Eighteen theses on Labour

Disputation on the self-defeating common sense of governmentalism and the illusions of broad left alternatives

1. The December 2019 general election defeat and Sir Keir Starmer’s subsequent leadership victory shows the bankruptcy of the reformist strategy for socialism. With Jeremy Corbyn they had their ideal leader, with John McDonnell they had their ideal shadow chancellor, with It’s time for real change they had their ideal manifesto.

2. Labour’s poor performance in 2019 is not only explained by ‘getting Brexit done’. Jeremy Corbyn faced unremitting hostility from the mainstream media, which did everything it could to feed and promote the ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ smear campaign. But to have expected anything else would have been naive. The mainstream media “carry out a system-supportive propaganda function” (Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky). In the absence of a full-spectrum mass media in the hands of the labour movement, Corbyn was forced to undergo trial by the bourgeois establishment’s papers and journals, radio and TV stations, and news and blog sites. He was never going to win.

3. A Corbyn-led government was not a prospect that the ruling class was prepared to countenance. Economically, they deemed its programme grossly irresponsible. It could, they feared, trigger a crisis of expectations. More than that, they considered Corbyn and his close allies totally unreliable when it came to international politics. So, if by some fluke a Corbyn-led government had taken office, their response would have been such tactics as an organised run on the pound, wrecking operations by the Parliamentary Labour Party right, MI5 subversion, an army mutiny, US ‘pushback’, a royal-blessed coup, etc.

4. While the chances of a Corbyn-led government were always exceedingly remote, that cannot be said of the possibility of making changes to the Labour Party’s rules and structures. Yet, whereas Tony Blair carried out a (counter) revolution, all that Corbyn managed to achieve were a few tinkering reforms. That need not have been the case. With a more determined, more politically clear-sighted left, there really could have been a revolution in the party.

6. However, the left is politically weak. Too often it was determined to simply tail Corbyn, while Corbyn was determined to maintain unity with the openly pro-capitalist right in the PLP. That meant dropping open selection of parliamentary candidates, leaving Blair’s clause four untouched and refusing to confront and call out the ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ smear campaign.

7. Corbyn did not protest, even as friend after friend, ally after ally, was thrown to the wolves. Instead of taking the fight to the Zionist forces, such as Labour Friends of Israel and the Jewish Labour Movement (formerly Poale Zion), and championing the Palestinian cause through promoting the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign, on his watch there was a concerted drive to increase the number of expulsions and suspensions. The Corbyn-Formby regime itself became an agent of the witch-hunt. To even deny that Labour has a real, a significant, a widespread problem with anti-Semitism became a disciplinary offence in its own right.

8. Not surprisingly, with the December 2019 general election defeat, many disorientated former Corbyn supporters variously concluded that: there needs to be a safe, acceptable, suitably centrist Labour Party that can ‘rewin the trust’ of the so-called Jewish community; that Labour can never be changed; that the fight for radical social change lies not in permanent political organisation, but in ephemeral street protests, economic strikes, tenant campaigns; etc.

9. Also not surprisingly, Starmer – former member of the International Revolutionary Marxist Tendency and editor of Socialist Alternatives – stood for leader promising to remain fully committed to It’s time for real change. A cynical lie designed to pull wool over gullible eyes. Apart from getting himself into No10, he has no master plan nowadays. The latest round of the witch-hunt under Starmer owes nothing to defeating, finally seeing-off the left, that is for sure. With Corbyn gone, Rebecca Long-Bailey soundly beaten, David Evans as general secretary, a rightwing NEC majority, the PLP overwhelmingly dominated by the right and the three big union affiliates, GMB, Unite and Unison, unlikely to rock the boat, he has a controlling grip on the Labour Party.

10. No less to the point, the left in the CLPs is much reduced and organisations such as the Socialist Campaign Group, Momentum and the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy are cowardly and display not the least appetite for a concerted fightback. Self-serving careerism counts for far more than the principle of solidarity: there is, for example, still a steadfast refusal to call out the ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ big lie.

11. No, the suspensions and expulsions under Starmer are a matter of display. He wants to prove to the capitalist media, big business, the City, the establishment, the armed forces and the US state department that, as prime minister, he would be trustworthy, utterly loyal to the constitution, the UK state and its international alliances. That is why Starmer promises to “uproot” anti-Semitism, why Jeremy Corbyn remains suspended from the PLP, why Labour Against the Witchhunt, the Labour in Exile Network, Resist and Socialist Appeal have been banned and why Ken Loach was auto-expelled.

12. The failures, the cowardice, the treachery, the constantly repeated pattern of the official Labour left becoming the official Labour right has to be explained in materialist terms. It cannot be put down to individual oddity, personal weakness or some congenital tendency to betray. The Labour left is still the natural home for many trade union militants, socialist campaigners and those committed to radical social change. But Labour’s position as the alternative party of government also makes the official Labour left a breeding ground for careerists, who, often starting off with good intentions, slowly or speedily evolve to the right. The lure of elected positions, generous expense accounts, lucrative sinecures, sly backhanders, mixing with the great and good and eventually entry into the lower ranks of the bourgeoisie all smooth the way.

