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Workers’ International News, February-March 1946


Bill Hunter

The ILP and the Revolutionary Party


From Workers’ International News, Vol.6 No.5, February-March 1946, pp.141-145.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The attention given to other parties and tendencies and the interest displayed in their development, programme and policies, are characteristic of Marxist science.

The ILP has always been of importance to Marxists and aroused considerable discussion among them. Its crises, the laws of its development, the (character of its leadership, the class basis and pressure which guided it; all have been analysed, dissected and pronounced upon time and again in the Marxist press. Particularly this been so since 1932, when the ILP disaffiliated from the Labour party and assumed more of the classical form of a centrist party.

Trotsky devoted a great deal of attention to centrism. Among his other works in Germany What Next? he gives invaluable lessons for those who wish to understand centrism in general.

“Speaking formally and descriptively” he writes, “Centrism is composed of all those trends within the proletariat and on its periphery which are distributed between reformism and Marxism and which most often represent various stages of evolution from reformism to Marxism and vice-versa.”

Trotskyist literature is a storehouse of articles plotting, on the basis of a Marxist analysis of the nature of centrism, the direction of the development of the ILP, a party which shelters a diversified number of trends, from the anarcho-Marxisrn of Ridley to the pacifist-reformism of Campbell Stephen. It is true to say that the question “Where is the ILP going?” has been asked and discussed around far more frequently in the Trotskyist movement than in the party which, presumably, should have found it of vital interest – the ILP! Its leadership, while willing to borrow isolated Marxist ideas at the most left phases of its development, learned nothing and understood nothing from them, looked askance at “interminable theorising”, abhorred the scientific method of analysing developments. With that disinclination toward theory, which Engels declared to be a characteristic of the general British Labour movement, the ILP has re-acted in a purely empirical fashion to the events of the day, following the zig-zags of policy which characterise centrism and place it ever and again “at the crossroads”.

Today, the ILP is once again at a decisive point in its history. The Labour Party’s refusal of its request for affiliation; the swing to the Labour Party in the General Election; the policy of the ILP leadership in this period drained its vitality. This, in a period when reformism is on test before the workers; when the crisis of British capitalism is laying the basis for titanic class struggles. Yet today there rage no great discussions inside the ILP around its future. No attempts are being made to assess the mistakes and policies of the past; to drew up a balance sheet and line up the future tasks of the party in accordance with coming events. Such a state of affairs is, of course, quite in line with the nature of centrism. Had it been otherwise, the ILP would not have been buffeted to where it is today.

Had the ILP affiliated to the Labour Party, there is no doubt, as the RCP has pointed out time and again, it would have represented an attractive force for leftward moving labour workers and would have become a crystallising force for the Labour party left wing. The Labour ‘lefts’ would have flocked into an affiliated ILP, and would thus immediately have strengthened the ILP leadership. But as leftward moving workers entered its ranks the ILP revolutionary wing would have found new and valuable allies in their struggle for a revolutionary party. Affiliation, however, was refused.

The last RCP conference declared that, with the refusal of affiliation, the ILP would tend to disintegrate. In view of the steady development of the ILP leadership to the right in their anxiety to return to the Labour Party fold, it was obvious that the rude shock administered by Transport House would throw the ILP into confusion. When the negotiations with the Labour Party were beginning, some ILP members. seeing a steady drift of the party to the right, expressed an opinion that the refusal of affiliation might be a good thing insofar as it would mean the loss of several right wing elements who were determined to enter the Labour Party with or without the ILP But the sickness which the ILP suffers from is not to be cured by a shock from outside. Who could replace the leadership which has steadily led the Party to the right? The so-called left wing – the anti-affiliationist leadership? History can show they are no more capable of building a revolutionary party than the right, wing near-reformists. It is true that the refusal of affiliation loosened right wingers from the ILP but another striking – and to a certain extent – amusing feature of the refusal was that it shook off also some of the ‘lefts’. Their sectarian attitude was completely falsified by events. The swing to a Labour Party, which they had declared already dead, completely overbalanced them end swept the most vocal of them (as witness Milne of Birmingham, McGregor of London and Cole of Ashington) into the Labour Party.

