The Socialist Labour Party: Why Bob Pitt is Wrong
Ian Dudley and Geoff Palmer
BOB PITT’S article "The Socialist Labour Party: Why Arthur Scargill is Wrong" (What Next? No.1) contains a synthesis of the characteristic arguments used by those Labour-loyal pseudo-Marxists who have chosen to condemn the formation of the SLP and continue instead to back the neo-Thatcherite Blair-led official Labour Party against it. As such, the article provides a useful peg on which to hang a defence of the SLP against all its Labour-loyal detractors, from the Workers International League, with which Pitt was once associated, to Socialist Outlook, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and, less consistently, Workers Power. Pitt’s article contains in a more concentrated form the arguments, political evasions and inconsistencies characteristic of all of them, and hence provides a means to write a comprehensive critique of this unfortunate trend in British pseudo-Marxism.
In the first place Pitt confuses the SLP with its initiator and best-known member, Arthur Scargill. This may suit Pitt’s polemical purposes but it does an injustice to all the members of the SLP (including, of course, Comrade Scargill himself). For the SLP is an attempt by some hundreds of working class militants to launch a movement to recreate an authentically socialist party in Britain. There are many currents and shades of opinion within the SLP, and its members range from overtly revolutionary Marxists to outright reformists. The SLP as a party is not congealed politically nor has it had the opportunity to sort out a position on all the difficult and complicated questions that confront the working class today. That is a process that is on-going. To attempt to identify the SLP’s position with that of its most prominent member, as if it were nothing more than a personal clique or some kind of fan club, is to fundamentally underestimate the potential significance of what the SLP represents for the future of socialism in Britain.
Leaving all that aside, Pitt’s critique of Scargill starts from a fundamental confusion, and this confusion manifests itself in various forms throughout his article. Pitt cannot make his mind up whether to treat Scargill as some sort of paragon of revolutionary Marxism, who is for some reason being deliberately "irresponsible" and therefore needs to be given a good hiding and brought to his senses; or, conversely, as a hopeless reformist committed to promoting illusions in the possibility of peacefully reforming capitalism into some kind of socialism. This apparent dichotomy in Pitt’s treatment of Scargill in reality is an expression of Pitt’s own fundamental illusions in left Social Democracy, and his sense of personal betrayal at Scargill’s taking (in his view) the "wrong" tactical course.
Pitt initially chides Scargill for the document Future Strategy for the Left, which prefigured the formation of the SLP: "While it is necessary to take a comradely attitude to many of those who have been attracted by Scargill’s initiative, a diplomatic approach to Arthur Scargill himself would be entirely inappropriate. This is a self-proclaimed Marxist who since the 1972 miners’ strike has been a figure of national importance in the organised working class, a leading proponent of class-struggle policies within the movement and a man whose views consequently carry considerable weight among a wide layer of activists. It is nothing short of a disgrace for a workers’ leader of Scargill’s experience and influence to produce a document of such a low political level, combining a quite staggering ignorance of working class history with a total inability to evaluate the present political conjuncture and outline a realistic strategy."
This display of petulance, hurt and outrage seems very inappropriate when one considers that, as far as we know, Comrade Scargill has always stopped short of claiming to be a revolutionary. Pitt, on the other hand, considers himself to be a Trotskyist, and a conscious, scientific socialist. But only someone with illusions in the Labour-left politics traditionally associated with Benn, Scargill et al would write in such an aggrieved tone.
This sets the framework of Pitt’s whole article. He mocks the reformist illusions of the followers of Scargill, and makes entirely inappropriate comparisons between the formation of the SLP and some of the ultra-left syndicalist tendencies that participated in the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in the 1920s. Thus Pitt writes:
"In Future Strategy for the Left, Arthur Scargill claims that the Labour Party was created ’to give expression to a Socialist political agenda in the House of Commons. At the time of its foundation, the Labour Party had both a Constitution and policies which projected a Socialist philosophy and programme’. It would be difficult to come up with a statement more at odds with historical fact. When the Labour Party was founded in 1900, by a ’labour alliance’ of trade unions and socialist groups, it adopted the title of the Labour Representation Committee and, as the name implied, it had the very limited objective of getting ’working class opinion represented in the House of Commons’ through the formation of ’a distinct Labour Group in Parliament’. An avowedly Marxist organisation, the Social Democratic Federation, which was affiliated to the LRC, moved at the founding conference that the new party should be one ’based upon a recognition of the class war, and having for its ultimate object the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange’. But this was voted down by a large majority. One delegate argued that a commitment to socialism ’would place the Labour movement in the position of the boy who cried for the moon’ adding that ’nothing could be more unfortunate for the Conference than to label across its front the words "class war".’ Clearly a Blairite before Blair.
