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Revolutionaries and Reformism: A Contribution to a Discussion on the Attitude of Marxists to the Labour Party

Alistair Mitchell

From New Interventions, Vol.2 No.3,1991

WITH THE collapse of Stalinist rule in most of Eastern Europe new political parties are moving to fill the void, among them social democratic parties. In the West the biggest "Marxist" party, the Italian Communist Party, has declared itself a born-again social democratic party. Whilst here in Britain Kinnock’s Labour Party has refashioned itself as a respectable party bidding for the establishment’s approval, promising "business where possible, government where necessary". Today reformism appears to have an unshakeable grip on the workers’ movement in most countries; certainly the revolutionary forces are marginalised. This short paper attempts to account for this, using the example of Britain, analysing the shortcomings of revolutionaries’ attitude to reformism, and starting a discussion on a new way forward.

The Origins of the Labour Party
To make sense of reformism’s present strength and the marginalisation of Marxism it is necessary to consider some points from the history of the labour movement. As anything like a full account lies outside the scope of this article I would refer readers to Mike Jones’ short piece "Marxism and the Labour Movement: From Chartism to Today".1 The British working class is the oldest in the world with a history of two hundred years. Its first major political emergence was Chartism in the 1830s. Chartism developed into a well-organised political party demanding universal suffrage and other basic democratic rights as a way of achieving social gains. The Chartists used strikes and other revolutionary means of struggle. They peaked in 1848, were repressed and then faded away. Thereafter the British working class abandoned revolutionary politics and subordinated itself to bourgeois parties for half a century.

There were essentially two reasons for this. Firstly, the second half of the nineteenth century was an age of huge growth for capitalism. The bosses could afford to concede some reforms to the masses, e.g. the ten-hour day, factory legislation, wage rises, etc. As workers’ conditions improved so they accommodated to capitalist society, and most ceased to see any need for an independent political party. Secondly, Chartism grew before it could equip itself with the theoretical means necessary to transform society – Marxism was in its infancy and had no real influence in Britain. In some other countries the workers’ movement developed later, built their independent parties sooner, and were from the beginning influenced by Marxism (Germany is the clearest example). In short, the British labour movement developed earlier and was organisationally stronger than its European counterparts, but at the same time it was more politically dependent on the bourgeoisie, especially on the Liberal Party.

A small workers’ party, the Independent Labour Party, was set up in 1893 with the aim of getting workers elected to parliament. However, the mass of the working class and especially the trade unions would not make such a qualitative development until the turn of the century. A key event was the Taff Vale legal judgement of 1901, when a rail union was forced to pay damages to an employer after a strike. The unions then turned to the fledgling Labour Representation Committee to get pro-working class MPs elected. Within two years of Taff Vale the LRC had increased its membership from 376,000 to 469,000. After the 1906 general election the twenty-nine LRC MPs adopted the name of the Labour Party. The formation of an organisationally independent workers’ party had been advocated by Marx and Engels. When it came about, it was welcomed by contemporary Marxists such as Kautsky and Lenin.

Yet, necessarily, it was influenced by the movement’s past. Its degree of political independence was less than that of its European sister parties. Whereas they promised socialism but increasingly practised mere reforms in capitalism, the Labour Party was reformist from birth and didn’t even promise socialism until its constitution of 1918. The material reasons for this have been outlined; an additional reason was the role of the "Marxists". The Social Democratic Federation was formed in 1881 and claimed to be Marxist. In reality it was thoroughly sectarian, presenting ultimata to the workers. Just as the British working class was breaking from Liberalism to form the LRC, the SDF left the LRC when the latter wouldn’t accept, there and then, the SDF’s programme. Unlike the SDF the ILP didn’t claim to be Marxist, but in attaching itself to the mass movement it proved to be far healthier. There is a case for arguing that much of British "Marxism", from the Communist Party to today’s Trotskyist groups, is in the sectarian tradition of the SDF. In leaving the LRC, the SDF abandoned the workers to semi-Liberal trade union bureaucrats and Fabian reformers who were able not only to influence the formation of the Labour Party but to set it firmly on its subsequent course. Today’s TUC and Kinnock are the modern heirs of the semi-Liberal trade union bureaucrats and Fabians.

What is the Labour Party?
On the face of it the Labour Party is a mass of contradictions. It is a workers’ party that generally serves the interests of the bosses. Its constitution has a socialist clause (four), but another clause (two) exists to try and prevent real socialists organising in the party. It relies on trade union support, yet in government it always attacks the unions. It claims to be a democratic party, but can be ruthless in dealing with dissidents in its own ranks. It is committed to peace, yet it always supports imperialist war.

