How much has Left-wing organization achieved?

In periods of keen left-wing activity, those who keep to the principles of Socialism are said to be stick-in-the-muds letting events pass them by. The argument is not simply that we ought to be swelling the agitation; it is that making issues and demands “radicalizes” the working class, or gets them in the mood for revolution. The picture is of an expanding movement building support as never before. It is quite false.


On 4th February 1974 The Times published information supplied by various organizations about their membership and policies and the circulations of their journals. The outstanding feature of all of them, with one exception, was their smallness. The Chartists, who advocated a general strike and that trade unions should institute military training, had a membership of 60. The International Marxist Group had “about 1000” and International Socialists (now the Socialist Workers Party) 4,000. The Workers’ Revolutionary Party gave no figure, but in 1974 was urging its members to try to get the numbers up to 1,000 by the end of the year. The Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) likewise said its numbers were “secret”; two hundred might not be a bad guess.


The total membership of these five organizations is 6,000-plus. Together or separately, they are hardly in a position to sneer at the Socialist Party for not having recruited large numbers of workers. What most of them would claim is larger circulations for their papers, IMG’S Red Weekly was said to be selling 15,000 copies; the IS Socialist Worker 39,000; WRP’S daily Workers’ Press 20,000; the Marxist-Leninists’ fortnightly The Worker 15,000.


Stony Ground
These presumably were print-order figures, and without doubt there is a good deal of overlap—people buying two or more of the papers regularly. But how much influence do they have? An obvious yardstick is election results. It can be assumed that the constituencies chosen by these parties are ones where the workers are thought to be well “radicalized” by protests and strikes, or made ready to listen by unemployment, and where sales of’ the papers have been pushed.


In the 1974 General Election the Marxist-Leninists put up six candidates who gained 208, 334, 170, 107, 206 and 394 votes. IMG had three, who gained 90, 202 and 424. The WRP had nine candidates whose votes were 280, 52, 337, 263, 160, 760, 991, 240 and 1,108. The over-all average of these figures is 259; in a turn-out of, say, forty thousand it represents .065 per cent of the votes cast. In the Greater London Council elections in May this year the returns were no different. The four candidates representing left-wing groups polled 354, 361, 219 and 996.


After nearly twenty years of “new left” agitation the outcome is a few competing small organizations, getting electoral support which in total would not do for a Second Division football club. Certainly they make more noise, proportionate to size, than Socialists. One reason is that they take up reform demands which are already being made by sections of the Labour Party, Trades Councils etc. Another is that high membership dues and contributions from well-off members provide funds for printing. A high proportion of members in occupations such as teaching and journalism gives the impression of influence in important spheres. In fact, this underlines the failure of the left to achieve what it most wants to do, since it considers those occupations to be “middle class”. The “radicalization” of the working class remains elusive—naturally, because it is a myth.


What a Life
The exception in numerical strength is the Communist Party. Its membership was given as 29,000 in 1974 and is about the same today. Far from being the flower of radicalism, this comparatively high figure reflects a retreat from it. Before the last-war, when the CP agitated on similar lines with similar arguments to those of today’s left-wing groups, it had a membership comparable with theirs. It started with about 4,000, mostly drawn from the old British Socialist Party. Its numbers rose at the time of the 1926 General Strike, and fell sharply afterwards; in 1930 they were down to an official figure of 2,555. A marked rise came only after 1936, as a result of the Spanish Civil War and the Communists’ advocacy of a “Popular Front” government. During the war, after Russia became an ally of Britain and America in 1941 and the CP gave all-out support to the war effort, the numbers rose to a peak of 56,000,


Thus, when the Communist Party was trying to “radicalize” the workers it had a small number of members and was unsuccessful; its numbers grew only when it gave up making demands and talking of insurrections, and started doing the work of British capitalism. In the post-war years it fell steadily from 45,000 in 1945 to 33,000 at the beginning of 1956, after which there was a sharper fall due to the denunciation of Stalin and disagreements over Hungary. It has been said repeatedly that a large part of the the past thirty-five years have been “book” members only, characteristically those who joined in the excitement of the war.