"Incidentally, after the defeat of a similar resolution at the 1901 conference the SDF’s reaction was to disaffiliate from the LRC. Scargillites before Scargill, these ‘Marxists’ concluded that there was no place for them in a party which repudiated socialism and the class struggle. Their walk-out was followed by a surge of trade union support for the LRC in response to the notorious Taff Vale judgement, in which a railway company was awarded damages against the railworkers’ union, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, for losses sustained during a strike. The principle of independent political organisation finally began to make headway among the British working class. The SDF’s sectarian action meant that during this crucial formative period there was no organised tendency inside the Labour Party to fight for a Marxist political perspective."
It is difficult to imagine a more inappropriate historical comparison than the one above. The LRC grew rapidly in influence, irrespective of the ideological backwardness of many of its supporters, because of its position of defence of the working class against the anti-union laws of its day. The comparison of this with today’s Blairite/Kinnockite Labour Party becomes laughable when one considers that it has been public knowledge for a decade at least that Labour has no intention of repealing Thatcher/Major’s anti-union laws, which have taken the legal and actual position of trade unions pretty close to that at the time of the Taff Vale judgement. So much for bloodless "historical" analogies: the Labour-cretinism of would-be Marxists like Pitt makes them blind to the real similarities and differences of actual historical situations. This peculiar blindness is a result of the gravitational pull of Social Democracy on the centrists and left reformists who comprise most of the groups passing for Trotskyist in Britain today.
There is absolutely no comparison between the sectarian action of the Social-Democratic Federation in disaffiliating from the Labour Party in 1901, and the formation of the SLP today. The actions of the SDF were a sectarian abandonment of struggle within a developing movement of the working class, a movement of the working class to create its own party, a movement of the masses to the left in the direction of independent political action. The SLP, far from representing a sectarian abandonment of any such movement, represents a reassertion by part of the trade union officialdom supported by a layer of militant workers, of the need for the working class to have its own independent class party, against a Labour Party whose character as in any sense a party of the working class is being systematically done away with. The SLP is a delayed action by-product of the tumultuous struggles of the 1980s, and represents in particular the political fall-out from the 1984-85 miners strike. The fact that it has taken over a decade for a political split to happen over such a momentous struggle and historic betrayal by the British labour bureaucracy, is testimony to the depth of parliamentarist and reformist illusions in the British working class as a whole. But the rightist grumbling of various British centrists and left reformists against the formation of the SLP, regretting that it was ever formed at all, show that they are isolated from some of the most advanced sections of the working class, and that at least on this important question they are far more politically backward than the forces that have gone to make up the SLP.
Pitt attacks the reformist illusions in Labour’s socialist past held by many of those who are today gravitating toward the SLP:
"Largely due to Lenin’s intervention, the CPGB’s founding conference voted narrowly, by 100 to 85, to apply for affiliation to the Labour Party. Unfortunately the majority of the leadership shared Scargill’s view that there was no point in conducting a struggle for socialism inside such a party. Like him, they had deluded themselves that the British working class was ready to break from Labour and rally to a rival, genuinely socialist party. They therefore presented the CPGB’s application for Labour affiliation in such provocative terms as to guarantee that it would be turned down. In reality, the working class was in the process not of breaking from Labour and rallying to Communism but of breaking from Liberalism and rallying to Labour. Like its predecessor, the SDF, the Communist Party had excluded itself from the Labour Party during a decisive phase in the latter’s development.