How can we make sense of it? For most revolutionaries the explanation lies with the Leninist/Trotskyist analysis. So for this reason it is necessary to look at the views of these Russian Marxists. Lenin’s position was elaborated during a discussion with British Communists during the early years of the Third International:

"Of course, for the most part the Labour Party consists of workers, but it does not logically flow from this that every workers’ party which consists of workers is at the same time a ‘political workers party’; that depends upon who leads it, upon the content of its activities and of its political tactics. Only the latter determines whether it is really a political proletarian party. From this point of view, which is the only correct point of view, the Labour Party is not a political workers’ party but a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although it consists of workers, it is led by reactionaries."2

For Lenin the Labour Party was a "bourgeois workers’ party" – a party made up of workers, but with pro-bourgeois politics. Whilst the Labour Party’s social composition is not exclusively proletarian, and not all its politics at all times should necessarily be described as bourgeois, Lenin’s short characterisation seems essentially valid and still applicable today. However, other aspects of his view of reformism weaken his overall conception.

Fundamental to the Leninist attitude to social democracy was the view of a "labour aristocracy". Lenin outlined this as follows: "This exceptional, monopolistic position, created in England relatively tolerable conditions of life for the aristocracy of labour, i.e. for the minority of skilled and well paid workers. Hence, the petty bourgeois craft spirit that prevails among this aristocracy of labour, which has divorced itself from its class, has followed the Liberals, and contemptuously sneers at socialism as a ‘utopia’." 3

For Lenin the existence of this labour aristocracy provided the social base for reformism: "the labour aristocracy... is the principal prop of the Second International".4 Lenin not only identified a privileged layer as the foundation for reformism, but saw it as a small minority: "That an insignificant minority of the working class in England, for instance, was ‘enjoying’ crumbs from colonial advantages, from privileges, is an established fact."5 The Third (Communist) International was to base its strategy on such an assessment. However, after the failure of the European Communist Parties to win leadership of the masses from a revived social democracy, Lenin was forced to revise his views. In 1920 he came to see the "labour aristocracy" as far from being an "insignificant minority" and acknowledged that "the percentage of workers and office employees who enjoy a petty bourgeois standard of living" was "extremely high".6 However, the Third International as a whole never developed its strategy to accommodate this change of analysis. In the early years of the German KPD, Marxists from the Rosa Luxemburg tradition, such as Paul Levi, developed tactics like the united front, and partial and democratic demands to develop a strategy for winning the majority of the working class for Communism. Such work was reflected in the Third and Fourth Congresses of the Comintern, but was not really integrated into its activities as a whole.

Trotsky, writing in 1920, also saw reformism as resting on a narrow social layer: "The bourgeois democratic state not only creates more favourable conditions for the political education of the workers, as compared with absolutism, but also sets a limit to that development in the shape of bourgeois legality, which skilfully accumulates and builds on the upper strata of the proletariat opportunist habits and law-abiding prejudices."7

This was a false position. Firstly, "opportunist habits and law-abiding prejudices" extend to the bulk of the working class, not just its upper layer. Secondly, even if social democracy was the ideology of the labour aristocracy, Trotsky ignores the ability of reformist parties to promote their policies to the rest of the working class through their leadership of the workers’ movement. The views of Lenin and Trotsky make more sense if the "labour aristocracy" rose to sever its links with the rest of the proletariat. Lenin proceeded to identify such a development: "[the super profits of imperialism] part of which is used to bribe the top section of the proletariat and convert it into a reformist, opportunist petty bourgeoisie that fears revolution."8 Whilst it was, and still is, true that the upper layer of the working class had reformist views, was to an extent distanced from poorer sections of the proletariat, and embraced the life-styles and values of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie, it was also true that this layer remained a part of the working class. The rest of the working class also had a reformist consciousness and had bourgeois aspirations. In any case Marxists always argue that the prevailing values and ideas in any society are those of the ruling class. Most importantly of all, the "labour aristocracy" still depends on the saleability of its own labour power – like the rest of the proletariat, it did not own means of production like industrialists, shopkeepers or peasants.

