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Why I Am Not Joining

Chris Gray

From New Interventions, Vol.7 No.2, 1996

MARX WROTE in the Manifesto:

"The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.

"The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the from the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.

"The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all the other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat."

While this is admirable as a statement of strategy, we have only to look around in Britain today to see that the situation is not what it was in 1848, when Chartism was still a recent experience. In particular we conspicuously lack "proletarian parties" whose aims are as Marx describes – if by "parties" we are to understand organizations which command mass support. Instead, what we do have, in profusion, is revolutionary groups (some of which call themselves parties) whose aim is indeed as described, but who lack wide support within the working class. In so far as there exists a trade union movement we have the beginnings of the formation of the working class as a "class for itself". This trade union movement succeeded, in the early 1900s, in establishing its own political wing, which was the Labour Party. But even with the adoption of Clause IV of the 1918 constitution the Labour Party was not made over into a party committed to the overthrow of capitalism and the conquest of political power by the working class: it merely pledged itself to secure for the workers "the full fruits of their industry" (whatever that was supposed to mean) by means of "common ownership". And in practice this clause has remained something of a dead letter, if we look at the measures taken by the various Labour governments this century.

What we have seen, in effect, is Labour operating as a "bourgeois workers’ party", that is, as a party supported by the majority of the organized working class seeking not a new mode of production entirely but rather the amelioration of the existing setup, in order to do away with its worst effects as far as the mass of the population is concerned. This has occurred because, basically, it is what most Labour supporters have favoured: if that were not so, then instead of the current lurch to the right we would have seen a pronounced swing to the left, a further exodus of right-wingers of the stamp of Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and Co., and the election of a leadership around Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone. But this has not happened, nor is it likely.

Indeed, so unlikely is it, that Arthur Scargill and his followers have concluded that it is not worth staying in the Labour Party any longer, and that the time has come to establish a new party. Is this a wise move? And is the new SLP’s programme a real step forward compared with the current Labour position?

My inclination is to say "no" in both cases. The SLP may gain significant support or it may not – it is still too early to say. In the short term, however, the reformist mood of the workers remains a problem, and, allied with it, the role of Blair, Brown and Co., as "labour lieutenants of capital". Indeed, so deep is the hatred of the current Conservative government that many Labour supporters – and a significant number of Labour activists – are prepared to put up with almost anything if the end result is Major’s ejection from office and the advent of a Labour administration. They will have to learn the hard way – via the experience of a government led by Tony Blair.

Does the SLP offer a credble alternative? Again, no. There are question marks over certain aspects of the draft programme, particularly the section on common ownership, which speaks of the need for "common ownership of all public utilities, including transport as the start of a plan to change the overall direction of the economy".

This is not specific enough. As Claire Heath points out in an issue of Workers Power, a change in overall direction of the economy calculated to lead to socialism will require, in addition, state control of banks and major financial institutions. It would appear also that the questions of compensation for former owners and of how public bodies are to be controlled have not been addressed.

Further, the draft is said to be in favour of withdrawal from the EC. It is true that any attempt to introduce socialism in Britain would come into conflict with the institutional arrangements of the European Community, but I strongly suspect that the authors of the draft believe that "socialism" can be introduced (or that their policies would ensure economic prosperity) in a purely national context. This flies in the face of recent developments. Consider France in the early 1980s. Alex Callinicos sums up the results of Mitterand’s attempts at reformist policies in his recent pamphlet:

"Capitalists reacted by going on strike. They stopped investing. Money poured out of the country. The franc came under huge pressure in the currency markets, particularly within the European Monetary System. Within two years of his election Mitterand had performed a U-turn and adopted Thatcherite economic policies. Spending was slashed and unemployment soared, helping to create the poverty and inequality that have provided such an effective breeding ground for the biggest fascist movement Europe has seen since the Second World War" (New Labour or Socialism?, SWP, 1996, p.25).

There seems, indeed, no reason to rush headlong into the ranks of the SLP. Indeed, such a response would be to mistake the problem. The problem is not so much where socialists are – although they are indeed always in danger of finding themselves in the wrong place – as what they are saying. What we have been saying is, in several areas, inadequate. We do not have a clear conception of what socialism is; we do not have a clear set of proposals for the creation of an international economic order that will redress the balance between the "metropolitan" and the "ex-colonial" countries; and we do not have a coherent set of policies designed to deal with the problems facing the European Community. Unless we achieve significant advances on these fronts it hardly matters whether we stay in the Labour Party or join the SLP: we shall, in that case, fail to be the solution ... maybe, eventually, reaching the sane conclusion that, indeed, we are not the solution.