"No doubt Scargill would condemn such anti-Labour attitudes as ultra-left. After all, according to him, in 1920 the Labour Party was a mass workers’ party with a socialist philosophy and programme. It would be interesting to hear what examples Scargill could provide of the Labour Party’s socialist philosophy in action. The Labour government of 1924 was not exactly noted for its assaults on the citadels of capitalism and, with the exception of Wheatley’s Housing Bill, even reforms were thin on the ground. The 1929-31 Labour government pursued a consistently right-wing course and came to an ignominious end after a majority of the cabinet had responded to the economic crisis not by implementing the principle of common ownership but by agreeing to cut unemployment benefit. But perhaps Scargill would point to the record of the Labour governments of 1945-51 as evidence of a commitment to common ownership being given practical application.... (Would Scargill regard the National Coal Board as a socialist institution?)"
This "leftist" critique of reformist illusions serves a purpose that is completely at odds with any strategy designed to transcend reformist illusions in the working class. Some prominent SLP supporters would no doubt sincerely argue that they had spent decades in the Labour Party trying to win it to ’socialism’ and now it is further away than ever from such a position. Pitt is correct that in the 1920s "the working class was in the process not of breaking from Labour and rallying to Communism but of breaking from Liberalism and rallying to Labour". But in fact what is happening now is neither of those things. What is happening now is that the Labour Party itself is breaking from reformism – back in the direction of outright bourgeois liberalism. The SLP, far from being an ultra-left sectarian diversion from a genuine working class movement, is an attempt to re-establish a political party to represent the interests of the working class against both the Tories and "New Labour". Tony Blair heads a "Labour" party that is promising to bash the unions and dismantle the welfare state better than the Tories. Pitt’s observation about the Labour cabinet cutting unemployment benefit in 1931 is totally irrelevant in this regard; in fact he only hints that this event led to a massive, three-way split in the Labour Party, with the MacDonaldite benefit-cutting right wing breaking from the labour movement entirely. If the Labour Party were to expel Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Chris Smith, Peter Mandelson et al and reassert a commitment to welfare, full employment and trade union rights, then Pitt’s analogy with 1932 might be valid. But in the real world, the only elements of traditional Labour that are seen really to stand for these things are at present gravitating toward the SLP.
Equally matter-of-fact (and irrelevant) in this regard is Pitt’s statement that: "the Labour leadership, when in office, has invariably accepted that the major part of the means of production, distribution and exchange should remain under private ownership. The extension of public ownership has been argued for, if at all, on a purely pragmatic basis. Blair’s new Clause IV thus brings the constitution of the Labour Party into line with the actual practice of Labour governments, or at least a lot closer to it than the old Clause IV was. This scarcely amounts to the fundamental change in the party’s character which Arthur Scargill claims has taken place. He may have convinced himself that the abolition of the commitment to common ownership has destroyed Labour’s ’socialist soul’. The truth is it never had any such soul in the first place."
This is a textbook example of the misuse of a correct Marxist argument to justify pandering to the most backward layers of the working class. Yes, reformist consciousness has a contradictory aspect, and as a prime repository of that reformist consciousness, the Labour-lefts’ perspective of achieving socialism through the implementation of Clause IV and a reformist government is pie in the sky. It is not the aim of socialism that is wrong, but the utopian projection of how to get there. But irrespective of their utopian perspective of how to get to socialism, the assertion of the aim itself is significantly to the left of the hymn of praise for "the enterprise of the market and the rigours of competition" in Blair’s new Clause IV. Marxists stand in solidarity with the utopian fighters for the old Clause IV, against the purveyors of Thatcherism with barely a liberal fig-leaf in Blair’s SDP Mark II. In equating modern day Blairite Toryism with the ideological backwardness of many of the early supporters of the LRC, who shied away from the word "socialism" while in practice seeking to advance working class interests through reformist means, Pitt has (perhaps inadvertently) flung a monstrous insult at the pioneers of the party he is presently seeking to defend and collapsed precisely what was supportable about the movement that led to the foundation of the British Labour Party.
In fact, somewhat perversely, Pitt admits this on the next page. After giving an accurate summary of the defeats of the working class in the last decade, from the 1984-85 miners strike to the collapse of the Soviet bloc, which condition the move to the right in the labour movement, Pitt points out that: "There is, moreover, no question but that Blair, Mandelson and company represent a qualitative change from the traditional Labour right, even from the ’revisionists’ of the late 1950s like Anthony Crosland. An organisation named Labour 2000, which was formed last year to press for an acceleration of the party’s modernisation, is a case in point. Its proposals for the next Labour government, as summarised by one newspaper, are to ’end universal benefits, use market forces to support the NHS and accept that traditional trade unions are irrelevant’." What this kind of thing is supposed to have in common with even the most backward elements in the LRC of 1901 is utterly incomprehensible.
