Main WIN Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Workers’ International News, July 1941


Gerry Healy

Tasks of the Left in the Labour Party


From Workers’ International News, Vol.4 No.7, July 1941, pp.3-7. [1]
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The official policy of the Labour Party and Trade Union movement has always been one of acceptance of the capitalist system whilst attempting by reforms to improve the material conditions within it. In all its fundamental characteristics it has played a traditionally Liberal role which in many respects has coincided with the policy of the bourgeoisie. The British ruling class has always adopted a liberal policy towards the working class at home, whilst in the colonial and semi-colonial countries of the Empire a ruthless campaign of violence and intense exploitation has been carried out. For over a century the motto of British capitalism, insofar as the Labour and Trade Union leaders were concerned, was “you train ’em – we’ll buy ’em.” In sharp contrast to their poorer imperialist rivals on the continent, they have always prided themselves on the shrewd and cunning manner in which they could inoculate the workers’ movement against the “troublemaker” and “extremist” bacilli.

But now, the evolving of the capitalist system has changed all this. The days when Britain could exploit the world have gone forever. New, hungrier and more powerful rivals have come to the forefront in a titanic struggle to dominate the earth. The “old Lion with her lion cubs”, to use a phrase of Mr. Churchill, has been forced to give way to her more powerful adversaries; and the result has been a sharpening of the growing class-conflict at home, the realities of which have completely altered the old forms of social and political life. Every advanced worker to-day, realises that parliament and so-called democracy are hypocritical smokescreens to hide the naked rule of a concentrated financial oligarchy which is mobilising the whole forces of the State against the growing revolutionary opposition. It is true of course that periodically parliament appears to function, but then again even the yellow press is forced to admit that the real decisions are taken behind the scenes. Only petty bourgeois snobs such as Gollancz, Strachey, Laski and Co. indulge in idle chatter about the wonders of “democracy” and the glories of this “holy” war. Every parliamentary session revealed the true situation to ever wider strata of the working-class. Above all it finds its sharpest reflection in their old political parties. The dictatorship of finance capital, through the Coalition Government, is rooted inside the ranks of Labour through the agency of a ruling bureaucratic caste, which like its capitalist masters, demands complete submission to its rule. This was the outstanding feature of the Fortieth Conference of the Labour Party.

The Conference, itself, did not provide any new surprises for the revolutionary left. Working-class militants were forewarned by the decision of the National Executive to exclude all resolutions which were to have been submitted by local and divisional labour parties and affiliated organisations. Gone were the pious phrases of Attlee who introduced his Labour Party in Perspective by remarking that

“I should not like to see Labour a Party on the pattern of those which exists in Corporate States, where exact obedience and loyalty to a leader stifle free thought and individual initiative. In a party of the Left there should always be room for differences of opinion and emphasis”.

The scene had changed. The Right Honourable Attlee of 1937 has become the Lord Privy Seal of 1941. Holiday story telling and speechmaking had been replaced by open despotism. Capitalism is in danger. The Imperialist plunder by a microscopic collection of rich idlers is being menaced by rival gangsters, and the Labour and Trade Union bosses have rallied to a man to bolster up a tottering social order against the progressive strivings of the millions of toilers.

The bulk of the delegates at the Conference were hand-picked right wingers; old and ageing men, settled in life; well satisfied with the status quo. They had made “Socialism” their business and it had profited them. The prospects of disrupting this idyllic situation aroused in them sentiments of indignation. This broke out with ferocity when a motion was put, for the reference back of the paragraph dealing with the Kings Norton bye-election, pending the hearing of the delegates. The “rebel” Laski thundered forth with the vehemence and demagogy of a Churchill about. the sacredness of “constitutionalism” and all the rest of it. The political flirt of Popular Front days has now become the political charwoman of the National Executive; a fitting role for such a renegade. Here and there throughout the Hall were a sprinkling of militants, whilst occasional mild protests were recorded by the “Victory and Socialism” Tribuneites, who needless to say made little impression upon their patriotic brethren.