Connected to the Leninist/Trotskyist conception of a narrow social basis of reformism was the belief in its fragility in adverse economic conditions. Writing in 1922, as European social democracy was reviving and the British Labour Party was about to come of age, Trotsky even claimed that reformism could only play an ideological role: "the bourgeoisie still disposes of a reformist-pacifist resource, not a material but an ideological resource in the shape of the influence still retained by the bourgeois-reformist and Social Democratic parties."9 Trade unions would similarly lack the material means to perform their usual role. Trotsky again, this time from 1940: "They [the trade unions – A.M.] can no longer be reformist, because the objective conditions leave no room for any serious and lasting reforms."10

However, there are different types of social democratic reformism. The turbulent years of the First World War and the inter-war period certainly damaged the perspective of those such as Bernstein in Germany and the Fabians in Britain who foresaw a gradual transition to socialism through piecemeal reforms in a period of class peace. The ruthless actions of the bourgeois class in these years showed they would never tolerate such a transition, and the crisis of capitalism suggested that there might not be the economic basis for it. But there was another wing of reformisrn, this saw the minor reforms, not as stages to a socialist future, but as ends in themselves. Whilst the Bernsteins, Fabians etc renounced socialism in deeds but upheld it in words, this second wing of reformism renounced it in both deeds and words. Thus, they would not be "exposed" by a failure to move towards socialism – they didn’t even claim to have this aim. So when capitalism entered difficulties the first school was eclipsed not by revolutionaries, but by the second openly pro-capitalist wing of social democracy. It continued to play a role, and does to this day, not by promising workers serious reforms, but by offering minor measures of amelioration, either echoing the workers’ own desperation, vulnerability and backwardness, or using its political power to pressure the working class into accepting such policies. Thus the second wing of reformism doesn’t depend on a particular economic basis to perform its role; rather it relies on certain political factors.

In conclusion, and as an alternative to the Le­ninist/Trotskyist view, the following points can be made: (i) whilst reformist parties can be characterised as "bourgeois workers’ parties" their basis is far wider than a "labour aristocracy"; (ii) social democratic parties are able to survive periods of capitalist crisis, as they no longer even promise radical reforms; (iii) social democratic governments can implement austerity measures at the expense of the workers and still retain their leadership of the proletariat as long as the working class lacks the consciousness and the leadership to create a viable alternative to the reformists; (iv) social democracy is therefore far more durable than Lenin, Trotsky and the Third International ever thought possible.

The Limits of Left Reformism and the Need for a Revolutionary Party
If the left wing of the Labour Party took control of it and used the party’s structures to promote radical reforms would they be able to carry through a socialist transformation of society? Of course it is not possible to anticipate the exact course of events that might follow such a development. However, in general we can expect the bourgeois class to use its various powers to de­stabilise such a government. This could vary from the economic means and hostile media campaigns that have already been used against perfectly "moderate" Labour governments, to outright confrontation with the courts, the police and armed forces. Some left reformists are aware of these dangers, however, their response is pitifully inadequate. To take a recent example, Ken Livingstone, writing of destabilisation threats to left-wing Labour government, argues: "Such a government could survive any attacks from outside because it would be a ‘popular’ government in the genuine democratic sense."11 Livingstone doesn’t explain how the masses can use their own power to hold back the bosses. The lessons of Chile, where the army carried out a coup in 1973 to smash the left-wing government of Allende and crush the workers’ movement, go completely unlearned by such reformists.

The Labour Party is too politically diverse and organisationally loose to be able to deal with such a bourgeois counter-offensive. Social democracy has become increasingly bureaucratised as a result of its leadership striving for class peace over decades. The reformist parties’ structure and rigid cycle of meetings, elections and conferences are such that are many barriers to prevent the struggles of workers and changes in their consciousness being quickly reflected in the parties’ orientation. It is almost certain that at critical times in the class struggle the bourgeois class would be able to deflect the radical intent of a left-wing Labour government. The Labour Party is essentially an electoral machine; the members are really only required to be active at election times. The members are conditioned to be politically passive, responding only to the demands of the leadership, not the leadership acting on the needs or political wishes of the membership.

Instead, workers need a party based on an active and politically educated membership, united by a shared method, strategy and aims. Detailed consideration of the advantages/disadvantages of parties on the Bolshevik model lies outside the scope of this paper.12 However, I would argue the need for a new type of party: similar to Bolshevism in the sense of being a combat party, but less centralist and bureaucratic than the usual caricatures of Bolshevism, with their domination by "professional revolutionary" full-timers. A real leadership needs to be steeled through experience of militant workers. Full-timers can be isolated from the day to day activities and moods of workers and can misjudge their consciousness. Above all, any leadership must be closely accountable to the membership.

For Lenin tight rules provided a "trenchant weapon against opportunism".13 However, the other side of this is that rigid Bolshevik Party-type structures can encourage a sectarian relation to the class struggle and create a barrier to the changing consciousness of workers.