Pitt makes much of the fact that the Blairites have not yet completely severed the links between the Labour Party and the trade unions: "The role of the trade unions in the party, though weakened, remains important. They retain 50 per cent of the vote at annual conference, elect 12 of the 29 NEC members and have the major say in determining the 5 seats reserved for women. As for the ranks of the party, it would be wrong to dismiss them as natural supporters of Labour s hard right. Even the influx of new members, which some on the left have portrayed as a Blairite version of the ’Lenin levy’, does not seem to have fundamentally changed the situation at rank-and-file level. In last year’s elections to the constituency section of the NEC, half of those who voted did so for that personification of ’Old Labour’, Dennis Skinner, while candidates on the Campaign Group slate polled a third of the votes overall.... The proportion of the membership that participated in the OMOV ballot [to abolish the old Clause IV] was probably less than 30 per cent.... All this leads to the conclusion that the modernising hard right is far from having established its ideological hegemony over the party."
Yes, Labour still retains links to the trade unions, and parts of the union bureaucracy have considerable influence in the party. However, that does not mean that Labour is currently expressing the interests of workers as a class, even in a deformed manner. The dominant trends in the trade union bureaucracy are reconciled to the bosses gains of the last decade and a half, and indeed many of them acted as saboteurs of those struggles that did break out against the Thatcherite attacks.
The truth is that the Labour Party is not the political expression of the working class, rather it has so far historically been the political expression of the trade union bureaucracy. Insofar as the unions have influence, the Labour Party is currently hegemonised by those sections of the bureaucracy and labour aristocracy whose response to Thatcher’s attacks on the working class in the 1980s was to give her a helping hand. The political domination of the New Realists was reinforced by the results of their own handiwork Ä the miners and other later struggles were defeated because of the treachery of the "New Realist" bureaucracy.
A political party, the myths of British exceptionalism notwithstanding, is not the same thing as a trade union and the two cannot be equated. A political party has a political programme and policies, and irrespective of the organisational relationship to a cowed union movement, the current programme and policies of the Labour Party are bourgeois and openly so, and openly hostile to the working class as a class even in a reformist sense.
A situation where the dominant current of a supposed workers’ party openly agrees with the bosses on virtually every issue of domestic policy is exceptional, and a product of the extreme decay of Social Democracy on the road back to the liberalism from which it emerged. But to instruct the working class to cling to this necrotising corpse as it poisons and suffocates the labour movement, and abuse those who seek to re-found a genuine workers party as "ultra-lefts", is grotesque.
Pitt contrasts the allegedly more democratic internal regime in the Labour Party with that in the SLP: "As for the argument that the Labour Party is being ’politically cleansed’, this summons up the image of wholesale political repression inside the party. Blair is without doubt intent on overturning the party’s existing democratic structures in favour of his own version of the Führerprinzip. But so far there has been nothing like the crackdown on the left that took place in the party in the late 1920s, when 27 local Labour Parties were simply disaffiliated by the NEC because of their links with the Communist-sponsored National Left Wing Movement. All in all, the Labour Party still has a distinctly more liberal internal regime than that provided for in the SLP’s constitution. In the Labour Party, unlike the SLP, registered bodies such as the Socialist Campaign Group can organise within the party in opposition to the politics of the leadership. The opportunities and structures for an ideological struggle against the advocates of New Labour still exist."
Pitt is not even comparing like with like here. The SLP’s bureaucratic clause forbidding organised groups and dual membership is a mistaken attempt to prevent it from being swamped by some of the larger existing leftist groups – such as the SWP and Militant Labour. Much of the SLP membership has regrettably swallowed the idea that this policy is justified in order to let the party get off to a proper start. But many in the SLP already recognise that the only way for the project to succeed is by combining active initiatives in the on-going practical struggles of the broader workers movement, with free and open internal discussion and debate. In the process of hammering out a genuinely socialist platform that connects to the concerns of the left wing of the labour movement the SLP can be consolidated politically. At that point it will have nothing to fear from the affiliation of this or that leftist propaganda society. In fact we should be able to recruit a good chunk of the members of the SWP and the rest of them. If on the other hand, the SLP fails to develop a coherent Marxist programme then it will be unable to attract the thousands of radical youth and militant unionists necessary to begin to recreate a fighting socialist left in this country. In that case attempts to substitute crude organisational measures aimed at excluding this or that set of ideas will only accelerate the group’s disintegration.
