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Marxists and the British

Labour Party

The 'Open Turn' debate

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Peter Taaffe

(1973 Introduction to republication)

The initiative of the London comrades in republishing the document 'Problems of Entrism' together with the most important of Trotsky's writing on this issue is to be welcomed. Most comrades joining the tendency 'cut their teeth’ on this document.

It is rightly considered as a key document of the tendency, showing clearly where we differ from the sects in our perspective for the mass organisations. Even experienced comrades will benefit by a re-reading of the document.

A comparison with Trotsky's writings, which is here made available to most comrades for the first time, completely vindicates the approach of the document and following from that the work of the tendency, not in a general sense but even in nuances and details, e.g.

'We must not turn to the ultra-left conservatives, must not justify ourselves before the shrill accusations of people who lost all balance and all sense of responsibility... but rather speak in language understandable by Socialist and non-party workers who seek a way out of the impasse... more deeply to penetrate the ranks of the Socialist workers, not in order to lecture to them from above as learned specialists in strategy, but in order to learn together with the advanced workers, shoulder to shoulder, on the basis of actual mass experience'.

Such an approach is a million light years removed from that of the 'haughty, strutting sects' on the outskirts of the British Labour Movement.

If we briefly examine the position of these 'Trotskyists' it is shown that they have committed every error of which Trotsky forewarned in his writings on Entrism. Thus the founders of the S.L.L. , as a minority in the Revolutionary Communist Party came out for entry into the Labour Party under entirely incorrect conditions , this 'Problems of Entrism’ explains.

Gerry Healy in 1945 could write

 'Despite disappointments, the Labour Party retains the support of the masses who in high hopes, placed it unmistakeably in power...Before turning to any new movement the workers and petty-bourgeoise are determined to see that Labour has every chance...The whole future of Trotskyism in Britain is bound up with our attitude towards the Labour Party. Upon the manner in which we face up to the implications of the entrist tactic depends the success or failure of our efforts in the future’. (R.C. P. Internal Bulletin 1/12/45).

 The SLL adopt the diametrically opposite standpoint today. Opting for an open 'revolutionary party' to bypass the LP. They were wrong to pose the issue of entry in 1945 and equally wrong in their present orientation.

The entirely false perspective of Healy that there would be a rapid crystallisation of a centrist current is summed up in the statement from the same Bulletin which speaks of the Tories 'beginning (to) move towards extra parliamentary measures'. He has been repeating every year since that the Labour Movement is faced with the short perspective of 'Socialism or Fascism'.

The S.L.L. currently engage in 'third periodism' and are embarrassed to be reminded of their earlier position towards the Labour Party-Their embarrassment is compounded when it is revealed just what they did when they entered the Labour Party.

These 'intransigents' who fulminate against our ostensible 'deep entry', 'capitulation to the Lefts' etc. were themselves the practitioners of precisely these sins when they entered the Labour Party. Confirmation of this is to be found in one of their own documents, 'Pabloism in Britain' which was directed against us and circulated mainly in the Labour Movement in Liverpool in the early 1960's.

This document speaking about the first period when they entered the Labour Party says:

'They (our tendency TP [Peter Taaffe’s note]) opposed the central tactic of the movement around 'Socialist Outlook'. At that time, in the Labour Party, the evident task for revolutionaries was to assist the organisation of a-Left Wing'.

Quite apart from the incorrectness of the idea of "organising the Left", (amply refuted by 'Problems of Entrism') the 'tactic' of the ‘Socialist Outlook’ entailed the complete subordination of Healy and Co. to those 'Lefts', like Bessie Braddock who was the 'parliamentary correspondent' of this journal as well as holding shares in it.

Its position was so indistinguishable from Stalinism that to use their own words, "John Lawrence (Co-leader with Healy of this tendency)... and his group subsequently joined the Communist Party" only narrowly having failed to gain a majority in Healy's organisation.

Following the debacle of 'Socialist Outlook' and its suppression by the Labour Party NEC in 1954 they themselves added "we sold 'Tribune', wrote for it and participated in the tribune' group. That was absolutely correct". (ibid) In fact Healy and his supporters were the dogs bodies for the 'Tribunites’. To all intents and purposes so far as the rank and file of the LP were concerned, they were Tribunites with only minor differences with Foot and Bevan and Co.

