When the trotskyist “Young Socialists” gather in Morecambe for their annual conference this month they will be voting on a proposal from their national committee that they should put forward their own parliamentary candidates in future elections. This would be a clear break from their previous stand of critical support for the Labour party and it is worth taking a look at these new contenders for the workers’ votes.
The “Young Socialists” were originally organised by the Labour party as its youth section in 1960, to replace the defunct Labour League of Youth. As always, tension rapidly built up between the idealist young people who formed its rank and file and the Labour party bureaucracy which wanted to keep them firmly in hand. The spineless policies of the Labour leaders grated on the “Young Socialists” and they were also incensed by the arbitrary control of their organisation by Transport House. This, then, was a classical situation for the trotskyists to move in on and the “Socialist” Labour League played the same role as the “Communist” party had done in the previous takeover in the thirties. The break from the Labour party came in 1964 when a wave of expulsions ended in a complete split in the movement. Those who left retained the name “Young Socialists” and formed a nominally independent organisation, while the rump which remained in the Labour party now operates under the clumsy title of “Labour Party Young Socialists”.
If the plans of the national committee ever get off the ground and the “Young Socialists” do run candidates for political office, they will present themselves to the working class on a platform of transitional demands. These can be anything from “Victory to the Vietcong” to the call for “Nationalisation of the basic industries, banks and insurance”. They are intended as a minimum programme (socialism being relegated to some indefinite, doomsday status) but are supposed to have a long-term effect as well. As the original Transitional Programme of the Fourth International put it:
the Fourth International advances a system of transitional demands, the essence of which is contained in the fact that ever more openly and decisively they will be directed against the very bases of the bourgeois regime.
Obviously this process of progressively phased revolution has not advanced very far since the Transitional Programme was first adopted in 1938, as the demands at present being touted clearly show. Just what benefits the victory of the Vietnamese ruling class over the American capitalists would bring for workers anywhere remains obscure, to say the least, while nationalisation of industry — even if total, as in Russia — merely enables the ruling class to tighten its grip on the means of production. If all the supposedly revolutionary, transitional demands of the “Young Socialists” were enforced, the working class would remain in exactly the same position as it started out — propertyless and exploited. The slogans of the “Young Socialists” are a far cry from Marx’s — and the Socialists Party’s — revolutionary demand of abolition of the wages system.
The need for the so-called transitional demands arises in the theoretical framework of the “Young Socialists” parent body (the “Socialist” Labour League) because they take it as axiomatic that the working class cannot possibly grasp the case for socialism if it is presented to them in simple, uncompromising terms — without some form of bait. In fact, the pivot of all their arguments is the conviction that the workers can never arrive at an understanding of socialism by their own efforts and that they must therefore be controlled from above by a leadership. The only useful purpose the working class serves is that it provides the mass basis which the trotskyists hope to make use of in their attempt to gain political power.
This line of thinking is in direct conflict with Marxism. While Marxists have always argued that the socialist revolution must be the result of a united effort by the workers of the world, the followers of Lenin and Trotsky maintain that action by a determined minority, with passive or blindly following masses at the back of them, is all that is necessary. In the case of the Russian Bolsheviks there was perhaps some justification for this attitude, operating as they were in a backward, peasant country. But, however sincere their intentions to build socialism might have been, the historical obstacles were insurmountable and they found themselves leading a bourgeois revolution which conformed in all essentials to the characteristics which, as Engels pointed out, typify the rise to power of capital. They were the “small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses” who lead every revolution which merely replaces one ruling class by another.
A socialist revolution is something entirely different, however.
If the conditions have changed in the case of war between nations, this is no less true in the case of the class struggle. The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses, is past. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must also be in it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are going in for with body and soul. The history of the last fifty years has taught us that. But in order that the masses may understand what is to be done, long persistent work is required, and it is just this work which we are now pursuing, and with a success which drives the enemy to despair.
(Engels’ introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France)
It is this “long persistent work” which socialists take on in their efforts to convince other workers like themselves of the urgent need for establishing a socialist society based on the principle of “to each according to his needs, from each according to his ability”. Trotskyists, on the other hand, shirk this job. Falling back on idealism or, to use their own language, “petty bourgeois impressionism”, they try to sidestep the task of spreading socialist ideas among the working class as a whole and retain the archaic notion that only a conscious minority is needed. Thus, in the “Socialist” Labour League’s pamphlet — The death agony of capitalism and the tasks of the 4th International:
The turn is now to the proletariat, i.e., chiefly to its revolutionary vanguard. The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership (our emphasis).