In any case the SLP leadership s errors are relatively minor compared to the allegedly "more liberal" regime in the Labour Party. The most serious leftist opposition in the Labour Party was driven out or marginalised by Neil Kinnock in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and irrespective of the actual juridical mechanisms employed, this was far from being "liberal". Nor is the comparison with the period in the 1920s, when the Communist-influenced NLWM was seen as a potent threat by Transport House, remotely relevant. In truth, Tony Blair is not dealing with a potent would-be revolutionary opposition, but rather is seeking to wipe out or co-opt the vestiges of traditional social democratic "leftism" into "New Labour". The fact is that there is no real opposition to Blair from what passes for the "left" these days because most of the so-called "left" agree with him on fundamentals.
On the rare occasions when a half-way oppositionist "Old Labour" reformist (like Liz Davies) gets selected for any seat, the Blairite party machine soon gets rid of them, with the support of ex-Bennite types like Clare Short. And such people are not in any sense aspiring "revolutionaries", just a little too close to old-style reformism for the comfort of the Blairite crypto-Tories. But actual veteran Thatcherite Tories like Alan Howarth MP are welcomed with open arms. Such is the reality of the wonderfully tolerant Blairite party whose virtues Pitt is extolling.
The classic accusation raised against attempts to give political expression to the independence of the working class, as against "liberal" bourgeois politics, or those engaged in class collaboration, is that to strike out for independent working class politics "helps the right". Thus the Stalinists habitually raised the accusation that Trotskyism was "left in form, right in essence" for standing firm against Stalinism s policy of coalition with the bourgeoisie, also known as the "popular front". Ironically, Bob Pitt, an avowed Trotskyist, uses a similar argument against the formation of the SLP. Pitt accuses the SLP of being in a bloc with the Blairite right by abandoning the house-trained "lefts" to their own fate and striking out for class independence. His argument in essence is that any attempt to create a working class alternative to Blair’s Thatcherite Labour Party "helps" Blair to cement his hold over the party.
Pitt is opposed to "self -indulgent denunciations of ’Tory Blair’" which he believes "will find little resonance" and accuses Arthur Scargill, by abandoning "New Labour", of helping Blair to break Labour’s connection to the organised working class. Huh? As an index of his utter prostration before the politics of mainstream Labour reformism, Pitt even denounces Scargill for supporting "proportional representation", preferring the notoriously undemocratic "first past the post" system traditional in Britain, because it occasionally produces a Labour government with a working majority.
While Marxists do not regard it as their vocation to advise the bourgeois state on how to perfect its electoral system, since even the most perfect bourgeois democracy is, in the words of Lenin, "a paradise for the rich, a snare and a deception for the poor", for a would-be Marxist to endorse the undemocratic electoral system that provided Thatcher with enormous parliamentary majorities as a basis to steamroller opposition, in the vain hope that a government of British imperialism’s "Labour" lackeys will get to do the same, testifies to utter despair about the possibilities of the working class as an agent of social revolution.
Pitt’s article reads like a nostalgia piece for the early 1980s, with its strictures to defend inner party democracy against the Labour hard right and to fight for full employment, a minimum wage, the defence of universal benefits, increased taxation of the rich, the extension of trade union rights, renationalisation of privatised utilities within the framework of Blair’s party. You may as well believe in the tooth fairy. As George Bush once said, so Blair might say, "Read my lips!" The position of Blair and Co on virtually all of this is not a matter of ambiguity – the idea that the contemporary Labour Party can be won to even such simple reformist policies today is simply fantastic.
