Why Reformists and Revolutionaries Should Work Together to Build the Labour Party

 (The author of the following article is a school support worker and Unison steward who is a member of the Socialist Party – a revolutionary organization that in an earlier era was known as the Militant Tendency. In 2015 he stood as the parliamentary candidate for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) in Leicester East. While earlier this month, in order to support Jeremy Corbyn’s inspiring efforts to oppose austerity he voted to support Labour MP for Leicester East, Keith Vaz.)

Bear with me for a minute as I have a short story to tell you about this history and origins of working-class organizations. Let’s begin in the not so distant past — just over a hundred years ago — when a diverse group of socialists, Marxists and trade unionists came together to fight for political representation in parliament.

The key element that united most of these diverse individuals was the need to create a socialist society where the wealth generated by the many would no longer be syphoned off by the few. But they did not agree on everything. There were vigorous discussions between these united workers as to whether it was possible to slowly reform capitalism away through gradual changes in parliament, or whether it was necessary to present a sharp challenge to the ruling-class and overthrow their capitalist system via a revolution, based upon a mass movement of the working-class.

A healthy, inclusive and democratic party would of course have no problem in containing socialists of both persuasions, reformists and revolutionaries, as both shared the same emancipatory goal of creating a socialist society. With both being united in their opposition to capitalism it should have been obvious that through discussion and debate each grouping would have had an equal chance of winning over others to their ideas, but this was not to be.

Initially at least, reformists and revolutionaries differed primarily in the tactics they promoted for surpassing capitalism, differences that were evidenced by major disagreements such as whether they should support or oppose World War I. In later years the increasingly well-organised rightwing of the Labour Party led repeated witch-hunts against revolutionaries, with the latter being mistakenly told their ideas were alien to the Labour Party. Such divisive actions to deliberately exclude one group of socialists from their own classes’ organization makes as little sense then as it does now. I say this because the potential strength of socialist strategies for transformation can only suffer when democratic debate is artificially constrained by false divisions: our only strength after-all is our unity! It is only through the open and democratic discussion of socialist ideas that we may wage the class war to victory.

Here it is critical to acknowledge that there are many shades of socialist ideas (some of which are barely recognisable as socialist at all), and naturally, in a bid to work collectively, people holding true to similar strains of socialist thought will tend to work together. This diversity of views should therefore be seen as a strength to be nurtured, as it is only through the ongoing battle of ideas between organised groups, both nationally and internationally, that socialist strategies for change are steeled and hardened for the developing struggles ahead. Socialists must organise in ways that fully harness the diverse ingenuity of their class if they are to overcome the regimented and authoritarian planning of their capitalist adversaries.

False Divisions

Yet not everyone agrees on the arguments I have laid out so far, and socialists who find themselves won over to revolutionary ideas have for many decades been consciously excluded from membership of the only existing mass organization of their class, the Labour Party. This has meant that false divisions have been unnecessarily instituted within the working-class – deepening rifts that ultimately only benefit the unjust status quo.

But although it is true that at various points in history revolutionaries have been purged from Labour’s ranks, it should also be noted that individuals holding true to revolutionary ideas were largely tolerated within Labour’s ranks. It appears that this toleration of revolutionaries lasts as long as such individuals fail to win over a sizable number of Labour supporters to their strategies for change: hence revolutionary activism was fine so long as it did not prove effective! So when longstanding Labour Party members came together as a revolutionary tendency (known as the Militant tendency) and then proceeded to win increasing numbers of the working-class to the Labour Party’s ranks behind their programme of change, this proved to be a step too far for the organised force on Labour’s right.

Despite the undemocratic hostility of various elected leaders of the Labour movement — who at times were working hand-in-hand with agents of reaction, like for instance the Central Intelligence Agency — throughout the 1970s and early 80s revolutionaries succeeded in winning over large swathes of the working-class to the need for a radical Labour Party manifesto that harnessed the full power of parliamentary reforms to the needs of the many. In the ongoing battle of ideas it became clear that uncompromising reforms put forward by the Militant tendency were extremely popular with the working-class.

Through hard work and organisation certain important democratic concessions were squeezed from the Labour Party’s parliamentary leadership — these included the democratic right of local Labour members to decide who their parliamentary representatives should be (the right of mandatory reselection). Such gains represented a critical transfer of power from the Labour tops to rank-and-file members, as now ordinary members of the working-class had the ability to keep their elected representatives actions accountable.

However, when the mass membership of the Labour Party had the audacity to go on to democratically adopt a radical political manifesto for change, the more conservative elements of the Party’s leadership took decisive action in putting down this democratic upsurge that defied their authority. A thoroughgoing purge then began in earnest in the early 1980s of revolutionaries who had been proven particularly successful in organising against the increasingly dictatorial demands of capitalism.

Of Tory Myths and Splits

The Tory myth that Labour was unelectable because the unions were too left wing also served as a useful battering ram against the rising popularity of the ideas of the Labour left by the proto-Blairite parliamentary leaders. Moreover, while revolutionaries and other assorted left socialists were being demonised as the enemy within, a small but significant group of Labour parliamentary representatives chose to leave the Labour Party in order to form their own new party, the so-called Social Democratic Party (SDP). It was this SDP breakaway — formed in active opposition to the socialist politics of the many — that ensured that the working-class vote was split just enough to enable the Tories to scrape back into power in 1983.

