From Socialist Worker Review, No. 113, October 1988.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Throughout this century the Labour Party has dominated the left and the working class movement in Britain. Therefore the need to develop an understanding of this party, of its history, and its role in the class struggle could not be more obvious. John Molyneux reviews a new book by Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein which, he argues, does just that.
The Labour Party: A Marxist History
T. Cliff and D. Gluckstein
THE CULTIVATION of illusion about the future, about what the next Labour government can and will achieve, which is the reformist politician’s bread and butter, requires as its compliment the cultivation of illusion about the past.
Consequently the history of the Labour party is enveloped in myths and legends, sentimental tales about the founders of “this great movement of ours”, about Keir Hardie and Nye Bevan.
The Labour Party: A Marxist History by Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein cuts through these myths like a knife through butter.
Firstly, the myth of Labour’s socialist past. Cliff and Gluckstein show that in fact “Labour’s politics have never changed in essentials”. From first to last Labour has been a reformist party attempting to satisfy working class inspirations within the existing framework of society.
The ideological basis of this endeavour had nothing to do with genuine socialism but was a confused mixture of religion, liberalism and Fabianism. Thus, Hardie, so often cited as the first socialist MP, stood as a Labour candidate only because he was rejected by the Liberals. As he stated in his election manifesto “I have all my life given an independent support to the Liberal party.”
Fabianism, which more than any other trend gave Labour its doctrine, had a thoroughly elitist bourgeois outlook. It too derived from liberalism and was permeated by imperialism, racism, state worship and contempt for, “those underbred and undertrained workingmen”, as Beatrice Webb put it.
Next, the myth of Labour as the party of the working class and trade unions. While it is true that most workers and most trade unionist vote Labour, Cliff and Gluckstein show that it is not true that the Labour party has ever either expressed, led, encouraged or played a positive role in trade union and industrial struggles of the working class.
The formation of the Labour party was based not on an upsurge in the class struggle (the rise of New Unionism after 1888) but in the defeat of that upsurge, and as an alternative to working class self-activity. It was created, not by rank and file trade unionists but by the trade union bureaucracy without any rank and file involvement at all.
The party has always counter-posed “political action” (by which it means voting Labour) to tile class struggle, either directly or indirectly opposing the latter.
As to Labour being the party of reform, the authors point out that many who accept that Labour cannot bring socialism, nonetheless cling to the idea that “at least it does something in the here and now”, or even more minimally that “at least it is better than die Tories”.
However, Cliff and Gluckstein show Labour’s reformism does not mean that it is able to deliver reforms. In opposition it fights not for concrete gains but to win office. In office it is freed from pressure from below but subject to immense pressure from the state, the ruling class, and the logic of capitalism, pressure to which it invariably capitulates.
Of the seven Labour governments only one, the Attlee government, has enacted serious reforms while the rest have viciously attacked the workers who elected them.
What is more, Labour, by exploiting its links with the trade union bureaucracy and the loyalty of workers, is frequently able to attack workers more effectively and with less resistance than the Tories.
Thus the MacDonald government of 1929-31, which was deliberately increasing unemployment, could have easily been voted out, but was sustained because, in the words of Liberal leader Herbert Samuel,
“in view of the fact that the necessary economies would prove most unpalatable to the working class, it would be to the general interest if they could be imposed by the Labour government.”
Then there is the myth that Labour can be captured by the left. Generations of socialists have remained loyal to Labour in the hope that they can win it for the left. Cliff and Gluckstein show such hopes are doomed to disappointment.
Ideologically the Labour left is not fundamentally distinct from the right. It has always shared the same basic reformist premises: parliamentarianism, electoralism, nationalism and class collaboration.
In Labour’s effort to mediate between workers and capital the left stands for a different balance not a different road. When it comes to the crunch, the left invariably capitulates to the right who, after all, are the more consistent exponents of the reformist logic.
Organisationally the left has always been based in the constituency parties which are less tied to electoralism than the parliamentary party and less locked into mediation with capital than the union officials. It is, “ironic and not entirely accidental that the constituency party is also by far the most powerless of all the groups that make up the party”.
In the process of demolishing these major myths through systematic and overwhelming documentation, Cliff and Gluckstein also dispose of numerous minor ones, including those cultivated by many would be Marxists and Trotskyists.
The myth of “socialist” Clause 4, in fact drafted by the arch right winger Sidney Webb, “as a conscious means of staving off revolution” in the wake of 1917; the myth that witch hunts (a perennial feature of Labour history) show the strength of the left as opposed to the advance of the right; the myth that workers in struggle automatically turn to the Labour party (disproved by the examples of 1919 and 1970–4).
