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Trotskyists and the Labour Party: Some Lessons from History

John Archer

This article was written for What Next? shortly before John Archerís recent death. We would like to send our condolences to Johnís family and comrades.

I SEE FROM recent issues of What Next? that socialists are once again debating whether it is necessary to work in the Labour Party or not. This article is intended to help people learn from history in order not to repeat the mistakes we, in the Socialist Labour League (SLL), made by withdrawing from the Labour Party in the 1960s.

Trotskyís Where Is Britain Going? explained why British Communists must become prominent leaders of the resistance to class collaboration inside the Labour Party. He repeated several times that the Labour Party, based on the trade unions, historically occupies a special place in British politics as the principal political arena in which those who expressed (however unconsciously) the independence of the working class confront the agents of the bourgeoisie in the labour movement.

In 1936 the majority of the Trotskyists in Britain, organised in the Militant Group, began to learn by experience how to fight in the Labour Party, and, in particular, for militants to remain independent of the war aims of "their own" bourgeoisie. While the Labour right wing supported the devices by which the Conservative government hoped to divert Hitler, we also had to face Stalinism, which presented the alternative of a Popular Front government allied to the Soviet Union, and alleged world-wide that Trotsky was in alliance with Hitler.

In 1937 a minority split away, to form the Workers International League (WIL), led by recent recruits from the Communist Party and exiled comrades from South Africa. They wanted "short-term entry", to pull small groups of militants out of the Labour Party. Our concept of "entrism" meant getting and holding onto positions of influence in the Labour Party among the left, in expectation of the crisis in Labour which must come.

In summer 1938, the British Section of the Fourth International (FI) was formed to combine "open" work with "entrism". We managed to produce one issue of a journal openly calling for support for the FI. Never did the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL) hint that the Labour Party can ever lead the working class to end the rule of capital. To our contacts we said: "Let us test by experience together how far you may be right to hope that Labour can be made to satisfy the expectations which it raises in workersí minds."

We knew that there would be defeats as well as victories, but we did not intend to capitulate politically in "entry" work. Those were not years of ease or comfort that myself, my wife Mary and others spent in the Labour Party, and made the apparatus call us "highly dangerous people".

In the last months of peace both the RSL and the WIL feared immediate repression. The RSL played down its "open" work in order to consolidate its positions in the Labour Party. However, it openly associated with other groups in defending the Friends of the Irish Republic from police persecution. When the war began, the declarations of the WIL and the RSL were almost identical. The WIL saw fit to protect its leadership by sending them into temporary exile in Ireland, from which they returned soon, to find that the cadre of the RSL had been seriously weakened by conscription. In the by-elections early in the war, the RSL tended to support Labour candidates, while the WIL supported "anti-war" Stalinist candidates.

In the summer of 1940 there were sharp disagreements about how to apply the policy of revolutionary defeatism. Invasion of Britain seemed imminent. The WIL raised the demand, "Arm the Workers", and warned that the new government under Churchill was likely to follow the French government and capitulate. The RSL took the view that a section of the WIL leadership was making a concession to "the extreme left of social-patriotism". However, Hitler lacked the means to get an army across the Channel, and US imperialism had many reasons for ensuring that Britain was not forced to surrender.

The WIL intervened in the fake "anti-war" Peopleís Convention, which aimed at a negotiated peace with Hitler as long as his alliance with Stalin lasted. When, in June 1941, the forces of German imperialism invaded the Soviet Union, the CP went over to 100% support of the government and maximising production at all costs. The composition of the WIL was largely proletarian, so that what began as a small group could contribute much more than the RSL to defending the independence of workers in war industries, many of whom were women, compulsorily "directed" into industry.

The WIL grew. Its paper carried news of the class struggle. It produced journals and pamphlets, in the face of the Stalinistsí savage hostility. The RSL stagnated. However, the RSLís militants in industry (such as Dulcie Yelland and Millie Matthews) used the same formula as the WIL to justify supporting workers in struggle against management: "They are defending the rights which the men will expect to find when they come back from the war."

In 1942 the WIL adopted a "catastrophic" perspective, which impressionistically led its supporters to expect that the masses would soon "by-pass" the Labour Party, turning directly to the banner of the revolutionary party. This perspective dominated the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), when the WIL and RSL fused in 1944. At the same time, a small amount of "entrist" work went on and was to become important later. But the cadres of the RCP did not recognise the strong movement to end the coalition and for a Labour victory in the coming general election. The RCP could stand up to the government in the law courts, but was caught by surprise when Labour won the election and the generals and big business refrained from unconstitutional opposition.