13. Both the official Labour left and the official Labour right share a ‘common sense’ that politics are about winning elections. Therefore, policies are limited to what can be ‘sold’ to the electorate. But it is the mainstream capitalist media that, ultimately, decides what is to be regarded as sensible and what is to be dismissed as sectarian craziness. Anything that gets in the way of winning elections must therefore be avoided like the plague. Hence it is not only the Labour right which attempts to restrict, muddy and segment debate, and impose bureaucratic limits and measures to sideline awkward minorities. The official Labour left behaves in exactly the same anti-democratic manner.

14. The Labour Party, as presently constituted, is certainly not a “true mass organisation of the working class”. Doubtless, although it is down by a hundred thousand, Labour still has a mass membership and relies on trade union money and working class voters. But, in the last analysis, what decides the class character of a political party is its leadership and its programme.

15. The election of Corbyn did not produce fundamental change here. Neither For the many, not the few (2017) nor It’s time for real change (2019) questioned the monarchical constitution, the standing army, judge-made law or the US-dominated international order, let alone the system of wage-slavery. So, even under Corbyn, Labour was neither a democratic nor a socialist party. It was, and remains, a bourgeois workers’ party, which has its place in capitalism’s many defensive moats, ramparts and walls.

16. Despite the failure of Corbyn and the election of Starmer, we remain committed to the complete transformation of the Labour Party, forging it into a permanent united front of the working class and equipping it with solid Marxist principles and a tried-and-tested Marxist leadership.

17. However, this positive perspective for Labour can only be realised through the struggle to unite the left inside and outside the Labour Party – but not into a broad front based on soggy, middle-ground compromises, like the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, Left Unity, Respect or the Socialist Alliance. Sadly, all these have been wasted opportunities. No, we need to unite in building a mass Marxist party – a party that applies to affiliate to Labour, but can operate within the party despite bans and proscriptions.

18. Without a mass Marxist party, the left is doomed to suffer one Sisyphean defeat after another.

Labour as a united front

Once all working class and socialist organisations were welcome – obviously no longer. James Marshall looks at the past, present and future

We are in the midst of a terrible witch-hunt – a witch-hunt fully backed by the Labour right, the capitalist media, the courts, the Israeli embassy and the forces of the deep state. Three examples:

  • Jeremy Corbyn was suspended from membership of the Parliamentary Labour Party in October 2020, thereby preventing him from standing as a Labour candidate in the next general election. Why? He dared tell the truth: “accusations” of anti-Semitism have been “dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media”.1 Constituency Labour Party chairs and secretaries who allowed debates on, or resolutions protesting against, his treatment faced suspension or expulsion.
  • Hundreds, if not thousands, have been purged, many charged with anti-Semitism, and predictably a hugely disproportionate percentage of them are Jewish: eg, Jackie Walker, Tony Greenstein and Moshé Machover. Their real crime is opposing the Zionist colonial-settler state of Israel … and Labour’s pro-capitalist right wing.
  • The July 20 national executive committee banned Labour Against the Witchhunt, Resist, the Labour In Exile Network and Socialist Appeal. Anyone deemed a member or supporter of one of those proscribed organisations faces auto-expulsion. Amongst the first to fall foul of the new rule was celebrated film director Ken Loach. He refused to renounce support for LAW.

It is all too clear what Sir Keir Starmer and general secretary David Evans are up to. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership victory in September 2015 owed much to historical accident; little or nothing to the strategic acumen, ideological hegemony and organisational strength of the official left. With his ill-judged resignation following the December 2019 general election and the resounding defeat suffered by the hapless Rebecca Long-Bailey in the April 2020 leadership contest, the Labour right has been firmly back in the saddle. The witch-hunt is no longer about undermining Corbyn, driving him into complicity, forcing him to sacrifice one friend and one ally after another and ensuring that he never enters No10 Downing Street as prime minister.

No, the witch-hunt is about Sir Keir demonstrating his unquestioning loyalty to the UK state and its international allies – crucially the US and its most important strategic asset in the Middle East. Bans, expulsions, character assassination and riding roughshod over basic democratic norms have a potent symbolic value. They show that Starmer is worthy of the establishment’s trust. That way, he hopes to ingratiate himself with the capitalist media, boost Labour’s poll ratings and calm the fears of the army top brass, MI5, the City and the US state department. If – and it is a big if – Brexit comes to be commonly regarded as a Boris Johnson-driven car crash, then Sir Keir has the distinct possibility of getting that summons to Buckingham Palace and being asked to form a government by her majesty the queen.

