Marxists and the British Labour Party
The 'Open Turn' debate
For The Scottish Turn: Against Dogmatic Methods In Thought And Action
in reply to the minority
1. The debate on the Scottish turn and Walton has revealed two distinct trends within the leadership.
3. The other, the majority, proposes that we should conduct bold, audacious independent work, especially in Scotland, to extend and deepen our independent work of the last few years. The Majority is in no way abandoning a long-term orientation towards the Labour Party, which remains the traditional party of the working class in Britain. We are not urging comrades to leave the party either in England and Wales or in Scotland. But in the face of a blockage within the Labour Party, created by the right-wing Kinnock leadership at the present time, we have to continue to develop independent work and not allow our distinct political identity to be submerged through fear of expulsions. In Scotland, because of the situation which is now developing, we propose a bold, open detour in order to strengthen our forces.
4. We are confident that, on the basis of a thorough discussion of the issues involved, the overwhelming majority of our ranks will support the position of the majority of the NEB.
5. The Minority's document masquerades as a defence of entrism, while in fact putting a one-sided, dogmatic, ossified approach to the traditional organisations. Despite the denial, the Minority treats Labour Party work as "an eternal principle set in stone". (The New Turn - a threat 29) "Forty years' work" is used as an incantation. Most of the document could have been written at any time during the last forty years. There is no serious attempt to apply the lessons of the experience of entrism over sixty years, to relate our strategy and tactics to perspectives for the next period, or to discuss the concrete conditions which face us at the present time.
6. The Minority is opposed to the new turn in Scotland. Yet they conspicuously fail to analyse the situation in Scotland. (The New Turn - a threat 61-67) Moreover, they brazenly side-step any analysis of the development of nationalism and the problems it poses for a Marxist tendency. (The New Turn - a threat 168-174) The Minority starts, not from objective conditions, but from the categorical assertion that we must continue our past tactics. Their document then attempts to justify this with a series of generalities, variations of which are intoned throughout the document. This approach is a lamentable departure from the Marxist method.
7. The authors write as if they were expounding self-evident truths. But nowhere do they provide a survey of the political terrain we have covered in the past few years. There is no attempt to map out a path for the tendency over the next period.
8. The Minority are attempting to frighten comrades: If we abandon the "tried and tested" methods of four decades, we will end up in an ultra-left limbo, if not a sectarian hell. Instead of arguments, scare words are repeated time and again: ultra- left/ism 19 times, adventure/istic ten times, sectarian five times, mis-education five times, and so on. Presumably this is on the principle that if you repeat things often enough they will have some influence on people.
9. They also claim that there has been an attempt to "push through" the new turn. There is no justification for this allegation. When the proposals for new tactics were put forward in April, not one leading comrade opposed them. Plans were made for a thorough discussion throughout the tendency before any firm decisions would be taken. There was no lack of democracy. Only later did the leading comrades of the Minority come out in opposition to the majority, subsequently opposing the Walton campaign and the Scottish turn. There will be a thorough, democratic debate on all the issues they have raised.
10. The debate goes far beyond the issue of the Labour Party and entrism. It involves questions of perspectives.
11. As compared to the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, we face a profoundly changed situation. The long post-war economic upswing came to an end with the slump of 1974. The relatively stable relationships which prevailed during the boom period began to break down. During the 1980s, there was a catastrophic decline in the under-developed countries, giving rise to sharpened social crisis and creating the conditions for tumultuous revolutionary upheavals in the next period.
12. In the West, however, for a number of reasons, the advanced capitalist countries experienced boom from 1981 until the present. It has been a distorted, lopsided boom, accompanied by a polarisation of the classes, the growth of mass unemployment and poverty, and the beginning of the breakdown of society. Moreover, the boom is beginning to exhaust itself, and all the conditions of a new period of crisis and upheaval are being prepared beneath the surface.