Above all, a revolutionary party needs the method of Marxism. The members should be able to apply this method themselves and not rely on instructions from on high. The party must have a shared political perspective and express this through an action programme. This can be contrasted to the method of left reformism. Taking Livingstone once again as a typical example of left Labourism; he says in his "programme for the nineties": "If the City refused to cooperate then the public anger that such economic sabotage would arouse would allow Labour to take further powers to ensure that the mandate of the voters prevailed."14 Revolutionaries demand to know – what powers? Taken by whom, when and how? Left reformists don’t deal with these questions, as the required answers necessitate a break with bourgeois politics. Social democracy, both right and left, is committed to working within the system, and, in the final analysis, to maintain it against the workers.

Building the Revolutionary Party: The Communist Party
How can reformisrn be combated and a revolutionary party built? Most of the "Marxists" who attempt to answer this question try to base themselves on the advice of Lenin and the early Comintern to the British Communist Party, and on Trotsky’s later tactic of entrism.

For Lenin and the early Comintern the way to create such revolutionary parties was to declare separate Communist parties independent of the existing mass organisations, then to build these CPs into mass parties through a process of united front and tactical alliances with social democracy on areas of common agreement, and sharp criticism on areas of difference. Lenin waged a struggle against sectarians in the British CP who, amongst other things, opposed any involvement with the Labour Party. However, Lenin’s policy itself was sectarian.

The first aspect of the sectarianism of Lenin and the early Comintern was their advocacy of separate CPs in countries like Britain. Rosa Luxemburg opposed this in the case of a split from the reformist SPD in Germany: "Understandable and praiseworthy as the impatience and bitter anger of our best elements may be .. flight is flight. For us it is a betrayal of the masses, who will merely be handed over helpless into the stranglehold of a Scheidemann or a Legien ... into the hands of the bourgeoisie, to struggle but to be strangled in the end."15 For Luxemburg, if the masses still looked to reformists such as the SPD or the Labour Party, then the place of revolutionaries was alongside the workers in these parties to fight the misleaders.

The second way in which Lenin’s approach to the Labour Party was sectarian was his advice to the British CP to affiliate to the Labour Party on the basis of freedom to organise, publicise Communist politics and denounce the Labour leaders.16 The orientation was therefore conditional. But the CP was in no position to lay down conditions. The CP had little to offer the Labour leaders that would be of use to them, but the Labour Party had the masses the CP wanted. Lenin left a legacy to the CP such that when the Labour bureaucracy sought to restrict the Communists’ freedom to organise in the party and rejected their affiliation bids, the CP turned away from the Labour Party as the preconditions were no longer there.

The main question for the Comintern was – could a small CP organised separately from the Labour Party become a mass party? For Trotsky the answer was a confident "yes". In his pamphlet Where Is Britain Going? of 1925 he writes: "the revolutionary qualities of the British Communist Party will, given, of course, a correct policy, pass over into a quantity of several millions."17

Trotsky still had such a view three years later: "with a correct, courageous, and intransigent policy which steers clear of any illusions with regard to detours, the English Communist Party can grow by leaps and bounds and mature so as to be equal in the course of a few years to the tasks before it."18 Yet in the meantime Britain had gone through a General Strike and the CP had made only "meagre gains".19 Of course, from Trotsky’s point of view the Stalinist degeneration of the Comintern and the CP meant that the British Party would he deprived of the correct policy – gross illusions in the left reformists allied with the CP in the Anglo-Russian Committee, then the wildest denunciation of the Labour Party as "social fascist", and finally political blocs with bourgeois forces in the Popular Front. Undoubtedly, the centrist zig-zags of the CP wrecked any chance of the CP becoming a mass force. But could a healthy policy have built a mass CP in this period?

In the 1920s and 1930s significant sections of the British working class were still coming over from Liberalism to Labour. The working class had yet to put most of its support behind a Labour government, and Labour would not get a parliamentary majority until 1945. Thus, the failing of Labour in 1924 and 1931 would be excused by the working class – there was no movement from Labour to Communism after either of these Labour governments. Many workers accepted Labour’s lack of a parliamentary majority as sufficient reason for its failures. It is likely that a revolutionary CP would have fared better than the bureaucratic centrism of the Stalinist party; however, it seems improbable that the Communists could have overtaken Labour, given the state of the workers’ consciousness.

