The following piece is a slightly edited version of an article which ran originally in Proletarian Revolution No. 23 (Spring 1985).
[Spring 1985] As we go to press, the year-long British coal miners’ strike, so crucial for the class struggle in this period, is reported to be ending. This article was written while the strike was still on and takes up theoretical and strategic questions fundamental to it.
In two recent issues of this journal we dissected a book by the British Workers Power group (WP) on Stalinism in the Soviet Union and its post-World War II expansion.1 We argued that WP’s position was only a left-sounding attempt to explain the inexplicable: how anti-working class Stalinism is supposed to be able to make socialist revolutions. We concluded, “All the theorizing about Stalinism as counterrevolutionary but nevertheless progressive is, in reality, just a reflection of their parallel understanding of the counterrevolutionary leaders the working classes face at home.”
As if to prove this conclusion correct, Workers Power has issued a new major document, its “Theses on Reformism: the Bourgeois Workers’ Party,”2 which seeks to do for social democratic reformism what the book did for Stalinism. In this case it is of course impossible to rationalize revolutions made by social democrats, since there have been none. But it is possible, under the guise of an attack on counterrevolutionary reformism, to provide a justification for subordinating revolutionary politics to it.
Once again WP sounds very left. Its theses are directed not to those who idolize Stalinism or reformism but rather to politically advanced people who detest both ideologies and seek a revolutionary road. WP delivers a blistering attack against the right-centrist pseudo-Trotskyists who capitulate to social democracy. On the British scene it aims to reach militants who do not want to bury themselves in the Labour Party swamp or accept Tony Benn’s left nationalism in lieu of the revolutionary program. WP relies heavily on quotations and paraphrases from Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky. But the lessons of these communist teachers are bowdlerized and made mechanical—thus turned on their heads.
The very leftism of its cover is why such centrism cannot be ignored. The centrists of the past whom today’s leftists disdain as unspeakable traitors to the proletariat—the Kautskys, Martovs, etc.—were themselves once declared revolutionaries, but their ultimate role was to leave the working class in the hands of counterrevolutionary reformism. Our task is to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
Workers Power’s answer to reformism begins by making a tremendous concession to it: WP believes that reformism is in part a “social gain” of the working class and a product of the proletariat’s development as a class.
A revolutionary understanding of reformism... must encompass both the recognition of its counter-revolutionary, bourgeois character and its origins as a working class gain, made in the class struggle” (page 52).
This idea is not a momentary formulation; it is repeated frequently in slightly different forms. For example, the article advocates “a dialectical understanding of the historic development of reformism as a product of the class struggle but yet also as a brake upon that struggle ...” (page 55). The plus side of reformism as a product of the class struggle originating in the proletariat is contrasted to its minus side, the “brake’’ originating in the bourgeoisie. This conception of the contradictory nature of reformism is central to the theses and is the key to the way WP understands the united front tactic, the cornerstone of its politics. But the idea that reformism’s contradictions are fundamental—that the contradiction between classes bisects this ideology—is untrue and has never been the Marxist position.
At first glance, WP’s characterization seems to derive from a failure to distinguish between reformist ideology and the parties that embody it. Indeed, the achievement of independent working-class parties in Britain, Germany, etc. were gains of the proletariat, created in the course of the class struggle. Reformism arose in opposition to Marxism as a tendency denigrating the “final goal”—socialism—that the class struggle aimed at. It argued that the daily struggle for reforms alone was sufficient to democratize capitalism and meet the needs of the workers.
Reformism was designed to prevent the workers’ (limited) organizational independence from the bourgeoisie from advancing to political independence—for the latter points to the revolutionary overthrow of bourgeois society. Forms of reformism dominated the British Labour Party from the start and came to dominate the German Social Democratic Party after a time. It is these parties, not reformism, that reveal the basic class contradiction within capitalism. Their major contradiction is between the reformism of their leadership and the proletarian nature of their social bases.
Reformism is not always embodied in an independent working-class party. In the United States, for example, there is reformism aplenty in the labor movement and on the left, but it stays within the bourgeois Democratic Party. In the neo-colonial world, reformism exists without resting upon independent parties created by the class struggle. Labor-linked politicians and bourgeois nationalists like Walter Mondale and Guillermo Ungo are examples. Of course, when the workers do break free of the liberal reformers, these types strive to limit class independence to organizational forms; they construct reformist parties on a working-class base to block the road to revolutionary consciousness. Their bourgeois origin shows the true nature of reformism, an alien parasitic growth that fastens on the working class in order to halt its movement and development.
The reformist parties do embody historic gains made by the working class, but they use these gains against the workers. Their leaders become solidified as political bargaining agents within the system, resting upon the myth that the workers’ gains were won through electoralism rather than class struggle. The reformists teach that reforms prove the viability of capitalism, in contrast to revolutionaries, who teach that the gains show the power of the workers to overcome a system fundamentally inimical to them.
In sum, reformism is the ideology, i.e. false consciousness, produced by bourgeois society to contain class struggles: to deny their importance, offset them and finally break them. It is an invasive ideology, not simply another view within the working class as claimed by the magnanimous pluralists of WP. It is no “gain of the working class” at all.
There are of course divisions (contradictions, if you will) within reformism; the British Labour Party is rife with them. They may even reflect the fundamental class division but they are not the class schism itself; they are disputes among the reformists over how best to prevent the contradiction between classes from manifesting itself in struggle. The “left” of Tony Benn will be reconciled to Labour right when struggle breaks out and will capitulate to it. Trotsky foresaw this in the 1920s, Benn has already done it when Labour was in power in the 1970s, and he is doing it again in the coal miners’ strike (as Workers Power’s press itself often proves). We will return to examples of the Labour Party and WP in practice.
Reformism flourishes in periods of social peace, when the contradiction between the proletarian base and the reformist top is eased. But further mass eruptions can break this harmony along the fault line, proving to large, even decisive, sections of workers that reformism as a whole is hostile to the class’s needs. This is what happened in the 1917-21 period of revolutionary upheaval in Europe, when the (then revolutionary) Communist Parties were created by splitting the corrupted Social Democracies.
WP’s real problem is not its apparent confusion between the class contradictions inside a reformist workers’ party and the reconcilable differences within reformist ideology. Rosa Luxemburg was right when she posed the question in class terms in 1899, well before reformism’s worst betrayals. “The question of reform and revolution, of the final goal and the movement is basically, in another form, only the question of the petty bourgeois or proletarian character of the labor movement.”3
Reformism may indeed be an outlook, even the predominant one, within the working class at any given time. Marxists have always understood that this is a passing matter; its duration may be long or short, but it does not represent the historic outlook of the proletariat. The fundamental interests of the workers are not tied to capitalism, a decaying social system that can survive in its epoch of decline only by ever more brutally bleeding the working masses.