The ILPer who studies the leadership of the ILP will quickly find that the ‘lefts’ are no more capable than the right wing of creating a revolutionary party. The calibre of the left wing leadership is shown up particularly well in the person of Ridley. With superficial, pedantic analogies and a supply of debating wit, Ridley plays the role of the ‘theoretician’ of the ILP retaining his reputation more on the strength of his involved professorial style than the profundity of his thought. But all his thunderous phrases are as incapable of building a revolutionary party as are the tea-time manoeuvres of McNair and Brockway,

Ridley achieved his revolutionary ‘education’ by sipping from every political dish to the left of Liberalism, satisfying his thirst in the main with a mixture of anarchism and Marxism. A centrist, to the left of most members of the National Council of the ILP, yet still a centrist, Ridley is at the mercy of all these pressures which have dictated the zig-zags and opportunism of the ‘right’ wing leadership. The difference between the right wing leaders and Ridley is a simple one of degree – they set their faces earlier toward the Labour Party and reformism. However, Ridley is fast catching up: We find that the sectarian who in the New Leader of Feb 21, 1942, could declare the Labour Party finished “despite the efforts of the Trotskyists to revive the fast putrefying corpse”, has become the opportunist of Dec. 1st, 1945, who opines:

“... it would obviously be ridiculous to imitate the Trotskyist jargon and accuse the Labour leaders of ‘treachery’ because they do not try to put through a revolution”, he goes on to talk about “good and bad in the Labour Government” and of its “State Capitalist” programme “to be supported as a half-way house to Socialism”. He tells of the “commendable energy with which the Labour Government is pushing forward its policy” (New Leader, Dec. 1st 1945). Of course, the keen observer who reads the Ridley of Feb. 1942 and compares it with the Ridley of Dec. 1st, 1945, will find that he has not changed in all things, Where remains his anxiety to separate himself from Trotskyism whatever position he occupies!

However, Ridley, who doesn’t want to imitate the Trotskyist “jargon” makes no attempt to explain how the Labour leaders have changed from people who – “in the greatest crisis of British history can only act, apparently, as yes men to one of the most consistent and ruthless enemies the working class of those islands have ever known.” That was how he described the Labour leaders on Jan. 20th 1945. But we must remember that this was before the General Election and the Labour Party’s overwhelming victory. Can it be that Ridley is following the route already mapped out by another prominent ILPer, Trevor Williams, who, in 1941, urged Labour Party members to join the. ILP, in 1943-4 was one of the most unprincipled supporters of ILP affiliation, and in 1945 found his way into the Labour Party and finally ended up a hack journalist on the Daily Mirror, opposing the dockers strike?

To underline the instability of Ridley let us carry forward the not-so-pleasant task of delving into his writings. Four or five weeks before his article on Good and Bad in the Labour Government, Ridley wrote another article, this time in the Oct-Nov. issue of Free Expression. The article was written under the caption of Labour to Power – and Now? Here Ridley gives free vent to his revolutionary sentiments. Here is no talk of the “half way house to Socialism” nor of the “Labour Government probably going as fast as it can and to that extent at least is making a great advance on the Webb-Macdonald theories of gradualism” (New Leader, Dec. 1st). Here is Ridley the revolutionary, complete with quotations from Trotsky! We learn that the Labour Party’s policy is based on those very theories of Webb-Macdonald gradualness, and that the “truth is that the Labour Party is a relic, the relic of an irrevocably bygone age. And our age has little use for relics, whether is the technical or the political worlds,” And Ridley ends, as might any article in WIN by saying that the “problem of the revolutionary party becomes all important.”

We have spent time on Ridley, not because he is particularly important, either from his present or future role in British politics, but because he typifies the “left wing” ILP leadership, and having a most facile pen his evolution can the more easily be traced.

Those ILP members who still have faith that this “left” wing” could form an alternative leadership and build a healthy party should seriously consider the development of the ILP since the General Election. The NAC elected at the last Conference was composed, in the majority, of members who had opposed ILP affiliation to the Labour Party, some of whom had stressed their belief in the necessity to keep the ILP pure and free from any taint of reformism. But this has not meant a revitalising of the ILP nor an end to the past policy of unprincipled manoeuvres and toning down of policy. True, the NAC meeting at Bangor, soon after the General Election, expressed a criticism of Brockway and other right-wingers but in the next breath this meeting was declaring a six months truce on the Labour Party question and refusing to put an amendment to the King’s Speech on the Labour Government’s nationalisation plans! That Brockway, MacNair and Padley should refuse to explain the nature of reformism; that they should give only mild admonitions to the Labour leaders, like kind friends whose painful duty it is to criticise but who wish to make it plain they really believe the Labour leaders are sincere and honest fellows, that is totally in line with their development before the election. But the majority members of the NAC have in the past been sectarian and bitter opponents of the Labour Party, yet they acquiesce in a decision not to put an amendment to the King’s Speech, and agree to a truce while they watch which way the Labour Government goes. This means that they have been swept off their feet by the Labour victory and have capitulated to the minority.