13. However, on the basis of the Thatcher-Reagan boom, the Labour leaders have swung even further to the right, repudiating socialism, abandoning even the reform policies of the past, and openly embracing the market, that is, capitalism. Kinnockism developed as the counterpart of Thatcherism. The Labour leaders are no longer prepared to defend even basic trade union rights and have in many cases openly opposed workers' struggles, as in the miners' strike and in Liverpool. This is an international trend, with the Labour leaders in Spain, France, Germany and elsewhere moving in a similar direction.
14. We do not accept, however, the Minority's claim that "the Labour Party has swung to the right... reflecting a general swing to the right within society in the advanced capitalist countries over the past decade." (The New Turn - a threat 68) This is a one-sided, incorrect explanation. Prior to this debate, the leaders of the Minority would have emphatically rejected this point as an analysis reflecting a pessimistic lack of confidence in the working class. The miners' strike, the Liverpool battle, and the anti-poll tax movement all demonstrate the determination of workers to move into struggle. It is the obstacle of the right-wing Labour and trade union leaders themselves, together with the weakness at this stage of the forces of Marxism, the vital subjective factor, which has been a crucial factor in the industrial and political defeats of the last period.
15. Nevertheless, this rightward shift of the Labour leaders, under the impact of capitalist triumphalism in the 1980s, has been accentuated by the US victory in the Gulf -and above all, by the collapse in Stalinism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Like the capitalists themselves, Labour leaders see this as 'the death of socialism', the end of the idea of a planned economy, rather than the death-agony of Stalinism, a grotesque distortion of socialism.
16. The events in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union will undoubtedly give the capitalists a temporary access of confidence, despite their growing problems at home. However, in the long run, it will clear away Stalinism and its political apologists in the labour movement in the West, which in the past were enormous obstacles to the acceptance of Marxist ideas by wider layers of workers. What is happening in the East at the moment is clearing the ground for the real defenders of Marxism. We alone defend the revolutionary role of the working class, internationalism, and a socialist (as opposed to a Stalinist) planned economy on the basis of democratic workers' management and control.
17. Conditions determine consciousness, and these changes have inevitably had a big effect on the working class. The older layer of workers, with experience of activity within the Labour Party and trade unions, retain a loyalty to those organisations, al-though many are bitterly disappointed and disgusted by the current leadership and have dropped out of activity.
18. At the same time, there is a new generation of younger workers, who have grown up during the Thatcher era and whose view of the labour movement is conditioned by Kinnock and the right-wing trade union leaders. In industrial struggles, workers have not only come into conflict with the bosses but in many cases with their own trade union leaders, especially since the leadership embraced 'new realism' and after the defeat of the miners' strike. The trade union leaders have generally supported Kinnockism and used the weight of the official apparatus to prevent industrial action, obliging sections of workers to rely on their own ad hoc rank-and-file organisations.
19. In Liverpool, workers confronted not only the Tory government and its appendages (the district auditor, the courts, etc) but the Labour leaders, who collaborated with Tory ministers to launch a counter-revolution against the people of Liverpool and its Marxist-led council. In the anti-poll tax struggle, workers face the opposition of the Labour leaders, and today non-payers are being jailed by Labour councillors.
20. It still remains true that, when the workers move onto the political arena, they will turn towards the Labour Party. At a certain stage, on the basis of big events, a new generation of workers will move into the Labour Party and begin the task of reclaiming it for the working class. At the moment, however, workers and especially the youth are not active within the Labour Party.
21. In the period before the general election, a strong anti-Tory mood may well produce a swing towards the Labour Party on an electoral plane. But many workers are repelled by the openly pro-capitalist policies pursued by the leadership at a time of growing social crisis. There are different layers of the working class, with different levels of consciousness and varying political moods. Our strategy and tactics must take account of this.
22. To reach the generation of the 1990s, especially the young workers in the workplaces, we have to raise high our own Marxist banner. If we start from the requirement that we must keep, our Labour Party cards at all costs then our banner will actually fade from view.
23. Who can deny that the situation we face internationally and in Britain is a complex one? Conditions are very fluid and can change rapidly.
24. We must implacably defend our programme and principles but we have to respond to developments with flexible tactics. This is not the 1950s, when conditions were relatively stable and a tactic could be pursued for a long period with only minor variations. Today, we cannot afford merely to cling to old formulas and turn them into rigid dogmas.
