Peter Hadden Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Peter Hadden

Marxism and the Labour Movement

(April 1984)

From Militant Irish Monthly, Issue 120, April 1984.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

Many workers in the South, outraged by Labour’s involvement in coalition, are now sceptical of the party’s future, and of the value of their unions remaining affiliated to it. In this article Peter Hadden explains why Labour can be transformed into a fighting organisation in the next period.

Labour is the traditional organisation of workers in this country. Peter Hadden looks to the history of Labour here and internationally, to see how workers will rescue their organisations from right-wing ideas and how Marxism, by being present within those organisations, can assist in this process.

In 1969 the French Socialist Party got only 5% of the vote in elections to the French Assembly (parliament). Yet in 1981, Mitterrand, standing as Socialist candidate for President, got over 50% of the vote. In elections to the Assembly the left parties got 55%. For the first time the Socialist Party, which a decade earlier had appeared to be a sect, won an absolute majority of the Assembly seats.

This one example illustrates a more general law. The working class does not lightly turn its back on those political forces which it has created. Rather, when workers move into political struggle, they turn again and again to their traditional organisations, testing these organisations in battle and when discovering flaws and inadequacies, attempting to remove these and to convert them into fighting organisations on their behalf.

In every country where mass workers’ parties have been built this law of history applies in some form. The British Labour Party was built out of the struggles of the trade unionists at the turn of the century. Seven times Labour has won a majority in parliament and there have been five separate periods of Labour administration.

Workers Hopes

Each time the hopes of the millions of Labour voters that their governments would mean a break with the miseries of capitalism have been disappointed. Every Labour government, far from being a door to socialist society, has acted as a prop for capitalism and has prepared the way for the return of the Tories. Following the betrayal and defeat of the 1926 General Strike, the working class turned to battle on the political front and in 1929 elected a Labour Government. These Labour voters were answered with treachery. In 1931 Prime Minister Ramsey McDonald split Labour’s ranks and formed a so-called “National Government”, another name for a coalition between the capitalist parties and the right-wing of Labour.

An election held in the shadow of this betrayal reduced Labour’s representation from 287 to 52 seats. This was followed by the breakaway of a large section of Labour’s left-wing under the banner of the Independent Labour Party (ILP). To some it appeared that Labour was a spent force. But when, in the mid and late 1930s, the working class movement began to revive, it was back to their traditional party that they turned. In 1935 Labour was able to win 156 seats.

Meanwhile the ILP suffered the fate of those who cut themselves adrift from the official structures of the labour movement. From a claimed force of some 100,000 at the time of the split it had dwindled to the position of an inconsequential sect with a thousand members by the end of the 1930s.

Miners Struggle

In February 1974 the miners led the working class in an assault which brought down the Heath government. Labour won two general elections that year. By 1979 the hopes of the millions of Labour voters had been turned to disillusionment and anger. The names of Labour Ministers like Denis Healey had become synonymous with vicious monetarist measures. The disastrous policies of Callaghan-Healey opened the way for the triumph of Thatcher. Once again those sceptics who prophesied the collapse of Labour were proven completely out of touch with the reality of the class struggles. The advanced workers drew the lessons and fought within the party and the unions to win it back to socialist ideas. The broad mass of workers retained their traditional loyalty to Labour.

Labour, despite its weakness, is the traditional organisation of the working class in Ireland, North and South. As in Britain it was built out of trade union struggle. It was at the 1912 Irish Trade Union Congress that a motion, moved by Connolly and seconded by Larkin, calling for the establishment of a Labour Party was passed.

Partition cut across the political unity of the movement, but separate Labour entities still developed North and South. Today there is no Labour Party in the North. But the tradition of Labour remains.

Banner of Labour

Whenever the socialist movement in the North has gone forward it has been around the banner of Labour. By the 1960s the old Northern Ireland Labour Party was capable of winning almost 30% of the vote and returning 4 MPs to Stormont. It had become the second party in the state, challenging the Unionist Party in most areas. It is to this strong Labour tradition that the trade union and broad labour movement, when it takes a political course, will turn. In that sense, through the somewhat peculiar form of the rebuilding of Labour, the North will bear out the general law that the working class tends to move in and through its traditional organisations.