This extreme bureaucratic transformation and bludgeoning of rank and file opinions is the direct outcome of reformism in the epoch of imperialist decline. It is part of a process which has been developing ever since the Labour Party took shape in 1900. The entry of the British Trade Unions into the political arena was accompanied by all the old prejudices of Fabian Liberalism. Whilst on the one hand it represented a decisive step forward in the political unification of the proletariat, on the other hand it was unable to overcome the historic weakness of the British working-class, that is its contempt for a theoretical approach – the Marxian approach – to the problems of society. This deficiency – in itself a reflection of the reactionary potent influence of Liberal concessionisms, the policy of the bourgeoisie in its heyday – was a severe handicap to its development. Engels in his preface to the Peasant War in Germany pointed out that

“Without a sense for theory, scientific Socialism would have never become blood and tissue of the workers. What an enormous advantage this is, may be seen, on the one hand, from the beginning, were steeped in Fabian the indifference of the English labour movement towards all theory, which is one of the reasons why it moves so slowly, in spite of the splendid organisation of the individual unions.”

The majority of the Labour Party leadership, philosophy. Despite the fact that a large number of them came from the working-class they were completely incapable of grasping the socialist theory and outlook. When the real imperialist rot set in and ate its way into the heart of the Labour movement, they preferred to capitulate in preference to the socialist revolution. At the famous Stuttgart Conference of 1907, the Copenhagen Conference of 1910, and the Basle Conference of 1912, delegates from the various sections of the Second International, including the British Labour Party pledged themselves to international working-class action against war. But when war broke out on August 4th, 1914, the resolutions remained on paper which were crumpled up in national representing twelve million workers of imperialist influence. Its leaders became the first burst of cannon. The Second International had collapsed ignominiously under the pressure partners of their respective bourgeoisie and incited the workers (the same as they do to-day) to kill one another in the name of “national defence”. From then onwards the Labour Party represented a retarding and reactionary influence upon the growth and development of the revolutionary forces.

The post war crisis resulting in the defeats of the revolutionary left, meant not only the stabilisation of capitalism, but also the stabilisation of the old parties of the Second International. The patriotic jingoes of 1914-18 became the left phrasemongers of 1918-24. Plans and reconstruction programmes galore were brought forward only to remain on paper. Such people as Herbert Morrison became renowned for their “leftism”. At the 1919 conference of the Labour Party the present Home Secretary stated:

“They had got to realise that the present war against Russia on the part of this country, France and the other Imperialist Powers, was not war against Bolshevism or against Lenin, but against the international organisation of Socialism. It was a war against the organisation of the trade anion movement itself, and as such should be resisted with the full political and industrial power of the whole trade union movement.”

To listen to Morrison to-day, one would think it was a different man, but his outlook was the same then as it is now. All that has changed is the situation and the mood of the working class. When it is necessary to pacify the workers by demagogic phrasemongering, Morrison becomes a “left”. When in the name of “democracy” and “defence of our island fortress”, the working class apathetically support the war, Morrison becomes a jingo, and in his position of Home Secretary persecutes revolutionaries. It is essential that this aspect of the role of the Labour Leaders is grasped because, as we shall see they are always ready to change their utterings.

Regardless of the efforts of the spurious Disarmament conferences, the League of Nations, New Deals and Ottawa conferences, the contradictions of Imperialism grew steadily worse. The conditions and prerequisites for the present war were glaringly apparent as early as 1928. Monopoly capital had greatly strengthened its control and in doing so had dragged the Labour leaders ever closer to the State. The Mond-Turner agreement of January 1928 which attempted to tie the trade unions to the state was followed by the complete abandonment of the Labour Party by MacDonald, Snowden and Thomas; the former to lead the Tory National Government as Prime Minister and rank amongst the first gentlemen in capitalist society, whilst Thomas as we have seen went a little further. To-day there are strong rumours amongst prominent Labour Party officials that grave doubts exist concerning the attitude of some of the present “big men” towards the Party. There are suggestions that another MacDonald fiasco is on the way in the none too distant future, and doubtless there is some truth in the rumours.

The real changes in the evolution of capitalism and reformism become clearly visible upon an examination of the respective situations prior to the present war and the last one. Whereas before the 1914-18 war the Labour leaders outwardly opposed it until it had been declared, this time they actively and openly prepared for the war. At the Hastings Conference in 1933, section (C) of the text of a resolution on war read as follows:

To pledge itself to take no part in war and to resist it with the whole forces of the Labour movement and to seek consultation forthwith with the trade union and co-operative movements with a view to deciding and announcing to the country what steps, including a General Strike, are to be taken to organise the opposition of the organised working class movement in the event of war and threat of war, and urges the National Joint Bodies to make immediate approaches to endeavour to secure international action by the workers on the same lines.

