Marxists and the Labour Party

Marxists and the Labour Party

The following article is one in a series of personal viewpoints offered by members and supporters of the Independent Socialist Network, assessing the new situation brought about by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. As is to be expected given the fast pace of developments, the views of any given author may have developed since these pieces were written; and none of them necessarily represent the collective view of the ISN. The collected series can be found on its own page.


The Independent Socialist Network is debating the approach it should take towards the Labour Party now that Jeremy Corbyn has been elected as its leader. In the September issue of The Project I argued that the then likely success of Corbyn leadership campaign would transform the political scene in Britain. It would open up new space for socialist ideas and this once-in-several-decades opportunity should not be squandered. In this article I want to explain more fully the approach I began to set out.

Before this summer’s extraordinary events unfolded, the Labour Party had moved increasingly to the right for a good three decades. In the aftermath of the Bennite left’s early-1980s heyday, commitments to rid Britain of nuclear weapons, to extend public ownership, and to break the shackles that Thatcher has placed on trade unions were shed. The transformation of Labour’s policy agenda culminated in a Blair government that bought into the neoliberal myth that the private sector, market mechanisms and minimal regulation (even of the financial sector) were the route to economic prosperity. Even after crash of 2008, many in the parliamentary Labour Party hold fast to that myth.

The response of many socialists was to assume that the Labour Party was finished as a vehicle for working class politics and that a new formation was needed that to some extent or another filled the political space that had been vacated. Over the last fifteen or twenty years we have seen a succession of attempts to bring together those opposed to the politics of austerity and neo-liberalism with socialists who understand the need for revolutionary social transformation. Today TUSC and Left Unity are all that remain of the various incarnations of the project to “unite reformists and revolutionaries”. Faced with a Labour Party that has just elected –by a majority of 60% and with a quarter of a million votes – a leadership that is unambiguously opposed to austerity and neoliberalism, the rationale for these organisations’ existence has evaporated.

Socialist transformation

But the problem for socialists goes deeper than the current difficulties being experienced by TUSC and Left Unity. Most socialists have misconceived the nature of the task that confronted them. As long as the Labour Party survived, recreating a party seeking the support of trade unionists as trade unionists let alone encouraging trade unions to affiliate (as TUSC did) was an entirely redundant exercise.

The Labour Party was created as the political instrument of the trade union movement and for over a century the most important trade unions have remained affiliated to it. Lenin’s description of the Labour Party as a “bourgeois workers’ party” in discussion at the second congress of the Communist International (July to August 1920), in part, misses the point. He says the Labour Party contains four million affiliated trade unionists as well as hundreds of thousands of individual working class members (that is the workers element of his description), but it is led by pro-capitalist leaders and seeks to prop up capitalism and deceive the workers (the bourgeois element).

In reality, its history shows that there is no such sharp dichotomy between the base of workers and the pro-capitalist leadership of the Labour Party. Trade unions are by their very nature – other than in exceptional circumstances – “bourgeois workers’” organisations: they seek to improve workers’ conditions within capitalism. At best, trade unions wage a guerrilla struggle against the worst depredations of capitalism. At worst, they collude with employers to protect the jobs and conditions of their members. How often are trade union leaders heard promoting the logic that unions can make the lives of “good” employers easier?

It is that logic of class collaboration which has informed the approach of the Labour Party over the decades – in and out of government – and it flows naturally from the fact that it is in origin and, very largely, in form a trade union party. Trade unions continue to wield something like half of the votes at the national conference; they form an important component of the National Executive Committee.

The objective of socialists, in contrast, is to abolish the division between capital and labour. Better paid wage slaves are not the limit of our vision. We seek an end to the condition of wage slavery and, by making everyone a worker, the abolition of class society. To achieve that ambitious objective we need a party which can think beyond the bounds of our present social system. In short, we need what we could call a Marxist party (the labels communist party or revolutionary socialist party or socialist party informed by Marxist principles would do just as well).

Of course, there are any number of organisations that claim to be such a party, but a Marxist party fit for the struggle to supersede capitalism must itself supersede the divisions and sect-like forms of organisation that currently bedevil Marxists – in Britain and elsewhere. A genuine Marxist party would base itself not on a requirement to adhere to the resolutions and theses of the first four congresses of the Communist International (valuable as it may be to study and debate these), but rather on a few simple but powerful ideas.

