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Marxists and the British Labour Party

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[From The Marxist, Issue no.4, October 1991]

Lessons of the ILP

"The ILP broke away from the Labour Party. That was correct." (Cardinal questions facing the ILP, Leon Trotsky, 1934)

In 1932, the Independent Labour Party split from the Labour Party. By 1938, its membership had fallen to less than 2000. Was this split responsible for the ILP's collapse? This is no academic question: could mass expulsions lead to a collapse of our organisation? Could even an open face, as proposed in the Scottish turn, lead to a similar result?

The minority make use of the history of the ILP in debate and in their documents. While claiming "absolutely no analogy" with our organisation (Min, para 130), they use the 1932 split as an example of the "ultra-leftism" of the new turn.

"That is the lesson of the attempts to create independent 'left' Labour parties in the prewar and postwar period. This new adventure on the part of the Liverpool comrades will inevitably fail..." (Minority resolution, para 27)

The size of the ILP is stressed.

"The ILP left the Labour Party with 100,000 supporters. They left at the wrong time and on the wrong issue, proclaiming that the Labour Party was 'dead'." (Min, para 129)

Within one paragraph, the ILP support multiplies. Not content with 100,000,

"hundreds of thousands of leftward-moving workers broke away from the Labour Party..."

Even these "hundreds of thousands" weren't enough to "go it alone":

 "Trotsky's firm advice to the ILP was to turn back towards the Labour Party."

The clear implication is that if such a huge organisation collapsed because "they paddled their own canoe", how could a few hundred comrades in Scotland hope to succeed?

Firstly, some facts to dispel the myths about the ILP.

In 1932, the year of the split, it had 16,773 members. One year later it had 11,092.

Could the "100,000" be found in voting figures?

In the 1931 general election, the ILP fielded 18 candidates, polled 252,000 votes (an average of 14,000 per seat) and won 3 seats (2 other MPs joined the ILP group after the election).

In 1935, the ILP fielded 17 candidates and polled 139,000 votes (an average of 8200 per seat), and won four seats. A crucial difference was that in 1931, 13 ILP candidates were unopposed by Labour candidates; in 1935, all were opposed.

The general picture was not of an organisation that collapsed from 100,000 to nothing in a short span of years. Rather, there was a steady decline in membership and decay in the organisation. Its high point was the year of the general strike in 1926, when there was 1075 branches. By 1932, there were only 452.

What was Trotsky's attitude to the split? The minority only tell half the story.

"The ILP broke away from the Labour Party. That was correct.

If the ILP wanted to become a revolutionary lever, it was impossible for the handle of this lever to be left in the hands of the thoroughly opportunist and bourgeois careerists.

Complete and unconditional political and organisational independence of a revolutionary party is the first prerequisite for its success.

But while breaking from the Labour Party, it was necessary immediately to turn towards it " (Trotsky, Cardinal questions facing the ILP, 1934)

Trotsky does not criticise the ILP leadership for splitting with the Labour Party. He clearly felt that the split had a progressive side to it, representing a shift to the left inside that organisation.

If the ILP had been a Marxist organisation, it would have been a different tactical question. As an affiliated organisation, the ILP had great freedom to put forward propaganda to the labour movement which Marxists could exploit. This was an asset that Marxists would have utilised to the full as long as conditions would allow.

But "breaking from the Labour Party", as Trotsky put it, does not mean isolation, as long as the ILP orientated to Labour Party members and supporters.

"One must seek a way to the reformist masses, not through the favour of their leaders, but against the leaders instinctively working masses are always 'for unity.'

But besides class instinct, there is also political wisdom. Harsh experience teaches the workers that a break with reformism is the prerequisite for real unity, which is possible only through revolutionary action" (Trotsky, Cardinal questions facing the ILP, 1934}

He advocated campaigning work within the broad mass of workers, in the trade unions, in the factory, on the street, and by using parliament as a platform. Through such methods, Trotsky saw how an independent party could turn to the labour movement.

It is crucial not to confuse what is primary with the secondary. If the ILP's split from Labour was a mistake, it was only of a secondary, tactical, character. In all of Trotsky's writings on the ILP, does he concentrate on the split? He only mentions it in passing. His writings are dominated by the question of the political programme and the orientation of the ILP towards the working class. That is the primary question, the key in the development of a revolutionary party. From this follows correct tactics and healthy organisation.

Here lay the failure of the ILP. On splitting from Labour, it was an organisation of 11,000 with 5 MPs and roots in the labour movement. Many of the careerists and reformists were left behind in the Labour Party. These 11,000 were generally the most revolutionary membership. In comparison, the Communist Party had a membership of 2500 at the time. Given the conditions of 1932, when, for example, hundreds of thousands marched against unemployment and were often brutally attacked by the police, there was great possibilities for growth. Yet the ILP failed to capitalise on the situation.

The ILP's policies were "centrist". Two fundamental policies are being continually tested against the experience of the world working class. The first is reformism. This seeks to contain change within the boundaries of capitalism and reflects directly the interests of the labour bureaucracy. Reformism balances between the interests of the working class and ruling class but will always ultimately do the bidding of capitalism. Reforms become counter-reforms.

