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Marxists and the British Labour Party

The 'Open Turn' debate

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A comment on some aspects of entrism

In the course of the current debate on the perspectives for the tendency, the argument has been used that the proposed Scottish turn and the events in Walton could destroy 40 years of work in the Labour Party, that the proposals are "turning our backs on 40 years of experience".

BL has produced a short document showing how the question of entrism was approached in the immediate post-war period. The argument will doubtless be made that the period covered in that document is outside the 40 years experience dealt with in the minority document. This argument would seem to indicate that the past 40 years has been a period of patient, unbroken, accumulating work within the mass party, with a method and a paper very much in the same tradition as the method and paper we have today. However, an examination of the history of the later post-war period also gives a rather different picture.

There is no room here at the moment to give a full history of the period from 1950 until the present day, but an outline of the experience of the tendency is very revealing. Following the expulsion in 1950 of our comrades from the Healey-led "Club", at that time in the Labour Party, the main task facing the comrades was regroupment, bringing together the remains of the RCP around the country that had not gone into sectarianism, or despair.

The first printed vehicle for our ideas - as an entrist group at the time - was the Liverpool-based Rally, which was produced from 1949 until 1952. Although a number of comrades were involved in the production of this magazine, and although it campaigned for national status for the Labour Party youth sections, it is very difficult to find any clearly Marxist articles amongst its contents. For a number of years, therefore, it would appear that there was no open voice of Marxism in the country - not necessarily a criticism of the comrades given the problems they faced, but nevertheless rather at odds with the picture of 40 years unbroken experience.

The first independent post war paper was International Socialist (A Journal of Labour Opinion), which was published in seven issues from February 1952 until the March/April 1954 issue. Given the size of the group at the time, this was primarily a propaganda magazine. It is difficult to discover the internal debates at the time, but no paper appeared between the 1954 issue and the appearance of Socialist Current (A Journal of Labour Opinion incorporating International Socialist) in May 1956 - over two years after the appearance of our last journal. Internal disputes rapidly led to a split, with the Socialist Current going off as a tiny splinter group that existed until the 1980's (the famous Current Bun).

It was around this time that the tendency was recognised as the British Section of the Fourth International. Five issues of our journal, Workers International Review, were produced from September/October 1956 until the June/July 1957 issue. Far from the tactic of the tendency at the time being an entrist one, we were clearly an open party. There was no entrist youth paper - the old Rally ceased publication in 1952 and the new Rally did not start until November 1957 - and WIR clearly identified itself as the organ of the British Section of the FI [see below masthead of Workers International Review specifying "The English Language Organ of the Fourth International".]

masthead of Workers International Review specifying "The English Language Organ of the Fourth International".

Additionally, when the Hungarian events brought about a crisis within the CP, we produced an open letter to them - under the name of the RSL. (Reproduced below).Open letter to Communist Party members on the Hungarian Events

It is ironic that, when we approached the Healeyite organisation, at that time entrist, for unity talks -- a product of affairs within the International -- they were able to reply:

"We are prepared to enter into negotiations with the RSL tendency if the following conditions are carried out. (a) That they dissolve the RSL as an open organisation and accept the perspective of work in the LP."

(Letter from Burns (Healey) to RSL, 13 June 1957)

As an aside, it is interesting to note the tactics of the SLL (later the WRP) and entrism. In 1957 they were in the Labour Party, but in 1958/1959 turned to an open tactic. At that stage they were wrong, and coupled their ultra-leftism with a hooliganism that isolated them from many in the movement. They were successful in getting themselves expelled from, and proscribed by, the Labour Party in 1959.

Yet, when they decided to re-enter the youth work, after the Labour Party established the YS in 1960, they were able to win over a local YS branch, convert its small, local newssheet into the youth paper of the SLL, rapidly win a majority in the YS in the early 1960s, and build the largest of all the groups claiming to be Trotskyist. This was squandered, by their methods and their politics - it was not only entrism that separated us from the sects, but approach, method and perspectives - but it did show that, once out of the Party, it was still possible to re-enter with positive results.

1957 also saw the first congress of the RSL as the British section of the Fourth International. The main document contains the following passage on the question of the Socialist Forums, a grouping outside the Labour Party, largely formed from ex-CP members. It is again interesting to note as a side-line that we made virtually no gains from the 1956 splits in the CP, the majority of ex-CP members that turned to Trotskyism going to the SLL, a position that was again disastrously squandered:

Large numbers of key and important cadres can be won for the Fourth International from this work....For example, 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 Fourth International.

At a later stage, the problem of work within the mass organisations and of perspectives for the coming epoch must be discussed. But at the present stage of development, immediate entry of such a grouping into the Labour Party would mean the drowning of many excellent people in the social-democratic swamp, and the complete disillusionment of others in the possibility of real Labour Party work....

A wide audience has been created for our ideas. The organisation must mobilise all the forces at its disposal to intervene effectively in the work of the Forums.....

The situation demands above all a flexible tactic. Entry must not be made a fetish - any more than the concept of open work. Our tactic at a given time is dictated by the opportunities open to us and the possibility of results. It would be madness to neglect the Labour Party in view of our perspectives for the future. It would be greater madness to adopt a formalistic attitude and turn our backs on the immediate possibilities of work under the independent banner - the modest successes of Workers' International Review have underlined this.

The essence of tactics, in politics as in war, is to concentrate the greatest forces in that sector of the battlefield where the state of the fight most favours victory. Successful work in the open field can prepare the ground for greater successes in the future within the Labour Party, where decisive struggles will take place.

(The Present Situation and Our Political Tasks, First Annual Congress, 1957)

By 1958, the open work of the tendency changed to entry work, reflecting the growth of the Bevanite left within the Party.

A new entry paper, Socialist Fight, was produced, sometimes irregularly; 44 issues were produced from January 1958 until November 1962, with one more issue appearing in June 1963.

At the same time, a youth paper, far more linked to the tendency than previously, appeared with the new Rally, 27 issues of which appeared as the youth paper of Walton YS from November 1957 until Easter 1961. Again, here is not the place for a full analysis of the nature of Socialist Fight or the tendency at the time.

Suffice it to say that the group was still very loose, with enormous problems within the leadership, quite apart from the problems posed by our membership of the ISFI. The effects of our isolation and failure to grow, unlike the SLL (WRP) with their attractive open work, produced not only a move from the leadership for new unity discussions with the SLL in 1963, fortunately rejected, but also towards joint work with the International Socialists (later to become the British SWP).

This agreement led to the closure of our Rally and the ISís Rebel and the setting up of a joint venture. Young Guard. This journal existed from September 1961 onwards, with our comrades breaking away shortly before the first publication of our current paper [the Militant]. Although nominally a joint paper, it was in reality a voice of the IS; the Liverpool branch of the tendency was resolutely opposed to this move.

Thus, if we consider that Socialist Fight effectively ceased publication in 1962, and that our current paper did not appear until October 1964, there was no independent paper for a period of over 2 years; for that period, our entry work consisted largely of work with and arguing with .... the SWP!

A further development came with the forced reconciliation in 1964 between ourselves and the International Group, which later became the official USFI section, a marriage brought about through the USFI - and once again a move bitterly opposed by the Liverpool comrades.

It was in the course of the debate with this tendency that our position on the Labour Party and the Marxist paper became firmly established. Thus, it can be strongly argued that, rather than the past 40 years being a period of consistent Labour Party work, a number of differing tactics were carried out.

What was consistent, and what also differentiated us sharply from all other tendencies, was our orientation, our method, our programme, our perspectives and our approach. Inside or outside the Labour Party, it is these that will be continued.

TA 10.9.91






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