By 1934 the special committee set up to discuss “ways and means” to implement this resolution, reported that they were not quite sure about its validity in relation to wars of “national defence”. At the TUC the same year the “high priests” made it clear that a General Strike would be illegal, whist Citrine proudly announced at the Edinburgh TUC conference in 1936 that “the employers dared not go to war without the backing of the Labour movement”. The General Strike idea was discarded and the Labour and Trade Union leaders got busy mobilising the workers for war.

This development in class collaboration politics was even more pronounced in Germany. During the rise of Hitler to power the trade union bureaucracy made tentative approaches to the Nazis in an attempt to obtain agreement upon adapting the unions to the fascist state. On April 1st, two months after Hitler came to power the Metallarbeiter-Zeitung before it was yet liquidated, wrote:

If now at last active measures are going to be taken against economic suffering no one will welcome that more heartily than the trade unions. Their own collaboration will certainly not be lacking. If the government now sets to work with a will, it will be possible for it to make moral conquests also among the 45% of the people who aid not vote for it on March 5th.”

On May 1st, the Social Democratic trade union bureaucracy actually called upon the workers to demonstrate under the Nazi flag. At the Brighton TUC in 1933, Sir Walter Citrine, when defending the policy of the German trade union leaders remarked that,

They could be legitimately criticised because they thought they could adapt the German Trade Union movement in the same way to the new regime.”

When Mr. James Walker, as chairman at the 1941 Conference, stated, “I cannot separate the German people from the German government. They are just as responsible for the acts of the government as the government itself,” he neglected to tell us that his counterparts in Germany were at one time cadging for jobs under the self same government. This hypocrite who has the impudence to peddle Vansittart rubbish at a Conference supposed to be representing working people, kept his mouth shut regarding the role of the Labour and trade union leaders in Germany, because he and his ilk would be job-hunting under similar conditions if ever they arose in Britain.

Apart from this degrading spectacle of right-wing chauvinism, the most disgusting features of this conference were the antics of the pacifists and the intellectual left social-chauvinists. Mr. Rhys Davies’ talk about “something better than a fight to a finish” is a clear insight into the sterile mind of the pacifist. They “deplore” the suffering of the masses; but fight shy of the real alternative which is the revolutionary overthrow of the ruling class. At all times they evade this fundamental conclusion with vague terminology, because the essence of pacifism is an attempt to combine a profession of peace with passive support for the capitalist system which is based upon exploitation and war.

Laski, the Tribune gang, and the miscalled Socialist Clarity Group are gentlemen of a much different calibre. They recognise quite clearly the bankruptcy of capitalism. At one time or another the bulk of them have written books correctly diagnosing the present system. Today, of course, “it is different “. It was all very fine to draw a nice blueprint about “the new society” yesterday, but ... we’re at war now and it’s not nice” to disrupt the “national” unity, so they support the greatest mass murder for profit in history in order to avoid the revolutionary road.

The dishonour of these valets of the ruling class is easily understood by an examination of their speeches and writings. Laski, in Reynolds News, May the 25th, wrote:

“The movement will have no truck with any peace which seeks accommodation with our enemies. But it says frankly that the time has come to deal with the causes of war, and they can be only dealt with on a socialist basis.”

And today: “In the degree that Mr. Churchill grasps this central truth, he will find Labour responsive” ... Here is the hub of their position. Fearing and hating revolutionary tactics and the class struggle they always address their appeals to the ruling class and not the workers. They lack confidence and have nothing but contempt for the tremendous progressive potentialities of the proletariat. The bourgeois professor understands well the only solution to the war; but he does not tell it to the workers; he offers his wares instead to strikebreaker, Churchill, who no doubt must be highly amused. This is truly exemplary of left social chauvinist trickery.

With an attitude of papal infallibility that surpasses even the disciples of the Church of Rome, the Communist Party ignored the development of a left wing opposition at the conference. The old Popular Front days have receded, and the “brand new” movement, the Peoples Convention has temporarily i.e. until Stalin’s next move comes to the foreground. It is here we see the utter sectarianism of Stalinism in the present period. For years they had carried out the donkey work of the Labour Party and the Leagues of Youth, and at a time when the workers stand in the threshold of their greatest struggles, they deserted to a tiny island of Left-wing opinion and, in so doing, completely abandoned the millions of labour voters and trade unionists whose political consciousness has not yet led them to see the realities of the situation.