One factor in disillusioning many Communists was the appearance of the CP policy statement The British Road to Socialism, in 1948. Following the Party’s war- time stand, it adopted an openly social-democratic attitude making proposals for the management of capitalism in Britain. A fresh version is being prepared In 1977, to be voted on at the Party Conference in November. Public meetings have been organized to discuss the draft, and the CP has invited Tribunites, SWP and IMG speakers to join in the debate (though IMG, in Socialist Challenge for 9th June, declared “total opposition” to The British Road). The present-day Communist Party is more or less despised by the others; it is bigger because it no longer pretends to be a revolutionary party, while they are where it was forty-five years ago.


Adding up
There is another way of looking at all this. Before the 1914-18 war the major left-wing parties were the ILP and the BSP. The Labour Party had no individual membership but was made up of affiliated bodies. With the creation of individual membership in 1918, followed by the formation of the Communist Party in 1920, most of the other groups and parties were swallowed up. The ILP kept a separate identity of sorts and in 1925 still had 50,000 members. Before disaffiliation in 1932 it had (according to Fenner Brockway) gone down to 16,000; when the ILP disaffiliated the majority stayed with the Labour Party, leaving a membership of about 5,000. The total of Communists, ILP and other smaller factions in the mid-thirties was probably about 20,000.


Since that time the numbers have not substantially changed. If the commonly-alleged amount of dead wood in the CP is taken into account, they may not have increased at all except proportionally to the increase in population. The ILP after its disaffiliation retained three Members of Parliament until a few years after the war, and the Communist Party had one MP from 1935 to 1950 (and a second from 1945 to 1950); both had a number of local councillors. Today none of the left-wing groups appears to have —despite persistent efforts—any prospect of getting a candidate elected at either level


The only changes are movements of members among organizations. The “new left” was generated in the late ’fifties and early ’sixties entirely by people who had parted company with the CP, and the members represent the CP’s losses: i.e., it is what they would have joined but now reject. All the groups and parties have heavy membership turnovers. The break-up of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the mid- sixties produced, via the Committee of 100 with its “direct action” policy, a sudden and short-lived growth of the anarchist movement, which in turn yielded members for other groups. It is not uncommon to find people who in a few years have been through CND, direct action, the WRP’S predecessor the SLL, and perhaps is as well


Hole in the Road
No left-wing mass movement has ever existed. The idea that organizations today are winning support from a lot of “radicalized” workers, leaving the Socialist movement asleep at the post, has no relation to facts. The great majority of workers support capitalism through the established governing parties. A not-greatly-altering small minority want present rulers overthrown or some sweeping reform carried out; while the organizations come and go that they follow, Socialists continue to advocate Socialism as the only alternative to the existing order.


It may be asked why, if the left is a paper tiger, it receives so much publicity as a subversive influence in industry and politics. The answer is that this suits all concerned. For the employing class, it serves the myth that every working man is beatifically content until an agitator gets at him. For the major parties it provides scapegoats. It suits the organizations themselves in that it gives a reputation for being daringly against the way things are. It must be nice to become a Marxist not through studying the books but by having a label stuck on one’s coat.


Those who founded the Socialist Party of Great Britain were aware that the road might be a long one. In 1904 labour leaders had already turned their backs on the idea of working to achieve Socialism for that reason—it had not brought quick rewards. The history of the failures of left-wing organizations since that time makes crystal-clear that the Socialist attitude was and remains correct. Unless workers understand Socialism, they will go on supporting capitalism. The vision of short-cut “radicalization” has two tragic by-products. One is a number of disillusioned working people who were and are still led to expect big things which didn’t, and won’t, happen. The other is obstruction to Socialism: for, if all those who have said in seventy-odd years that they wanted a quicker substitute had acknowledged that no such substitute existed, we might have had the real thing by now.


Robert Barltrop