25. Had we done so in the last few years, we would have been clinging to restricted, ineffective Labour Youth meetings and empty Labour Party meetings. We would not have boldly led the anti-poll tax struggle. And now we would be advising councillors and MPs to pay up to avoid expulsion. We would have missed out on the marvellous gains we have made over the last few years.
26. We need clear perspectives, and we need correct strategy and tactics to carry them into action. Our task is to build the tendency and extend its influence. To achieve this, the turn we propose is vital.
27. To this, the Minority say: No, it is too risky. Let's hold on to our positions, keep our heads down, educate ourselves - and wait for better times. This, at bottom, is their line. Apart from being a passive, quietist approach which is alien to the fighting spirit of Marxism, this line, as we will show, fails to understand the situation which faces us. It fails to spell out any strategy and tactics that would enable us to build the tendency in the next few years.
28. "Every political turn poses a certain element of danger," wrote Trotsky (Writings: Supplement, 1929-33, p229). "However, it is much more dangerous to repeat old by-passed formulas in a new situation because of fear of such dangers."
Our orientation towards the traditional organisations and the question of entrism
29. The tactic of entry of Marxist groups into the Social Democratic parties was first raised by Trotsky in 1933-34. After the victory of Hitler in 1933, Trotsky drew the conclusion that it was no longer possible to work for the regeneration of the Communist Parties. Dominated by the Stalinist bureaucracy, the Communist Parties had become agents of Stalin's foreign policy. The criminal policies dictated by Moscow paved the way for the victory of fascism. The perspective put forward by the Communist International after 1919, for the Communist Parties to establish themselves as mass revolutionary organisations and break the mass influence of the reformist parties, was no longer viable. Trotsky came out for the creation of new revolutionary parties. However, the weakness of the Trotskyists made it vital to orientate towards the traditional reformist parties, which the Stalinist Communist Parties had failed to displace, and also to the Stalinist parties themselves.
30. 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? In the conditions which existed in France, Belgium, Britain, and elsewhere in the 1930s, Trotsky argued that they should enter the traditional parties.
31. This tactic was based on the experience of 1918-20 when the mass Communist parties were formed on the basis of forces that largely emerged from the crisis-ridden Social Democratic parties.
32. At that time, Trotsky saw entrism as a short-term tactic: under conditions of a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary crisis in society, there would be a crisis within the Social Democracy, with the development of a mass left-wing. With the correct tactics, a small Marxist organisation could, under these conditions, rapidly grow and gain a decisive influence over the working class.
33. Trotsky's proposals for entry, however, did not gain immediate acceptance within the Trotskyist movement. Trotsky had to wage a political battle to convince the ranks, many of whom clung to the old formula of building separate revolutionary parties outside the traditional mass parties.
34. There are certain analogies with the current debate in our own tendency. In the opposite direction from now, Trotsky had to combat those within the movement who reflected the inertia of the past, clung to "tried and tested methods", and who feared the dangers of a new turn rather than recognising the opportunities which could be opened up.
35. In 1934, Trotsky wrote: "We can see that history makes use of more colours than just red and yellow. It possesses transitional shades and the art of politics consists in discerning them in order to influence their change by the appropriate means." (Writings: Supplement, 2934-40, p557) At the same time, Trotsky recognised that a new turn "occasioned by a change in the objective situation" could have "a profound impact on the organisation, whose mood reflects the previous period."
36. Trotsky always adopted a flexible approach on tactics, and fought any tendency to elevate the tactics of the past into a principle. Tactics are worked out on the basis of perspectives, strategic orientation and the concrete conditions currently facing the Marxists. To argue for the continuation of a tactic simply on the grounds that it has been tried and tested over forty years goes entirely against this method.
The conditions of entry
37. Why do the Minority repeatedly refer to "forty years"? Why not to "sixty years"? Why do they make no analysis of the whole experience of entrism and open work, internationally as well as in Britain, since the 1930s? In Britain, the Trotskyists conducted entry both in the Independent Labour Party and in the Labour Party before the Second World War. During the Second World War, our tendency conducted mainly open work. In 1945-49 there was a debate within the Revolutionary Communist Party over the question of entrism. Why is this not referred to?