On the other hand, the petty bourgeoisie has material interests deeply rooted in capitalist society. Its inevitable outlook is to reform the system’s inequities and to work for class peace through class collaboration. These are utopian hopes and in the end will not help the petty bourgeoisie any more than the workers, but its situation provides an element of reality behind the illusion that there exist possible alternatives between the capitalists and the workers. Of course, in times of deep capitalist crisis layers of the petty bourgeoisie are hurled into the working class or below and can follow a revolutionary proletarian alternative. (As well, individual petty-bourgeois and middle-class people can become revolutionaries long before and can tie their lives and their politics to the proletariat—by breaking from the interests and views of their classes of origin.)
Workers Power avoids Luxemburg’s class distinction between petty-bourgeois reformism and proletarian revolutionism. Likewise it avoids the term “petty-bourgeois party” often used by Lenin and Trotsky for a reformist party. Instead WP uses “bourgeois workers party.” This of course is not in itself wrong (and it too was used by Lenin and Trotsky): the parties do have a working-class base and do serve the bourgeoisie. But WP’s constant use of the latter formula and its studied non-use of the former avoid making clear just who controls the reformist party in the interests of capitalism.
The members of the bourgeoisie itself rarely get their hands dirty and join labor parties. Layers of the petty bourgeoisie do their work for them. In the reformist parties there abound direct representatives of the liberal petty bourgeoisie in close collaboration with their counterparts in the union bureaucracy. For Marxists, the labor aristocracy, the base of the bureaucracy, is an alien petty-bourgeois intrusion into the proletariat, materially and ideologically “tied by a thousand threads” to other middle layers. Trotsky gave a different, scientific description in discussing the leadership of the British Labour Party: “the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia, including of course the labor aristocrats and bureaucrats.”4
The petty-bourgeois characterization of reformist parties is more precise than “bourgeois workers party.” On the one hand, “petty-bourgeois’’ specifies the dominant layer of the party; on the other, it subtracts no content, since petty-bourgeois ideology is a form of, not distinct from, bourgeois ideology. But WP rejects the traditional term without ever explaining or even mentioning the difference. Why? Because WP disagrees with the formula “petty-bourgeois workers party.” For WP, reformism is not the outlook of layers of the petty bourgeoisie; it has its origin and base in the working class itself.
For example, while the theses refer to the labor aristocracy as a “caste” of the working class, its petty-bourgeois nature goes entirely unmentioned. As well, WP explains the origin of European reformist parties as the result of workers’ “pressure for reform” (page 50, twice)—rather than the reformists’ need to hold back the workers’ struggles with their socialist implications. Despite an occasional qualification that the reformists’ victory is “by no means an inevitability” (page 51), Workers Power holds that the workers get what they fight for—not that the underlying aspirations they fight for are betrayed. Thus WP blames the workers’ consciousness for their reformist misleaders:
“...in the course of struggles, new leaders, often of a militant left reformist variety, are thrown up. While different tactics may be necessary in relation to such leaders, they are not qualitatively different from the entrenched, conservative bureaucracy. They reflect the consciousness of the workers who elect them. As such they represent, and become the means of maintaining, the reformist limitations of the consciousness of these workers. (page 57, emphasis added)
In plain words, the benighted workers get what they deserve. This opinion WP justifies by a quotation from Trotsky on the Labour Party in the 1920s, which is worth repeating in full:
The left-wingers reflect the discontent of the British working class. As yet it is ill-defined, and they express its profound and persistent endeavor to break away from Baldwin-MacDonald in left-oppositional phrases entailing no obligations whatsoever. They transform the political helplessness of the awakening masses into an ideological maze. They constitute an expression of the forward move, but also act as a brake on it. 5
Notice WP’s sleight-of-hand. Trotsky is discussing workers whose consciousness is moving leftward, but who are confused by their left-reformist leaders; the leaders are forced to reflect the workers’ forward motion in order to hold back the masses’ advance. In contrast WP suggests that while the new leaders move left they do so only within the limits of the workers’ consciousness; the workers delimit the advance of the leaders and thereby in effect hold them back! Indeed, note that for WP the workers get the blame not only for the new militant left leaders but also for the “entrenched, conservative bureaucracy,” the leftists’ close kin. For Trotsky it is the reformist leaders who set the reformist limitations; for WP the leaders simply enforce limits set by the masses.
A decade later Trotsky dealt with the same kind of argument from a centrist writer, in his famous essay on ‘The Class, the Party and the Leadership”:
A false policy of the masses is explained by the “immaturity” of the masses. But what is “immaturity” of the masses? Obviously, their predisposition to false policies. Just what the false policy consisted of, and who were its initiators, the masses or the leaders—that is passed over in silence by our author. By means of tautology, he unloads the responsibility on the masses. This classical trick of all traitors, deserters and their attorneys is especially revolting in connection with the Spanish proletariat.6
Workers Power makes use of the same “classical trick of all traitors” but more openly: it blames the wrong policies on the masses specifically. Its argumentation is precisely that of attorneys for the counterrevolutionary traitors.
To buttress its view WP cites Lenin’s “famous and still contentious passage” in What Is To Be Done?: “The spontaneous working class movement is trade unionism, is Nur-Gewerkschaftlerei, and trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie.”7
Since “trade unionism” is a form of reformism, this passage appears to support WP’s position that reformism stems from the limitations of the workers themselves. It obviously requires a closer look, for WP is entirely correct on one point: this passage (like others related to it) is indeed contentious.
We first note that Lenin’s statement here has been rejected in particular by Tony Cliff, the leader of the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) which Workers Power broke from in the mid-1970s. A “rank and filist” like Cliff8 has a vested interest in claiming that the working class is inherently socialist, not reformist—not because of his profound faith in the capacity of the proletariat to reach revolutionary consciousness, but for the opposite reason. His strategy is to tailor his operative program to the reform and union demands the workers spontaneously raise under many circumstances; the SWP’s expectation is that even these backward, reformist views will, if carried out consistently, lead to socialism. Hence Cliff’s interpretation of Lenin is a cover for tailing working-class backwardness.
WP broke from Cliffism in an attempt to bring itself closer to Trotskyism, rejecting among other things Cliff’s view of Lenin. But as we will show, WP failed to transcend Cliff’s adaptation to backwardness, succeeding only in giving it a far-left form.
In citing Lenin, WP had the responsibility to carry his thought to its conclusion. If the working class is capable only of trade-unionist ideas, where does revolutionary consciousness come from? Unlike WP, Lenin didn’t dodge the question in “What Is To Be Done?”; he approvingly cited the then-orthodox conception of Kautsky and Plekhanov that scientific socialism is brought to the working class from outside, by bourgeois intellectuals. This is no small matter at all and is the basis for the real contentiousness of Lenin’s formulation!
Had WP completed Lenin’s thought it would have had to make its own theses more naked: reformism originates in the proletariat, revolutionism in the intelligentsia. This doesn’t look very leftish, so it wasn’t made explicit. But it is the meaning of WP’s point of view. Where else can socialist consciousness come from? The upper bourgeoisie? The peasantry? The Queen? No: once WP starts with its ideas of the workers’ limitations and with its citation from Lenin, there can be no other conclusion.
