Marxists and the British
The 'Open Turn' debate
Whither The Independent Labour Party?
(Trotsky August 28, 1933)
The latest political decisions of the National Council of the British Independent Labour Party show clearly that after its break with the reformists this party continues to move leftward. Similar processes are to be observed in other countries: a left wing forms within the Social Democratic parties, which subsequently splits off from the party and tries with its own forces to pave a revolutionary path for itself. These processes reflect, on one side, the deep crisis of capitalism and of reformism, which is inseparably bound up therewith, and, on the other, the inability of the Comintern to group around itself revolutionary currents within the proletariat.
In England, however, the situation is further complicated by an unheard-of combination. Whereas in other countries the Comintern continues to treat the left socialist organizations as "left - social fascists" and as "the most dangerous counter-revolutionists," a permanent collaboration has been established between the Independent Labour Party and the Communist Party of Great Britain.
How the leaders of the Comintern combine this collaboration with the theory of "social fascism" remains a mystery. In the July issue of the theoretical organ of the Comintern, Fenner Brockway, the newly appointed secretary of the Independent Labour Party, is called a "counterrevolutionist" as heretofore.
Why the British Communist Party made a united front this time not from below but from above; [see Note] moreover, with leaders who prove to be "counterrevolutionists"; and a united front made not for one single practical action but for collaboration in general—no mortal can solve these contradictions.
But if principles are left aside, the matter can be explained very simply: under the exceptionally favourable conditions of Great Britain, the Comintern managed completely to isolate and weaken its British section by the ruinous policies of the Anglo-Russian Committee, the "third period," "social fascism" and the rest; on the other hand, the deep social crisis of British capitalism pushed the Independent Labour Party sharply towards the left; not heeding consistency or logic, the totally discouraged Comintern this time grabbed the alliance proposed to it with both hands.
We could have and should have welcomed and heartily supported the collaboration of the Independent Labour Party with the Communist Party had it not been based on evasiveness, suppressions and ambiguities on both sides.
Of the Communist Party, the National Council says that it is as "revolutionary in outlook as ourselves." That is all that we learn with regard to the appraisal of the Communist Party and of its policy. Every serious and thinking worker will inevitably ask: why are two parties necessary if they both have an equally revolutionary outlook?
The worker will be more astonished upon learning that the leaders of one of the equally revolutionary parties consider the leaders of the other party "counterrevolutionists" and "left social fascists." Possibly the National Council refrains from a critical estimation of its ally so as not to undermine the alliance itself? But an alliance of revolutionary organizations that is based not on open mutual criticism but on diplomacy will be thrown over by the first gust of the political storm, like a house of cards.
The theses of the National Council explain the bloc with the Communist Party, first, as a step towards the united front, secondly, as a stage in the creation of a mass revolutionary party. Each of these two arguments has its weight; but mechanically placed side by side, they contradict each other. The theses repeat that the united front should embrace any and all organizations of the proletariat insofar as they wish to participate in the struggle: the Labour Party, the trade unions, even the cooperatives.
But we know well, and not from literature but from the tragic experience of the German catastrophe, that the Comintern rejects the united front with reformist ("social fascist") organizations. How does the Independent Labour Party intend to build a united front with reformist organizations m alliance with the Communist Party: only from below and under the leadership of the Communist bureaucracy guaranteed in advance? To this question there is no answer.
Mentioning in passing that the bloc with the Communist Party has pushed certain sections of the "official movement" to the right, the National Council expresses the hope that these prejudices can be conquered by an active participation in daily struggles.
The fact that the reactionary prejudices of the leaders of the Labour Party and of the General Council of the Trades Union Congress do not frighten the leaders of the Independent Labour Party only does the Independent Labour Party credit.
Unfortunately, however, it is not only a question of prejudices. When the Communist bureaucracy declares that reformism and fascism are twins, it not only criticizes the reformist leaders incorrectly but also provokes the rightful indignation of the reformist workers. The theses, it is true, say that the criticism of reformism should correspond to actual facts and push the reformist workers forward and not back; but the Communist Party is not mentioned in this connection by one word.
What can be made of the theory of "social fascism"? And how can the policy of the united front be built on this theory? To pass such questions in silence in the resolution does not mean to remove them from life. An open discussion could possibly force the Communist Party to adopt a correct position; diplomatic evasiveness can only pile up contradictions and prepare a new catastrophe for the next mass movement.
Without defining in principle their attitude to official Communism (Stalinism), the theses of the National Council stop midway in their relation to reformism.
The reformists must be criticized as conservative democrats and not as fascists, but the struggle with them must be ho less irreconcilable because of it, since British reformism is the main hindrance now to the liberation not only of the British but also of the European proletariat. The policy of a united front with reformists is obligatory, but it is of necessity limited to partial tasks, especially to defensive struggles.
