Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein, The Labour Party – a Marxist History, Bookmarks, London 1988, pp427, £7.95

This book offers itself as a Marxist history of the Labour Party, and sets out to explain its relationship with the working class movement, claiming in the process that it will expound the opinions of the great Marxist thinkers as to its nature and the attitude to be taken towards it by revolutionaries. A large amount of negative empirical evidence is amassed, and the very size of the book seems to lend credibility to its thesis. However, a closer inspection shows that its compilers have a selective myopia on an even vaster scale than their own researches.

Its broad structure is a most peculiar one. On page 3 it lists what it calls “major periods of class warfare’ and totally omits the years 1944-45, the former year being the highest number of days lost in strikes since 1926, the latter being the inevitable Labour landslide as a result of it. The most left wing Labour Party conferences in history, during precisely this period, are carefully avoided. When we come to examine its treatment of the ideas of Leon Trotsky we shall see why this is so.

Nor is it entirely factually sound. Thus we are told (p.60) that the British Socialist Party protested against the First World War “on clear internationalist grounds”, whereas in fact it took two years to break with its initial chauvinism. On page 89 we read that the Communist Party “established its credentials” in 1920 “without being inside the Labour Party” (their emphasis), even though its largest component had been an affiliate since 1916 and no decision had been taken to exclude those who were already in there. During the General Strike we are informed that (p.139) “even the best Labour activists abstained politically”, whereas as is well known, in areas like Lewisham, where no important trade union or trades council structure existed, it was the local Labour Parties that became the councils of action. Page 176 repeats the hoary old myth that the Communist Party called the demonstration to stop the Fascists in Cable Street, a story that should have been consigned to a more or less honourable grave the day Joe Jacobs’ memoirs came out.

But the most striking tampering with the record comes at the points at which the book claims to explain the views of the classical Marxist thinkers on this history. Since the authors claim that the Independent Labour Party was “not the child of new unionism, but of its defeat” (p.12), they are careful to omit Engels’ enthusiasm for its founding, when he said that it was “the very party which the old members of the International desired to see formed” (Workmans Times, 25 March 1893). Page 3 claims that the book will answer the question as to “what were the views of Lenin and Trotsky” about the Labour Party and whether revolutionary Socialists should “enter the Labour Party”. Here the selective misrepresentation is so obvious as to leave little doubt that it is deliberate. The part played by Lenin in the debate that accepted the Labour Party into the Second International is dealt with nowhere. The discussion itself is consigned to a minor footnote (p.56), even though the reference (n10, p.399) makes it clear that the information used by the authors comes from Lenin himself, who is not even mentioned in their account.

Because the peculiar idea is held that soviets are “workers’ councils of factory and office [!] delegates” (p.139), we are told that Lenin in 1920 was “misinformed when he took the councils of action to be ‘the same kind of dual power as we had under Kerensky’” (p.9). This is to imply because the writers do not appear to know that the Mensheviks, SRs, etc, were all represented in the Soviets as parties, along with many bodies that had nothing to do with factories (or “offices”). The role played in the Soviets by Chkeidze, Chernov, etc, was in fact exactly the same as that of their British counterparts in 1920. Whether this analysis is meant to justify the sectarianism of the SWP towards the local Labour Parties during the miners’ strike of 1984-85, when they were the backbone of the support committees, is impossible to say. But repeated remarks such as “although a great many of Labour Party supporters must have been caught up in the strike action [before the First World War – AR], on no occasion were they acting as Labour Party members, but rather in spite of that fact” (p.48) show that the two Cliffs feel that they have a lot of explaining to do. Nor does Lenin’s theory of the United Front fare any better at their hands. Thus we are told that “correctly applied” it “involved an attempt to force the leaderships of the reformist and centrist organisations into limited co-operation on concrete issues by winning their followers for unity in action” (p.113), that “as long as Communists understood affiliation as just a tactic” it did not lead to compromising of their ‘politics’ (p.108n), and that “First there had to be a split. The BSP members who wished to become Communists were already in the Labour Party, but had to come out.” (p.107) But the theses of Lenin’s Comintern (21 January 1922) define the United Front in Britain as “the task of the English Communists to begin a vigorous campaign for their acceptance by the Labour Party”, making “every effort, using the slogan of the revolutionary united front against the capitalists, to penetrate at all costs deep into the working masses”. The light-minded dismissal of this policy as “just a tactic” of “limited cooperation on concrete issues” may be the policy of the SWP, but it is neither United Front policy, nor Leninism. The authors of this book even approve of the CPGB’s crude attempt to sabotage its instructions by applying for affiliation in terms that deliberately invited refusal (p.110). Finally, the SWP’s absurd slogan, “Vote Labour without illusions” is fathered upon Lenin without the slightest atom of proof (p.110).

If Lenin’s ideas are distorted, Trotsky’s are almost unrecognisable. On pages 119-20 the writers try to restrict them to the condemnations of the ILP and the Labour Party in only two writings, Lessons of October and Where is Britain Going? Not a single reference is given to his contributions to the theory of revolutionary entry <1>at all</1>. Although the first Labour government is blamed for not allowing political affiliation to civil servants (p.96n), the writers clearly approve of the political backwardness of such union members (pp.377-8) (from which the SWP draws its own strength and among whom it plays no part in the struggle for affiliation), in spite of Trotsky’s argument in Where is Britain Going? that “a systematic struggle must be carried on against them” for affiliation, “to make them feel like renegades, and to secure the right of the trade unions to exclude them as strike-breakers”. The fact that this argument takes up an entire chapter of Trotsky’s book is not even hinted at. When arguing against revolutionaries being in both the trade unions and the Labour Party the book is clearly at loggerheads with Trotsky. On page 115 we are solemnly told that “despite formal links, the two are in fact quite different institutions”, only to be contradicted from the mouth of Trotsky himself five pages later that “these are not two principles, they are only a technical division of labour” (p.120).