Lenin, however, changed his opinion. As Trotsky explained,
According to Lenin’s representations, the labor movement, when left to its own devices, was inclined irrevocably toward opportunism; revolutionary class-consciousness was brought to the proletariat from the outside, by Marxist intellectuals. ... The author of [“What Is to Be Done?”] himself subsequently acknowledged the biased nature, and therewith the erroneousness, of his theory, which he had parenthetically interjected as a battery in the battle against “Economism” and its deference to the elemental nature of the labor movement.9
There are several well known statements by Lenin to back up Trotsky’s conclusion. One comes in a summary article about the 1905 revolution:
At every step the workers come face to face with their main enemy— the capitalist class. In combat with this enemy the worker becomes a socialist, comes to realize the necessity of a complete reconstruction of the whole of society, the complete abolition of all poverty and all oppression.10
An earlier reference came during the revolution itself (here “Social-Democracy” is the pre-1917 name for the party of revolutionaries, later called communists):
The working class is instinctively, spontaneously Social-Democratic, and more than ten years of work put in by Social-Democracy has done a great deal to transform this spontaneity into consciousness.11
We note as a matter of interest that Cliff, in his biography of Lenin, cites both of these passages but elects to cut the second one off after the comma.12 Thus he turns the leader Lenin into the tailist Cliff. Workers Power, in bringing up the question without carrying Lenin’s views forward, commits an equal distortion.
Lenin here was not saying the same thing as in “What Is to be Done?”. These passages reflect the new understanding he operated on for the rest of his life, an understanding Trotsky came to share. The working class is not simply spontaneously trade-unionist. However, since the proletariat develops at different rates, if the most advanced workers do not intervene to lead the backward layers, then revolutionary consciousness will not be achieved by the class as a whole. Spontaneity is no answer; leadership by the revolutionary party, the proletarian vanguard, is decisive—the crucial question of our times. But leadership is a relation within the working class, not between intellectuals and proletarians. Building the Marxist party to lead the class is the only way to defeat the alien intrusion of petty-bourgeois ideology.
This very question illustrates the relationship between the proletariat and revolution that we have been arguing for. And it occurs even where communist leaders themselves have come from non-proletarian backgrounds. Lenin first recognized the inherent revolutionary capacity of the working class through the 1905 revolution—that is, as a lesson taught him by the proletariat itself. Similarly the workers and artisans of the Paris Commune had taught Marx and Engels the need for revolution to smash the bourgeois state apparatus, not simply take it over. The motto “learn from the masses” was corrupted into a patronizing lie by Maoists and other petty-bourgeois misleaders. But just as there is no revolutionary practice without revolutionary theory, there is no basis for genuine revolutionary theory without living class struggle as a guide.
The Cliff tradition has as its hallmark the development of a “rank and file” opposition to the trade union bureaucrats. It echoes the current level of consciousness not of the most advanced workers, the Marxists, but of the union militants. It appeals to backward workers—obviously not the most backward, since it is not aimed at the right reformists or openly pro-bourgeois workers. And as Trotsky pointed out, adaptation to backward or immature consciousness of layers of the working class in reality means capitulation to the treacherous bureaucratic misleaders and their reformist programs.
Workers Power is also rank and filist, an immediate sign that its break from Cliffism is incomplete, for the notion is foreign to the Trotskyist method and tradition. WP’s version, naturally, is further left. It doesn’t seek to establish programmatic identity with the current level of militant consciousness. WP rejects the assumption that militant trade union consciousness carried out consistently will bring workers to socialism. For WP, reformist illusions are a product of the limitations of the working class’s outlook, limitations which the Cliffites formally (only formally) deny.
WP learned the problem with Cliff’s method in its own experience in the SWP, which tried in the early 1970s to recruit raw militant “rank and file” workers. Under such conditions the party becomes a mere pressure group for the rank and filists upon the reformist leaders. WP believes that until the masses of workers follow the revolutionary party, which must keep its program well above current spontaneous illusions, they will remain reformist. The party is the carrier of revolutionary consciousness:
Revolutionaries cannot content themselves with merely arguing for better and more effective ways of winning the spontaneous demands of the workers. Even where such demands have a progressive content (which is not always the case) it is the duty of revolutionaries to link the struggle for them to the historic mission of the proletariat, the conquest of state power. (page 56)
But Workers Power, as we have seen, accepts reformism as the normal response of the workers. Thus the confluence between the working class masses and its revolutionary mission will not occur until the very eve of revolution. The need for the revolutionary nucleus to organize its core cadre, iron out its tactics and criticize its foes remains constant:
This alternative leadership can not triumph all at once but [only] partially, unevenly at first. Only finally does this struggle become one of conflict between mass parties, between sections of the proletariat grouped under the banners of reform or revolution.(pages 60-61, emphasis added)
A fatalistic and mechanistic outlook indeed, undoubtedly derived from living with the particular history of the British Labour Party. The workers, the class ultimately responsible for reformism, remain near-permanently in its grip. The significant section of the masses joins the revolutionary leadership “only finally,” when mass conflict is the order of the day. Fortunately, however, such a scenario is not only discouraging and mechanistic, it is also entirely wrong—just as wrong as the opposite notion that reformism grows over into revolutionism automatically.
The answer to Workers Power’s theory of “reformism until the final conflict” is the same as to the question of the class origin of reformism: the proletariat itself contains the potential for breaking from reformist illusions and achieving revolutionary consciousness.
Working-class consciousness in reality is a mixed phenomenon. Different layers come to a more advanced understanding at different times and rates; even workers with quite definite petty-bourgeois, conservative ideas frequently have aspirations which require revolution to fulfill. The resolution of the contradiction comes through action, class movement, struggle. For altered consciousness derives from practice rather than the other way around. That is, a change in the material condition of the class through struggle leads to changes — sometimes vast, overnight changes—in political consciousness. It follows that significant sections of the masses may achieve revolutionary consciousness well before the final conflict, depending on the balance of class forces, the workers’ victories and defeats, the ebbs and flows of the class struggle. This Marxist understanding is a far cry from WP’s mechanistic pessimism.