Class against class

Labour Party Marxists has actively joined with those many others fighting the suspension and expulsion of socialists, trade union activists and anti-Zionists. All of them, without exception, should be immediately reinstated. There is surely nothing uncontroversial about Marxists making such a demand. After all, what is going on inside the Labour Party is a clear and unmistakable manifestation of the class struggle.

What then should we make of those self-declared ‘leftwingers’ who have turned a blind eye, excused, complied with or even promoted the witch-hunt? Painful though it may be for many, the fact of the matter is that it was under the pro-Corbyn regime of Jennie Formby that Labour HQ ‘fast-tracked’ expulsions. ‘Denialism’ – ie, what Corbyn was charged with – first became a crime with general secretary Formby (denialism, in this context, being a refusal go along with the big lie that Labour has a widespread, politically significant problem with anti-Semitism).

Yet, as the witch-hunt ripped through the ranks of the Labour left, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs maintained a studied silence. None of them defended Ken Livingstone, Chris Williamson, Pete Willsman or Marc Wadsworth. The principle, ‘An injury to one is an injury to all’, became an alien concept. The Guardian’s house-trained Owen Jones was little different. Nor did Momentum lift a finger. Indeed Jackie Walker was surgically removed as its vice-chair.

Then there is Dan Randall and the social-imperialist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty outfit. They might as well be paid agents of the foreign office. Perhaps, though, the most revolting of all is Robert Griffiths, leader of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain. He actually wrote to the Labour Party’s witch-hunter-in-chief, Iain McNicol, asking him to name the names of any members of his who had entered the Labour Party “or engaged in any similar subterfuge”, so that “action can be taken against them”.2 Not to leave a shadow of doubt, Griffiths signed off: “With comradely regards”.

Exactly how Griffiths’ sorry excuse for a communist organisation arrived at its ban on Labour Party members joining the CPB and the ban on CPB members joining the Labour Party need not concern us here. Its roots, though, surely lie in the ‘official’ Communist Party of Great Britain and its turn to the cross-class politics of the popular front, sanctioned by the 7th Congress of the Communist International in 1935 under Stalin’s direct command.

Despite CPB claims to be the unbroken continuation of the CPGB going back to its foundation in 1920, nothing could be further from the truth. A fundamental break occurred. The same goes for the Labour Party.

Beginnings

From its beginning Labour was a federal party, which sought to unite all working class and socialist organisations. It was a united front of a special kind – special because, as with the soviets in Russia, unity was not tactical, fleeting or episodic. True, especially at first, political aims were decidedly limited.

JH Holmes, delegate of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, moved this historic resolution at the 1899 TUC:

That this Congress, having regard to its decisions in former years, and with a view to securing better representation of the interests of labour in the House of Commons, hereby instructs the Parliamentary Committee to invite the cooperation of all cooperative, socialistic, trade unions and other working class organisations to jointly cooperate on lines mutually agreed upon, in convening a special congress of representatives from such above-named organisations as may be willing to take part to devise ways and means of securing the return of an increased number of labour members in the next parliament.3

His resolution was opposed by the miners’ union on the basis of impracticability, but found support from the dockers, the railway servants and shop assistants. After a long debate the resolution was narrowly carried by 546,000 votes to 434,000.

The TUC’s parliamentary committee oversaw the founding conference of the Labour Representation Committee in February 1900. The 129 delegates, representing around 500,000 members, finally agreed to establish a distinct Labour Party in parliament, with its own whips, policies, finances, etc.

An executive committee was also elected. It would prepare lists of candidates, administer funds and convene an annual conference. Besides affiliated trade unions, the newly formed NEC would also include socialist societies. In fact, they, the socialist societies, were allocated five out of the 12 NEC seats (one for the right-reformist Fabians, two for the centrist Independent Labour Party and two for the openly revolutionary Social Democratic Federation). Given the diminutive size of these socialist societies compared with the trade unions, it is obvious that they were treated with considerable generosity. Presumably their “advanced” views were highly regarded.4

For Keir Hardie the formation of the Labour Party marked something of a tactical retreat. He had long sought some kind of socialist party. However, to secure an alliance with the trade unions he and other ILPers were prepared to programmatically limit the Labour Party to nothing more than furthering working class interests by getting “men sympathetic with the aims and demands of the labour movement” into the House of Commons.5

SDF delegates proposed that the newly established Labour Party commit itself to the “class war and having as its ultimate object the socialisation of the means of production and exchange” – a formulation rejected by a large majority. In the main the trade unions were still Liberal politically. Unfortunately, as a result of this vote, the next annual conference of the SDF voted by 54 to 14 to withdraw from the Labour Party. Many SDF leaders came to bitterly “regret” this sectarian decision.6

As might be expected, this was part of a wider pattern. For example, faced with the great industrial unrest of 1910-14, Henry Hyndman, the SDF’s autocratic leader, rhetorically asked: “Can anything be imagined more foolish, more harmful, more – in the widest sense of the word – unsocial than a strike?”7

Of course, it is quite possible to actively support trade unions in their struggles over wages, conditions, etc, and to patiently and steadfastly advocate republican democracy and international socialism. Indeed without doing just that there can be no hope for a mass socialist party here in Britain.

