The Left: Once More Boring From Within
“Left” is pidgin-political for reformers babbling of green fields, syndicalists, and advocates of state capitalism. Socialists reject it as a label because we want none of those things, and there is one other conspicuous difference. No Socialist would touch the Labour Party with a barge-pole; the “left” fall over one another getting into it.
In the past two or three years there have been repeated alarms about the activities of allegedly Marxist (usually Trotskyist) groups in the Labour Party. On one hand they agitate for new programmes of reform; on another, they are said to plot within constituency parties to get rid of MPs who do not suit them. in November 1975 the Labour national agent presented a report called Entryist Activities to the party’s national executive, defining “entryism” as “a decision by an outside organization ineligible for affiliation to the Labour Party that its members shall enter as individuals, to carry out activities as directed by the outside body”. In the first week of December 1976 The Times had a series of articles on Trotskyists in the Labour Party, and Callaghan and Wilson made speeches denouncing “infiltrators who seek to take over local parties and unseat respected Labour MPs” (Sunday Times, 5th December).
These reactions are revealing in themselves. To the Labour leaders and their naïve supporters, the “left” are bent on socialist revolution; and that is the last thing the Labour Party wants. The Sunday Times report quoted Callaghan as saying “the most hateful slogans he had heard recently were: What do we want? Everything! When do we want it? Now!'” A party which lives on promises of a little jam tomorrow is bound to object to demands like that. Nevertheless, some vital questions are raised. Should democracy permit wreckers to have their way? What would happen of the “left” became the majority in the Parliamentary Labour Party? Is it likely?
From the time the “new left” began to form, about 1960, “entryism” was a widely talked-of tactic. The Labour Party has maintained a list of proscribed organizations, i.e. groups and parties which are refused affiliation with it. Technically, a member of one of them may be refused admission or expelled if his membership can be proved; however, some “left” groups have no formal membership — the “Militant” group which is said to be specially active in provincial Labour Parties presents itself as a collection of devotees of a weekly paper.
Such a situation creates a problem in voluntary organizations. Each exists for a particular purpose which its constitution is framed to further. If a section with unacceptable ideas finds its way into membership it can make use of the procedures and rules to further its own purposes instead. As a parallel, the Socialist Party of Great Britain does not admit to membership people who hold religious beliefs, are interested in our anti-war case more than in Socialism, or think we should join forces with other parties. If such people joined, it would be possible for them eventually to out-vote the rest of the membership and alter the purpose of the SPGB. It is absurd to suppose that they should be admitted and permitted in the name of “democracy”, democracy is related to a given framework.
But the prospects of “left” groups being able to take charge of the Labour Party are remote. That they have been successful so far in campaigns against MPs in two constituencies — Prentice in Newham North East and Sandelson in Hillingdon — chiefly reflects apathy and non-participation by other members. However, the fact is that constituency parties do not run the Labour Party. They are only a small fraction of the membership; though they provide half the representation at conferences they have about one-sixth of the votes (the remainder being in the hands of the trade unions). In 1930 Beatrice Webb recorded a conversation in which her husband, Sidney Webb, said
“that the constituency parties were frequently unrepresentative groups of nonentities dominated by fanatics and cranks, and extremists, and that if the block votes of the trade unions were eliminated it would be impracticable to continue to vest the control of policy in Labour Party Conferences.”
This is quoted in Robert McKenzie’s British Political Parties (1964), and McKenzie adds: “there can be little doubt that he accurately reflects the conviction of the great majority of the parliamentary leaders then and now. The conference could not be accorded even nominal authority in determining the long-range goals of the party if it were subject to the overriding influence of the constituency party delegates. But the parliamentary leaders have little to fear from the party conference as long as they retain the confidence (and the block vote support) of the traditionally moderate and conservative leadership of the big trade unions.” This contrasts with the claim made by a Labour Party organizer, quoted in The Times (2nd Dec. 1976) of an “immediate threat” in “Trotskyist-inspired resolutions” put forward by constituency parties at the annual conference.