The inevitability of reformism thesis dictates WP’s conception of the united-front tactic. This tactic has always been a central feature of its politics, ranging from everyday purposes in Britain to the “anti-imperialist united front,”—a class-collaborationist bloc it advocates in neo-colonial countries. (We have polemicized against this last position as held by WP’s Irish co-thinkers, the Irish Workers Group.13)
In Britain, WP’s united-front tactic takes the form of permanent critical electoral support to the Labour Party. Leninists understand that electoral support for reformist parties that were created by the working class is a principled and necessary tactic—when the promises or deeds of the leaders have succeeded in convincing the mass of workers in motion that electing them will do the working class good. Such support is by no means automatic, as Trotsky once noted succinctly:
The possibility of betrayal is always contained in reformism. But this does not mean that reformism and betrayal are one and the same thing at every moment. Not quite. Temporary agreements may be made with the reformists whenever they take a step forward. But to maintain a bloc with them when, frightened by the development of a movement, they commit treason, is equivalent to criminal toleration of traitors and a veiling of betrayal.14
Yet Workers Power has given critical support to Labour even when the reformists were taking giant steps backward in an effort to break working class movement. It called for the re-election of the Callaghan government, the Labour government that was engaged in busting a mass strike wave in 1978-79 and so prepared the ground for the massive attacks the workers have suffered under the present Thatcher regime. (In much the same way Jimmy Carter’s austerity program in the U.S. both set the stage for Reaganism and helped get Reagan elected.) WP’s justification for this policy comes, they say, from Trotsky(!):
The tactic [of critical electoral support to reformist parties] has to continue to be used so long as the masses have not broken from their reformist leaders, even where revolutionaries might believe that the workers have already experienced enough to turn against them, a point once again made by Trotsky... (page 90)
And there follow a few lines of Trotsky’s which explain that the question of electoral support depends not on the revolutionaries’ consciousness but the masses’. Indeed, past reformist betrayals are not enough to deny critical support if the masses do not see their significance. But when the betrayals are immediate, the present deeds of the party in power, and when the workers in struggle are turning away from their betrayers...! It is again a matter of the WP’s idea of mass reformist consciousness which does not change even when the class is in motion. So in 1979 WP committed “criminal toleration of traitors and a veiling of betrayal.” It gave the following excuse in its press at the time:
As long as the masses wish to keep “their” parties in government rather than allow the open bourgeois parties to rule we support this elementary act of class consciousness.15
Again, WP blames its toleration of traitors on the workers—and calls it “class consciousness,” because reformism is precisely WP’s idea of what mass class consciousness is. Compare this passive fatalism with Trotsky:
The tactic of the united front still retains all its power as the most important method in the struggle for the masses. A basic principle of this tactic is: “With the masses—always, with the vacillating leaders—sometimes, but only so long as they stand at the head of the masses.” It is necessary to make use of vacillating leaders while the masses are pushing them ahead ... And it is necessary to break with them at the right time when they turn from vacillation to hostile action and betrayal. It is necessary to use the occasion of the break to expose the traitorous leaders and to contrast their position to that of the masses. It is precisely in this that the revolutionary essence of the united front policy consists.16
Trotsky’s method demands a careful, selective use of the united-front tactic, basing it on the dynamic of working-class movement and consciousness—in particular, on the potential for the party to teach lessons to less advanced workers in the course of actual experience. WP’s static approach accepts as unvarying and natural the workers’ support for reformists even if this means teaching the workers the wrong lesson: back the reformists whether or not they are betraying a live movement.
We offer one more salutary quotation:
The series of related tactics that have become known as the united front must not be allowed to usurp their subordinate function. Any theory or practice which assigns to the united front, either in one of its forms, or via a series of united fronts, the role of an unbroken road to socialism is ipso facto unprincipled and can only lead to the systematic and progressive abandonment of the revolutionary program. With iron necessity it leads to the negation of the independent and conscious role of the working class in its own emancipation. It progressively downgrades and renounces in practice the role of a revolutionary party. It turns the united front from a weapon against reformism into a pretext for ideological surrender to, and organizational liquidation into reformism.
Exactly. The permanent united front strategy leads straight to the abandonment of the revolutionary party, the fundamental strategy for Leninists. It does this by denying the centrality and development of working-class consciousness. This quotation reads as a far-sighted warning aimed almost unerringly at WP’s specific practice; it reflects ideas permeating Trotsky’s work. Ironically it comes from Workers Power’s own theses (pages 59-60). The (self-)criticism of using the united front as an “unbroken road to socialism” is particularly telling when read in connection with another united-front tactic discussed below, the workers’ government.
For Marxists the real proofs are in practice, not theory. In the 1978-79 strike wave in Britain, WP steadfastly refused to call for a general strike.17 It calls for general strikes at other times but never under a Labour government, because such a strike poses the question of which class holds state power, not just who holds office for the bourgeoisie. A general strike would have destroyed the Labour government, and that’s why WP held back. Its fatalistic attitude toward the permanence of reformism leads inevitably to defending it instead of fighting for revolutionary consciousness through the mass struggle. The latter always seems premature and “sectarian.” For additional examples, we will take up WP’s activity in the miners’ strike later in this article.
The theses contain a long section on the “labor party tactic” based on the history of the question in the American Communist and Trotskyist parties. It is a subject we are very familiar with, not only because we are U.S.-based Trotskyists but because our tendency was born out of a struggle in which the labor party question came to the forefront.18 This section of Workers Power’s theses proves just how badly they have to twist history and politics to justify their method.
WP’s permanent support for the Labour Party translates to the American scene as a permanent call for a labor party in the United States. This has in fact been the position of all American pseudo-Trotskyists, stemming from misinterpretations of Trotsky’s first advocacy of the labor party tactic in 1938 for the U.S. Socialist Workers Party. Trotsky urged a positive response to the growing mass pressure to move the victorious labor struggles that created the militant CIO unions onto the political plane. His tactic was linked specifically to circumstances; previously, under different conditions in the 1920s and again in 1932, he had opposed using the labor party slogan.
According to WP, he changed his mind in principle between 1932 and 1938: “Trotsky developed the Labor Party tactic by transcending his own previous objections” (page 78). Specifically, WP claims that in 1932 Trotsky thought that “the Labor Party could only be conceived of as a reformist party.”
Trotsky’s view boiled down to the proposition that the Labor Party was either unnecessary or reactionary. It would prove unnecessary if there was a mass upsurge of revolutionary consciousness—in which case a mass communist party would be formed. It would be reactionary if the trade union leaders were able to dominate the movement. This view was much less dialectical than his later position, since it excluded a situation which combined these phenomena—where the mass pressure for a Labor Party could be turned against the reformist leaders. (pages 77-78)
But this is not the case at all. Workers Power is so unable to recognize a temporary, flexible tactic that it overlooks practically everything Trotsky had to say on the question, or else deliberately chooses its citations selectively and dishonestly. First of all, Trotsky specifically stated in 1932 that an American labor party did not have to be reformist (although at that time he thought the reformist possibility was the more likely):
One can say that under the American conditions a labor party in the British sense would be a progressive step, and by recognizing this and stating so, we ourselves, even though indirectly, help to establish such a party. But that is precisely the reason I will never assume the responsibility to affirm abstractly and dogmatically that the creation of a labor party would be a ‘progressive step’ even in the United States, because I do not know under what circumstances, under what guidance, and for what purposes that party would be created.
