1970s >> 1978 >> no-892-december-1978

Against the Left pt.5


    “The English working class had been gradually becoming more and more deeply demoralised by the period of corruption since 1848 and had at last got to the point when it was nothing but the tail of the “great Liberal party”, i.e. of its oppressors, the capitalists. Its direction had passed completely into the hands of venal trade union leaders and professional agitators.” (Letter from Marx to Liebknecht. February 11th, 1878)

Reading the above, one’s immediate reaction is that things haven’t changed very much. The working class is still supporting its oppressors, but today the party which pretends to stand for the workers is Labour, not Liberal. Professional trade union bureaucrats, with their social contracts and their productivity deals, still try to manipulate the workers. The lesson of the First International has yet to be learnt: that the working class must emancipate itself. At a glance it would seem that socialism is a distant prospect. But in fact, there is evidence to suggest that some are rejecting the policies of the Left, even if they are not turning to socialism. Let it be clear that we do not recommend workers to abandon Left Wing ideology so as to turn to the Right. To stop voting Labour in order to vote Conservative or Liberal or not at all is to turn them from one pointless exercise to another.

This series has considered the three main tendencies on the British Left: Labourism, Stalinism and Trotskyism. (We have not examined other currents, such as Maoism or anarchism, because they are relatively insignificant today). In this concluding article it is worth posing the question: what are the prospects for the Left in the days ahead?

Still the most popular organisation by far on the Left is the Labour Party. In a sense it is incorrect to see the Labour Party as a single party as it is made up of a collection of local cliques, affiliated trade unions and political factions. The vast majority of Labourites would not see themselves as Marxists, revolutionaries or even Left wingers. A minority within the Labour Party aims to move it in a “leftwards” direction, by which is meant more nationalisation and even more welfare reforms. Remind a Labour Leftist that, despite six Labour Governments and endless reform legislation, we are not a fraction closer to socialism and he will doubtless agree with you. The problem, he will tell you, is that Labour has the wrong leaders. Alas, the memory of the Labour Left is at fault. Recall the election for the leadership of the Labour Party in 1963. The spokesman of the Labour Left Tribune, had this to say about one of the candidates:

    “He has not only qualities of political acumen, political skill and survival power which no one denies him. Other considerable qualities too for a Labour leader—a coherence of ideas, a readiness to follow unorthodox courses, a respect for democracy . . . above all a deep and genuine love of the Labour movement” (Tribune 22 February, 1963)

Who was this man of impeccable qualities who was about to guide Labour in the required direction? It was none other than Harold Wilson, that well known lover of the working class. Well, Wilson won the leadership and Labour won the 1964 election. What did Tribune have to say about Wilson’s ‘considerable qualities” when he was Prime Minister?

    “Socialist principles have been tossed aside with almost indecent cynicism and casualness. Racial discrimination in Britain has been condoned and strengthened. American butchery in Vietnam has been actively supported and encouraged. Social welfare and economic development in Britain have been sacrificed to carry out a reactionary economic programme at the best of international finance capital. What of the Left leaders in Parliament? Tell them off on your fingers, comrades, and think of their words and deeds in recent months while the Labour movement has been sold down the river. It is a sad picture and I can personally neither see nor offer any excuses. Are we finished, we of the Labour Left?” (Malcolm Caldwell in Tribune, 20 August, 1965)

In his letter of resignation from the Labour party on 24 September, 1965, Alan Dawe, the paper’s education correspondent, wrote in Tribune

     “We are not right to view the Labour party and its latter day works as having anything to do with Socialism. They don’t, they won’t and it is time we faced up to it.”

Since experiencing the effects of Labour Governments large numbers of Labour activists have faced up to the non-socialist nature of their party. Labour is further from its original sentimental intentions than ever before. As we stated in an earlier article, Labour has never stood for Socialism, but was originally intended to defend the working class within capitalism. Its predictable failure adds weight to the contention that wage labour and capital can under no circumstances have coinciding interests. Attend public meetings or branch meetings of the Labour Party and you will witness its diminishing size and prestige; some Labourites have turned to racist and fascist alternatives. Others remain in the political wilderness. Will they turn to socialism?

Since the death of Stalin, numbers and influence of the Communist Party have been declining at a rapid rate. Its stability was shaken by pro-Maoist splits, and by the reaction to Hungary in 1956 (which gave rise to New Left Review). During that period the Communist Party has been in a dilemma between maintaining rigid adherence to Moscow or becoming an openly social democratic (reformist) party like its Italian and French counterparts. In 1977 the new draft of The British Road to Socialism, the CP’s policy statement, strongly supported the ‘eurocommunist’ line, thus rejecting the old Bolshevik slogans for modern reform demands. ideally, the CPGB would now like to unite with the Labour party, but the possibility seems unlikely as Labour bends over backwards to convince world capitalism that is as ‘safe’ and ‘respectable’ as the Conservative party. Eurocommunism has caused a split in the CPGB, with a loyal group, loyal to the ‘Soviet Fatherland’, leaving to form the New Communist Party. In its pamphlet The Case For The New Communist Party, the crisis of British Stalinism is ably summarised:

    “The decline in membership and Morning Star circulation accelerated. The Young Communist League collapsed into a tiny unorganised sect . . . At the base of the party the crisis in organisation was even more clear. Thousands of members were no longer organised and many did not even pay their nominal monthly dues of 25p. The tendency grew for branches to appear in public only at elections or at Christmas bazaars. Consistent and regular political work by branches was now quite rare. Meanwhile there grew a number of groups supporting various brands of Trotskyism and ultra-Leftism. A new generation of potential revolutionary fighters were being diverted into anti-communist and anti-soviet groups.” (p. 7)

The New Communist Party has pledged itself to maintain the pro-Kremlin line which the CP has decided to play down. Few workers treat seriously this effort to win faith in Russian state capitalism. The CP is destined to continue its squalid struggle for respectability, during which it could even fuse with the Labour Party or, more likely, go out of existence.

Many workers who would in the past have joined the Communist Party are today attracted by the Trotskyists groups, especially the Socialist’ Workers Party. These parties would seem to be on the crest of a wave, but it must be remembered that their membership is based upon the opportunism of reform demands. The Right To Work Campaign, for instance, has been a useful source of members for the SWP. Once the present crisis ends, however, and labour is needed to expand the economy, those who have been attracted to the unemployed lobby because they were out of work will probably leave. A membership based on immediate demands will decline if and when the issues they fight for are temporarily solved. Capitalism is always capable of removing resistance by enacting reforms. Evidence of this is the high turnover in membership of parties like the SWP and the WRP. That is why the SPGB has always appealed to workers as a class and not as people suffering from this or that problem.

To imagine that the political situation has remained unaltered for the last hundred years would be to reject the Marxist theory of history. The working class does learn from its experience. It learns slowly and at the expense of its mistakes, but it is that factor—the ability to learn from history—which differentiates humans from animals and which makes the probability of Socialism more than a question of idealistic hope. Marx and Engels, in the last century, thought that socialism was only a matter of years away, as did the founders of the SPGB in 1904. Modern socialists are less ready to predict the course of the future, but for the general prophecy that if capitalism continues the working class can expect misery and if socialism is established we can look forward to hitherto unexperienced freedom. Socialism is not inevitable unless the working class seriously organises for it. Support for the left is support for utopianism in the extreme. The only solution to the historic problem of the working class lies in its own elimination as a class.

Steve Coleman

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