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Marxists and the British

Labour Party

The 'Open Turn' debate


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Introduction

For Marxists, the crucial problem of strategy and tactics is this: How can a revolutionary minority win the support of the majority of the working class and other exploited layers, particularly given the hold of the traditional mass parties over large sections of workers? (‘For the Scottish Turn’, paragraph 30.)

The ‘Open Turn’ debate, the documents of which we present here, took place in 1991 at first within what was then widely known as the Militant Tendency, the British section of the Committee for a Workers’ International, that published the ‘Militant’ newspaper, today called ‘The Socialist’.

Leading members of the Militant Tendency in Scotland, with the backing of the British section’s executive committee, explained that:

2. For decades the tendency has pursued the strategy of building a base within the political and industrial wings of the mass labour movement. As a result we have emerged in recent years as the main left opposition force in British politics. (‘Scotland, Perspectives and Tasks’)

However:

4. In the recent period conditions have forced us to shift emphasis away from work in and through the Labour Party, while defending the methods that have established the organisation over the years. But those methods have never precluded new initiatives, tactical turns or new organisational forms when demanded by the objective situation and the needs of the tendency.

The ‘Open Turn’ was a debate about a most fundamental issue: how to win mass support for the ideas of Marxism within the working class in a changing objective situation.

The tactic of the British section, and in particular of its Scottish members, required a reassessment based on the then currently existing circumstances, for instance as a result of the experience of the struggle led by the Militant Tendency against Prime Minister Thatcher’s Poll Tax:

113. Ten years ago, even five years ago, Marxists wasted no opportunity to appeal to workers and youth to join the Labour Party and transform it from within. But as the poll tax campaign progressed this demand was gradually abandoned.

114. As Lenin pointed out on a number of occasions, truth is concrete. At this stage an appeal for Scottish workers and youth to join the Labour Party would be to seriously misjudge the mood of the militant sections of the working class. (‘Scotland, Perspectives and Tasks’)

Described as "perhaps the most important debate that has ever taken place inside the tendency in Scotland" (‘Scotland: Perspectives and Tasks’ para 9) it had "far-reaching implications" and marked a definitive stage in the Committee for a Workers’ International’s development. The leading Scottish comrades proposed that

we should conduct bold, audacious independent work, especially in Scotland, to extend and deepen our independent work of the last few years. (‘For the Scottish Turn’, para 3)

These old traditional reformist workers’ parties, such as the Labour Party in Britain, at that time still had their historical roots within the working class, although this was changing. From its formation, the central right-wing leadership of the Labour Party was entirely capitalist in outlook and orientation. Throughout its history, and especially from the early 1920s onwards, the Labour Party’s leadership repeatedly attempted – with varying degrees of success – to drive organised Marxist influence out of the Labour Party.

From the early 1950s onwards the Trotskyist tendency that today is the Socialist Party worked within the Labour Party, while presenting itself to workers and youth both inside and outside the Labour Party as Marxists struggling against capitalism and the reformist Labour leaders. Yet this was not the only tactic of the Committee for a Workers’ International. In fact the very success of this ‘entrist’ strategy in Britain led the leaderships of other traditional reformist workers’ parties in Europe to try to make it impossible for other sections of the Committee for a Workers International to function in the same way.

For instance, in Greece a new left party, PASOK, had emerged in 1974 in the revolutionary events surrounding the collapse of the Colonels’ seven year military dictatorship and soon gained a mass workers’ following. Yet:

Virtually all the Marxists were expelled from PASOK in 1976. While the tendency naturally orientated towards PASOK members, its work was independent, open work under its own banner. (‘For the Scottish Turn’, paragraph 278.)

On the other hand, whilst pursuing the ‘Open Turn’ in Britain, the Committee for a Workers’ International majority simultaneously advocated that its Italian section openly join the newly formed Prc (Party of Communist Refoundation) in Italy, which had broken from the Communist Party of Italy/Democratic Left Party, and was gaining a large following amongst the most radical workers and youth. Yet the opponents of the ‘Open Turn’ actually opposed this for a combination of political and factional reasons and only some years later left the then Pds (Democratic Left Party) to join the Prc.

This debate marked an important change in the approach of the British and other sections of the Committee for a Workers’ International to the task of winning the working class to the ideas of socialism in the 1990’s and helped to drive home the need for flexible tactics, for a realistic assessment of the actually existing conditions within society at each particular period, and to not be bound by a dogmatic approach.

This introduction will discuss the relationship between Marxism and the mass workers’ parties, explaining the how it came to be that the British Trotskyists, known then as the Militant Tendency, worked as members of the Labour Party, how the Militant Tendency operated in the Labour Party, and set in context the ‘Open Turn’ debate, which began as a debate about ending this tactic.

The origins of the mass parties of the working class

Only by winning mass support, particularly amongst the working class, will the ideas of Marxism become a force capable of bringing about a socialist transformation of society. (We refer those readers who question the central role of the working class in the liberation of the oppressed masses from capitalism and landlordism to our Introduction to the Communist Manifesto, on this site, which discusses some contemporary criticisms of the basic ideas of Marxism. Opens in new window)

But the tasks facing genuine revolutionary Marxists today are complex. It is not sufficient merely to proclaim the need for a socialist transformation of society, whether in speeches, in print or on the Internet. However today the task of changing society is complicated by the fact that the parties originally built to change society have become obstacles to this objective, generally acting to prevent change or, in a very few cases, being incapable of completing the socialist transformation of society.

Even from the inception of Marxism the task of winning the support of the majority of the working class to a revolutionary party was approached in a skilful way, as the following very brief survey will confirm. We will show that the sections of the Committee for a Workers’ International continue to build on the firm foundations laid down by Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky and the international experience of the workers’ movement.

The second chapter of the Communist Manifesto, begins with the question:

In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians [i.e. the working class - ed] as a whole?

The immediate answer is:

The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties.

This was in a situation when the workers’ movement was still in the process of formation and clarification of its ideas and programme. In 1848 there were many small revolutionary parties and groups, with different ideas on how to bring about change. The Communist Manifesto announced the establishment of the Communist League, a revolutionary organisation, but not one "opposed to other working-class parties". Marx and Engels believed that the combination of the experience of struggle and debate would unite the working class around the banner of the ideas declared in the Manifesto.

Here is the method of Marxism – flexible in terms of organisational forms, never opposing the interests of the working class, while at all times openly and clearly arguing for a Marxist perspective, firm on the needs of a Marxist programme.

The first creation of parties based on the working class which could be called "mass" parties, because they commanded significant support amongst workers, were mostly influenced by the ideas of Marx and Engels. They culminated in the formation of the Second International in 1889, which brought together these growing mass working class parties and generally clarified their programmes. But, particularly because of the sustained upswing of capitalism in the last decades of the 1800s, the leaders of the parties that adhered to the Second International came to abandon the ideas of Marxism and begin to serve capitalism.

The parties of the Second International survive to this day; they are the parties which today mainly go by the name of ‘Labour’ (in Britain for instance) ‘Social Democratic’ (for instance in Germany) or ‘Socialist’ (for instance in France or Spain). Whenever they have been in government they have worked within the capitalist system and, in times of crisis, generally acted in obedience to the needs of the capitalist class.

(The Committee for a Workers’ International section in England and Wales took the name of ‘Socialist Party’ because the former traditional party of the working class in Britain was called the Labour Party, and as a result the word ‘Socialist’ is not seen in the eyes of the British working class in the same way as in some other countries.)

 

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