38. And why the repetition of "forty years' work" without any analysis of the changing conditions over that period, and the variations of the entrist tactic during that time?
39. The Minority evidently stress "forty years" because our tendency has conducted entry work in the Labour Party since the 1950s. But there is no examination of the conditions for entry at that time, and the discussion that preceded it. The Minority refers to Trotsky's conditions of entry (The New Turn - a threat 175), but then say: "For the whole of that time, the classical conditions for entrism, laid down by Trotsky, have been absent." The Minority refers to entry as a long-term tactic. In the current discussion, the leaders of the Minority have stated that the long-term tactic pursued over the last four decades has nothing in common with the entrism advocated by Trotsky in the 1930s. But they give no explanation for this innovation.
40. How did entrism come about in 1949? Until that time, the section of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) remained primarily an open organisation, conducting open work. In reality, complete entry came about because of the disintegration of the RCP, and because the majority of the RCP leaders went over to Labour Party entry under the pressure of the strengthening of reformism and Stalinism which took place at the beginning of the post-war period. At that time, EG considered that the tactic was incorrect, and reluctantly acquiesced to entry into the Labour Party.
41. It is not possible in this document to give a detailed history of the discussion over entrism. However, some of the key points of the discussion must be brought out, while a full account can be left to later material. In a lead-off on the history of the tendency, EG stated:
42. EG was opposed to entry. But on the grounds that the majority of the leadership was in favour of entry into the Labour Party he took the position that "a struggle would be sterile." A Letter to the members, Spring 1949, signed by EG, said :"With the development of the labour movement and the tendency within it at the present time, it is possible that entry would have to be undertaken in any event in a few years hence. The historical tendency in the labour movement has been for the Labour Party to reflect the developments taking place within the working class."
43. This was the pragmatic origin of the forty years' work! At least the letter also stated: "Entry is a tactical issue and does not involve questions of principle. Above all, it is necessary to maintain a due sense of proportion and to see the problem as purely a practical one as to the best method of deployment of the forces we possess." That was the EG of 1950. There is a marked contrast with the EG of today, who at the July meeting of the NEB declared that entrism was a "principle".
44. In 1950, EG had not forgotten the experience of the Trotskyist movement and the 1945-49 RCP debate when the leadership of the International, which had lost its bearings after the death of Trotsky, together with Healy in Britain, had argued for entry on an incorrect, opportunist basis.
45. The whole debate is worthy of thorough study in relation to the present debate within the tendency. There is not space for that in this document. However, we can refer to some key issues which are relevant to the current debate.
Orientation and tactics
46. For instance, in 1946 the International leadership called on the RCP to enter the Labour Party. This was on the basis of the completely false perspective of an imminent economic and political crisis.
47. The real situation in Britain, a statement of the Political Bureau (PB) of the RCP (March, 1947), argued:
49. Are not the Minority, in the current debate, using a similar method of argument on tactics (although their perspective is not the same): that an orientation towards the mass parties necessitates the continuation of entrism of the last forty years, and that proposals for more open work will mean a turn away from the mass organisations?
50. There is no proposal to abandon a long-term orientation towards the Labour Party and a long-term tactic of entry. What is being proposed is a detour, with a period of more open work, until there are more favourable conditions within the Labour Party. This is based on an assessment for the scope for work within the party as compared to the gains that can be made currently through independent work.
51. At that time (1947), EG argued against "the innovation of a long-term perspective" for entry into the Labour Party, the idea put forward by the leadership of the International. This discussion was related to differences over perspectives for developments in the advanced, capitalist countries, which we cannot go into here. But the discussions on the conditions for entry work are still very relevant to our current debate.
52. The real situation in Britain states:
53. At the present time, it is the bureaucratic regime imposed on the party under Kinnock, together with the related decline in active Labour Party membership, which is one of the key factors which calls for a temporary switch to more open work. Our present forces are incomparably stronger than in 1950 or in 1970 or in 1980 and therefore constitute much more of a threat to the right wing. Moreover, our comrades currently face expulsion not merely for their work within the party but also for their work outside the Labour Party.