Nonetheless, the SDF is too often casually dismissed by historians. Eg, Henry Pelling describes it as “a rather weedy growth in the political garden”.8 True, its Marxism was typically crude and, with Hyndman, mixed with more than a tinge of anti-Semitism. For him the Boer war was instigated by “Jew financial cliques and their hangers-on”.9 Yet the SDF was “the first modern socialist organisation of national importance” in Britain.10

Karl Marx disliked it, Fredrick Engels despaired of it, William Morris, John Burns, Tom Mann and Edward Aveling split from it. But the SDF survived. The various breakaways – eg, the Socialist League, the Socialist Party of Great Britain and the Socialist Labour Party – either disappeared, remained utterly impotent or could manage little more than regional influence. Meanwhile, the SDF continued as the “major representative” of what passed for Marxism in this country till 1911, when it merged with a range of local socialist societies to become the British Socialist Party.11

The first conference of the newly formed BSP voted, by an overwhelming majority, to “seek direct and independent affiliation” to the Second International.12 In other words, not through the Labour Party-dominated British section of the Second International. Despite that, however, the BSP began to overcome its Labour-phobia. Leading figures, such as Henry Hyndman, J Hunter Watts and Dan Irving, eventually came round to affiliation. That was vindication for Zelda Kahan and the internationalist left. Withdrawal from the Labour Party, she argued, had been a profound mistake. Outside the Labour Party the BSP was seen as hostile, fault-finding and antagonistic. Inside, the BSP would get a wider hearing and win over the “best” rank-and-file forces.13 Affiliation to the Labour Party was agreed, albeit by a relatively narrow majority. Efforts then began to put that into effect. The formal application for affiliation was submitted in June 1914. And in 1916 – things having been considerably delayed due to the outbreak of World War I – the BSP gained entry into the Labour Party. Almost simultaneously, in Easter 1916, the BSP in effect expelled the pro-war right wing. Hyndman went off to form his National Socialist Party.

Communist affiliation

The October revolution found militant and unstinting support in the BSP. A number of its émigré comrades from Russia returned home and took up important positions in the Soviet government. Bolshevik publications were soon being translated into English: eg, Lenin’s State and revolution. Money too flowed in.

The Leeds conference of the BSP in 1918 enthusiastically declared its solidarity with the Bolsheviks and a wish to emulate their methods and achievements. And under the influence of Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Bukharin, etc, the BSP adopted a much more active, much more agitational role in the Labour Party and the trade unions. In the words of Fred Shaw, instead of standing aloof from the “existing organisations” of the working class, “win them for Marxism”.14

Needless to say, the BSP constituted the main body that went towards the historic formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain over July 31-August 1 1920. Given BSP affiliation four years earlier, and the fact that in 1918 the Labour Party introduced individual membership, there can be no doubt that the bulk of CPGBers were card-carrying Labour Party members. Dual membership was therefore the norm, as with the Fabians and ILP.

However, instead of simply informing Arthur Henderson, Labour’s secretary, that the BSP had changed its name, the CPGB, following Lenin’s advice, applied for affiliation. Lenin thought the CPGB was in a win-win situation. If affiliation was accepted, this would open up the Labour Party rank and file to communist influence. If affiliation was rejected, this would expose Labour leaders for what they really were: “the worst kind of reactionaries”.15

With 20:20 foresight it would probably have been better for the CPGB to have presented itself merely as the continuation of the BSP. True, that would have tested to the limits the CPGB’s own unity. Its First Congress had a surprisingly large minority opposed to Labour Party affiliation: eg, the Communist Unity Group.

Nevertheless, securing a divorce is undoubtedly far harder than turning down a would-be suitor. The Labour leadership would have had to expel a renamed existing affiliate rather than reject a brand new prospective affiliate. Note, the BSP was allowed to affiliate in 1916, despite its long established commitment to Marxism, and, as far as I know, there were no moves to expel the BSP because of its newly adopted opposition to the ongoing inter-imperialist war – a position shared, of course, by Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald and the centrist ILP.

After World War I and the 1917 Russian Revolution, however, Labour’s grandees were determined to distance themselves from Bolshevism. The revolution had put terror into the soul of the bourgeoisie. Their system was mortal. In defence of their system of exploitation they reinvented capitalism as ‘democracy’, while the communists, in defence of the isolated Soviet republic, championed ‘dictatorship’. A strategic blunder. A gift. Arthur Henderson therefore replied to the CPGB’s first application for affiliation by counterposing democracy and dictatorship. The principles of the communists do not accord with those of the Labour Party, he flatly declared. To which the CPGB responded by pointing out that:

… it understood the Labour Party to be so catholic in composition and constitution that it could admit to its ranks all sections of the working class movement that accept the broad principle of independent working class political action, at the same time granting them freedom to propagate their own particular views as to the policy the Labour Party should pursue and the tactics it should adopt.16

A good many local Labour Parties, particularly in London, forthrightly rejected Henderson’s characterisation of the CPGB as, in effect, mad, bad and dangerous to know. Nonetheless, Labour’s apparatus experienced no difficulty in marshalling crushing majorities. Eg, in June 1921 there was an overwhelming 4,115,000 to 224,000 conference vote against CPGB affiliation.

