by Stephen Morgan
Like other countries, Britain has a plethora on tiny ultra-left groups on the fringes of the labour movement, however, unlike other countries, their ingrained sectarianism has stopped them from uniting into a left coalition which might develop along the lines of those across the rest of Europe.
Now a mass left movement has developed within the LP around Corbyn they have been dumbfounded and wrong-footed, because the overwhelming majority of these groups had rejected the LP, characterizing it as a bourgeois party, which could never be reformed again back into a traditional workers' party, and in which a new left would not develop.
They pointed to the Blairite victory, the emptying out of the LP party membership, the suppression of internal democracy, the dumping of the socialist Clause 4 of the constitution and pro-Imperialist policies as proof that a qualitative change had taken place and the LP was no longer the traditional party of the working class, but a bourgeois party just like the other capitalist parties in Britain. Unions should disaffiliate from it, they said, and party members should leave and workers should stop voting Labour.
In doing so, they overturned the long held position of the old CWI that Labour was the traditional party of the working class which “the working class and youth would turn again and again towards in order to try to transform the Labour Party in to a mass, left-wing socialist party.”
This theoretical somersault by the SP, with the aim of building an independent workers party, was dressed up as a “new theory,” when, in fact, it was just a warmed up dish of the same old false positions followed by the other ultra-left groups in the post-war period. As a result, the Socialist Party has become virtually indistinguishable from the 35 or so, other ultra-left groups living in a make-believe world on the fringes of British Labour movement. Now with the massive election victory of the left-winger Jeremy Corbyn to leader of the Labour Party, they are left eating their words.
Of course, the observations and criticisms they made about the LP were generally correct, but that didn't amount to a theory, it was just a list of facts that anyone could see. You didn't need to be a Marxist to understand that the LP had degenerated. Many people on the left inside the LP, such as Jeremy Corbyn himself and Tony Benn recognized it too, but they drew a more correct conclusion that this was simply a phase that the party was going through and that it would be reborn as a mass left-wing movement in the future.
Speaking at a meeting of the Labour Representation Committee back in 2004, (an organization inside the LP set up years ago to fight for internal democracy and left policies) at which Jeremy Corbyn also spoke, the veteran socialist leader and former Labour MP, Tony Benn said:
“Things may seem very bad in the party, but if we can survive Ramsay MacDonald, we can survive New Labour. I urge people to stay and fight in the Labour Party.”
Even though it took another decade for this perspective to be vindicated, Benn's insight and conclusions proved to be far more correct than the great Marxist “theoreticians” of the Socialist Party. In fact, they forgot all the lessons of the UK section of the CWI – the Militant Tendency – which had allowed to grow into an extremely powerful influential force in British politics.
Because, the forerunner of the SP, the Militant Tendency, had continued to orientate towards and work within the LP during the right-wing dominated years of the 50s and 60s, they reaped massive benefits, when a new left developed in the party in the 1970s and 80s. An unprecedented situation where Militant took control of the Labour Youth wing, the LPYS, controlled the executives of a large number of unions, as well countless local LP branches and Labour councils, especially Liverpool. For the first time in British history, there were three Militant Trotskyists elected to the Houses of Parliament.
The left became an enormous force, and Militant was able to have a major influence on developments in society, because of its correct analysis of the Labour Party as the traditional party of the working class and their foresight that, despite decades of domination by the right-wing, it would swing back to the left again. Correct perspectives led to the right tactics, and Militant grew to around 8,000 members.
Ironically, Peter Taaffe, the leader of the SP, who engineered the new change in position, had clearly explained the correct approach with regards to the perspectives of the CWI, when he wrote in the 1973 introduction to an internal document on entrism;
“A great opportunity will be presented to us to develop as a mass tendency in the conditions which will develop in Britain in the next decade. But on one condition—that our cadres correctly absorb the lessons of our work within the Labour Party and theoretically arm ourselves for the coming period.”
“On the international plane we are the only tendency which correctly understood that the first awakening of the proletariat would be reflected through the traditional organizations.”