We should treat class consciousness as an important factor; however, for Trotsky "the subjective conditions – the consciousness of the masses ... are not a fundamental factor"!20 Seeing class consciousness as a subjective factor was an inheritance from Second International "Marxism". Connected to this was the belief in an automatic, always progressive evolution of workers’ consciousness. In the Second International it was widely thought that the main task of parties such as the SPD was to assemble the party and trade union apparatus so as to be ready to take over the running of society when the great day came and the SPD had gained majority support amongst the populace. Less emphasis was put on intervention in struggles to fight for leadership. Whilst Trotsky was, on the contrary, very aware of the fight for leadership (indeed he fetishised it), he also had tendencies to see class consciousness automatically developing. In fact, such a view is essential if any sense is to be made of Trotsky’s faith in the prospects for building a mass CP in Britain.21

Building the Revolutionary Party: Entrism
In 1933, after a ten year struggle in the Comintern against Stalinist degeneration, the Left Opposition split from the Communist Parties and tried to operate independently. Their new-found isolation from the mass workers’ parties was followed one year later by the "French Turn" towards entry into the social democracy. This episode is key because even today most Trotskyist groups’ attitude to work in and around reformist parties is conditioned by it.

What led to the "French Turn"? 1934 saw a sharpening of the class struggles in France. The right-wing "Neo-socialists" had left the French social democratic party (the SFIO) at the end of 1933. The remainder of the SFIO appealed for left-wing groups and individuals outside the SFIO to join and help build the party. In February 1934 the French royalists and fascists attacked the Chamber of Deputies and toppled the government of the Radical Socialists (a bourgeois party) and replaced it with a more right-wing government. The working class replied with mass strike action and united fronts of the SFIO and PCF (French Communist Party) members and their respective trade union federations. The workers’ parties grew rapidly. Between February 1934 and the end of 1936 the SFIO more than doubled from 100,000 members to over 200,000. The growth of the PCF was even greater.22 The left wing of the SFIO became critical of its leadership’s tendencies towards cross-class popular frontism, rather than the workers’ united front. It was the crystalisation of a left wing, plus the wider French and international class struggles, that prompted the "French Turn". For Trotsky it was short-term project: "Entry into a reformist centrist party in itself does not include a long perspective. It is only a stage which, under certain conditions, can be limited to an episode."23

The events of the "French Turn" have been documented elsewhere (see the Pathfinder compilation The Crisis of the French Section); however, it is sufficient to note here that the French Trotskyists gained numbers and experience before Trotsky decided on a new turn to leave the SFIO after about a year. The reasons for this were: the end of the leftward move within the SFIO; the SFIO and the PCF moving towards a popular front; the increased threat of war abroad; and the perceived need to heighten the profile of the Trotskyist International in the face of popular fronts and war. Central to Trotsky’s perspective for the last five years of his life (1935-40) was his belief that war and revolutionary crises plus the compromising of the Stalinists and the reformists in alliance with bourgeois forces would create great opportunities for the Trotskyists. Just as he had with the British CP in the 1920s, Trotsky believed that small independent groups could quickly grow into mass parties outside the existing mass workers’ parties: "the creation of a revolutionary party within a set and quite close period of time" was his expectation when urging the French Trotskyists to leave the SFIO.24 Just as in Britain ten years before, Trotsky’s perspective was proved wrong. Why?

Trotsky was proved correct about the coming war and the revolutionary chances it would create. However, the Trotskyists did not graduate from small sects to mass parties. The underlying reasons are reminiscent of the problems with the British CP. As we have seen, French workers were joining the SFIO en masse in the years 1934-36. The Trotskyists decided to leave the SFIO in the middle of this period! Once again revolutionaries were attempting to build Marxist parties without considering the movement of the masses and their consciousness as objective factors. Trotsky had also been too hasty in writing off the Stalinist party. Only a year before, in 1933, Trotsky had spoken of "the historical collapse of the official Communist International" – "it is dead and ... nothing can ever revive it".25 It was the Trotskyists who would not be revived; with the workers still looking to their existing mass parties, there was no room for small rivals who were historically premature.

Trotsky always maintained that for the entry to be successful the Trotskyist group needed to be disciplined, politically and organisationally, for the short period of the entry, so as to emerge from it strengthened at the right time. In drawing the lessons of the "French Turn", Trotsky wrote at length about the vacillations of those such as Molinier who attempted to forge political-progammatic alliances with left reformists in the SFIO. However, the real lesson of the turn was mentioned almost in passing by Trotsky and its significance was lost: "It may be said now almost with certainty that, if we had been able to bring about entry into the SFIO right after the departure of the Neos and, in any case, before the conclusion of the united front, we should already at the present be able to show considerable successes to our credit."26

Trotsky saw this lesson in terms of a need to "orient ourselves on a national scale more rapidly and more courageously" in the future.27 However, Marxists will not always be able to join other parties whenever they choose. More fundamentally, to fully exploit such ruptures as the split of the Neos in France Marxists needed to be already well established in the mass party. They need to have a proven record and credibility within the party. If they are Johnny-come-latelys the reformist ranks may disregard their observations no matter how correct they might be. People have to listen to you before they can be converted to your views. This is the real lesson of the "French Turn". Of course it should be seen as historically specific – the French Trotskyists can’t really be blamed for not being in place when the Neos broke away as they were still developing a new orientation away from the Comintern. However, Trotsky and Co. can be blamed for not incorporating this lesson into their subsequent practise. In any case "revolutionaries" today don’t have such excuses.