A minority Labour government was now a real prospect. Towards that end Labour had to be made acceptable to the Liberal Party, the capitalist press, the army high command, the City and George V. Britain and its vast empire of exploitation, pillage and extermination would be safe in Labour hands. That was the essential message that the Labour and trade union bureaucracy wanted to convey by rejecting the CPGB.

Lenin had, in 1908, optimistically called Labour the “first step towards socialism and towards a class policy”.17 As it was, Labour took one step forward in 1900 and one step back with its support for British imperialism in World War I … and still another step back with its refusal to accept communist affiliation. The united front of the working class was thereby disunited. The Labour Party dishonestly continued to call itself by that name, but in reality Labour was sabotaged as a party going towards socialism and a class policy. It continues, of course, but akin to soviets without Bolsheviks: soviets subordinated to the capitalist state; soviets as a career ladder for colourless, clueless, professional politicians.

Bans and defiance

Not that the CPGB could be easily seen off. Affiliation might have been rejected, but there remained dual membership. In 1922, two CPGB members won parliamentary seats as Labour candidates: JT Walton Newbold (Motherwell and Wishaw) and Shapurji Saklatvala (Battersea North).

Subsequently, Labour’s NEC was forced to temporarily drop its attempt to bar CPGB members from being elected as annual conference delegates. The June 26-29 1923 Labour conference had 36 CPGB members as delegates, “as against six at Edinburgh” the previous year.18 Incidentally, the 1923 conference once again rejected CPGB affiliation, this time by a narrower 2,880,000 to 366,000 margin.

Nonetheless, the general election in December 1923 saw CPGBers Ellen Wilkinson (Ashton-under-Lyne), Shapurji Saklatvala (Battersea North), M Philips Price (Gloucester), William Paul (Manchester Rusholme) and Joe Vaughan (Bethnal Green SW) stand as official Labour candidates, while Alec Geddes (Greenock) and Aitken Ferguson (Glasgow Kelvingrove) were unofficial Labour candidates, there being no official Labour candidate in either constituency. Walton Newbold (Motherwell) and Willie Gallacher (Dundee) alone stood as CPGB candidates. Despite a considerable increase in the overall communist vote, none were elected.19

A ban on CPGB members standing as Labour Party candidates swiftly followed. Yet, though Labour Party organisations were instructed not to support CPGB candidates, this was met with defiance – not the fawning compliance nowadays personified by the miserable Robert Griffiths. In the run-up to the October 1924 general election, Battersea North Labour Party overwhelmingly endorsed Shapurji Saklatvala, Joe Vaughan was unanimously endorsed by Bethnal Green SW CLP and William Paul similarly by the Rusholme CLP executive committee. And Saklatvala was once again elected as an MP.

The 1924 Labour Party conference decision against CPGB members continuing with dual membership was reaffirmed in 1925. And, going further, trade unions were “asked not to nominate communists as delegates to Labour organisations”. In response, in December 1925, the National Left Wing Movement was formed. Its stated aim was not only to oppose bans on communists: it also sought to hold together disaffiliated CLPs. Basically a model which today’s LIEN seeks to emulate.

The NLWM insisted it had no wish or thought of superseding the Labour Party, but, instead, it sought to advance the generally held aspirations of Labour’s leftwing militants. In this it was considerably boosted by the newly established Sunday Worker. Despite being initiated, funded and edited by the CPGB, the Sunday Worker served as the authoritative voice of the NLWM. At its height it achieved a circulation of 100,000. The NLWM’s 1925 founding conference had nearly 100 Labour Party organisations sending delegates.

Following the defeat of the 1926 General Strike, the Labour apparatus and trade union bureaucracy wanted the movement to draw the conclusion that the only way to make progress would be through cooperating with the capitalist class in the national interest – Mondism. As a direct concomitant of this miserable class-collaborationism there was a renewed drive to exclude communists. Yet, despite these assaults on the Labour Party’s founding principles, at the end of 1926 the CPGB could report that 1,544 of its 7,900 members were still individual members of the Labour Party.

The struggle proved particularly sharp in London. In the capital city around half of the CPGB’s membership were active in their CLPs. And despite claiming that it was the communists who were “splitting the movement”, the labour leadership palpably strove to do just that. Battersea CLP was disaffiliated because it dared to back Saklatvala and refused to bar CPGB members. Similar measures were taken against Bethnal Green CLP, where the communist ex-mayor, Joe Vaughan, was held in particularly high regard.