Looking back across the history of the Labour Party, it is clear to see that Labour has constantly swung left and right by the influence of developments at home and abroad. To cite Blair's policies as a unique historical turning point, never before seen in Labour's history—which transformed the LP into an anti-working class, bourgeois party - looks pretty feeble when set against the treachery of previous Labour leaders. (See the discussion paper on the New Left in Europe for a more detailed explanation.)
The combination of the betrayals of right-wing Labour governments, economic crisis and international events have always created the conditions for a swing back to the left in the LP, while, on the other hand economic boom, a lull in the class struggle and reactionary developments abroad have always provided the backdrop to the growth of the right.
For example, in the 1970s and 80s, the swing to the left in the LP came on the heels of the international development of massive left-leaning movements around the world like the Anti-War and the civil rights movements in the US (especially the Black Panthers), the revolutionary crisis in France in 1968, CND, the anti-apartheid movement in S. Africa, etc. That was then followed by the world economic crisis of 1974.
In Britain, the betrayals of the working class by right-wing Labour governments, which had unleashed unprecedented attack on workers' rights and draconian austerity measures caused a leftward shift in many unions and the development of a left-wing in the LP augmented by the coming to power of reactionary Conservative governments led by Margaret Thatcher.
It is precisely the same combination of factors which has laid the basis for the shift left in the Labour Party now. The world economic crisis of 2007-8, draconian austerity measures, betrayal by right-wing Labour governments and the influence of huge left movements in Southern Europe like SYRIZA and Podemos, left-wing governments in in Latin America, the ecology movement, etc. Unfortunately, the SP was blind to all this, and have made an unforgivable blunder, which shames their links to the old CWI.
The Theoretical mistakes of the SP and CWI
In the 1990s and 2000s, the SP summoned up the ghost of Lenin to back up their characterization of the LP as a bourgeois party, quoting him as describing the LP as a bourgeois' party. But the fact that Lenin said this doesn't make it necessarily true or a scientific classification.
Lenin defined the LP as such, in contrast to the other socialist parties of the 2nd International, which were nominally based on Marxism. However, Lenin was wrong about them also. When Lenin read in the German SPD paper Vorwärts, that the party had given its support to the Imperialist war in 1914, he refused to believe it, and thought it must be a forgery by the German Army General Staff.
Lenin had considered these parties to be workers' parties, who wouldn't betray the working class by voting for war. The point being that his analysis of the traditional workers' parties proved to be wrong from all aspects. You can't hail his analysis of the LP as a scientifically correct characterization, without simultaneously recognizing his naive and erroneous position on the other socialist parties of Europe. Citing Lenin's statements as incontrovertible source of theoretical guidance is misleading and just plain wrong. Lenin had a tendency to bend the stick to make a point, and on this, and on other points, that stick often snapped.
The distinction Lenin made between the British Labour Party and the other parties of the 2nd International was based to a large degree on the fact that they were founded on Marxism and contained clear socialist clauses in their constitution, while the LP did not.
However, in 1918, it adopted Clause 4 of its constitution which called for “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.” The fact that this appeared later (under the influence of the Russian Revolution) and not at its beginnings couldn't really be considered a sound theoretical base from which to differentiate from the other parties of the 2nd International, whose socialist clauses were worded in the same sort of language.
Take for instance, the Belgium Socialist Party, which was a founding member of the 2nd International. It states in its principles, called the Charter of Quaregnon and that its aim is,
“Of ensuring the free and unhindered use of all the means of production. This can only be achieved in a society where individual labour is replaced by collective work and the common ownership of the means of production...transformation of the capitalist system into a collectivist regime”
Why is so different in this clause that makes any more of a genuine workers' party than the bourgeois Labour Party?
Ah! the SP replies, but now the LP has jettisoned Clause 4! This is one of the SP's central arguments in re-characterizing it as a bourgeois party, instead of their previous definition of it as a traditional party of the working class.
