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Marxists and the British Labour Party

The 'Open Turn' debate


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

On the history of entrism

The letter from comrade FM raises some very important questions, particularly as the comrade can see the importance of work outside the Labour Party - standing in Liverpool, etc. - and also the longer term importance of an orientation towards the Labour Party.

The questions of perspectives, etc, are dealt with elsewhere. I want here to deal with the nature of entrism, and also take up one or two issues of the history of our organisation.

One of the most important aspects of the present discussion is that it raises the very nature of Marxism itself. In the discussions within the American SWP in the 1930's, in the course of a debate on the nature of the Soviet Union, Trotsky found it necessary to return to the basics of Marxism: what are dialectics? What are the methods of analysis used by Marxists?

So, too, the present debate poses sharply the question: is Marxism a series of "iron laws set in stone", that can be applied to every situation, or is it a method of analysis that enables us to understand the processes at work within society? The bourgeois have always tried to portray Marxism as a rigid dogma, helped enormously by the way Stalinism reduced it to a series of formulae.

In reality, the method of Marxism is the most flexible of methods, completely free of dogmatic statements; if a Marxist analysis starts from the concept that everything is in a continual state of change, then our analysis has to reflect that process.

That process of change applies to the mass parties of the working class, as they reflect all the pressures of the changes in the economic and social aspects of society as a whole, and also the changes within the working class in particular. And that is precisely why the attitude of Marxists towards the mass parties has been a flexible one, reflecting the change-s that the mass parties can go through at different times.

Comrade FM mentions Left wing communism and In the middle of the road. But in both these documents, Lenin and Trotsky take a very flexible position. In Left wing communism, Lenin poses the question of Communists joining the Labour Party; but he does this by suggesting that the new Communist Party affiliate to the Labour Party, under strict conditions.

Lenin also raises the perspective of standing candidates against the Labour Party in safe Labour seats, while calling for a vote for Labour in other seats. This is clearly inconceivable under present conditions. Lenin also sees that it might be necessary -particularly if the revolutionary wave created by the Russian revolution was to recede - for work in the Labour Party to be carried out in an "illegal" fashion, but that would depend on the attitude of the working class towards the Party at any given time.

If Lenin had thought that all the communists at the time should have done was to have worked within the mass parties, and turned their backs on a "more open Marxist approach", then the Communist Parties would never have been set up as open organisations. What is important about Left wing communism is not its every word, but its general method and approach.

The same applies to In the middle of the road, a document that fully demonstrated Trotsky's flexible approach. In this document, Trotsky says that the ILP should stand in as many seats as possible - not just in safe Labour seats. At the same time, Trotsky's first attitude in 1933 was that Marxists should join the ILP.

Following the growth of Stalinism in the Soviet Union, the development of the International Left Opposition and the expulsion of oppositionists from the British Communist Party in 1932, Trotsky suggested that the tiny group (at that time called the Communist League) enter the Independent Labour Party; far from saying that "the ILP was doomed and that we should orientate to the Labour Party", Trotsky explained the necessity for work in the HP, which had originally split from the Labour Party in 1932 with just under 17,000 members.

Faced with the size of the Labour Party and the Communist Party, and with the painfully small forces at the disposal of the Marxists at that time, the question was posed of attempting to attract the best workers to the small group in the quickest way possible. Where were these workers to be found? To Trotsky, the answer lay in the ILP.

Despite the fact that the ILP had split from the Labour Party at the wrong time and on the wrong issues, at that stage it was still a party with considerable support, and contained within it many thousands of workers looking for a revolutionary alternative. This tactical turn created a crisis within the small group; the resultant split meant that a minority entered the ILP, working as the Marxist Group within that organisation.

However, the nature of the ILP and the support it commanded within the working class began to change. By 1935, when Trotsky wrote In the middle of the road, its membership had slumped to 4,392 and there was a swing back to the Labour Party, despite the betrayals of the 1929 - 1931 government, so much so that the work of the comrades within the ILP became constricted. A letter from EG and others to the International Secretariat (of the International Communist League) written in 1935 is revealing:

"Since the entry of the Minority of the old Communist League into the ILP, not one old member of the Party has been won over to our position in the London Division, all our support having come either from new members (whom, in most cases, we had converted to Bolshevik-Leninism before they joined the ILP), or from old ILP-ers who had....adopted our position before we had entered...

A dangerous spread of centrist tendencies is to be observed within the group itself....Making a fetish of doing ILP work out of "loyalty" to the ILP leadership and constitution. Naturally, all Bolshevik-Leninists working in the ILP must expect to do a certain amount of ILP work...

...also the constitution of the party must not be broken in such a way as to render expulsion possible - but some of the leading comrades of the Marxist Group carry this to the point where they are in danger of placing loyalty to the ILP higher than Bolshevik-Leninist principles."