It seems to me more probable that especially in America, which does not possess any important traditions of independent political action by the working class (as Chartism in England, for example) and where the trade union bureaucracy is more reactionary and corrupted than it was at the height of the British Empire, the creation of a labor party could be provoked only by mighty revolutionary pressure from the working masses and by the growing threat of Communism. It is absolutely clear that under these conditions the labor party would signify, not a progressive step but a hindrance to the progressive evolution of the working class.19
Trotsky was arguing that a labor party would probably be reformist, not that it inevitably had to be so. Although conditions changed, his reasoning is still useful today. Workers Power quotes the last few lines of this passage, leaving out the words we have emphasized above in order to make the Trotsky they disagree with sound dogmatic and undialectical. But Trotsky understood the labor party tactic perfectly dialectically in 1932 even when he was opposed to using it; this is our second point:
That the labor party can become an arena of successful struggle for us and that the labor party, created as a barrier to Communism, can under certain circumstances strengthen the Communist Party, is true, but only under the condition that we consider the labor party not as ‘our’ party but as an arena in which we are acting as an absolutely independent Communist Party.20
There is nothing in this resembling WP’s undialectical “unnecessary or reactionary” counterposition, only a principled flexibility of tactics.
Third, even when Trotsky reassessed the class situation, he repeated that the previous position had been correct at the time. In discussions with American SWP leaders in 1938, he stated:
When for the first time the Communist League [the Trotskyist organization of the period] considered this question, some seven or eight years ago—whether we should favor a labor party or not, whether we should develop initiative on this score—then the prevailing sentiment was not to do it, and that was absolutely correct.21
Lastly, Trotsky “transcended” his previous objections only because the conditions of the workers’ struggle developed dramatically between 1932 and 1938—not because he developed some new principle. There occurred first the rise of the CIO and then the movement’s impasse, making political action unavoidable as well as necessary. In opposition to the union leaders (including the Stalinist CP) who wanted to support the bourgeois Democratic president Franklin Roosevelt, the SWP called for an independent working-class party, a labor party based on the unions—the vehicle through which the mass class movement was flowing. The SWP sought a way to align itself with militant workers open to having revolutionary ideas proved to them in practice.
Why then does WP insist that Trotsky’s principles, not just his tactics, changed between 1932 and 1938? Clearly because their theory of the inevitability of reformism mandates a similar stance for the U.S.—since the Americans have no labor party, the tactic of calling for one is perennially necessary.
By 1938 Trotsky had developed the Labor Party tactic into its most refined revolutionary form. The guidelines that he laid down remain valid today. ... Periods of economic crisis and sharpening class struggle are the most favorable for raising the Labor Party slogan. However, even during ‘calm periods’ the slogan retains a propagandistic value and can be acted upon agitationally in local situations or elections. For example, against support for a Democratic candidate in an election, revolutionaries would call on the unions to field an independent working class candidate. (page 79)
This tactic makes little sense in the U.S. today. In order for the labor party tactic to succeed conditions must change, almost as much as in the 1930s. The labor party slogan is useful when the workers are in motion, when they are seeking a political solution and when a section (at least) of the labor bureaucracy has moved left in an attempt to channel the movement back to reformism. Then it would be necessary for revolutionaries to join an open-ended labor party movement to get the reformists hands off it.
But today there is no left section of the bureaucracy; all wings compete to see which can capitulate most rapidly to the bourgeoisie and austerity. No doubt a left wing will emerge, sooner or later, but it’s not around now. And when it does appear it will be an attempt to squelch or forestall a workers’ movement—so again it is possible that “the labor party would signify, not a progressive step but a hindrance to the progressive evolution of the working class.” We cannot yet determine the coming balance of forces, but that does not prove Trotsky’s earlier position wrong under future circumstances. Workers Power cites Trotsky’s words from the early 1930s in order to show how wrong they were for the late 1930’s—but it does not occur to them how prophetic they are for circumstances like today’s.
That is why WP’s allegedly Trotskyist agitational tactic makes no sense. (In Bolshevik terminology, “agitation” means addressing concrete ideas to a wide audience, in contrast to “propaganda,” more complex ideas for a necessarily narrower audience.) It is possible to use a related but different tactic propagandistically: when a labor bureaucrat speaks to workers on behalf of a Democratic candidate, revolutionaries might point out that if the bureaucrats were serious about labor’s interests they would form their own party; but of course they are not. To call on such traitors to form a party or to run their own candidates, now, is to call for electoral action, not mass struggle. It plays along with the reformists’ present tactic of parliamentary diversions as an alternative to any and all mass class actions.
In last year’s presidential election, the union bureaucrats were the first off the mark to tie themselves to Democrat Walter Mondale, except those committed to Reagan and the handful for Jesse Jackson. He was known far and wide as labor’s candidate in the Democratic primaries and the election. Mondale and AFL-CIO chief Lane Kirkland were equally embarrassed by their inability to find a single political difference between them. There were of course leftists who shared WP’s general method and called on the unions to run a labor candidate. The response? “We already have one: Walter Mondale.” Such people could only counterpose the slogan, “Mondale via a Labor Party, not the Democrats.” A worse joke is hard to imagine.
Before we move on, we must ask WP to identify just where Leon Trotsky “laid down” the guidelines it alleges. As a possible tactic for use at the proper time, of course. But as a permanent slogan, usable agitationally “even during calm periods” as WP says?
No; in fact, in the 1940 presidential election Trotsky did not use his new transcendent permanent labor party tactic. He called on the SWP to support Earl Browder, the Communist Party man, for the tactical reason that the CP at that instant was moving left. A layer of very advanced workers was ignited by the CP’s new-found pseudo-anti-imperialism and could be won to genuine communism through such a tactic. Trotsky was a tactician of skill, always seeking to win the most advanced workers by going through actual experiences with them. He was no petty maneuverist who tails backward consciousness until the big day bye and bye.
For all its distortions and the political logic that sets it up to capitulate to reformism, Workers Power tries hard to maintain a position to the left of reformism. Indeed, on all questions covered—the united front, electoral support, the labor party—WP seeks to criticize and oppose the reformists’ programs and establish an independent political basis for its separate existence. Precisely how it opposes reformism, and with what alternative, is therefore a critical question.
Does Workers Power counterpose the revolutionary program to reformism? Its leftism would make one assume so, but life is not so simple. At one point the theses warn, not only against accommodation to reformist politics when working inside a reformist party, but also that:
An unwillingness to take part in limited struggles for partial, non-revolutionary objectives and the counter-posing of the revolutionary program when the workers have not yet been won to it leads to the opposite danger of sectarianism. (page 82, emphasis added)
Of course, there are many situations when counterposing the revolutionary program to a struggle for reforms would be entirely wrong. On the other hand, posing the revolutionary program propagandistically (and counterposing it to the reformist program) is always necessary for Marxists. That WP is arguing against the latter in the guise of the former is clear from its justification: “the workers have not yet been won.” When the workers do not yet accept the revolutionary program, communists, it seems, ought not to raise it either. And remember, for WP the workers won’t become revolutionary until the final days before the revolution. So it appears that the revolutionary program isn’t about to get much exposure.
But how can this be? WP often says things like “communists put forward their own program counterposing it to the reformist program” (page 88). This looks like a whopping contradiction—until you realize just what WP means by “their own program.” They mean the “Transitional Program” written by Trotsky and adopted by the Fourth International in 1938. Moreover, WP understands that this is not the revolutionary program.