There can be no thought of making the socialist revolution in a united front with reformist organisations. The principal task of a revolutionary party consists in freeing the working class from the Influence of reformism.
The error of the Comintern bureaucracy consists not in the fact that they see the leadership of a revolutionary party as the most important condition for the victory of the proletariat—that is entirely correct—but in the fact that, being incapable of gaining the confidence of the working masses in daily struggle starting as a minority in modest roles, it demands this confidence in advance, presents ultimatums to the working class and disrupts attempts at a united front because other organizations are not willing to voluntarily hand it the marshal's baton.
This is not Marxist policy but bureaucratic sabotage. A secure and firm victory of the proletarian revolution—we repeat it again—is-possible only under the condition that a revolutionary, that is, a truly communist, party succeeds in gaining the firm confidence of the majority of the working class before the overthrow. This central question is not touched on in the theses. Why? Out of ‘tact’ with regard to the ally? Not only that. There are deeper causes. Insufficient clarity, of the theses with regard to the united front flows from the incomplete realization of the methods of the proletarian revolution.
The theses speak of the necessity "to wrest the control of the economic system and the state from the capitalist class and to transfer it to the working class." But how can this gigantic problem be solved? To this pivotal question of our epoch the theses reply with a naked phrase: "this can only be achieved through united action of the working class." The struggle for power and the dictatorship of the proletariat remain abstractions that can be easily dissolved in the amorphous perspectives of the united front…
In the realm of ready-made revolutionary formulas, the bureaucracy of the British Communist Party is immeasurably better equipped. Precisely in this lies its present advantage over the leadership of the Independent Labour Party.
And it must be said openly: this superficial, purely formal advantage may, under the present circumstances, lead to the liquidation of the Independent Labour Party without any gain accruing to the Communist Party and to the revolution. The objective conditions have more than once pushed tens and even hundreds of thousands of workers towards the British section of the Comintern, but the leadership of the Comintern was only capable of disillusioning them and throwing them back.
If the Independent Labour Party as a whole should enter the ranks of the Communist Party today, within the next couple of months one-third of the new members would return to the Labour Party; another third would be expelled for "conciliatory attitudes toward Trotskyism" and for similar crimes; finally, the remaining third, disillusioned in all its expectations, would fall into in-differentism. As a result of this experiment, the Communist Party would find itself weaker and more isolated than now.
The Independent Labour Party can save the workers' movement of England from this new danger only by freeing itself from all unclarity and haziness with regard to the ways and methods of the socialist revolution and by becoming a truly revolutionary party of the proletariat.
There is no necessity to invent anything new in this field: all has been said and said well by the first four congresses of the Comintern. Instead of feeding on bureaucratic substitutes of the epigones, it is better to have all the members of the Independent Labour Party study the resolutions of the first four congresses of the Comintern. But this alone does not suffice.
It is necessary to open a discussion in the party on the lessons of the last decade, which was marked by the struggle between the Stalinist bureaucracy and the Left Opposition. The content of this struggle was made up of the most important stages of the world revolutionary movement; economic and political tasks of the USSR; problems of the Chinese Revolution; the policy of the Anglo-Russian Committee; methods of the united front; problems of party democracy; the causes bf the German catastrophe.
This enormous cycle of problems cannot be passed by. They are not Russian but international problems.
In our epoch a revolutionary party cannot but be international. What is the position of the Independent Labour Party on this? Having entered into an alliance with the Communist Party, the Independent Labour Party has not determined its international position.
It broke with the Second International and made an alliance with the Third, but it also enters into a working alliance with left socialist parties. This alliance, in its turn, is not homogeneous. There are elements in it that gravitate towards Bolshevism, but there are also elements that pull towards the Norwegian Labour Party, that is, in reality, towards the Social Democracy.
What position does the Independent Labour Party take on all these questions? Is it willing to share the fate of the already historically doomed Comintern, does it want to try to remain in an intermediary position (which means to return by roundabout ways to reformism), or is it ready to participate in the building of a new International on the foundations laid by Marx and Lenin?
To the serious reader, it is clear that our criticism to not in the least inspired by animosity towards the Independent Labour Party. On the contrary, we see too clearly that if this party should ingloriously disappear from the scene socialism would suffer a new blow. And this danger exists, and it is not far removed, in our epoch it is impossible to remain long in intermediary positions. Only political clarity can save the Independent Labour Party for the proletarian revolution. The aim of these lines is to help pave the way to revolutionary clarity.
[NOTE 1 While blocking the achievement of united fronts with Social Democrats and other working-class tendencies not controlled by the Stalinists, the Comintern continued to assert that it was actually in favour of united fronts, provided only that they be "united fronts from below," that is, that they be negotiated with the ranks of the non-Stalinist organizations and not with their leaders.] [Back]