In the ensuing period attacks on the organised left with the Labour Party only grew in intensity, which meant that during the course of the 1980s the working-class as a cohesive political force became increasingly fractured. Reformist Labour leaders blamed the revolutionaries, along with radical reformists, for all Labour’s woes. In the process the goal of the socialist transformation of society was cast aside (as was Clause 4), as Labour leaders sought in vain to make their party more electable — which they did by aping their Tory counterparts.

Attacking the Working-Class

As part the Labour Party’s evolution toward a full embrace of capitalism, the Labour leaders turned on their own class, most notably by disowning and denigrating effective trade unions like the National Union of Mineworkers. These public attacks on socialist trade unions of course came at the exactly the same time that the Tories were seeking to crush the trade union movement. Ever keen to smash the socialist ambitions of fellow members of the Labour Party the same misleaders simultaneously attacked any Labour-led Council’s that dared to lead mass struggles against Tory austerity — a good example here being the Militant-influenced Liverpool City Council.

If these tragic historical events should teach us anything it is that the collective strength of the British working-class should always be directly against those ruling elites who seek to serve the political and economic needs of the few. A mass based Labour movement cannot grow and sustain itself by attacking those within its own ranks that seek to promote working-class interests. Yes of course that will mean there will be increased conflict and vigorous debate within a truly open and democratic Labour Party which includes both reformists and revolutionaries, but that can only be a good thing. If revolutionaries happen to prove more successful in organising members of that Party, that should only provide further fuel to reformists to hone their ideas and organising strategies to demonstrate that it is their ideas that will enable the Labour movement to overcome our chains of capitalist oppression.

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The consequence of the extreme rightward turn of the Labour Party and almost complete reorientation towards the acceptance of capitalism means the Party has now been overwhelmed by unaccountable leaders whose actions have not served the needs of the working-class. Party democracy was hollowed out under Tony Blair’s forceful hand, and malleable careerists cast in his mould have inveigled their way into positions of considerable power — into positions of representation over which the lay membership have exerted little or no control. Voting rates then declined, as did participation in popular struggles within trade unions and the Labour movement, while talk of genuine democratic participation and socialism became a dirty word for many of our “elected” leaders… Jeremy Corbyn has now defied the odds and turned this problematic history upon its head.

Jeremy Corbyn and the Future of Labour

Of course despite his commitment to reformism, Corbyn has other concerns on his mind as he is still surrounded by a multitude of pro-capitalist enemies in the Labour Party. In fact over the last two years Corbyn and his principled approach to class struggle has been relentlessly opposed by the majority of Labour MPs and councillors. Contrast this resistance with the surging support he has obtained from the grassroots of the Labour movement –from the millions of people who whose lives will be directly improved by Corbyn’s challenge to austerity.

Right up until this latest general election, the dominant pro-austerity faction of the Labour leadership were absolutely sure that Corbyn would be wiped-out when his opposition to austerity was put to the popular vote. These leaders who had no faith in the working-class to respond positively to a fighting programme for change were proven wrong on a monumental scale. Moreover it now looks increasingly clear that a Corbyn-led government will be in Downing Street within the next few months, if not sooner.

Revolutionaries, like myself, who have been forced to work outside of the Labour Party welcome these progressive developments. We also acknowledge that the threat posed by capitalist powerbrokers to any incoming Labour government has never been more deadly. It is for these reasons that we believe our class must heal our differences and allow revolutionaries and reformists (and those who remain as yet undecided on the merits of reform or revolution) to unite in the urgent struggle for socialism. One way in which such a reunion of socialist forces could be accomplished might be to revert back to some of the organisational principles developed during the founding years of Labour Party, which saw diverse socialist groups join together in a democratic and federated structure.

Democracy as the Basis for Change

In the meantime it would be remiss of Corbyn’s newly revived Labour movement not to select new councillors and MPs who might replace any New Labour stalwarts who have spent their last two years actively opposing Corbyn’s principled leadership of their party. Certainly there are tens of thousands of ordinary members of the working-class whose grasp of socialist politics would better equip them to carry forth class struggle in the coming years than most of our existing Labour representatives in both local councils and in parliament.

At this stage however we should be thankful for small mercies that many of Corbyn’s previously determined opponents are now publicly calling for harmony and unity with Corbyn and his millions of working-class supporters (Liz Kendall is a case in point). But at the same time we should recognise that the Labour movement needs politicians who are true class fighters, not eternal class compromisers, especially ones who have no faith in the power of the working-class to oppose capitalism.

Democratic elections could easily be organised in every Labour branch across the country to ensure that politicians tainted by austerity and warmongering are quickly retired into positions where they can rediscover the nature of class politics. Union representatives are a commodity in short supply, and it would do such New Labour retirees much good to contribute in a voluntary capacity towards rebuilding grassroots struggle in the Labour movement by becoming stewards in their new workplaces. No doubt their newly professed dedication to rallying behind Corbyn’s leadership will make them reliable activists for the Labour Party and I would certainly look forward to attempting to win them over to revolutionary ideas during the course of comradely debate within both the trade union movement and the Labour Party.

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