Webb was a member of the second Labour Government, and he was referring mainly to the ILP which disaffiliated from the Labour Party in 1932. The ILP’s militant slogans at that period have a familiar ring today — “Socialism in Our Time” and “The Living Wage Policy”. In disaffiliating the ILP believed it would hold the bulk of its MPs and local members, particularly as the Labour Party was in disarray in 1932. However, only a handful of the 156 MPs who were nominally members of the ILP remained with it, and the great majority of constituency members rejected it for the Labour Party. A “left-wing” confrontation would produce the same result today. Indeed, it is plain that the infiltrators are in the Labour Party because they see no prospect of success standing on their own feet. The election results for International Socialists, International Marxist Group, Workers’ Revolutionary Party etc, have not alarmed anyone except their wealthy supporters who provide the money.
What do they hope to achieve by infiltration? “Left” is a muddled, imprecise term covering many ideas and motives. The groups working inside the Labour Party are not at all united in their aims. IS and IMG have been called “middle class centrists” by the WRP, who want Labour on power so that Labour “will be exposed and will be driven out” (1974 Election Manifesto). Andy Bevan, the Trotskyist Labour Youth Officer, wants only a different policy — “a programme that can really show the way forward to the Labour Party” (TV interview reported in Sunday Times, 28th Nov. 1976). In May 1972 a “left” Labour agent debating with an SPGB representative at Canterbury asserted that “revolutionaries” would take over the Labour Party, then get it while in power to engineer an economic crisis of which they could take advantage. (He was a Labour candidate in the last general election, and the crisis took place without the Government even trying.)
The demands made by the “left” are sadly familiar: soaking the rich, nationalization, the right to this and that. A letter to The Times in 7th December from the editor of the Militant paper protested against a “scare campaign” and said:
“What frightens you and the class you represent is that the Labour Party rank and file should have the temerity seriously to wish to implement Clause IV, part 4 of Labour’s constitution, which calls for the nationalization of the commanding heights of the economy. Militant has concretized this part of Labour’s programme with its demand for the taking over of the woo or so monopolies which control 80-85 per cent of the economy, with the compensation to the shareholders on the basis of proven need, under democratic workers’ control and management.”
Let The Times and some of its readers be frightened for the right reason, at any rate — not that these demands have anything to do with Socialism, but that they seek to run capitalism with a new degree of ineptitude.
“Left-wing” leaders with political power are in the same position as “right-wing” ones: they have to meet the realities of managing capitalism. On 16th November a group of Labour MPs who call themselves the Social Democratic Alliance pointed a finger at 33 other Labour MPs who, they allege, are under “Marxist” influence. In most of those cases the likelihood is that the MPs are no more than idiots who court popularity as bold radicals. Possibly others are secret members of Trotskyists groups. But what are the preoccupations of all of them now? Trying to cure unemployment by reviving those sections of industry which need it; looking for a formula to check inflation; improving the balance of trade — in short, doing the best they can for British capitalism.
Each generation of radicals believe there has been a sell-out by the previous generation. Most of the 1923 “wild men of the Clyde” became respectable establishment figures. Michael Foot, who in 1966 was reported in The Observer as saying he would teach his grandchildren to say “I am an anarchist”, is now Labour’s Deputy Leader and opposes “extremists” on the grounds that party unity is essential. What is not realized is that the let-down comes at the beginning, not the end. Early Labour leaders who were aware of the nature of Socialism put it aside in favour of getting mass support quickly. Some at least of the “left” today reject Socialism for the same reason, and because of the excitements offered by the militant scene. Yet, despite the professions made, the only alternative to Socialist politics is capitalist politics. If he makes that choice, the “extremist” of today is already the trimming statesman of tomorrow; if it comes to it, the possessing class will make terms with a Trotskyist state as with a Tory one.
The appearance of a fresh political faction enables the press and party leaders to try to impress on the working class that who runs capitalism is all-important. It is not. The one issue that matters is exchanging capitalism for Socialism; besides ending the problems of society as we know it, that will make democracy in the widest sense a reality.