Everything that Trotsky wrote about the need to be implacable in the defence of the programme, to differentiate ourselves from the left reformists and centrists was jettisoned by Healy and Co. in the hunt for a short cut. Yet when Pierre Frank and Raymond Molinerre (among leaders of the French Trotskyists) proposed a bloc, not with reformists like 'Tribune', but with a centrist current, Trotsky completely broke with them "...when Molinerre tried to replace the party programme by 'four slogans' and created a paper on that basis, I was among those who proposed his expulsion" (In Defence of Marxism). It is not difficult to imagine the scorn with which Trotsky would have greeted the tactics of the S.L.L. in their 'Outlook' and 'Tribune' period.

They were buried so deeply in the Labour Party that the suggestion by us in 1956, that there were fields where a certain amount of attention must be devoted. e.g. the C.P. which was in turmoil over the events in Hungary; provoked a furious denunciation for ostensibly seeing "the main pivot of revolutionary activity as being the open organisation". (Pabloism in Britain).

The same criticism holds for the IMG. It is only a few years ago that these 'Bolsheviks' were arguing against the idea of a clearly defined Marxist journal within the Labour Party even going to the lengths of calling for the abandonment of 'jargon' like 'capitalism' and 'working class' which they maintained would frighten away potential supporters!

Their attempt to form a bloc with a section of Tribunite MPs on the basis of one or two transitional demands collapsed. Their ill fated journal 'The Week’ was wound up with no gains whatsoever accruing to them. Like their international co-thinkers, Mandel in Belgium, Frank in France, Livio Maitain in Italy; having gained nothing through their work in the Labour Party they completely abandoned the mass organisations as bankrupt.

It was not their failure to correctly apply Trotsky's teachings on entrism that was blamed for this lack of success but the very concept itself. They subsequently engaged in a binge of ultra-leftism which has attracted into their ranks, completely incapable petit-bourgeois, most of whom are engaged in a temporary flirtation with Marxism.

Those who split from them and remained in the Labour Party have carried their former position to its logical conclusion and are now indistinguishable from the Tribunites. The IMG and other sects, if and when they return to the Labour Party, will take up where they left off, by opportunistically adapting themselves to the prevailing Left currents. As Trotsky remarked in relation to the French opponent of entry into the [French] Socialist Party, "the ones who are most prone to lose their identity in the opportunistic milieu are yesterdays ultimatists."

The signs are evident even now in the noises emanating from the IMG in relation to 'Left Unity' on a programme perfectly acceptable to the Left reformists. Of the same kind are the demands of the S.L.L. which combines abuse instead of argument against the Lefts - with utterly incredible statements evincing parliamentary and legal cretinism:

"They (the Tories) are an illegal government because of their actions against the democratic rights, the welfare and health services, and the living standards of the people. They are flagrantly abusing the authority vested in them, vested in the sovereignty of an elected Parliament in July 1971." (our emphasis; Draft Manifesto of All Trades Union Alliance)

If they enter the Labour Party in all probability they will seek an alliance with the other sects and the Left reformists or centrist currents which may then develop. The I.S. also, at least that section which enters the Labour Party, will with certainty seek the comfortable embrace of the centrist and reformist elements who will be only too eager to turn them against us.

At the time when Trotsky first posed entrism it evoked violent opposition from the hide bound sectarian. We know that in Spain the failure of Andres Nin, Andrade and the Spanish Trotskyists to heed the advice of Trotsky and enter the Socialist Party, particularly to enter the Young Socialists, resulted in the 'splendid socialist youth' being lost to the Stalinists. On a smaller scale, the Labour League of Youth in Britain were captured by the Stalinists.

The Spanish Stalinists in capturing the Y.S. were thereby furnished with a mass base for the first time on Spanish soil. The failure of the Spanish revolution in a large measure could be traced to the refusal of the Trotskyists to enter the Socialist Party, combined with the false programme of Nin & Co. The Spanish Young Socialists appealed to the Trotskyists as 'the best theoreticians in Spain', to come into the Socialist Party to take it over, to 'Bolshevise' it. These youth had also declared for the Fourth International, as had the U.G.T. newspaper. The failure to grasp this enormously favourable opportunity with both hands led to the shipwreck of the Spanish Revolution.