Then we must ask, why does the CWI also characterize the Belgium PS as a bourgeois party when its Clause 4, the “Charter of Quaregnon,” remains in its constitution? In fact, this “bourgeois party” publicly credits the major influence of Marxism in its foundation on its official website and actively promotes the Charter of Quaregnon on its site as the founding aims on which the party is based. Perhaps the SP and CWI needs to re-characterize the PS and other European socialist parties as “bourgeois parties based on Marxism,” with the aim of overthrowing capitalism and replacing it with socialism! (Actually, the PS have also just posted a prominent picture on the front page of their website of the PS party leader and former Prime Minister warmly shaking hands with Corbyn, clearly indicating their support for his election and policies.)
Furthermore, could Peter Taaffe please explain why he supported the tactic of entryism into the German SDP by the CWI's German section back in the 1970s and 80s, when the Social Democratic leaders had already jettisoned the socialist clause in its constitution at the Godesberg Party Conference in 1958? Regardless of this fact, Taaffe still considered it a workers' party.
Of course, we shouldn't have any illusions in the current leaders commitment to socialism. But the point is that the SP position is shot through with inconsistencies and contradictions which show its analysis to be fundamentally incorrect.
The SP has been totally upended the Corbyn movement. As they say in an article recently that, “the world has been turned upside down”. “No-one, least of all Jeremy Corbyn ...expected this outcome.”
What is amazing is the Socialist Party now claims it was, in fact, correct in its perspectives for Labour all along. You will be excused, if you're left a little speechless. Frantically, trying to cover their tracks, they had to dig back 13 years into their material to find a quote to substantiate this. They write;
“As long ago as 2002 we argued that, "under the impact of great historic shocks - a serious economic crisis, mass social upheaval - the ex-social democratic parties could move dramatically towards the left" (Socialism Today September 2002).
Later in the same article, the SP tries to bolster this argument with a more “scientific” analysis. It reads;
“History demonstrates that mass parties of the working class can move from left to right and back again. Bourgeois parties also, or a section of them, can break away and form the nucleus of new workers’ parties, and former workers’ parties can metamorphose into bourgeois parties.”
These few sentences from 13 years ago sound very impressive. But, basically all they're saying is “Anything can happen.” Following the same logic, the Tories might also transform themselves into a party of revolutionary socialism!
To try prove themselves correct, they point to Italy, saying:
“The Italian Socialist Party, under the corrupting influence of Craxi who laid the basis for the rise of Berlusconi, evolved into an almost completely bourgeois formation and then eventually disappeared. On the other hand, the split from the Italian Communist party in 1991 led to a new mass party in Italy, Rifondazione Comunista.”
This is also a spurious argument. Firstly, the old mass party of the working class in Italy wasn't the Socialist Party, but the Communist Party. As for the new mass party of the working class, Rifondazione Communista (PRC), you'd be excused if you ask who?
This apparently successful example of a new mass party splitting away from the traditional workers party ended in ignominious failure. Within a matter of a few years, the PRC went into an alliance with the bourgeois centre coalition “The Olive Tree” in order to contest the 1996 elections. The PRC “mass" workers' party gained a miserable 8% of the vote.
After the next elections in 2006, the PRC again entered into a Popular Front coalition government with the center-left, bourgeois alliance, called The Union and it wasn't so much the Italian Socialist Party which laid the basis for the rise of Berlusconi, but the PRC by going into a centre coalition which betrayed the working class.
The CWI's new “mass” revolutionary workers' party, the PRC, got only 3.4% in the 2009 European elections and in the next general election in Italy, it got only 2% of the vote and failed to get any seats in parliament. So, this great example of the successful creation of a new independent workers' party from a traditional socialist party, aimed at justifying the SP's strategy of splitting the Labour Party, falls flat on its face!
But, wait for it. The article then cites “Arthur Scargill's break away group from the LP as showing the potential for a mass workers party to emerge from a split in the LP. In “the 1990s”, it says, “we launched the slogan for a new mass workers’ party. This idea was confirmed in the growing support for a break from Labour, with steps taken by good rank and file fighters and leaders towards the formation of such a party. Arthur Scargill’s initiative to form the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) was welcomed by ourselves and others.” However, as we now know, Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party has disappeared into thin air proving such adventures which the SP advocates, come to nothing.