The other policy is genuine Marxism as advanced by our organisation. We fight for reforms but recognise that these can only be made permanent through the socialist revolution taking place on a world scale.

In between these two opposites stands "centrism". This represents a confused and changing policy that shifts between one pole and the other. At times of great crisis in society, this policy can become a temporary material force by gaining organised support from layers of the working class.

And so it was with the ILP. The Independent Labour Party preceded the Labour Party itself. Up to 1918, when the Labour Party opened a membership, it was seen as the main political wing of the labour movement. It therefore reflected all the different political strands at work: in 1930, there were 140 ILP MPs of all political persuasions, from Ramsey MacDonald who was to betray Labour and lead the National government of 1931, to the loft wing Clydesiders, such as Jimmy Maxton.

1930 was a crucial year for the ILP. The world was in the grip of the great slump. The Labour government under MacDonald was pursuing a vicious right-wing policy against workers and the unemployed. The ranks of the ILP moved decisively to the left and demanded that their MPs follow conference policy. Out of 140 MPs, only 18 complied. An important qualitative break with the past had been reached.

Under Marxist leadership, the ILP could have been the catalyst for all the discontent bottled up inside the labour movement. The battle with right-wing reformism would have come to a head. Either the right wing would have been utterly defeated and Marxism would have come to dominate the rank and file or the Marxists would have been expelled from the Labour Party. Either way, the ILP would have been enormously strengthened.

The ILP leadership missed the opportunity. They made no effort to organise the discontent in the working class. Their opposition was confined to parliamentary stunts. At Labour Party conference in 1930, it was Oswald Mosley (eventually to become leader of British fascism), who made a demagogic call for nationalisation, not the ILP; even Maxton was half-hearted in his attacks on the Labour government. By failing to capitalise on the situation, the ILP was already in decline when they split in 1932.

The same vacillation on policy and unwillingness to lead workers' struggles characterised the ILP after the split with Labour. The Revolutionary Policy Committee held great authority in the ranks of the ILP and was openly sympathetic to the Communist Party and Stalinism. The ILP leadership attempted to follow a line somewhere between reformism and Stalinism.

The ILP therefore often tail-ended the Communist Party, from ultra-leftism to opportunism, during the 1930s. At the end of the 1920s, the ILP Guild of Youth was the biggest left youth organisation, with 15,000 members. In 1928, the Scottish Guild joined the Young Communist League and in May 1934, the whole Guild voted to affiliate to the YCL.

The minority quote Trotsky: "Trotsky once referred to a party of 100,000 as a sect." The question of whether an organisation is a sect is not decided by its size or even its membership of the mass workers' party. There are a host of sectarians who are also members of the Labour Party. The question of sectarianism is decided by whether the organisation can orientate to the mass workers' party and labour movement in general.

This the ILP was unable to do. It left no members behind to argue the case inside the Labour Party. It insisted that all had to leave. At election time, it refused to give critical support to Labour candidates where there was no ILP candidate unless they agreed with certain ILP policies.

In the trade unions, they called on people to refuse to pay the political levy which put them in the same camp as employers and Tories. One editorial called for trades councils to disaffiliate from the Labour Party. Under the influence of the Communist Party, many ILP branches called for the establishment of phantom "workers' councils", that is, Soviets, that had no basis in the political situation of the early 1930s.

Such policies alienated many of the best workers from the ILP. Trotsky's supporters entered the ILP in 1934 and attempted to steer the ILP towards the labour movement, while issuing the call for a Fourth International. They called for the political levy to be compulsory for all ILP trade unionists and fought for a slogan of "for a third Labour government" to be adopted. Their forces, unfortunately, were too small to make the crucial difference.

The decline of the ILP took a final step in 1936. In December 1934, the imperialist power of Italy began the conquest of Ethiopia. The left and the Trotskyists in the ILP called for workers sanctions against Italy.

The leadership responded with a policy of pacifism, that is, a policy that made an abstract call for peace but in effect advanced no demands to stop Italy conquering Ethiopia. They abstained. Against the decisions of the rank and file, the leadership continued to advocate the policy of pacifism.

At the 1936 conference, the leadership was defeated on this issue but the response of the parliamentary group was to refuse to accept conference decisions. This revealed an evolution to the right on the part of most of the ILP leadership, including Maxton.

Others, such as Fenner Brockway, compromised with Maxton rather than going right over to a Trotskyist position. At the same conference, a witch-hunting resolution ordering the dissolution of organised groups inside the ILP was passed. In 1936, Trotsky was to refer to the ILP as a "dying corpse".

Truth, as they say, is concrete. The minority refer to the political failings of the ILP but fail to distinguish between what is primary and what is secondary. What is primary is the political programme and a strategic orientation to the labour movement. What is secondary is the tactics pursued to achieve this, whether through entrism, affiliation, an open face, etc.

On all the primary questions that the ILP faced, it was unable to match up. In contrast to the ILP, our programme and orientation to the labour movement remains resolute. Between the Scottish turn and the ILP, there can be "absolutely no analogy".

William Potter






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