaf might be difficult, but it was easier than trying to get half.

If tangible gains for the working-class were the sole criterion, IS would be renouncing its support. But that support was never founded upon such possible gains; we argued that not only were no real gains possible, but that what ‘radicalism’ the Party leadership had, would be directed solely at making capitalism more efficient for the capitalists at the expense of the working class. We were in the Labour Party not to support its explicitly anti-working-class leadership, but because it still provides the most important focus for working-class political aspirations and because, in the working-class movement, support for the labour movement includes and means support for its major institutions, trade unions and Labour Party. At times, the class struggle is waged between those institutions and the ruling class, at times within those institutions – ‘ideological struggle’ is part of the class struggle, not some secondary reflection. If the barricades are up, solidarity with the movement as a whole demands activity within and in support of the Labour Party and the trade unions, despite our consistent rejection of the Party’s current leadership and its declared policies. To those policies, we reply with a programme of consistent revolutionary socialism, but our opposition to the leadership should not be construed as a rejection of the labour movement.

This is not, of course, any sort of absolute commitment to the Party, nor does it turn on any estimate that the Party leadership is going to change or the Party is ultimately going to project a socialist revolution – on the contrary, these are no longer possibilities. But those that choose to desert the Party, choose to contract out of the most significant arena for political struggle, choose to refuse to grapple with the existing level of consciousness of the most politically advanced section of the broad working class, choose to preserve their moral purity at the cost of all hope of changing consciousness. This may suit ostriches, it is suicide for serious socialists and contradicts the basic loyalties of the historical working-class movement.

Being not absolute, new circumstances can change our support – most pre-eminently, a rise in working-class consciousness that generates new institutions to by-pass the outworn husks of the old labour movement. And this is the condition for changing our support, not the degree to which the Party leadership changes its policy in an anti-working class direction: but naturally, that policy provides the central target for activity within the Party, for it is in reacting to that policy and reaching for a genuine revolutionary socialist alternative that socialists are made or lost. Necessarily this support involves us in contradictions – support of the Party but rejection of its leadership seems to be contradictory in a world where ‘society’ or ‘nation’ means its ruling class – but these are the contradictions of living in a real world and undertaking real action. Positing a working class free from its current low level of consciousness (as expressed in the institutions of the movement) in order to evade the support that consciousness naturally gives to the Labour Party, is self-delusion, the illusion that keeps the sectarian sectarian and impotent.

If the basic decision is strategic, the subsidiary arguments lead to the same conclusion. It is quite clear that it is impossible to change the policy or the leadership of the Party effectively (although there may be verbal victories, as much by accident as by design), that the Party will not be the long-term vehicle for a rise in socialist consciousness, and that, if anything, the situation is likely to get worse as the fragmentation of the labour movement continues and the Party leadership continues bit by bit to shake out the shreds of its socialist inheritance. Yet still ‘manual workers who are members of a Trade Union are three to four times more likely to vote Labour than Conservative’ (Blondel, Voters, Parties and Leaders, p.67) – to ignore the Party as an arena of struggle is to ignore the greatest opportunity socialists have for engaging the political attention of the working class. Again, the Party still provides the main link between almost all the organs of the Labour movement, even if these organs are drained of their former life – socialists must be at the link to unify and provide an alternative programme. To make socialists is one of our primary purposes, and, in present circumstances, the Labour Party provides one of the key sources of such recruits.

For these reasons, the present government has in no way shifted our support away from the Labour Party.

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