The usual pseudo-Trotskyist assumption is that the Transitional Program is and was intended to be “the program of the Fourth International.” It is not: the Transitional Program was designed to be a bridge to the revolutionary program for masses of workers in struggle. Trotsky made this clear enough at several points in the document itself and especially in the discussions of it with his followers:
The draft program is not a complete program. ... the end of the program is not complete, because we don’t speak here about the social revolution, about the seizure of power by insurrection, the transformation of capitalist society into the dictatorship [of the proletariat], the dictatorship into socialist society. This brings the reader only to the doorstep. It is a program for action from today until the beginning of the socialist revolution.22
Why did the Transitional Program lead the workers “only to the doorstep” of the socialist revolution? Because Trotsky wanted the door slammed in their faces? Obviously not. At the time he wrote, the Fourth International was known as the uncompromisingrevolutionary party. Its task was not to endlessly repeat the revolutionary goal but to convince masses of its significance. Trotsky wrote a ‘bridge” program as a substitute for the old social-democratic “minimal” program, complementary to the revolutionary program of socialism. The bridge was meant to guide the workers to the point where socialism and the proletarian dictatorship could be proven in practice, by masses in motion, to be necessary goals:
The old ‘minimal program’ is superseded by the transitional program, the task of which lies in systematic mobilization of the masses for the proletarian revolution.23
The Transitional Program had a particular use for tactical intervention in reformist parties. As Trotsky observed, “We propagandize this program in the trade unions, propose it as the basic program for the labor party. For us it is a transitional program; but for them it is the program.”24 That is, they, unlike us, do not fight for the revolutionary program as well.
Nevertheless, the fact that Trotsky left the program incomplete has enabled centrists to use it as a weapon against revolution. Key to its abuse is the “workers’ government” slogan, a tactic similar in many respects to the labor party slogan. It was designed by the early Comintern based on the tactics used by the Bolsheviks in 1917 on their road to revolutionary victory. The slogan calls for a workers’ “government” rather than “state” in order to push the non-revolutionary parties to the limit without demanding the impossible, that they become revolutionary and create a new state. It challenges reformist parties to follow the logic of their proclaimed “socialist” programs and take over the bourgeois state machine in the interests of the workers (and with the workers’ armed support), without concessions to the capitalists. Clearly such an eventuality would be highly explosive and momentary; it would lead quickly to a revolutionary crisis.
We have outlined this history and the theory behind it in our analysis of “The Myth and Reality of the Transitional program.” 25 But as we noted at the time (1979):
The workers’ government slogan is central to the misuse of the Program because it has been used in fact as a substitute for the missing slogan of the workers’ state. It is no coincidence that the organizations which make this substitution are the same ones that, thirty years ago, devised the theory that petty-bourgeois forces in Eastern Europe and China could substitute for the proletariat in making the socialist revolution.
Unfortunately this describes Workers Power exactly. WP does not propagandize for the proletarian dictatorship, the workers’ state. It does not counterpose the socialist program of revolution to reformism. Instead it calls for workers’ governments—not tactically, during the occasional conjunctures when this slogan appropriately exposes the vacillation of reformist parties, but almost always. This policy is presented in the final paragraph of WP’s theses:
In general, except in cases of revolutionary crisis in which the question of power is raised, communists raise the workers’ government as propaganda for a real, revolutionary workers’ government, while at the same time demanding of reformist parties in government that they take concrete steps to break with the bourgeoisie and act for the workers. (page 96)
WP is prepared to call for a revolutionary alternative to capitalist rule, the workers’ state, only at the point of revolution—when workers are already convinced of the necessity of overthrowing the bourgeois state. Until then, the revolutionary technique for convincing workers that the workers’ state will be necessary is “propaganda for a ... workers’ government.” (We leave aside for now the “real, revolutionary” qualification given to this term.)
WP has it almost exactly backwards. When the mass of workers are not revolutionary, an essential task of communists is to win over the most advanced as revolutionary cadres. In the most extreme circumstances when class motion is only molecular, this can be accomplished only by explaining the most advanced Marxist conceptions to the few who can grasp them with a minimum of tactical maneuvering; it requires propaganda in the Bolshevik sense—for the workers’ state, among other things. The revolutionary program must be stated clearly and boldly so that cadres will have precise knowledge of what lies ahead.
However, when there is mass movement and new layers of the working class are moving from backward to advanced consciousness, a more varied pedagogy is needed. Masses learn through experience, not only discourse. Marxist tactics are meant to help them see through their illusions without meeting unnecessary obstacles. The extreme situation is a revolutionary crisis, when it becomes possible to reach broader and more backward layers of workers than ever before with concrete ideas. Here tactical considerations come to the fore (but even then we must not skip over the vanguard by obliterating the revolutionary program), and the workers’ government slogan may be useful.
WP’s reversal of the two situations is characteristic of centrism; it maneuvers with Marxist truth instead of training the vanguard workers, and fools revolutionary workers (and itself) with the promise that “in the end” we will speak of true socialism. The end, of course, never comes.
It is possible, an attentive reader might suggest, that we are making too much of a mere, terminological dispute. After all, when WP says “workers’ government” instead of “workers” state,” they actually say “real, revolutionary workers’ government.” Couldn’t this have the same meaning as a workers’ state?
Yes, it could for some—but not for WP. There are many on the left (like the Spartacist tendency) who allege that for communists “workers’ government” can have no other meaning than “workers’ state.” This is wrong, however, and WP knows that it is. WP criticizes Zinoviev for equating the two, pointing out correctly that doing so “robs the slogan of its use as a united front” (page 92). But with this understanding that “workers’ government” is a united-front slogan, Workers Power also ought to understand that its near-permanent workers’ government slogan amounts to a near-permanent united front—the strategy WP itself calls “ideological surrender”!
In sum, the “real, revolutionary” rhetoric again shows WP’s leftism. It is not satisfied with Stalinist or social-democratic travesties; it wants a workers’ government which will lead directly to a workers’ state. But it does not want to say so in advance. As with the labor party in the U.S., by making a united-front tactic into its everyday slogan WP (in its own words: page 60, already cited) “assigns to the united front ...the role of an unbroken road to socialism,” an act which is “unprincipled and can only lead to the systematic and progressive abandonment of the revolutionary program.”
Communists must raise transitional demands as a crucial part of their action program to mobilize the masses. But they must be accompanied by precise propaganda addressed to the most advanced workers, pointing out that the real answer to the crises of capitalism lies not in the “bridge” demands of the Transitional Program (and certainly not in the leaders who won’t even carry those out) but rather in the program and party of socialist revolution. We show the way not only to the bridge but to its far side; bridges by themselves can be crossed either way.
Without this dimension the whole exercise becomes a capitulation. It gives no leadership to the advanced layer of workers, the revolutionaries whose existence prior to the final conflict WP fails to take into account. But these are the workers whom the revolutionary party needs most of all. WP’s method is to speak to relatively backward workers directly, instead of to advanced layers as a means of mobilizing the less advanced. Hence WP postpones not only the revolutionary program until the final days but the revolutionary party itself.