The RCP was wracked by internal differences on every principled question. The Fourth International, at that difficult time in its history, could do no more than to agree that a minority, led by Healy, should enter Labour, which, at that time, was attracting new members in thousands.

The entry work of former RSL members and the minority began to make progress. Healy picked up the idea of entry in 1945 on the ground that if the crisis was close, there wasnít time to win from outside workers who were flocking into Labour. A group round Bill Hunter joined with the survivors of the RSL and the minority to step up their intervention in the rising opposition to Attleeís successor, Gaitskell, in the Labour Party. Years of progress followed. We used well our political resources, limited though they were.

We survived the demand of the Labour leadership in 1954 that we give up producing our paper. Healy insisted on political and practical training to resist adaptation to middle class pressures. The "regime" did not present serious problems. Leading comrades in the main provincial centres could keep this under some control because they not only helped to raise money that financed the centre but widened its contact with the Labour movement. We were all glad to be able to take part in the struggle between Gaitskellís pro-American backers and the confused opposition identified with Bevan, fed by fear of an anti-Soviet world war and by the pressure of the workers whose expectations in Labour had not been satisfied.

Between 1950 and 1959, Healy checked what he regarded as adventurism. From our position in the Labour Party we were able to help the Merseyside dockers to seek better representation than that of the T&GWU. Our alliance with Tribune revealed to the whole labour movement the scandals on Merseyside and thereby protected Bevan and Foot from being driven out of the NEC. At the same time the comrades in Liverpool defended the dockers against the Stalinists who wanted merely to "put pressure" on the union leadership to lift the ban on members of the CP being full-time union officers.

We were also prepared for the crisis in Stalinism in 1956. For several years after, comrades from the CP flowed into our ranks. There was a combination of "entry" work with "open" intervention in the trade unions and CND, and this was revealing that we needed a presence of our own in the movement. Other comrades wanted to end our "entry". The question of perspective was posed afresh.

For some time the apparatchiks of the Labour Party had been trying to drive out individual members of the "Club", as our tendency was known. In 1958 the press opened a witch-hunt against us. Gaitskell, who could expect to be prime minister after the next general election, well knew that Labourís youth movement was almost totally out of his control. He had no wish to have to deal with such forces as we could mobilise inside the Party in opposition to the policies of "sound finance" with which he hoped to delay the decline of British capitalism. Early in 1959, leading comrades were excluded, without warning, from the Labour Party.

We were not politically prepared, although no one suggested that we should try to sneak back into the Party by Gaitskellís kind permission! It was decided in London, without a conference, to form the Socialist Labour League which applied to the Labour Party to be an "affiliated" organisation, on the same basis as the Fabian Society. Its application was rejected, as was to be expected. We were drifting. "Leftism" asserted itself, with the aid of the same empiricism that carried the minority into Labour in 1947.

The SLL chose the road to which many comradesí earlier training in the CP pointed them, setting its face determinedly against more efforts to carry the fight into the Labour Party.

Of course, it would not have been easy to re-start our uncompleted tasks there, as, in retrospect, I think we should have done. It would not have given quick results and would have had to be very secret, managed separately from our "open" work. Hardest of all, it would have required a clear perspective. But we could and should have done it.

Not only did the SLL give the bureaucrats what they wanted. What promised to be the best group ever seen in Britain was misdirected. Years passed before anyone could reveal the lessons of the archives. Meanwhile, having begun, they had to go on. By 1964, when Keep Left was driven out of the Labour Party Young Socialists and the SLL announced that the Labour Party was "finished", it could still demonstrate in London demanding that "Wilson take the power"! But at the SLL National Conference in 1964, the very foundations of the work of the "Club" were attacked, while, in the real world, the Labour Party was no less the great arena of struggle that it had been.

In 1966 it was announced that the Fourth International had continued to exist in the form of the SLL since 1953. It did not, therefore, have to be "reconstructed". Moreover, the SLL was building the mass revolutionary party and "will inspire revolutionists in all countries to build similar parties". It was concluded that "Entry cannot be successfully carried out unless there is a strong independent revolutionary party".

At that time, the SLL had already left room in the Labour Party Young Socialists for the Militant, who would become the group to benefit most from the anger at the 1974-9 Labour government. Today socialists must not make the same mistakes that the SLL made back then and the Militant has made more recently. Our analysis must start from the facts Ė not from what one thinks the facts should be. The Labour Party remains the organisational framework for the whole labour movement due to its organic link to the trade unions. We should play an active role in the struggle by Party and union members to stop Blairís destructive offensive.