The central lesson for revolutionary militants in the Labour Party and the trade unions, is that the sole way out is through the development of a left wing around the transitional programme and policy of the Fourth International. The growth and strengthening of such a left wing will only take place around a programme which caters for the consciousness and needs of the working class as a whole, and it is vitally necessary that we acquire a thorough understanding of the present status of the Labour Party if we are to overcome all future obstacles.

During the past twelve months the Labour Party has lost one fourth of its individual membership, roughly 104,720. Its trade-union paying political membership increased by 20,000. The decrease in individual membership can be related to a number of factors amongst them, the almost complete collapse of the League of Youth; the call-ups to the forces, together with the open exit of Communist Party fraction workers to the Peoples Convention. No doubt also, a large number have dropped away in disgust at the political truce and the actions of the Labour leaders in the Churchill government.

The real strength of the Labour Party, however, lies in the trade Union movement. Historically it has developed as the political expression of the trade unions and in spite of the drop in individual membership it still preserves its status amongst the unions. The following table shows its membership during the years of the. last war corresponding to the present.



Total Membership


1,572 ,391







Despite the whole series of betrayals its membership is now higher than in 1917. Moreover the number of trade union affiliations are increasing which indicate a growing radicalisation amongst fresh sections of the organised workers. The Labour Party still retains a considerable support amongst the workers and this was shown when a “Stop the War” resolution was submitted by Arthur Horner, the president of the South Wales Miners’ Federation and Communist Party Leader on 3rd March. The Labour Party leaders submitted a counter resolution which called for support for the official Labour policy. The text of the resolution stated that “we cannot permit a German victory” and added that the first task of Labour was “to bring about the establishment of government in keeping with the interests of the people of Britain and the high ideals with which they entered the war”. The “Stop the War” resolution was overwhelmingly defeated by 67,000 votes, the numbers voting for the resolution being 30,000 and for the Labour Party resolution 97,000. It must be borne in mind that the South Wales Miners’ Federation is the biggest Communist Party stronghold amongst the industrial workers, and yet the Labour leaders maintain their support with comparative ease. It is also worth noting that they polled the most votes in the Rhonnda, an area at one time noted for its unemployment.

The workers’ attitude towards the Labour Party is not primarily determined by the fact that the Labour Party leaders support the war, because the coming movement will not be consciously anti-war or pacifist. It will develop against the whole capitalist regime, particularly around the reactionary imperialist character of the war and the way in which it is being prosecuted. Already there are striking symptoms of this. The annual conference of the AEU and NUGMW witnessed speech after speech denouncing the chaos and mismanagement of boss-class organisation in the war industry, not against the war as such. The workers are becoming increasingly conscious of the fact that the capitalists are not interested in “fighting Hitlerism” but only in protecting their profits.

Besides demonstrating the hold which the Labour Party still maintains over wide sections of the working class, the figures are also an indication of the magnitude of the approaching crisis. The Labour Party is essentially a child of the bourgeois democratic regime. Its growth and development have been conditioned by the rise of capitalism as a world system, and the consequent liberal policy of the bourgeoisie at home. Now when bourgeois democracy is crumbling in one country after another, the era of social democracy and the Labour Party is drawing to a close. Imperialism moves closer and closer to fascism and ruthless dictatorships. Even the Labour and Trade Union leaders who have so faithfully served their capitalist masters are not escaping, (witness the fate of Blum, Jouhaux and Co.). The whole flimsy texture of the bourgeois-democratic order, whilst imposing as a state force, the parliament, the franchise and so on, is based upon feet of clay, is being busily scooped away by the ruling class to-day, to lay the foundations of fascism tomorrow. And concurrently the Labour Party too, rests upon feet of clay and within its ranks there arc various sections at work also scooping it away into different channels. All this represents the growing revolutionary tide and reflects different layers of opinion amongst the workers and middle classes.

The table of figures shows that, whereas the labour party has held its own in relation to its membership of the last war, nevertheless whilst on the one hand it gained nearly a million new members during the period between 1914-17 on the other hand it has lost a quarter of its individual membership during a corresponding period, in the present war. This is an indication that the movement of large sections of workers towards the Labour Party that took place in the last war, will not be as protracted and stabilised in this. The conditions of European and British capitalism regardless of who will win, will be such that after the war they will no longer be able to stabilise their rule except by naked tyranny and violence. The Dean of Saint Paul’s has quite openly stated this. The tempo of the developing struggle is already so sharp and the mass political consciousness of large sections of the advanced workers so high, that their past experiences of the betrayals of the labour leaders is driving them along the road to a more left-wing alternative.