The party will not be created by fiat or by triumphal proclamation at some appointed day. It has to be patiently and painstakingly built over time, starting from the embryo of a propaganda group addressing itself to the advanced workers. As well, if it does not always address this layer, its essence, the revolutionary program, will decay and collapse.
The practical test of the year-long British miners’ strike demonstrates Workers Power’s failure to illuminate the revolutionary road. First of all, its criticisms of Arthur Scargill’s leadership of the strike have been mild indeed (although far stronger than most of the centrist tendencies). For example, WP continually calls not for a revolutionary leadership to replace the Scargill bureaucracy in the National Union of Miners but instead only for rank and file militancy and workers’ democracy. Early in the strike WP even urged Scargill to join in this effort:
If Scargill and the left are not to become lifelong prisoners of their positions they should lend their weight to the building of such a movement.
Their record to date suggests they will not, but should they do so we should welcome them without sacrificing our independence to them and their positions.26
Should they do so! WP invitingly allows for an unlikely possibility that the left union bureaucracy would cede its power in the union and control of the strike to the ranks who are fighting so heroically. But it is impossible, and not just because of “their record to date.” It is because of their petty-bourgeois character, the fact that they serve capitalism and work for its preservation, not its destruction.
More recently WP has become more critical, but not because it recognizes the alien class nature of the reformists. Rather it sees Scargill as a bureaucrat limited by the narrow horizons of his office. This is how it explains Scargill’s sellout deal with the TUC in September rather than forging a link with striking dockworkers and seizing “the best opportunity for kick-starting a general strike”:
The reason for this is exactly the same as the reason for the mistake over the national strike call. Scargill and the other leaders were not prepared to breach the norms of bureaucratic diplomacy by demanding that the leaders act and preparing to pass them by and go straight to the rank and file of the other unions if they failed to do so. The truth is that Scargill does not want to be placed in a similar situation when asked for support from other workers. He wants to make sure ... that he is in control of any action taken by his members. To ensure this he sticks to the bureaucratic rules of the game with other leaders.27
WP employs the anti-Trotskyist concept of pitting “the rank and file” against the bureaucrats because it sees both as functional positions within the working class. The class-decisive contradiction is between proletarian and petty-bourgeois leadership. The union bureaucracy, even its leftmost sections, is not simply a “caste” of the working class but a class intrusion that must be overturned.
That is why WP is soft on the Scargills. To the extent that WP ever mentions revolutionary leadership for the strike in its press (very rarely), it is raised as an image of more consistent militancy. But WP is careful not to counterpose it to Scargill in any foreseeable circumstance. Instead, even when NUM militants had become seriously disillusioned with their leaders’ handling of the strike, WP concluded an “Open Letter from the Workers Power Editorial Board” with its incessant rank and filism:
With the officials if possible, without them when necessary must be the battle cry of a reborn rank and file movement in the miners strike. The events of the last weeks show that many militants are no longer prepared to leave the running of the dispute to the NEC. It is from these ranks that a force can be built to take the strike back onto the offensive and onto the road to victory.28
Once again there is no call to replace Scargill by a revolutionary leadership. By not counterposing revolution to reform and by accepting reformism’s durability, WP restrains revolutionary minded workers from building the necessary opposition in the NUM.
This failure extends also to the Labour lefts. WP prides itself on its exposure of the right-centrists’ adaptation to Tony Benn and its own refusal to bury itself, like them, in the Labour Party; as well, WP correctly condemns them for not raising the general strike slogan seriously and consistently. But WP does not tell the workers the full implications of a general strike and thereby explain why the others do not demand it: the general strike poses the question of state power—which class, not just which bourgeois party, shall rule. Although WP poses the general strike agitationally as a necessary defense of the unions under Thatcher’s attacks, it typically refrains from going beyond this to clarify the revolutionary path a general strike would open up. For Marxists there is one crucial programmatic point at this stage: the necessity of a revolutionary party to fight for the leadership of the general strike.
Some months ago, however, WP elaborated a lengthy scenario for winning the strike.29 This included having Labour come to power and then workers revolting against it when the Labour government tries to suppress their independence. And only then, at the point of revolution, did WP’s scenario mention the necessity of a revolutionary party. For all its criticisms of Labour, for all the betrayals by Kinnock and Benn that it exposes, WP never once points out the need for the workers to destroy this reformist obstacle to their success. Thus Workers Power promises to carry out in practice its assumption about the inevitability of reformism.
As the struggle heated up, WP wrote the following, its boldest formulation yet:
A tremendous fissure has opened up in the Labour Movement between the militant rank and file activists who have rallied to the miners and the bulk of the union officials, councillors and MPs who have not. This should not be cause for complaint—for laments about unity. ... An all out war is needed to help the miners win and the quislings in our own ranks should be shown no mercy.
In the unions first and foremost—but necessarily and vitally in the Labour Party too—the class fighters must be rallied for a life or death struggle against the class traitors. Then we shall see where the waverers and appeasers stand. This strike has shown the working class doesn’t need a ‘broad church.’ It needs a mass party of the class struggle. It needs a party dedicated to overthrowing capitalism and able unequivocally to throw its full organized weight into each and every battle [against] the bosses. To this end the militant miners and all their supporters should dedicate themselves in 1985.30
Despite all the fierce rhetoric, this is a deliberate muddle. What party does WP want—a revolutionary party or a refurbished Labour Party? A party “dedicated to overthrowing capitalism” must be a revolutionary party. Marxists and many advanced workers know this, but WP as usual refuses to say explicitly that a revolutionary party must be built and treacherous Labour must be smashed. And since the argument stems from the “fissure in the Labour Movement” which includes MPs, WP is talking about a “war” to radicalize Labour. Without admitting it plainly, this position calls for a reconstituted Labour Party, an idea rejected in the theses because Trotsky rejected it so vehemently.
A further point: since the Labour Party is “necessarily and vitally” where the waverers and appeasers must be tested—by what right does Workers Power stand outside the party where this decisive struggle must take place? Why does WP not counsel workers not in the Labour Party to join it and help wage the decisive fight? Why does WP abstain from this course itself? The political logic of WP’s position is to join Labour and thereby edge into the left-Labourite embrace. This article almost says so, but its entire analysis of reformism points in that direction.
If reformism is inevitable until the final conflict, if reformism is a deformed gain of the working class, then despite WP’s subjective leftism (which makes it reluctant to join the other pseudo-Trotskyists buried in the Labour Party), their road is wide open. Workers Power’s capitulation will be slower and more contradictory than the run-of-the-mill pseudo-Trotskyists, but no less certain and no more revolutionary for all that. Our hope is that comrades inside WP who take its subjective revolutionary urges seriously will break in time from their centrist theory which still vacillates between revolutionary desires and reformist practices.
Even leaving WP’s particular views aside, there is another consideration that seems to call for joining Labour: the number of revolutionaries is tiny compared to that of the reformists, so a simple counterposition of a small group to mass reformist “unity’’ appears to pit weakness against power. The problem is real, but the Labour Party answer is wrong.