The whole treatment of the theory and practice of revolutionary entry is deeply unsatisfactory. On page 112 we are told that when the Communist Party in 1923 “decided to secretly send its members into the Labour Party” this “obscured the correct orientation on Labour” and “negated the affiliation tactic as a public exposure of Labour’s reformism”. This is in line with Duncan Hallas’ previous categorical statement that “the Communist Party’s attempt to affiliate to the Labour Party was not an ‘entry’ operation, as that term later came to be understood” (The Comintern, p.45). Neither appear to be aware that the campaign for affiliation was the central tactic of the Comintern’s United Front strategy in Britain, and that revolutionary entry is simply the form this same strategy takes when revolutionaries do not lead any substantial sections of the working class. As Trotsky defined it, “the relationship of forces has to be changed, not concealed. It is necessary to go to the masses. It is necessary to find a place for oneself within the framework of the United Front, ie within the framework of one of the two parties of which it is composed”, what he called an “organic place” where the revolutionaries are “too weak to claim an independent place” (Writings 1934-35, pp.35-6, 42).

A minimal political logic would have posed the question in an obvious way: if the reformists were able to refuse the demand for affiliation, should the Communist Party have accepted it at that and just gone away? Isn’t it just as logical to pose it from within as outside? A small footnote (p.108) admits that “there have been occasions” in the 1930s and ’40s, and by Tony Cliff’s own group in the ’50s and ’60s, when entrism has been “used” as “a tactic imposed by great weakness” only to be abandoned “as soon as it had served the purpose of helping revolutionaries to stand on their own feet”. Not the slightest hint is given that during the entire history of the Trotskyist movement in Britain during Trotsky’s lifetime its organisations were urged by him to practice entry, in the Communist Party to begin with, then the ILP and finally the Labour Party. On the contrary: Trotsky’s concepts are openly mocked throughout the book. On page 85 we are informed that “there is a theory which states that when workers move in a revolutionary direction they will turn to the Labour Party and remake it. 1919 proved this to be arrant nonsense”. In his interview with Sam Collins in 1936 Trotsky prophesied “a strike wave in the near future”, advising his supporters to enter the Labour Party. The process to which he referred did not mature until 1944-45, for it was set back by the coming of the war, and it is significant that this book carefully avoids the study of how the trade union militancy of 1944 – a real crisis year if ever there was one – had the effect of revitalising the Labour Party in 1945 and thrusting it to the left. We similarly look in vain in the book for Trotsky’s argument that the opposition of the Labour Party right: to the Popular Front in the 1930s was “far too radical” for the Communists, for the SWP has its own Popular Front to advertise – the Anti-Nazi League, with its night clubs, Christians, bikers, vegetarians, skateboarders, skins and football clubs (p.335), and, we might add, vicars and liberals as well.

For the sake of clarity let us repeat Trotsky’s verdict on small groups assuming an “independent” existence:

The fact that Lenin was not afraid to split from Plekhanov in 1905 and to remain as a small isolated group bears no weight, because the same Lenin remained inside the Social Democracy until 1912 and in 1920 urged the affiliation of the British Communist Party to the Labour Party. While it is necessary for the revolutionary party to maintain its independence at all times, a revolutionary group of a few hundred comrades is not a revolutionary party, and can work most effectively at present by opposition to the social patriots within the mass parties. In view of the increasing acuteness of the international situation, it is absolutely essential to be within the mass organisations while there is the possibility of doing revolutionary work within them. Any such sectarian, sterile and formalistic interpretation of Marxism in the present situation would disgrace an intelligent child of ten. (Writings 1935-36, p382).

A great deal of useful historical information is amassed in this book, and a useful collection is made of the condemnations of the politics of the Labour Party by the classical Marxists. But this is only the beginning of the ABC of political wisdom. A great deal more is carefully omitted – particularly how revolutionaries approach this organisation when they remain a small minority. On this question the verdict of history is universal, and conclusive. Except in countries where there was no working class party of any sort already in existence, there has never been a revolutionary party created by recruitment in ones and twos to a sect. All the mass parties of the Third International – not excepting the Russian – issued from splits inside previously existing working class parties. The hold of reformism has to be broken inside the organisations it dominates, and cannot be accomplished by mere name calling from outside.

Thus this book belongs to the school of political thought that can be called premythological, or, at best, magical – that if we call mighty institutions and their leaders by enough names they will vanish in a puff of smoke, like the demon king in the pantomimes. It was once said of an American politician that he never rose to his feet without adding to the sum total of human ignorance. The discrimination of the reading public prevented him from attempting the same in print. But those who have rounded together a couple of thousand or so students, civil service clerks and team leaders on job creation schemes and believe that they have founded a revolutionary party of the working class are subject to no such constraints. The book will prove an undoubted success, for it will yet again prove the truth of the old saying that if you want to get away with a successful deception, you should tell people what they want to believe in the first place.

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 6.7.2003