So also in the South, Labour is the political force to which workers have and will turn. At times its vote has slumped. But when the class movement has revived its chief and only consistent expression has been the Labour Party. In 1933 Labour was reduced to 5.7% of the vote, a result reminiscent of the Socialists in France in 1969 and worse than Labour’s ratings in the polls today. Again, after its disastrous participation in the post-war coalition, its vote fell to 8.7% in 1948. The recently formed Clann na Poblachta with its “radical” image, decisively beat Labour winning 13.2% of the vote.

Yet Clann na Poblachta quickly disintegrated and Labour was revived. During the class radicalisation of the late 1960s, Labour grew as a force and moved to the left. In 1969 it won 17% of the national vote and almost 30% in Dublin.

Coalition Decision

But the chorus of sceptics outside and on the fringes of the movement, before they declare Labour dead, should look to the lessons of the class struggle internationally and historically and should be warned. When the working class moves decisively into political struggle in the South it will be a Labour banner it will raise.

Given the policies of the right-wing and their attempt to witch-hunt socialists, it is possible that they might temporarily succeed in dragging the party into an even worse position. But even with the worst scenario of the continued dominance of right-wing ideas the working class at some stage will move through the trade unions to the Labour tradition in some form. More likely and a better result would be the defeat of the policies and methods of the right-wing leaders which would immediately result in a turnaround of the party’s fortunes. This challenge to the old outmoded ideas of the right is an international phenomenon. During the long boom which followed the second world war illusions developed in the ability of capitalism to take society forward. These found their political expression within the labour movement in the strengthening of the grip of right-wing leaders over the organisations of the working class.

Economic Crisis

The onset of economic crisis in 1974 has exposed the arguments of the right wing. This is an epoch not of reforms, but of counter-reforms. Even where it faced the best possible circumstances, as in Sweden or West Germany during the upswing, the policies of Labour’s right wing have failed.

In Sweden, 44 years of social democracy (i.e. Labour government) ended in 1976, not in socialism but in a majority for the Swedish conservatives. Now there is a new Social Democrat government – but one which is implementing vicious monetarist cuts.

Also in Germany 13 years of Social Democrat rule ended, like Callaghan’s government, in cuts, rising unemployment and falling living standards. The result was the electoral triumph last year of Kohl’s right-wing Christian Democrats.


These are from the post-war “jewels” of world capitalism. If all that is an offer in Germany and Sweden is monetarist austerity what basis is there for the similar ideas of reformism in Ireland, or indeed in Britain?

The French experience doubly underlines the point. Mitterrand came to power on a programme of reform. During his first year some concessions were introduced; shorter hours, a minimum wage, extra holidays. There was limited nationalisation but the decisive sectors, some 68% of the economy, was left in private hands. Under pressure from big business the government has been forced to go back on its promises and has fallen into line with the other capitalist powers in its programme of cuts and austerity.

Traditional Organisations

Workers turn to their traditional organisations – but not blindly. The result of the experience of France, Sweden, Germany, Britain and also Spain, Greece, Italy, Portugal and other countries, is that a battle of ideas has been opened up within the workers’ organisations. At issue is whether they will have a leadership and a programme inherited from the never to be recaptured days of the boom, or whether a leadership whose opinions and methods accord with the present period of stagnation and crisis can come to the fore.

The working class will not discard its traditional parties. Rather it will transform and retransform them. In these upheavals the ideas of Marxism can win mass support within these organisations. The mass membership of parties like the German Social Democrats, allied to the resolute programme and methods of Marxism would spell the end of capitalism.

Future of Labour

Those processes which have begun internationally will also take place in Ireland. Here the working class will move to build Labour, North and South into a mass force. Labour as it develops will be pushed to the left. Coalitionism, together with the sectarianism of the old NILP leaders, will be pushed to the side and those who advocate them left to join renegades like David Owen, Roy Jenkins and Michael O’Leary in the dustbin of history. In the course of these mighty struggles, and in its rightful place inside the Labour Party and trade unions, Marxism can become a mass force in Ireland.

Peter Hadden Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 19 December 2014