In these circumstances, the membership of the Marxist Group had begun to drift into Labour Party work, which is where the comrades eventually landed, in the Militant Group. Here is not the place to go into that body; suffice it to say that there was a split, and the Workers International League (the WIL) was set up in 1937.

As is indicated in the EB majority document, although the WIL was initially an entrist group, it soon turned towards becoming an open party, although it also carried out entry work through an entrist fraction. There is no space here to reprint the quotations from EC's speeches on the history of the organisation; comrades should refer to the majority document to see the way in which the approach to the Labour Party was applied in a flexible manner.

However, far from the articles of the WIL being FM's "sectarian rubbish", they reflect changes in the attitude of the working class towards the Labour Party and changes in the life within the Labour Party itself.

Trotsky initially proposed the comrades join the ILP; the decline in that Party led to a move to the Labour Party; the later decline in the Labour Party, as part of the war-time coalition, led to a growth of the ILP - and also the Common Wealth Party - as left parties, and thus to the turn of comrades towards the ILP at that stage.

The main orientation during the war, however, was as an open party, first the WIL and then the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). Contrary to comrade FM saying "these articles...did not prove how leaving the Labour Party actually benefited Marxism", the open tactic at that time gave the organisation an important position within the working class, particularly with the need publicly to oppose the war.

The arrest of comrades under anti-trade union laws, the raid on comrades houses and the organisation's headquarters, the strikes led by sympathizers, all this pointed to the growth in support for the ideas of Marxism that could not have been achieved if the comrades had remained in the Labour Party at that stage.

Yet, throughout this period, the orientation of the comrades was still towards the mass party, the Labour Party. Socialist Appeal, the paper of the WIL and then the RCP, made demands for Labour to break the coalition and carry out socialist policies.

Even when the RCP stood a candidate against an official Labour candidate in the Neath by-election, (during the celebrations over VE day, which severely affected the RCP vote) the approach was towards Labour supporters.

Even while standing an open candidate against Labour, the RCP retained members inside the Labour Party in those areas where they thought they could get results! Jock Hasten, the RCP candidate, claims that the bulk of RCP members were still in the Labour Party at the time. Far from alienating Labour voters by this activity, the Labour candidate himself remained a firm friend of Jock Hasten for long after.

Again in the course of the current debate, 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.

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 the 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 go into a full history of that period, but an outline of the experiences of the organisation is very revealing.

After the war, the beginnings of the world boom and the strengthening of Stalinism led to a crisis in the RCP, with a group led by Gerry Healy entering the Labour Party in 1947. The EB majority document reprints some of the material written by EG during this period.

The outcome of the debate was that we ended up inside the Labour Party in a small grouping under the leadership of Healy called The Club, from which he rapidly began to expel all those who disagreed with his line. Following the expulsion of our comrades from the Healy group in 1950, the main task facing them 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 that 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 theoretical 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 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 our organisation was recognised as the British Section of the Fourth International (ISFI). Five issues of our journal. Workers International Review, were produced from Sept/October 1956 until the June/July 1957 issue.

Far from the tactic of the organisation 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. Additionally, when the Russian invasion of Hungary to put down a threatened workers' revolution brought about a crisis within the Communist Party, we produced an open letter to the CP - under the name of the RSL. It is ironic that, when we approached the Healyite 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 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 (Healy) to RSL, 13 June 1957

As an aside, it is interesting to note the tactics of the SLL (later to be called the WRP) and entrism. In 1957 they were in the Labour Party, but in 1958/59 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, less than two years later, when the Labour Party decided in 1960 to turn the local youth branches into the Young Socialists, a new national organisation with a national conference and a national committee, they decided to re-enter the youth work; they were able to win over a local YS branch, convert its small, local news sheet into the youth paper of the SLL, rapidly win a majority in the YS 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 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. The Present Situation and our Political Tasks 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 that we made virtually no gains fro the 1956 split in the GP, 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 moan 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....

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 ignore 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 the decisive struggles will take place."

By 1958, this open work of the organisation 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 organisation 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 organisation 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 USFI, with whom we had profound disagreements, yet whose material we still produced. 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, fortunately rejected, but also towards joint work in the youth field with the International Socialists (later to become the British SWP).

This agreement led to the closure of our Rally and the IS 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.

Although Young Guard was nominally a joint paper, based on the agreement of a 22-point programme drafted by us, it quickly became in reality a voice of the IS. The Liverpool organisation was resolutely opposed to this move; for their pains, they were made to occupy organisational positions within the paper's editorial board, only to be manoeuvred out later.

During this time, we produced a number of copies of our own youth journal through Garston YS, Youth for Socialism. Important gains were made in the Labour youth organisation, but the link with the IS clearly hampered our work.

A further development came with the forced reconciliation between ourselves and the International Group, which later became the official USFI section, (later called the International Marxist Group, the IMG) 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 organisation that our views 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, demonstrating the flexibility that is a hallmark of Marxism. 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.

Arthur Traven (Tony Aitman)

 

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