The days of Tony Benn, and the political conjuncture that brought about the movement behind him, are long gone, and not about to return in the near future, if ever! Pitt s whole perspective is pathetic self-delusion. He suggests that an "obligatory" task of Marxists is "active involvement" in the heroic struggle to resist "attempts ... to hand over the existing powers of GCs [Labour Party constituency management committees – i.e. elected Labour Party constituency decision-making bodies] to CLP officers" while scoffing that: "To someone like Scargill, who has led historic industrial battles, or those of his supporters inspired by heroic visions of the British equivalent of the storming of the Winter Palace, such mundane struggles may appear to be a boring irrelevance."
Actually, to most leftists or potential leftists, such things would appear to be irrelevant – because they are utterly futile. The "heroic" struggles of the likes of Bob Pitt over the prerogatives of CLP officials vs CLP delegates in the Blairite Labour Party will not help in the winning of one strike, will not stop the deportation of one victim of racism, will not stop one attack on benefit claimants, will not advance the struggle of the working class by one millimetre. At this conjuncture such arcane internal bickering in the Blairised Labour Party has virtually no relevance to struggles at the base of society.
Pitt’s most substantial argument against the whole perspective of the SLP is set out as follows: "Back in 1929, when the Communist Party was developing a similarly ultra-left sectarian line towards the Labour Party, T.A. Jackson warned his comrades against the stupidity of mistaking their own subjective emotions for the consciousness of the masses. This is precisely the stupidity that Scargill and his supporters have committed. Because they have been convinced that the Blairite leadership has betrayed and broken from the working class, they evidently conclude that the working class must feel the same way too. An article by SLP supporter Dave Douglass of Hatfield Main NUM illustrates this confusion. Scornfully rejecting the argument that an incoming Labour government must have time to expose its right wing character, he demands: ’What, again? Do we seriously need any further warning of the barefaced austerity and anti-working class nature of Blair’s programme?’ This line of reasoning was demolished by Trotsky sixty years ago. Answering the argument that ’the Labour Party stands exposed by its past deeds in power and its present reactionary platform’, he wrote: ’For us – yes! But not for the masses, the eight millions who vote Labour.’"
Unfortunately for Pitt, this is once again out of context. The situation was that the Labour Party had just shed the openly bourgeois element (MacDonald and Co) in its leadership and was certainly staking a claim to representing the independence of workers as a class, including in its opposition to Stalinist "popular frontism". Trotsky was admonishing the leaders of the ILP, a party that had broken from reformism to the left, for a sectarian attitude in refusing to give electoral support to a mass reformist party that quite clearly claimed to represent workers as a class against the bosses. After the Labour Party broke with MacDonald, there was considerable political ferment in it, with the formation of such groupings as Stafford Cripps’ Socialist League, that questioned "Can Socialism come by Constitutional Means?" while expressing a confused softness on "official communism" (i.e. Stalinism).
Even the future Labour PM, Clement Attlee, was part of this pro-working class ferment, producing proposals for an "Enabling Bill" for the purpose of introducing "socialism" by nationalising the top 200-or-so monopolies, in fact a programme that provided the inspiration for the latter-day Militant grouping. Not much like today’s SDP Mark II! Open Trotskyists, like Reg Groves, were able to stand as Labour candidates in this period, unlike today when even ordinary reformists like Liz Davies can’t get the official party endorsement because they are considered too radical.
In the case of the SLP, the situation is very different. The politics put forward by the SLP leadership even down to the slightly updated Clause IV on the membership card, is a reassertion of the traditional Labour-left brand of "socialism" against a Labour Party leadership that has abandoned reformism in favour of outright Thatcherism, and which has a stranglehold on the labour movement. It is true that the centre of gravity of the SLP is well to the left of the "old" Labour Party, and that there are quite a few subjectively revolutionary elements in the SLP. This is hardly surprising, since the party has its origins in some pretty sharp class struggles that polarised even old-style reformism and gave the initiating elements of the SLP the political impetus to resist the Kinnockite/Blairite tide. But the overall political profile of the SLP so far is a defence of traditional working class independence against a reversion of the Labour Party to open bourgeois politics. So Pitt’s quoting Trotsky against ultra-leftism in the 1930s is very much out of place here.