54. In the 1945-49 debate, the RCP Political Bureau correctly lambasted the leadership of the International, Healy, and the other opportunist advocates of entry at that time, for failing to draw "lessons of a general theoretical character... from our experiences of entry in the past." They had failed to use "the experience gained through the test of events... to confirm and concretise the practical tasks" which faced them.
55. The experience of the entrism in the past was summed up by the RCP Political Bureau in the following way: "(1) In a period of healthy internal life and internal struggle within the reformist or centrist organisation into which we had entered, the Trotskyist tendency could grow; (2) When the movement was quiet and more or less dormant we did not grow but stagnated - especially if the real struggles of the workers found expression outside the Labour Party, in the unions and factory organisations."
56. What is the situation at the moment in the Labour Party? Is there a "healthy internal life and internal struggle"? Or are the organisations of the Labour Party "more or less dormant", with "the real struggles of the workers... [finding] expression outside the Labour Party"? Nobody is proposing to abandon the long-term strategy of work within the Labour Party. We will have to continue to orientate towards the party, and in the future, when there are developments within the party, the emphasis will once again switch to work within the Labour Party. But for the time being, the low level of activity within the Labour Party and the intensity of the witch-hunt make it necessary to conduct a detour of more open work in order to build the tendency and extend its influence.
57. During the second world war, after a period of work within the Labour Party, the leaders of the Workers' International League (WIL) came to the conclusion in 1941 that a change of tactics was necessary. In another speech on the history of the tendency, EG said:
59. There was no question of open work being an ultra-left adventure, or resulting in a sectarian approach. The RCP maintained its long-term orientation towards the Labour Party and adopted a sympathetic approach to Labour workers. An open tactic in no way contradicted a strategic orientation towards the Labour Party. Yet today, the Minority claims that a turn towards more open work, not the proclamation of a separate party like the RCP, will automatically turn our tendency into a sect.
60. Moreover, while conducting open work under the banner of the WIL and Socialist Appeal, the tendency continued to conduct entry work within the Labour Party in Scotland.
61. In other words, the tendency conducted a combination of open, independent work and fraction work within the Labour Party - at one and the same time - in accordance with the conditions within the party in different regions. Yet today, the Minority are arguing that it is impossible to conduct more open work in combination with continued work within the traditional organisation!
62. In 1945-49, EG discussed entrism as a flexible tactic which had to be worked out in relation to perspectives, the concrete conditions, and a practical assessment of the results which could be obtained from different fields of work.
63. In 1949, entrism was accepted by the leadership of our tendency, for want of something better: to as far as possible preserve the cadres of the tendency, and because, in any case, there were not particularly favourable conditions outside the party. However, under the conditions which prevailed in the post-war period, entrism was developed into a long-term tactic. Both reformism and Stalinism were strengthened by the relationship of forces which emerged from the second world war.
64. As our document, Problems of entrism stated in 1959: "Historically, the Marxist movement has been thrown back. It is isolated from the main currents of opinion within the labour movement itself." Illusions in reformism were strengthened. Moreover, after 1950, the advanced capitalist countries entered into a protracted economic upswing. The economic and social developments led to a strengthening of the working class. Its weight in society was increased, and the mass organisation embraced a far greater proportion of the workers than ever before. However, the boom led to a temporary softening of the class struggle and relative social peace, which inevitably strengthened the reformist leaders.
65. Our tendency had tiny forces in that period. There is no comparison to our strength in the past few years. "Our work now," stated Problems of entrism, "consists of preparatory work for the next period... Our job in the preparatory period, which still exists, is the patient winning of ones and twos, perhaps of small groups, but certainly not the creation of a mass revolutionary current, which is not possible at the present time."