At the level of the NUM, many militant strikers now see through the left leaders. Trotskyists must find ways to show them the way forward beyond simply countering reformist numbers with Marxist ideas. Given our distance from the situation our tactical offerings can only be tentative; would-be revolutionaries in the struggle must propose their own. From our perspective we would call for a new militant leadership of the union, dedicated to the fight for a general strike, to replace the current vacillators. It is not enough to urge the “rank and file” to force the leaders to fight on, since Scargill has no strategy that can win. Continuing in this way adds to the workers’ frustration. We propose a different road.
Within our call for a new militant leadership (a united front proposal in the same sense as the labor party slogan for the United States when it is applicable), we would explain our view that such a leadership should be revolutionary—the only kind that will fight capitalism’s onslaught consistently. We hope to join in the fight for new leadership with the best militants, including those who do not yet see that revolution is possible, and prove to them in the course of struggle that it is.
At the political party level we have a similar approach but with important qualifications. Many militant workers do have illusions in the Labour left and its “support” for the miners, as opposed to the Kinnocks. We do not call for Labour to power at this point, since the reformist party is engaged in an atrocious act of betrayal. We also warn that Benn is betraying too and that, in the time-honored tradition of Labour lefts, he will not fight Kinnock. (This includes the Bennite pseudo-Trotskyists.) But since we do see that the fight of the miners against capitulation is reflected inside the Labour Party, we also have a united front orientation there—not, however, the same as WP’s.
The Labour Party is lock, stock and barrel a petty-bourgeois party which unfortunately retains its working-class base. The question for us (certainly not for WP!) is how the working class can use its mass struggle to break Labour’s grip on its base. We therefore challenge the leftists and far-leftists inside Labour, who think that their party is redeemable, to choose between the working class and the party. We challenge them not only to fight for a general strike along with those miners and other militant unionists who are doing so. We also ask them to fight to make the Transitional Program the program of the Labour Party instead of its present reformist program or the left-nationalist Bennite equivalent.
We appeal to the left Labour groupings because many of their adherents are workers who believe a fight should be made for victory. We unite with them in the sense that we fight for the same transitional and general strike demands in the unions and among workers outside of Labour. The struggle will prove which of us is right: whether the Labour Party is redeemable for socialism or, as we predict, it must be smashed as an obstacle in the proletariat’s path.
Their leaders among the Bennites and the far-left cheerleaders will capitulate in the course of such a struggle (if they ever begin it). We believe that the militants will have to join in building a revolutionary communist party in order to win. The leftists and far-leftists are welcome to try to prove wrong our contention that such a new party is required. But at least the pseudo-Trotskyists ought to join in the demand that Labour adopt the Transitional Program: that, after all, was a major tactic that Trotsky developed that program for.
Through this tactic we can appeal to a large number of workers not simply to join a handful of revolutionaries but to build a mass party as an alternative to reformism. Our open advocacy of revolution coupled with our tactical usage of united front demands stands in sharp contrast to the centrist fudge propagated by Workers Power, the leftmost of the pseudo-Trotskyists. Reformists say that the final goal is nothing; centrists affirm the goals but only as a promissory note for raising them in the far-off future. Communists now and in the future disdain to hide our revolutionary aims. Everything we do is designed to make them perfectly clear.
To sum up Workers Power’s stance toward reformism, we note that its theory is as manipulative as its practice. Centrist theory is naturally ambivalent since it utilizes revolutionary concepts to cover for reformist conclusions. WP has tried to crystallize such ambiguity into a permanent method.
In our previous polemic against Workers Power, we referred to Trotsky’s position that the USSR could only exist for a historical moment in the contradictory form of the counterrevolutionary workers’ state which it had become. We noted WP’s contrary view that the contradiction could survive for over half a century and would be resolved only in the bye and bye. On this basis WP finds it possible to be very critical of Stalinism while still maintaining a perennial defensist position toward it—and thus essentially apologizing for it.
Not by accident, WP employs the same technique in its left-sounding apologia for social-democratic reformism. That is, it insists that the counterposition between revolution and reform will indeed occur—but always safely in the future. Once again, this gives WP the luxury of radical criticism—but when the chips are down, WP defends reformism. The upshot is that Workers Power gives socialism-via-parliament a new theoretical crutch in the form of socialism-via-postponement. It is not a revolutionary contribution to Marxist science.
1. “Planning and Value in the Soviet Union,” Socialist Voice No. 20, “The Theory of Permanent Counter-revolution,” Proletarian Revolution No. 21; Workers Power and the Irish Workers Group, The Degenerated Revolution; the Origins and Nature of the Stalinist States, London 1982.
2. In issue No.1, Summer 1983, of Permanent Revolution, theoretical journal of the Workers Power Group.
3. Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution, author’s introduction.
4. Trotsky, “A Forecast of the Future” [“Prospects”], in Leon Trotsky on Britain, page 138.
5. Trotsky, “Problems of the British Labor Movement,” ibid., page 154.
6. Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution 1931-39, pages 355-6.
7. Lenin, Collected Works,Vol. 5, page 384, cited on page 49 of the theses. The German words mean roughly “union-only-ism.”
8. See our article “For a General Strike in Britain,” Socialist Voice No. 9, which analyzes the rank and filism of both the SWP and Workers Power.
9. Trotsky, Stalin, page 58.
10. Lenin, “The Lessons of the Revolution,” Collected Works, Vol.16, page 302.
11. Lenin, “The Reorganization of the Party,” ibid., Vol.10, page 32.
12. Cliff, Lenin, Vol. 1, page 176.
13. See “Self-Determination for Ireland,” Socialist Voice No. 14 , page 4, and “Letter to the IWG,” Socialist Voice No. 19, page 3.
14 . Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin, page 129.
15. Workers’ Power, Summer 1978.
16. “Resolution on the General Strike in Britain,” Leon Trotsky on Britain, page 255.
17. See our 1979 letter to Workers Power, “For a General Strike in Britain,” < Socialist Voice No. 9, page 26.
18. See “The Labor Party in the United States,” Socialist Voice No. 6, page 23.
19. “Letter from Prinkipo, May 19, 1932,” in Leon Trotsky on the Labor Party in the United States, page 7; emphasis added.
20. ibid., pages 8-9.
21. Discussion with Trotsky, March 21, 1938, in The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, page 82; also in Leon Trotsky on the Labor Party in the United States, page 14.
22. The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, page 173.
23. ibid., page 115.
24. ibid., page 87, emphasis added.
25. Socialist Voice 8, pages 16-32. The proper use of the workers’ government tactic is summarized on page 22. [Read this article, “The Myth and Reality of the Transitional Program,” on line.]
26. Workers Power, April 19, 1984.
27. Workers Power, November 28, 1984; editorial.
28. Workers Power, January 16, 1985; editorial.
29. See our polemic in “Miners’ Strike Rocks Britain,” Proletarian Revolution 22, pages7-8.
30. Workers Power, January 16, 1985.
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