This is nothing but the view which Engels was attacking as already outdated in 1895. It belongs to a different era; to the era of capitalist revolutions.
We might add that there are, of course, no prizes for guessing who the “revolutionary leaders” will be. With customary modesty, Gerry Healy et al. announce themselves as God’s latest gift to the working class.
Apart from the leadership issue, once the slogans and pamphlets of the “Socialist” Labour League are stripped of their mock-revolutionary verbiage, what remains is a thoroughly reactionary programme. Socialists maintain that a class-conscious working class has the ability right now to build a society of abundance, based on free access to wealth—what Marx called the “higher phase of communist society” in his Critique of the Gotha Programme. Any need for possible preliminary stages is a thing of the past. What Marx saw as necessary in 1875 — an initial period during which the productive forces would be rapidly increased — is obviously an outdated concept, when we consider the gigantic strides that have been made in all branches of industry in the last hundred years. Like other socialists, Marx’s suggestions were based on an over-optimistic prediction of the imminent overthrow of capitalism in the closing years of the nineteenth century. The “Socialist” Labour League, however, is still committed to maintaining the wages system in the second half of the twentieth century and its members talk in terms of “generations” before it could possibly be done away with. Supporters of the trotskyists in the trade unions should bear this in mind when they back organisations like the SLL — and it wouldn’t do them any harm either to remember just what happened to the unions in Russia when the Bolsheviks, under Lenin and Trotsky, gained power. It would be interesting to learn how many of the trade unionists and “young socialists” who look to the SLL. for political guidance would be prepared to submit to Lenin’s maxim “of unquestioningly obeying the will of the Soviet leader, of the dictator, during the work.”
Another completely reactionary role which the “Socialist” Labour League has taken on itself is that of calling on the workers to vote Labour in past elections. Their national secretary, Healy, advances a sophisticated argument to justify this;
During the general elections of October 1964 and March 1966 we urged trade unionists to vote Labour and at the same time fight within the labour movement for a socialist policy to be adopted by the government.
The Socialist Labour League advocated this policy knowing that the vast majority would vote labour as part of their experiences.
It was our responsibility to go through this experience with the working class. Likewise it is our responsibility today to outline ways and means to fight Wilson within the labour movement, not to desert this fight through abstention at the polls.
Hence we call on the ‘left’ MPs to fight him in the Parliamentary Labour Party at the forthcoming conference at Scarborough in order to take the working class through the experience of political struggle in relation to the Labour Party.
Our job is to expose these ‘left’ MPs, just as Wilson is being exposed, and at the same time demonstrate to the working class the need for alternative revolutionary leadership within the labour movement.
The weak points in this would be obvious to any thoughtful worker. If, as Healy admits, the workers were going to vote Labour anyway what was the point of the SLL adding to the confusion! Wouldn’t it have been far better to have taken a stand on socialist principles, as the Socialist Party did, and to have called on the working class to oppose capitalism and all the capitalist parties (including the Labour and “Communist” parties)? Despite Healy’s grandiose plans to “take the workers through the experience of political struggle in relation to the Labour party”, objectively all he has achieved is to help to keep the workers on the Labour-Tory pendulum. Many of those who voted in a Labour government at the last general election will, on present evidence, be voting in a Conservative administration at the next. One sign of hope, to be sure, is the sizeable proportion who seem to have abstained in recent by-elections and, if their present mood of disillusionment and apathy could be replaced by socialist understanding, this indeed would be a breakthrough. But, if for a moment we go along with Healy’s rather paranoiac dreams and assume that they were ready to support the “Socialist” Labour League, where would it get them? Healy’s message is simple:
We say that the labour movement has had enough from such traitors, on the left and the right — a new, alternative leadership has to be built.
Far better for the working class to realise that all leaders, whatever their pretensions, are the political enemies of the workers. There is no substitute for socialist working men and women. What is needed above all are self-reliant workers equipped with a thorough understanding of Socialism, not abject followers cringing and praying that this time they will not be betrayed and compromised.
In any case, the Socialist Party of Gt. Britain does not subscribe to the narrow interpretation of “experience” which is common to all varieties of trotskyist theory. We do not think that the only way to learn is by burning one’s fingers. Applying this to the young workers in the “Young Socialists”, we say — why wait until bitter experience forces you to see through “Socialist” Labour League? Why not examine its programme from the standpoint of Marxian Socialism now? Why not come over to the side of the revolution?