An Alternative Approach
The real lessons of the "French Turn" can also be applied to Britain. At various times over the last fifty years "Marxists", of one type or another, have operated in the Labour Party. Yet during this period there have only been two real occasions when an effective intervention in the Labour Party could have transformed the political situation. The first was in the years 1943-1945. The Labour Party had been dormant during the first years of the war, but revived when its end was in sight. The victory of the Red Army at Stalingrad and then at Kursk in 1943 meant an allied victory was inevitable. The collective experience of the civilian population and particularly the radicalisation of members of the armed forces, led to the first majority Labour government. Labour polled over 3,500,000 move votes than it had received in the previous election of 1935. The election victory, and certainly its scale, came as a surprise to the Labour bureaucrats. With a serious factional presence revolutionaries could have gained real influence and a parliamentary presence (in some seats the Labour Party had difficulty in finding candidates). For an account of the potential at this time readers can consult Chapter 5 of Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson’s book War and the International. One participant in the Trotskyist RCP at this time has since said:

"In fact, I think that an enormous opportunity was missed. Had they [the RCP] gone into the election campaign as supporters and members of the Labour Party, a distinct tendency, I think they could have created an enormous impression, and really placed themselves inside the Labour Party and the labour movement.... I believe that had there been an effective Trotskyist force at that time it could have made a much more significant contribution than Trotskyists have ever yet succeeded in doing in British politics."

Yet before 1943 the Labour Party had been almost dead – little internal life, the party was not even challenging the Tories in by-elections so as to maintain the wartime coalition, there was no coherent left wing in the party. The Trotskyists, with their preconditions – the existence of a left wing to relate to, and full freedom to criticise the leadership – stood outside, and, as Bornstein (another participant) and Richardson put it: "the Trotskyist movement lost the opportunity of a generation."29

The second real opportunity for revolutionaries in the Labour Party was in the years 1978-81. In 1974 the Labour government had come to power promising "a massive and irreversible shift in the distribution of both wealth and power in favour of working people and their families", Labour’s 1973 programme. What was delivered was something quite different: a coalition with the Liberals; a doubling of unemployment; a 10 per cent cut in wages; public spending cuts; and ending in massive confrontation with public sector workers (the "winter of discontent"). There was a swing to the left in the party in outrage at the record of the Wilson/Callaghan government, just as there had been a left swing after the 1970 election defeat. However, this swing was more pronounced, and, crucially, extended further into the trade unions. After the party’s defeat in the 1979 election the constituency ranks and the unions moved against the right wing. The 1979 and 1980 Party Conferences were dominated by two key questions. First, constituency parties wanted mandatory powers for re-selecting their MPs; second, the party ranks and unions pressed for a say in the election of the leader through the creation of an electoral college, not just in the votes of MPs alone.

At a special Party Conference in January 1981 these reforms were won, and after a campaign that again enjoyed much union support Tony Benn was only narrowly defeated (by 0.8 per cent of the votes) in a bid to challenge Denis Healy for the deputy leadership of the party. Further discussion of this period lies outside the scope of this article. However, it is enough to note that the key foundation for this opportunity for the left was the anger at the role of Wilson and Callaghan in government, i.e. a change of consciousness. Even union bureaucrats wanted more control over the excesses of the right wing in government. This left swing could not go on indefinitely. As some of the anger at Callaghan receded, so left support declined. More significantly, 1980-82 saw a recession and a decline in the combativity of workers, especially after the defeat of the 1980 steel strike. As Labour’s divisions were highlighted by the media, the party fell behind the Tories in the opinion polls, and this served to undermine the left’s campaign. At the beginning of 1982 Benn and Co. concluded a deal with the leadership at Bishop’s Stortford for "same leadership, same policies". But whilst Benn kept his promise not to challenge once again for the deputy leadership, the right wing broke their side of the bargain – with attacks on left policies and a witch-hunt of socialists. The left reformists had no answer, and with their support contracting after the Wembley Conference had won their main demands, they have been declining and "realigning" ever since.