But even where the Trotskyists entered the I.L.P. in Britain the SFIO in France, the Socialist Party in Belgium and America, etc., the great possibilities which existed were not properly utilised. This was due to the inexperience on the one side of young cadres, and the pressure to adapt to the centrists on the other. The example of Molinere and Frank in France has already been cited. In America where the entry was guided by Trotsky and hence was very successful, the pressure of the 'Lefts' was reflected in the orientation of the Trotskyists.

Thus James P. Cannon admitted later

"Our work in the Socialist Party...was by no means free from errors and neglected opportunities. There is no doubt at all that the leaders of our movement adapted themselves a little too much to the centrist officialdom of the Socialist Party...this adaption undoubtedly was carried too far in some cases and led to illusions and fostered deviations on the part of some members of our movement." (History of American Trotskyism P.238).

While Trotsky lived he was usually able to correct the errors of his American and other followers.

But with his death all restraints were lifted. The tendency towards adaption was replaced by a policy within the Socialist and Stalinist Parties of open collaboration with the reformist Left on the basis of the latter's programme.

Having gained nothing, like all bad workmen who blame their tools rather than their insufficient skill or knowledge of how to correctly use them, Mandel, Frank & Co abandoned entrism and turned to the students. It is only our tendency which has sought to correctly apply Trotsky's teachings.

There is no tendency in the history of the movement, which has managed to win such an influential position amongst the youth. And it is instructive to note what Trotsky wrote in relation to entrism into the SFIO: "Devote the most attention to the youth".

In answer to those like today, who argued that it was only amongst the youth that our ideas can find support he wrote "Paris and the Young Socialists are today going through the stage that the Provinces will go through tomorrow". The stage at which we are in the Y.S. will be repeated in the adult Labour Party and the Unions.

The last Labour Party Conference is an indication of the echo which our ideas have found. And this at a time when all the conditions laid down by Trotsky for entrism have not yet matured. ('Problems of Entrism' explains this fully).

A great opportunity will be presented to us to develop as a mass tendency in the conditions which will develop in Britain in the next decade. But on one condition - that our cadres correctly absorb the lessons of our work within the Labour Party and theoretically arm ourselves for the coming period.

We have carved out for ourselves a favourable position from which big advances can be made. We have remained firm on principles, on our programme and flexible in the way we work in the mass organisations. We could have succumbed to the moods of opportunism and its twin adventurism, as did the sects. Comrades can satisfy themselves that we resisted both pressures by examining independently all the past documents of the tendency, which will be made available in the next period.

To proclaim this is not to remain smug and self-satisfied. We can be justifiably proud of our achievements. But the real history of the tendency is only just beginning. We are only at the start of real entry work with the outline of those conditions laid down by Trotsky just beginning to take shape.

On the international plane we are the only tendency which correctly understood that the first awakening of the proletariat would be reflected through the traditional organisations. In relation to Germany, Spain, France and now Argentina it was only our tendency that foresaw this movement.

In France the growth of the Socialist Party is taking place under the noses of the sects and they are blind to developments, or discount it as of no importance. The Stalinist controlled Communist International in 1925 declared that the Socialist Party was defunct. In effect the sects have adopted the same position. In Argentina, as our documents have shown, they are similarly impervious to the enormous opportunities presented by developments within the Peronist youth.

The success in Britain can be repeated on an International Scale.

But there is no room for an attitude of self-satisfaction. As the movement grows so also will the pressures of capitalism, reformism and ultra-leftism. There is only one way to safeguard the organisation from these pressures and that is by steeling every comrade in the fundamental ideas.

The strength of the tendency resides in its programme and its application in the mass organisations. Our ideas are our weapons, which every so often need to be sharpened and re-polished. A discussion and re-discussion of the documents presented here can very effectively facilitate this task and prepare the way for even greater successes for the tendency in the coming period.

November 1973




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