Yet the Labour leadership’s campaign of disaffiliation and expulsion remorselessly ground on. The NLWM therefore found itself considerably weakened in terms of official Labour Party structures. Hence at its second annual conference in 1927 there were delegates from only 54 local Labour Parties and other Labour groups (representing a total of 150,000 individual party members). Militant union leaders, such as the miners’ AJ Cook, supported the conference.

However, external factors came into play – negatively. With the counterrevolution within the revolution in the Soviet Union, the CPGB was, in many ways willingly, reduced to being a slave of Stalin’s foreign policy. The CPGB’s attitude towards the Labour Party correspondingly wildly zigged and zagged. During the so-called ‘third period’ leaders such as Harry Pollitt and Rajani Palme Dutt denounced the Labour Party as nothing but “a third capitalist party” (shades of Peter Taaffe and Hannah Sell and their Socialist Party in England and Wales).20

As an integral part of this madness, in 1929 the Sunday Worker was closed down and the NLWM was wound up. In effect the CPGB returned to its SDF roots. Ralph Miliband comments that the CPGB’s so-called new line “brought it to the nadir of its influence”.21

Third period left sectarianism could only but spur on the Labour right’s witch-hunt. In 1930 there came the first proscribed list. Members of a whole variety of organisations became ineligible for individual membership of the Labour Party, and CLPs were instructed not to affiliate to proscribed organisations. Needless to say, most of them were associated in some way or another with the CPGB.

Latest round

What began as a witch-hunt against the CPGB in the 1920s nowadays not only includes LAW, LIEN and Socialist Appeal. There is the catch-all ban on “racist, abusive or foul language, abuse against women, homophobia or anti-Semitism at meetings, on social media or in any other context”. The Victoria Street thought-police can, at a whim, expel anyone. Members live in fear. They silence themselves. They keep their heads down. They fret, worry and sometimes experience profound mental distress over nothing more than past Zoom appearances, social media posts, likes and dislikes. Naturally, often they simply despair, and leave in disgust. They scatter to the four winds and turn to social dust.

However, there is a growing fightback. Twelve NEC members have declared the ban on the four proscribed groups “unfair”.22 The SCG even summed up the courage to organise a statement, signed by 20 Labour MPs and five Labour peers, urging that Ken Loach be reinstated as a member.23 In a similar fashion a range of groups have united as Defend the Left to oppose the bans and proscriptions – whatever the many political faults and inadequacies, a positive development. Even better, there are those now committed to the “refoundation of Labour as a united front of a special kind open to all socialist and working class organisations” (LAW).24

Here a really valuable lesson has been learnt. Yes, comrades, to fight against the witch-hunt we need a clear vision of what we are fighting for. The struggle continues.


  1. The Independent October 29 2020.↩︎
  2. Morning Star August 12 2016↩︎
  3. BC Roberts The Trade Union Congress 1868-1921 London 1958, p166.↩︎
  4. Ibid p167.↩︎
  5. Quoted in R Miliband Parliamentary socialism London 1960, p17.↩︎
  6. M Crick The history of the Social Democratic Federation Keel 1994, p97.↩︎
  7. Ibid p230↩︎
  8. H Pelling Origins of the Labour Party Oxford 1976, p172.↩︎
  9. M Crick The history of the Social Democratic Federation Keel 1994, p159.↩︎
  10. Ibid p8.↩︎
  11. Ibid p8.↩︎
  12. Ibid p8.↩︎
  13. Ibid p248.↩︎
  14. Quoted in M Crick The history of the Social Democratic Federation Keel 1994, p281.↩︎
  15. VI Lenin CW Vol 31, Moscow 1977, p258.↩︎
  16. Quoted in J Klugmann History of the Communist Party of Great Britain Vol 1, London 1968, p168.↩︎
  17. VI Lenin CW Vol 15, Moscow 1977, pp234-35.↩︎
  18. JT Murphy, ‘The Labour Party conference’ Communist Review August 1923, Vol 4, No4: www.marxists.org/archive/murphy-jt/1923/08/labour_conf.htm↩︎
  19. J Klugmann History of the Communist Party of Great Britain Vol 1, London 1968, pp361-62.↩︎
  20. N Branson History of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1927-1941 London 1985, p5.↩︎
  21. R Miliband Parliamentary socialism London 1960, p153.↩︎
  22. labourlist.org/2021/09/labour-implementing-ban-on-groups-in-unfair-way-say-12-nec-members.↩︎
  23. labourlist.org/2021/08/socialist-campaign-group-of-mps-urges-labour-to-reinstate-ken-loach.↩︎
  24. www.labouragainstthewitchhunt.org.↩︎

We need system change

Capitalism cannot be trusted with the future of the planet, says David Sherrief. But be warned: governments could go for ‘climate socialism’

The key findings of the IPCC sixth report are alarming, widely known and well worth repeating: human-induced warming is “unequivocally” the cause of rapid changes to the climate and, unless dramatic and sustained action is taken, the 1.5°C limit will be exceeded in the early 2030s.1 The aim to limit global warming to “well below” 2°C, “preferably” to 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels was, of course, agreed by the Paris 2015 Cop21 meeting and is signed off by 195 countries.2

Now, says the IPCC, it is “code red”. Human activity is changing the climate in ways “unprecedented” in thousands – or hundreds of thousands – of years. Some of the changes are likely to be “irreversible” over centuries or millennia – including the melting of polar ice, sea level rises and the acidification of the oceans.