The only cure for the ILP’s sickness would have been an operation, a clean break with Brockway and Co., and their policy which has led the ILP into an impasse. To expect Ridley, Eaton or the other “lefts” to make such a break would be to expect them to turn out revolutionaries and not centrists. These people would only be capable of such a break under the pressure of the workers swinging away from the Labour Party and not towards it.

The right wing holds the initiative. And those few left wing rank and file members who have any hope of creating a revolutionary party out of the ILP should study the speeches of Brockway, McNair, Padley and Edwards. They will find that their leaders’ perspectives of the future development of the Labour Party and Labour Government leave no room for the ILP as an independent revolutionary force. Their perspective is one of the Labour Government itself moving to the left under pressure of the workers and changing its composition by the introduction of more and more left wingers. If they see any future for the ILP at all, it is not as an alternative to, but as a literary and propaganda adjunct of, the Labour Party.

That uneasy state of compromise which exists among leading circles of the ILP cannot last for ever, as the leadership well know. Already the attractive force of the Labour Party has pulled out a number of individuals. The crisis in Glasgow, the traditional stronghold of the ILP, where a number of prominent members expressed their intention of joining the Labour Party, was smoothed over, but only temporarily. Among their circle of intellectual and journalistic acquaintances the ILP leaders make no secret of this. And the indications are that those who see no hope of ILP affiliation to the Labour Party are preparing to resolve the crisis at the Easter conference, while that section of the leadership which is not yet prepared to enter the Labour Party looks round for alternative accommodation. Already they are negotiating for another home – with the rump of Common Wealth.

Theoretically it was possible to draw the conclusion that, out of the disintegration of Common Wealth, elements – possibly some former ILPers – would coalesce with the ILP But the actual development is taking place in reverse! At a meeting in Birmingham, C.A. Smith, Common Wealth Chairman, declared that, “certain sections” of the ILP leadership had taken the initiative in approaching Common Wealth! Discussion took place around what was going to happen to those elements of the ILP who won’t want to join the Labour Party.

Here again we have an example of how, with politicians such as the ILP leaders, personal tie-ups transcend all party boundaries. C.A. Smith is an ex-ILPer who had a “slight” difference with that party over the question of the nature of the war. (Brockway once declared in the New Leader that the war was primarily a military question.) The ILP leaders maintain their contact with him and discuss what to do with the party behind the backs of its members! As it was with Laski in the Labour Party discussions, so now it is with C.A. Smith.

In a situation where a middle class party – Common Wealth – is disintegrating, no principled objection could be raised to the ILP, if it was a revolutionary party, seeking joint discussions and united activity on specific objects, openly before CW and ILP membership in an attempt to win the best of Common Wealth’s members for the workers’ struggle. But here is something different. The move of certain sections of the ILP leadership is a move to the right, and an unprincipled one because it strengthens Common Wealth and because it raises the issues not in the light of day, but behind the back of the ILP. These leaders discuss the inner life of the party: what possibilities are there of which member and which MP joining the Labour Party? What is the nature of the crisis in the ILP and how can the road be made smooth to Common Wealth? Despite this, no doubt before long, ILP members will be told by their leaders that Common Wealth is important because it has that “moral and ethical out-look so important to the socialist struggle.”

The next Annual Conference of the ILP will be a fateful one. Those members who are struggling within this party with revolutionary perspectives have the duty to reconsider their position; to re-assess the possibilities of further work in this direction. Events since 1934 have demonstrated the correctness of the position taken by Trotsky: the ILP had no future unless it worked out a revolutionary programme.

The ILP is split in reality from top to bottom. Torn by its inner contradictions, it is in the advanced stages of decay and disintegration. Whether the Easter Conference will consummate the split; whether it will precipitate the complete dissolution of the ILP; or whether afterwards it will continue to decompose along the same lines as at present but at an increased tempo, we cannot predict with accuracy. But one thing is certain, outside the Labour Party, the ILP has no future.

For there is not the remotest chance of this party gravitating in a revolutionary direction in the period directly ahead. The coming Conference will, we believe, establish this beyond any shadow of doubt. Those members of this moribund organisation who are seeking the path of revolutionary struggle can reach their goal only through the tested programme and methods of Trotskyism. And, like those comrades from the North-East Division who joined forces with us organisationally after the Blackpool Conference of last year, they will find a warm welcome in the ranks of the Revolutionary Communist Party.

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