These include working class independence – defending and advancing without compromise the interests of workers. The fullest possible democracy in our own organisations and in society as a whole – ultimately democracy and capitalism (a system based on tyranny in the workplace) are incompatible. Internationalism – the essential basis for the rule of the working class and also an absolute necessity for the maintenance of the independence of the working class against the siren call of nationalism.

And flowing from these principles the objective of the socialist transformation of society.

Engaging with the working class

A party established on this basis would work closely with trade unions, tenants associations, community campaigns, indeed all the organisations of the working class. It would fight alongside these organisations and be prepared to learn from them – it would in large part be built by operating within the workers’ movement. But it cannot be controlled by them. A Marxist party with trade unions affiliated to it would come under enormous pressure to adopt reformist strategies – it would not long remain a party committed to socialist transformation.

Remember, throughout most of the history of the Labour Party, the big trade unions were the bulwark of the Labour right, casting hundreds of thousands of block votes at conference to crush the left in the constituencies. Even at the most recent Labour Party conference Len McCluskey, whose Unite union had backed and provided important organisational resources to Corbyn, spoke out against Corbyn’s commitment not to renew Trident. McCluskey said he had himself been a “unilateralist” until election as General Secretary but that he now had to prioritise the jobs of his members. The Socialist Party’s pre-Corbyn strategy in TUSC had been predicated on the possibility that a major union such as Unite might disaffiliate from the Labour Party and back the formation of a new “workers’ party”. In the new circumstances, this obviously will not happen, but it is important to recognise that a workers’ party formed on the basis that the Socialist Party envisaged would simply have imported the politics of labourism, including, it is now obvious, the pressures to adapt to Britain’s imperialist military strategy.

However, a principled, democratic, pluralist and open Marxist party that engaged with the working class and its organisations could expect to win those organisations, including the trade unions, to Marxist politics. As it became a mass party and the ideas of socialism became part of the commonsense of the working class, a Marxist party could expect to win leading positions at all levels of the trade union movement, up to and including the Trades Union Congress. From bourgeois workers‘ organisations, the trade unions would become genuine combat organisations of the working class that were part of the movement to create a new society.

And when this happened, what would become of the Labour Party? Would it make sense to just cast it aside? Or would the Labour Party– given the weight of its trade union component and the inevitability that its members would hardly be immune to the dramatic changes in society that Marxists were propelling – not itself be transformed into an instrument of the working class? Self-evidently that would be the case. And that begs the question of how we explain that it is the Labour Party that has been the recipient of tens of thousands of new members and supporters who wish to fight the Tories and the despairing politics of austerity and how Marxists should engage with the Labour Party in the here and now.

A Special Case

As Lenin said, the Labour Party is a strange kind of party that, in a traditional sense, and certainly in the sense that Marxists understand it, is not a party at all. What Lenin did not do was to apply the understanding that the revolutionaries of the 1920s had of the “united front” to the Labour Party, but it seems obvious that in some ways that is what the Labour Party is. A forum, if you will, in which the politics of the whole working class – reformists, collaborators with the capitalists, and also, at least potentially, those who seek socialist transformation – can be fought out.

I do not think that means Marxists should never oppose the Labour Party or organise separately from it. It does mean a different strategic approach from that adopted by, say, the Socialist Party which theorised that it had become an out-and-out “bourgeois party”. It was always wrong to call for trade unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party when the demand should have been that the relevant trade union leaders actively promote the genuine interests of their members within the structures of the Labour Party.

And I do think that right now the Labour Party is the fulcrum of the most important political and class struggle. For us, that struggle combines two aspects. The need to defeat the attempt of the Labour right in alliance with virtually the whole of the media and the capitalist establishment to unseat Corbyn as soon as possible – they have made it crystal clear that they expect the outcome of next May’s elections to provide the first opportunity to mount an internal party coup. And the promotion of a socialist agenda among the Labour left and the tens of thousands of new Corbyn supporters – as well as constructing uncompromising opposition to cuts and privatisations even when they are carried out by Labour councils.

Since there is not a Marxist party of the type I have advocated in a position to carry out this important work, the formation of such a party – or current – will have to take place in parallel with working inside the Labour Party. It may be that the heat of what are likely to be convulsive struggles will serve as a better environment for forging the political instruments the working class needs.

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