Pitt cites Scargill s aspiration to draw those radicalised youth involved in "the anti- motorway and animal rights bodies, Greenpeace and other anti-nuclear" movements, and pours cold water on the idea that such people, who are deeply alienated from the labour movement, could be drawn towards the SLP. The fact is that it is the complete and utter servility of the official labour movement, dominated by a slavishly pro-capitalist bureaucracy, that has created the conditions where a wide variety of different forms of petit-bourgeois radicalism can flourish among the youth. To galvanise the disaffected youth and win them away from eco-faddism and other sorts of middle class radicalism, the SLP is going to have to inspire them with a vision of militant struggle, self-sacrifice and a willingness to lead a fight against the whole rotten capitalist system. Whether or not we in the SLP are able to meet this challenge depends on the extent to which we intervene in the actual class struggles underway, as well as on internal political developments in the party itself, i.e. the extent to which the majority of the SLP moves beyond the Labourite tradition of looking for answers in the rigged parliamentary system. Pitt’s solution, of seeking to pour cold water on the very idea of a new working class party, while instructing militants to spend their time trying to resuscitate old-style reformism in Blair’s neo-Thatcherite party, would in reality be the best recruiting tool the anti-socialist "eco"-radicals could ever wish for.Pitt admits that it is quite likely that the SLP will recruit many of the sizeable layer of trade union militants who are open to a left alternative to the SDP Mark II: "Among many activists in the trade unions, too, there exists a genuine hatred of Blair and everything he stands for. These comrades are often resistant to the idea that anything can be accomplished inside the Labour Party and some thousands of them could possibly be won to the SLP. But there has always been a layer of trade union militants whose contempt for Labour’s right-wing leadership extends to a dismissal of the party itself. This outlook often takes the form of syndicalism – a belief that the class struggle is to be fought at the point of production and that politics, particularly of the parliamentary variety, are useless. But industrial militants who reject Labourism can also be attracted to a political organisation standing to the left of the Labour Party. Traditionally the Communist Party won such people to its ranks, and it is worth remembering that the CP once had tens of thousands of members, a substantial industrial base, a number of local councillors (as many as 200 in 1945) and even a couple of MPs. This didn’t alter the fact that the Labour Party maintained its grip on the political consciousness of the vast majority of the class, while electoral support for the CP nationally remained negligible. "While the CP never managed to establish itself as a viable alternative to Labour, it did succeed in walling off a section of trade unionists from intervention in the party that the mass of the working class still followed, thus assisting the Labour right wing to maintain their hold on the leadership. This was explained quite succinctly back in 1960 by none other than Gerry Healy, who was capable of making at least some correct political points. The CPGB, he argued, was ’not merely a purveyor of Stalinist ideology in the labour movement. Its actions actively prevent the development of a real revolutionary party in Britain. Whilst masquerading as a Communist Party it isolates those workers who join it from the real political struggle against reformism. The main arena for this struggle can only be in the mass organisation of the working class, the Labour Party. It is this isolation of militant industrial workers from the Labour Party that strengthens the reformists inside the Labour Party’. All the indications are that the SLP will succeed in doing just what the CP did – only on a much, much smaller scale."
Once again, we have the attempt to confuse one historical situation with a completely different one. In 1960 the Labour Party conference adopted unilateral nuclear disarmament and there were massive struggles with the right wing both in both the Labour Party and the youth. There was also the interesting phenomena of "Butskellism", which by way of analogy, translates into the saying that in the 1950s and 1960s the Tory Party was a pale imitation of the Labour Party, and had to pay more than just lip-service to welfare, full employment, trade union rights etc. But now, in case Pitt hadn’t noticed, the situation is somewhat ... reversed. The Labour Party is now, thanks to over two decades of continuous class betrayals, generally seen as a pale imitation of the Tory Party, and has adopted virtually wholesale the philosophy of Thatcher, the arch union-smasher. This "little" difference in the historical conjuncture, and its implications for the tactics of working class socialists, seems to have escaped the notice of Bob Pitt. Not surprising, since he is wearing the kind of Labourite blinkers many ostensible Trotskyists in Britain habitually wear.
The difference between the two relationships discussed here is fundamental: the Stalinist CP was a thoroughly bureaucratised machine which was also thoroughly wedded to the class-collaborationism advocated by Moscow. It was indeed capable of walling off an important layer of militants from effectively intervening in some of the most important political struggles. Whereas the SLP is a party that is open to revolutionary socialists and seeks to re-found an explicitly working class party to fight for the interest of the working class, against the leadership of the official Labour Party, which has adopted more or less wholesale the ideas and strategy of the most vicious enemy of the working class: Margaret Thatcher.