The 2002 statement was really is, is a fits-all, get-out clause, in case their were proven wrong - a little insurance policy in the fine print at the bottom of their perspectives documents. Yet, despite these two paragraphs, they took a diametrically opposite position, saying the LP had undergone a qualitative, and could never return to becoming a traditional worker's party and swing to the left again.
Now, speaking of their now defunct former perspectives for the creation of a new workers' party, they admit that, “We considered it more likely to come into being from forces outside of the Labour Party.” adding that “a movement within the Labour Party structures was not the most likely scenario.”
Practice should run from theory, but in, practice, the SP has ignored and never repeated this 2002 statement and has pursued a policy in contradiction to it for the last 13 years. If the SP has really held onto the 2002 perspective where is the strategy to show it? The proof of the pudding is in the eating. If they really also believed it was still possible that a left could emerge in the LP, then surely they would have followed a policy which took this into account and encouraged the formation of a left both within and outside the LP as two compatible parts of the same strategy. They should have called on the unions to stay in the party and fight for its transformation, instead of disaffiliating and have encouraged left-wing members to stay in and not split away from it, while, at the same time, organizing a broad left movement outside the LP to involve people disillusioned with traditional politics.
But, even now, in the face of a movement to the left involving hundreds of thousands of youth and workers, they cling to their old discredited theories and refuse to join the LP and work in a united front with the New left around Corbyn in order to transform Labour, much like the sectarian position taken by the Stalinists in Southern Europe towards the New Left there.
Where the ultraleft and opportunist groups in Britain have orientated towards the Corbyn movement, it has been in an entirely sectarian way agitating on its fringes, in order to try to recruit new members into their groups in line with their delusions about building their own independent, mass revolutionary parties.
Wriggling and squirming in the face of this new reality, the tiny Socialist “Party” of England and Wales (CWI) has now attempted to explain Corbyn by saying “there are now two parties with the LP” – the right and left wings. They may be supporting the idea of de-selection of right-wing MPS in the LP, but this is just hollow words. At the same they continue to calls on Corbyn and his supporters to split from the LP and create a new workers' party – which the SP would, of course, then try to take over. This is exactly what the Labour right-wing would also like to see happen. Consequently, the SP's position represents an attempt to sabotage Corbyn's movement from the left. In doing so, it has entered into a de facto united front with the Labour right-wing.
Although not an exceptional theoretician like the old CWI leader, Ted Grant, Peter Taaffe was undoubtedly the best tactician on the revolution left during the post-war period. However, without the theoretical guidance of Ted behind him he lost the compass with which to chart the right course. His false analysis of the LP inevitably resulted in a misguided strategy. His ultraleft theory led to organizational opportunism in an effort to keep supporters of his faction of the CWI from dropping out. Now he will have to pay for it as rank and file membership who are losing faith in his powers of judgment.
Now, following some quite amazing twists and contortions, the SP has adopted the position that there are “two parties inside the LP” and that the left around Corbyn should split away and form a new worker's party together with the piddling little left groups like the SP. This is entirely wrong. The left around Corbyn should precisely the opposite and dig in to reclaim the party for the left, and let the right-wing split away to form some center-left party or fuse with the Liberals. If the left splits away from the LP, it will sink like a stone just as the ILP did in the 1930s. The name and traditions of the LP would again fall into the false arms of the right, but regardless of that workers will turn back to it as their traditional party, ignoring any left-wing break away.
The test of a genuine leadership is to have the humility and honesty to admit that you were wrong and from that to reassess why and what needs to be changed. Lenin was honest and bold enough to admit to the Bolsheviks in April 1917 that his entire perspective and the demands flowing from it for the Russian Revolution were wrong. As they say, “pride comes before the fall”. It is a sign of a weak leadership's desperate efforts to cling to power.