Total warming is “dominated by past and future carbon emissions”, the report states, but cuts must also be made to the shorter-lived methane emissions – responsible for roughly 30% of post-industrial global warming and 80 times more potent when it comes to climate change. In terms of human activity, methane is released primarily through biomass/biofuel burning, gas/oil production, rotting waste in landfill sites and, of course, meat and dairy farming. Cutting methane emissions by 30% over the next decade is, reportedly, a US-EU-UK “priority” for November’s Cop26 in Glasgow.3

Tipping point

But, whatever happens with methane, not only do we seem well on course to hit the 1.5°C limit a lot sooner than first predicted, but there is the danger of reaching 2°C and going beyond. The IPCC warns that we are at or very near the tipping point. When quantity turns into quality, a “multiplier effect” kicks in and, through feedbacks and couplings, we get an entirely different climate system.4 Leave aside ocean currents, such as the Gulf Stream, slowing down or switching off entirely,5 mid-latitude land masses are hit with searing, almost impossibly high, temperatures; meanwhile, polar regions get far less cold during the winter months.6

Keeping to the Paris 1.5°C limit to prevent runaway climate change will require, says the IPCC, “immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions” in greenhouse gas emissions – of which there is no sign to date. For example, governments of all stripes leave urban sprawl, road building and the whole car economy going unquestioned. The much vaunted transition to electric vehicles is more a giant selling opportunity than any kind of a genuine solution. Not only does electricity still have to be generated – much still relying on coal, oil and gas power stations – there are also the steel, plastics, glass, computer chips, batteries, tyres, etc, that go towards making an electric vehicle. So, even if there is a 100% transition to renewable power sources, there will remain the large-scale release of greenhouse gases. The same applies to other major sources of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions: air flights, shipping, agriculture and industry. It is business as usual … and, needless to say, business is driven by the capitalist M-P-M’ imperative.

If emissions are not significantly reduced in the next decade, then reaching 3°C is all too conceivable – an apocalyptic scenario: though it would take thousands of years, the polar ice caps melt, sea levels head for a 10-metre rise, there is a further thaw of permafrost and another surge in global temperatures. There is, unavoidably, as a consequence, the mass extinction of flora and fauna. Countless cities are inundated: Alexandria, Dhaka, Jakarta, Bangkok, Kolkata, Miami, Houston, New Orleans, Rotterdam, Rio de Janeiro, Osaka and Shanghai. Along with much of Europe and western Asia, Britain eventually fragments into a series of islands. Oxford finds itself one of many new coastal towns. The North American wheat belt turns to desert. We effectively return to the conditions of the early Eocene 56-49 million years ago. As a bonus, true, the far north of America and Asia becomes habitable along with Antarctica. But what this presages is not exciting new opportunities for humanity, but rather a new dark age. Indeed there is the possibility that large parts of the planet becomes uninhabitable due to flammable air-methane concentrations.7 According to Tim Palmer, professor of climate physics at Oxford University, if we do not radically halt our emissions soon, our planet could well become “some kind of hell on Earth”.8

As the IPCC report emphasises, even if the capitalist ruling class somehow manages to get its act together by drastically reducing emissions, the climate will not return to the patterns we have been used to in the recent past. A 1.5°C warmer world will see an increase in “unprecedented” weather events. Disastrous floods, droughts, heatwaves and fires become far more frequent and far more intense.

Capitalocene

With its imperialist hierarchy, ruthless exploitation of nature and never satiated lust for profit, capitalism is the major driver of climate change – despite its different political economy, the Soviet Union and its ‘socialist’ bloc made no difference here. As for China – today the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gasses – it is, of course, fully integrated into the global capitalist economy. Some talk of the Anthropocene, as if it is an undifferentiated humanity that is responsible for climate change. But it is surely better, more accurate to talk of the Capitalocene.