The absence of an effective intervention by genuine Marxists in 1978-81 was crucial. Many of the far left groups that did join the Labour Party only did so after the left had peaked and the real opportunities had passed (e.g. the IMG). It is interesting how well the two "Marxist" groups of any size who had a presence in the Party before 1978 fared. The biggest, Militant, grew rapidly after becoming a household name when Michael Foot witch-hunted them from 1982 in order to spilt the left. The second, the smaller Socialist Organiser grouping, was able to play a key role in initiating the Rank and File Mobilising Committee which supplemented the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (another Trotskyist-influenced body) in organising the Labour left at rank and file level.

The lesson is the same as in France half a century before – Marxists need to have an established presence in the mass parties to fully exploit key opportunities. This means, necessarily, sustained work of a preparatory nature in the party when the immediate prospects may not be fruitful. It is not possible to elaborate here on the sort of tactics that may be needed for work in the Labour Party, these will change as circumstances change.

What is important is that such work is based on a scientific appraisal of objective circumstances and on a perspective (for a recent example, see "The British Political Situation and Perspective for Socialists")30 However, it is worth briefly considering some key points in developing an alternative method of work – our attitude to revolutionising the labour movement, to Labour Party policies and rules.

Transforming the Labour Movement and the Role of a Marxist Tendency
There is no reformist road to socialism; a revolutionary party is necessary. But can the Labour Party be changed into a revolutionary party? Trotsky’s view was quite clear on this: "But isn’t it a fact that a Marxist faction would not succeed in changing the structure and policy of the Labour Party? With this we are entirely in accord: the bureaucracy will not surrender. But the revolutionists, functioning outside and inside, can and must succeed in winning over tens and hundreds of thousands of workers."31

Firstly, it could be argued that it is possible that the Labour Party could be transformed. No-one knows what would have happened, for example, if the split away of the SDP in 1981 had been followed by a victory for Benn for the deputy leadership. Another split by the right wing could have created a left reformist party with a centrist (semi-revolutionary) left wing in which Marxists might have played a key role, and even won the leadership. However, such a transformation of the party cannot really be foreseen, given the present strength of the bureaucracy, the marginalisation of "revolutionary" forces, and the fact that the Labour left addresses itself to the winning of left policies and official positions for left candidates, not the total transformation of the party’s relationship to the class and the building of a qualitatively different, revolutionary, combat organisation.

However, a second problem with Trotsky’s limited entry perspective is that as a short term project with no objective of fighting to change the social democratic party, it does not connect to the aspirations of the class conscious workers. Reformist parties were formed as distorted reflections of the (bourgeois) political consciousness of the working class. The workers look to them for leadership. When these parties fail the natural reaction of the masses is to try and improve them. Revolutionaries should intervene, not merely to denounce the misleaders and to recruit to their faction, but to say to the militant workers: "you want to improve your party, this is what we suggest you aim for" – a party based on active members, fully democratic and more responsive to the moods of the masses, and armed with a fighting programme. This is different to the actual practice of Trotskyists in the Labour Party – they either just recruit to their sects and denounce all others before making their inevitable exit from the party (the ultra-left ones), or they adapt to the petty bourgeois left-reformist milieu and its gradualist illusions (the opportunists). Instead, Marxists should aim to relate to the strivings of the ranks, but at the same time connect this to our long-term aim.

Rosa Luxemburg, admittedly writing in a different age, and of a reformist party that claimed to be Marxist, indicated the sort of approach we should consider: "Upwards from below. The broadest masses of comrades in party and trade unions must be reached, in doing battle for the party, in the party, ... the handcuffs of the bureaucracy must be cracked open ... no financial support, no contributions, not a farthing for the executive ... not splitting or unity, not new party or old party, but recapture of the party upwards from below through mass rebellion ... not words but deeds of rebellion."32

What of Labour Party rules? Trotsky’s attitude to social democratic discipline during the "French Turn" was as follows: "And we are to agree to maintain discipline? To be sure, we shall work in the membership and maintain discipline. We shall develop into a faction. In return for that, we shall be in constant contact with tens of thousands of workers, and we shall receive the right to participate in the struggle and in the discussion."33