66. During the 1950s, the tendency remained a tiny force with a small handful of members. The right wing, basing itself on the trade unions, dominated the leadership of the party, although the Bevanite left wing was a strong force in the constituency parties during that period. However, the tendency approached "the problem of tactics as tactics, and not as once-and-for-all fetishes." (Problems of entrism)
67. At the time of the Hungarian uprising, for instance, when the military intervention of the Soviet bureaucracy provoked a crisis within the ranks of the Communist Party, the tendency openly produced material aimed at Communist Party members in the name of an open organisation.
68. A section of the Communist Party ranks broke away from the Stalinist organisation and set up the Socialist Forums. These opened up the possibility of gains for out tendency. A statement adopted in 1957, The present situation and our political tasks, stated that the tendency "must mobilise all the forces at its disposal to intervene effectively in the work of the Forums." It recognised, moreover, that "many of the best elements will not be prepared for an entrist perspective immediately. The first necessity is the winning of a nucleus among them to the programme and banner [of the Marxist tendency]."
69. The statement continued:
71. There is, of course, not an exact parallel between the situation in 1956-57 and the situation today. At that time, the tendency had to work out an orientation towards activists with experience of work in the Stalinist Communist Party and also in the trade unions. Today, we have to orientate towards a section of workers and youth who largely have not yet moved towards the traditional political party of the labour movement. Moreover, in 1957, there was not an intense witch-hunt, as the tendency was not at that time seen as a significant threat by the Labour leadership. Today, we face an intense witch-hunt on account of our independent work, as well as our Labour Party activity.
72. Nevertheless, the 1957 statement demonstrates a flexible approach to tactics. There was no question of an open turn towards the Communist Party opposition being seen as "adventuristic" or "ultra-left". The correct method of 1957 could not contrast more sharply to the dogmatic approach adopted by the Minority today.
A new stage
73. The perspective outlined in Problems of entrism, which was not borne out, was for the return of a Labour government at the next general election. It predicted that this would "rather be that of 1929, than that of 1945". This, it was envisaged, would provoke a crisis within the Labour Party, with a swing to the left. "If we were an independent organisation at the present time [that is, 1959], we should be preparing our forces for entry. Far from withdrawing, we would be sending in more and more of our forces to prepare the way for total entry." The timescale of developments proved to be much more protracted, with a continuation of the post-war upswing until 1975. The tactic of entrism was, as a result, extended into a long-term tactic.
74. In the 1960s, the Labour Party proved a fruitful field of work. We were a small tendency. However, through our successful youth work we developed a base within the Labour youth organisation, and gained a majority. This provided a unique vehicle into the wider labour movement and for campaigning on the basis of our ideas and policies. In the initial period, the right-wing Labour leaders did not regard us as a serious threat. When they first attempted to move against us in the mid-1970s, however, the left dominated the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party (NEC), and attempts at a witch-hunt fizzled out.
75. By the mid-1980s, we had also developed a strong basis within the constituency parties, the women's sections, and other Labour Party bodies. The base that we built up from the 1960s to the early 1980s allowed us to intervene effectively in major struggles, such as the miners' strike of 1984-5 and above all the battle in Liverpool.
76. However, conditions have changed from the time that Problems of entrism was written, both objectively and subjectively. The situation internationally and in Britain has changed. The position within the Labour Party has changed. The Labour leaders have moved far to the right, and the left within the party has been routed for the time being. But at the same time, we are no longer at the stage of purely preparatory work.
77. We should not exaggerate our strength. Our primary task is still to educate and train cadres. Nevertheless, our tendency is a factor in the political situation, which both the capitalists and the Labour leaders are forced to take account of. We are no longer a small tendency which can work inconspicuously within the Labour Party. We have led mass struggles in Liverpool and, above all, against the poll tax. Our strategy and tactics have to take account of all these factors.
78. We will maintain an orientation towards the Labour Party and the trade unions, which must be fundamental to our strategy. We will also maintain a long-term tactic of entry work within the Labour Party. But we have to apply the entry tactic flexibly, and not as a once-and-for-all fetish. The Minority have ossified our rich experience of the entry tactic into "forty years' work". They are defending not the genuine method of our tendency, but a one-sided, dogmatic distortion of our strategy and tactics.