Under the Cliff-Gluckstein microscope not a single prominent Labour figure emerges with their socialist credentials intact.
What damns them is not scandal or “inside information” but simply the detailed and honest examination of their political records. Overwhelmingly they condemn themselves with their own words. This applies particularly to such heroes of the left as Hardie, Bevan and Benn.
The overall effect of this remorseless dissection is that the Labour party is left politically naked, without a fig leaf to cover its shame. Not since Trotsky’s writings on Britain in the twenties has Labourism been subjected to such an intellectual mauling.
However, devastating as the exposure of Labour is, it would be a gross disservice to this book to suggest that it is primarily or mainly a work of exposure. Rather it is an analysis, using the Marxist method of how and why the Labour party behaves as it does and the exposure results from the analysis.
Cliff and Gluckstein understand that, as Gramsci put it, “To write the history of a party is to write the history of a class from a certain angle.” Not for a second do the authors lose sight of the class struggle. Their starting point is always the objective role of Labour in the conflict between the two fundamental classes of capitalist society.
They show the Labour party embodies a permanent contradiction – it is a “capitalist workers party”, an agent of bourgeois interest and bourgeois ideas. However it is an agent within the working class which therefore adopts those ideas to incorporate the grievances of the workers.
In Labour ideology the interests of capital appear masked as the interests of the nation which allegedly stands above class. In this way Labour articulates the claims of the working class as a legitimate element within the nation deserving of consideration. However, Labour subordinates those claims of the working class, as a “part” is subordinated to the whole.
One of the outstanding features of this book is its meticulous analysis of the way Labour responds at every point in its history, to those competing pressures of labour and capital, class and nation. It shows how the pressures operate differently when capitalism is in boom or crisis, when Labour is in government or opposition, when the working class is in retreat or on the attack.
It shows how they have different effects on the twin pillars of Labour, the political bureaucracy and the trade union bureaucracy, thus producing recurring conflicts between them while the fundamental interdependence remains.
As a result of this understanding the uncompromising critique of Labourism never falls into sterile ultra-leftism. For all its repeated sell outs and betrayals Labour remains a reformist not a reactionary party. It consistently subordinates the working class to the nation (i.e. capital), but the connection to the working class remains and this fundamentally differentiates it from the Tories (or the Liberal/SDP variants).
Cliff and Gluckstein’s brutal realism concerning the failing of Labour does not however blind them to the capacity of the party to survive. Their analysis of Labour since Attlee, shows it is trapped in a profound circle of decline – in electoral base, in membership, in activists and in the ability to deliver even the mildest of reforms. Nevertheless it is far from being on the verge of collapse. Although Labour’s reformism, its mix of class and nation, inevitably sacrifices the interests of the working class, it also continues to parallel the contradictory reformist consciousness of the majority of the working class. “As long as workers wish to create a better world, but lack the confidence to do it themselves, Labour will retain a decisive influence.”
Reformist consciousness, and with it the influence of Labour, will only be finally destroyed when it is replaced by revolutionary consciousness and the influence of a revolutionary party. Therefore, how this can by achieved is another of Cliff and Gluckstein’s central concerns. As they say;
“On a mass scale reformism will never be undermined by appealing for workers to cast out their illusions, it can only be done by helping to raise the confidence of the working class through their own experience of struggle.”
On the other hand, struggle by itself can lead to a massive growth in reformist consciousness as millions of workers begin the journey from right to left. What is needed is the combination of effective revolutionary intervention and mass struggle. The job of revolutionaries is to simultaneously work with reformists and against them, to apply the tactic of a united front.
The authors analyse the development of this tactic by the Bolsheviks and the Comintern, its subsequent application and misapplication by the British CP, and its later employment by revolutionaries in the Anti-Nazi League in the late seventies.
The book is a political blockbuster. It is an unsparing indictment of Labour’s record, invaluable for debates, polemics and the education of revolutionaries. It may also convince many a wavering left reformist.
It is a powerful argument, from experience, for the absolute necessity of building an independent revolutionary party. It is a theoretical account of the dynamics and laws governing the behaviour of Labour and reformism, which will safeguard the revolutionary party from false expectations, opportunist decisions and sectarian blunders in the future.
It is a detailed guide to action for revolutionaries trying to win the working class away from reformism.
Last updated: 12.8.2013