Whilst Trotsky’s position on this was inextricably linked to the "French Turn" being a short-term perspective, I suggest that such an approach be adopted for the duration of longer term work in the reformist parties. In other words revolutionaries should generally abide by the rules of social democratic parties. This should not be done out of deference to the leaderships or their policies, Marxists should not expect to be treated fairly as a reward for good conduct. Bureaucratic action to deal with political opponents is the norm for reformist leaders. Our starting point is that reformism is materially based in the conditions of the day, and won’t be changed by denunciation or the artificial declaration of alternative leaderships. Reformism needs to be exposed as inadequate in the eyes of the workers. Exposure and the building of a real alternative means we must be where they are. At election times, for example, Marxists should campaign on the basis of the party’s official policies (no matter how reactionary they may be). It is only in this way that the workers will see through the inadequacies of the official policies when they are put to the test, with Marxists explaining their faults during the campaign and attempting to correct them after. When "revolutionaries" ignore party policies or break party rules the result, invariably, is a diversion by the bureaucracy on to purely organisational or constitutional terrain. The exposure of the reformists’ policies, the central strategical task, is usually obscured in such situations.

The above sketch of an orientation is a break from the method of most so-called "revolutionaries" today. Ours should be a method based on materialism not moralism, recognising the reluctance of workers to turn away from the party their class created, not pandering to the impatience of the radical petty bourgeoisie. Unlike today’s pretenders, real Marxists don’t organise apart from the working class and set their own "agendas". Our "agenda" is always the same – taking up the immediate demands of workers, connecting them through partial, democratic, reformist, interim and transitional demands, to the long-term goal of cohering the proletariat as a class not merely "in itself" (as it stands at present) to one consciously acting "for itself" and for the revolutionary transformation of society.34 Getting the working class to act as a class "for itself" means combating all the cross-class ideologies, such as pacifism, feminism, ethnic separatism and nationalism, that infest the Labour Party as modern day versions of popular frontism.

Marxists need to build a distinct revolutionary tendency which can attract the best militants and relate to the wider working class and labour movement. This tendency should aim for the transformation of the social democratic party into another type of party, but at the same time be prepared for other possible routes to the creation of a revolutionary, combat party.


1. Mike Jones, "Marxism and the Labour Movement: From Chartism to Today", 1988. The first page of this paper is based on Jones’ article.

2. V.I. Lenin, "The Communist Party and the Labour Party", in Lenin On Britain, 1941, p.267.

3. Ibid., p.99

4. V.I. Lenin, Preface to the French and English editions of Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism, in Selected Works, 1977, p.175.

5. Lenin On Britain, p.67.

6. Quoted in M. Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin, 1980, p.429.

7. L.D. Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism, 1975, p.53, emphasis added.

8. Quoted in Liebman, op. cit., p.429.

9. L.D. Trotsky, "Political Perspectives for the Fourth Congress of the Communist International", in First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol.2, 1974, p.302.

10. L.D. Trotsky, "Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay", in Marxism and the Trade Unions, 1972, p.8.

11. K. Livingstone, Livingstone’s Labour, 1990, p.89.

12. See for example: M.J.’s "On Marxist Methodology: An Examination of Some of the Issues in Dispute Between Classical Marxism and Bolshevism", and "Marxism, Leadership, Democracy and the Working Class", as well as A.M.’s "Bolshevism Demystified".

13. V.I. Lenin, One Step Forwards Two Steps Back.

14. Livingstone, op. cit. p.88.

15. Rosa Luxemburg, quoted in J.P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, 1966, pp.656-7.

16. V.I. Lenin, "Speech on the Labour Party at the Second Congress of the Communist International", in Lenin On Britain, pp.269-70.

17. L.D. Trotsky, Writings on Britain, Vol.2, 1974, p.119.

18. L.D. Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin, 1970, p.124.

19. H. Dewar, Communist Politics in Britain, 1966, p.66.

20. L.D. Trotsky, "A Summary of Transitional Demands", in The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, 1977, p.99.

21. See my essay "More Than Wars and Revolutions", pp.15-17.

22. See the prologue to L.D. Trotsky, The Crisis of the French Section, 1977, p.17.

23. Ibid., p.125.

24. L.D. Trotsky, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1934-35, 1971, p.318.

25. L.D. Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, 1975, p.431.

26. Writings of Leon Trotsky 1934-35, p.102.

27. Ibid.

28. John Goffe, quoted in S. Bornstein and A. Richardson, War and the International, pp.142-143.

29. Ibid. p.152.

30. Alistair Mitchell, "The British Political Situation and a Perspective for Socialists", 28 May 1990.

31. L.D. Trotsky, Writings on Britain, Vol.3, 1974, p.107.

32. Luxemburg, quoted in Nettl, op. cit. p.646.

33. Writings of Leon Trotsky 1934-1935, p.37.

34. For an explanation of interim demands see my "More than Wars and Revolutions", p.25.