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International Socialism, Summer 1968



The Vacuum on the Left


From International Socialism (1st series), No.33, Summer 1968, pp.1-2.
Transcribed by Mike Pearn.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The first draft of this editorial was framed in the early part of May. It began:

‘The inability of the Government to ride its Prices and Incomes bill roughshod over any objections from Labour MPs or trade-union leaders underlines how little it depends upon these supporters for survival, and therefore how powerful they are. The local government elections more dramatically bear witness to the speed with which local Labour parties are disintegrating. The legacy of a political working class is in ruins. And the speech of Enoch Powell, seeking to blame the immigrants (more narrowly, the coloured immigrants) for the Government’s failure to improve housing, hospitals and schools, evoked scarcely any response from what is left of the old labour movement. Resolutions from a few union executives, Ministerial asides, deprecating Powell’s impoliteness (let’s take immigration out of politics, for we have no answer to the racialists which will stand up to the light), these tired gestures are all that remain. Alarmingly, the old labour movement has become a paper tiger.’

All that remains true, yet it is a mark of how rapidly the situation is changing that it is only half the truth. The magnificent revolt in France has answered Wilson and Powell much more effectively than could have been foreseen. It has also answered all those who believed that the working class of industrialised countries were politically finished, bribed or bamboozled into permanent apathy. Whatever the outcome of the French Revolution of 1968, an answer has been given to the dockers. With great clarity and astonishing speed, the vulnerability of Western capitalism has been demonstrated, and the strength and creativity of the French working class exhibited. France is not Britain, yet there are lessons to be learned – and the British ruling class will learn them, if the Left does not. As The Financial Times mused, British workers are currently being asked to sacrifice much more than French workers have done in the immediately preceding period, and there is little sign as yet that they will be prepared to do so. In 1967, a four per centage drift mocks the Government’s carefully phrased efforts to cut the real standard of living of the British working class. For the future, the strain on the Franc precipitated by the revolt (and the concessions of the French rulers will have to make to buy it off) will accrue to the loss of sterling, and in the autumn again the Government will probably be faced with the need to cut back even further on domestic consumption. The present fragmented hostility towards the Government can in such circumstances become a massive gesture of defiance.

Yet, as the French situation vividly illustrates, this is not enough. The old institutions of the French labour movement have shown themselves so far incapable of raising the issue of power, even though power has never been so close. What is lacking is not, as in the past, the spontaneous and massive opposition of the working class, but rather a dedicated revolutionary leadership which will link the opposition together and focus it clearly on revolution, not on the maximum concessions obtainable from the present regime. The French ruling class will learn from this experience, so that it will be much more difficult and bloody next time.

In the British situation, the old Left has been scattered, and a minority sucked up into the new corporate state. A new Left has to be created out of the existing fragmentary and divided opposition – from industrial militants already fighting the wages freeze and attempts to outlaw unofficial organisation (many of them still members of the Communist Party): Left socialists, some of them still grimly and despairingly hanging on in local Labour Parties for want of anything else; tenant activists battling against savage rent increases; students fighting American imperialism in Vietnam; a multitude of left groups, some industrial, some purely political, by-products of the degeneration of the old labour movement; and a host of others who would act if only they could see that it was part of a continuing, organised and credible struggle, rather than an individual gesture.

Ultimately, such a force must become a new working-class party, capable of co-ordinating the battle on many different fronts and crystallising opposition to the inevitable attempts of the ruling class to save itself at the expense of the majority. It must fill the gap terrifyingly left vacant by the traditional parties of Left. Without it, the opposition will continue to be fragmentary, each fragment exposed to defeat in isolation. The rapidity with which the French explosion has taken place and the failure of the revolt to supersede the limits of a general strike and challenge power, show how urgent is the need for us to be prepared.

International Socialism is small – we publish elsewhere in this issue a list of our branches – and we urgently need to link up with all those others, groups and individuals, who see the urgent need t create a new force on the Left. Of course, unification is more easily said than done. Important differences have divided the Left in the past, and sometimes trivial differences have moulded groups into sects. What has preserved the sects has been the immense gap between their theory and the immediate possibilities for achieving socialism, the consciousness of the mass of the population. The gap between theory and practice and the mass of the population, is closing with great rapidity. As a result, some of the differences on the left are dissolving or at least becoming more clearly irrelevant.

Fragmentation necessarily weakens the opposition at a time when it needs maximum strength. This does not mean that we should all pretend we agree when we differ, but it does mean that the necessity for common action here and now should not be overshadowed by the genuine differences that exist. Loyalty to a particular organisation should not eliminate the politics of which the organisation is supposed to be an instrument. Unity in action is the central priority. But with that unity, the debate on wider issues should go on, for only the most vigorous discussion can clarify exactly what we want to achieve and how it is to be achieved.

On what should this unity in action be based, IS has proposed a provisional list, four points:

  1. opposition to the wage freeze, to the development of the corporate State;
  2. workers’ control;
  3. opposition to imperialism, a commitment to the victory of all genuine national liberation fronts; and
  4. internationalism, opposition to all forms of discrimination.

To this end, we are prepared to merge our organisation with any others which share our sense of the urgent need for united action. If our differences inhibit what we can do, the Left is likely to be permanently condemned to irrelevance.

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Last updated on 18.6.2008