Simultaneously in the Labour Party itself, signs of a growing division in the parliamentary body are gradually becoming apparent. The disagreement on the “Means Test Bill” is but the first of many which, as the crisis grows, will undoubtedly crystallise into sharp divisions and may even culminate into splits. The “Tribune” supporters who are typical representatives of petty-bourgeois instability can also be expected to move away from the existing Labour Party apparatus.

The hostile attitude of large sections of trade unionists to Morrison’s fire-watching order shows that he is rapidly losing his status as a Labour Leader, and he, together with a number of others will find himself in MacDonald’s shoes. A large percentage of the present leadership, however, will attempt to enact their age-old tricks of “left phrase-mongering” in order to confuse and betray the leftward moving masses. The South Wales Miners’ Federation move was only one of many to come. When at the beginning of the war a number of “Stop the WAR” and pacifist candidates were competing at the various bye-elections, Attlee saw fit to formulate “Labours Peace Aims”.

The movement away from the Labour Party, whilst it is but a trickle at the moment is nevertheless an expression on the part of proletarian militants, to seek another alternative. It is here the Communist. Party with its “Peoples Convention” will carry out its most treacherous work. Illicitly masquerading under the banner of the October revolution they are attempting to dangle the prospects of more “Left” alternative in front of those workers while in reality leading to the path of another Popular Front. The voting at the AEU National Conference shows that they are having a certain amount of success. To block this dangerous passage to disaster and lead these workers to the road of the revolution must be the foremost task of the revolutionary left.

It is impossible for revolutionary socialists to boycott the Labour Party and the Labour Leaders. That way will lead only to political suicide. The masses of working people in this country will understand the need for a revolutionary policy and party not from abstract interpretations of political problems, but from the mighty struggle between classes, which capitalism and war have placed upon the order of the day in Britain. The working class will pass through the whole gamut of political experience which the Russian working-class went through. When the millions of toilers in this country, who to-day, passively accept the war, are reluctantly thrust into political struggle by capitalism itself, they will not immediately turn towards the conscious revolutionary minority. They will try at first to seek a way out of their impasse through the traditional organisations of the working-class and above all the reformist Labour and trade union leaderships. The whole history of the working-class movement all over the world hears out this prognosis. The revolutionary epoch which opened at the end of the last imperialist war found millions of workers all over Europe supporting the same set of leaders who had for four years betrayed each and every one of their interests. In Germany and in Russia, in the first stages of the struggle the workers awakening to political life did not turn to the Bolsheviks or the Spartacists, but the Mensheviks and Social Democrats.

The fact that the reformist leaders in Russia, Germany and France who were the counterparts of the Hendersons and the Clynes supported the predatory war of capitalism did not prevent the masses from turning to them, and neither will the fact that the Labour leaders who are supporting the present imperialist war be sufficient argument to keep the masses away from them when the class struggle develops in this country.

The Fourth International alone presents the programme for the fundamental solution of the problems of the working class. But it must be stated that its development has not kept abreast of the radicalisation of the broad mass of the workers. It has not yet sufficient tradition in this country to attract a mass following. This is not unnatural. Trotskyism represents the most advanced political thought. Many advanced trade union militants have found their way into our ranks. But the great mass of workers are learning by actual experience. These workers will pass through the traditional channel of the Labour Party. Our demand of “Labour to Power” is not the fundamental solution of the problems of the working class. If its realisation is delayed too long it might be an unnecessary, even a backward demand. However, at the present stage it is the duty of the advanced workers to keep the pulse on the trend of events, to be where their more backward fellow workers are in order to lead them, by going through their experiences with them, to the ultimate realisation for the complete overthrow of the capitalist system.

The task of building a revolutionary party in Britain depends primarily as Trotsky carefully pointed out, on the correct marxian approach to the character and role of the reformist labour and trade union bureaucracy. The sectarian character of the ILP and the cynicism and irresponsibility of the CP towards the working-class movement is demonstrated more sharply on this question than on anything else. Only the Fourth International has proved its ability to develop a revolutionary alternative to the Labour bureaucracy. Our slogan “Labour to Power” on a programme of class-demands corresponding to the present political consciousness of the working-class, is the only way to conduct a revolutionary struggle against the bureaucracy and to prepare the masses for the final overthrow of capitalism.


Transcriber’s Note

1. There are a whole number of obviously missing words in this piece. – ERC

Top of page

Main WIN Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 1.10.2005