It is true that the politics of many SLP leaders and members do not go beyond the framework of a struggle to reform some of the worst inequities of capitalism. But the SLP is a party in its infancy which is seeking to create a fighting, socialist alternative to both the Tories and Blairites. To build a party capable of carrying out this fight the SLP must inevitably undergo substantial growth – both in terms of members, influence and popular support and also of the scope and depth of its political analysis and programme. But the difference between the potential of the SLP today and the CP in 1960 is fundamental, and one really must be wilfully blind not to see it.
The balance of Pitt s article is mostly crude mockery of the SLP’s small size and ridiculing its prospects. But Pitt does make one other argument that is worth taking up. Discussing the origins of most leftist splits from reformism, he writes: "Scargill’s chosen method of challenging right-wing reformism ignores all the historical experience of the workers’ movement internationally, which is that a left alternative arises through differentiation within the ranks of the reformist party. The French Communist Party established itself as a mass organisation through a split in the French Socialist Party, the SFIO, a majority of whose members were won to the Third International. The CPGB, by contrast, sought to build itself as an organisational rival to the Labour Party and consequently remained marginalised. The same is true of centrist or left-reformist challenges to mainstream Social Democracy (the SLP itself comes into this category). When the German USPD, the Independent Social Democratic Party, broke from the SPD in 1917 it was able to act as a rival pole of political attraction because it took with it hundreds of thousands of members and an important section of the leadership. When the ILP in Britain declared its independence from the Labour Party in 1932 it produced not a split as such but a minor breakaway involving a handful of MPs and some thousands of members. The ILP’s challenge to Labour petered out and it quickly disintegrated and collapsed."
Here Pitt comes out with his bottom line. The SLP is not a mass organisation right from the start, therefore it must be stillborn. This is actually a piece of dogma on his part, as rigid in its own way as those who believe that the only way to build a party is by individual recruitment. In political life there can be no guarantees. It is of course possible that bureaucratic manoeuvres or political purges could turn the SLP into a lifeless shell and wreck the whole project. It is also conceivable that even with the most exemplary leadership and the most vigorous and active membership the SLP will still not be able to establish itself as a viable player in national politics in the near future. It is impossible to know unless we try. But the possibility exists that the SLP will develop a sufficiently hard-hitting set of politics and be able to project them effectively enough to attract thousands of working class youth and union militants disgusted by Blair and Co. And if the SLP retains a sufficiently open and democratic internal regime it could educate and politically develop this new layer into socialist activists and organisers who are able to reach tens of thousands of others.
The shipwreck of the SLP would be a defeat for the working class, something that revolutionaries, unlike smug Labour-loyal "Marxists" like Pitt, seek to struggle against. The SLP is an important and worthwhile initiative that revolutionaries should participate in and seek to build.
What Pitt ignores is the fact that the gradual Thatcherisation of the Labour Party over the past decade has driven many thousands of would-be militants out of active politics in disgust, precisely because they, like Pitt, saw "politics" as synonymous with the Labour Party, but unlike Pitt, they couldn’t stomach being a tame "left" opposition in a Thatcherite party. For Pitt, such people are worth nothing. Indeed, outrageously, he displays his contempt for them by stating at the end of his article that: "The truth is that Scargill has buckled under the strain of the Labour right wing’s attacks and has given up the fight. The decision to form the Socialist Labour Party is not merely an act of political irresponsibility; beneath Scargill’s leftist rhetoric and notwithstanding his subjective militancy, it is an act of political cowardice."
Revolutionaries, unlike blinkered pseudo-Trotskyists like Bob Pitt, do not see every political question through the grimy spectacles of the senile, neo-Thatcherite organisation that claims to represent British "Labour". Rather, revolutionaries see things from the point of view of the historic interests of the working class. The British working class needs an authentic, class-struggle, Marxist party and the SLP has the potential to develop into one. Genuine revolutionaries seek to make it so, not pour cold water on it while promoting Tony Blair’s SDP Mark II.