For many on the left, not unreasonably, capitalism is defined, categorically, as incapable of dealing with the danger of runaway global warming. However, not even the most fabulously wealthy billionaire, or their ‘slave’ politicians and state actors, are so blind that they cannot see that something must urgently be done. Nonetheless, true, it is hard to imagine governments such as Boris Johnson’s Tories ever carrying out a programme that would actually achieve net zero emissions – after all, that would require a dramatic restructuring of power generation, industry, agriculture, transport, housing provision, etc. Therefore, so the reasoning goes, the corrupt, grasping, self-interested Tories will confine themselves to nothing more than empty gestures, cheap platform rhetoric and legislating for an electorally safe, distant future. Meantime they carry on as usual: more nuclear power, more roads, more air travel, more poor quality housing … crucially, more of everything: ie, more economic growth. Apropos the loathsome Tories: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?” If not, then “neither can they do good who are accustomed to doing evil.”9

Yet, as seen with the ongoing Covid pandemic – and two world wars before that – the ruling class is prepared to allow governments to temporarily suspend the law of value. The normal workings of capitalism are overridden, curtailed or tightly directed in order to achieve agreed state aims.

The more intelligent sections of the left have written about how the Tories, and other governments too, introduced ‘Covid socialism’, roughly equivalent to the ‘war socialism’ put into effect by the German high command in 1916 – ie, the use of concentrated state power to deal with a dire emergency. The Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine is a good example. Developed double quick, produced on a non-profit basis, it was then rolled out by the NHS according to need.

In terms of the general interest – more particularly the general capitalist interest – governments will take what are usually regarded as extreme measures. Tory chancellor Rishi Sunak talked about tearing up his economic textbooks, doing what is necessary, thinking the unthinkable and all the rest of it. Though fraught with horrendous difficulties – not least because capitalism, from the level of the firm to that of the state, is characterised by internally generated rivalries – we should not discount the possibility that this will happen with the climate emergency. After all, the capitalist class lives on the same fragile planet as the rest of us (even if Elon Musk would like to rocket off to a frigid, lifeless, almost airless Mars).

No illusions

So climate socialism, enforced by a firefighter capitalist state – maybe with green advisors, enlightened technocrats and the armed forces playing a leading role – could conceivably impose draconian restrictions on emissions, reorganise industry, transport and agriculture and thereby limit the rise in global warming to “well below” 2°C, or even to 1.5°C.

Of course, that, or something like it, would have to happen in all the major countries. Adding to that little difficulty, the global hegemon, the United States, is in visible decline. There is, therefore, no effective power that can enforce the general capitalist interest. However, even on a purely national level, we should have no illusions about any eco or climate socialism introduced, overseen and enforced by the capitalist state (or, for that matter, the Xi Jinping regime in China). As with war socialism, there will be monumental blunders, severe restrictions on democratic rights, attempts to drive down popular living standards – all accompanied by endemic corruption and corresponding opportunities for well connected insiders to enrich themselves beyond the dreams of Croesus.

Nor will such a climate socialism peacefully, smoothly, evolve into proletarian socialism. True, we would reach a partial negation of capitalist production, the outer limits of capitalist society. But, because there is a swollen, parasitic, aggressively repressive bureaucratic state, what we have is the extreme opposite of proletarian socialism. Nonetheless, there is a relationship between climate socialism – in reality capitalism attempting to save itself on the backs on the working class – and proletarian socialism.

After all, we could substitute for the ‘firefighter capitalist state’ above the working class organised as the state power. Such a state, based on extreme democracy, closely coordinating with other such states across the globe, would radically reorganise power generation, industry, agriculture, transport, the housing stock, etc; it would be a state that reduces greenhouse gas emissions to net zero and then below; a state that subordinates production to need. Then, it is clear, such a state would be able to achieve far more than capitalist climate socialism to benefit the whole of humanity: it would represent the negation of capitalism and the first step towards a classless, moneyless, stateless and ecologically sustainable communism.


  1. www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGI_SPM.pdf.↩︎
  2. unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement.↩︎
  3. Financial Times September 15 2021.↩︎
  4. CW Arnscheidt and DH Rothman, ‘Asymmetry of extreme Cenozoic climate-carbon cycle events’ Science Advances August 11 2021.↩︎
  5. theguardian.com/environment/2021/aug/05/climate-crisis-scientists-spot-warning-signs-of-gulf-stream-collapse.↩︎
  6. climate.nasa.gov/news/2865/a-degree-of-concern-why-global-temperatures-matter.↩︎
  7. globalwarming.berrens.nl/globalwarming.htm.↩︎
  8. ox.ac.uk/news/2021-08-09-oxford-climate-scientists-no-doubt-about-climate-change.↩︎
  9. Jeremiah xiii:23 – slightly rephrased.↩︎

Limbering up for Brighton

Derek James assesses the prospects for the left at the party’s annual conference. originally published in Weekly Worker 1363

What a difference an election defeat, a new leader and a pandemic makes! The last time the Labour Party met face to face in Brighton in 2019, the left seemed to be in the ascendancy, winning some key policy positions and seemingly up for a fight with the right, which dominated the Parliamentary Labour Party. A clear majority of the Constituency Labour Party delegations came from the left, Palestinian flags were everywhere and there was growing pressure on the rightwing deputy leader, Tom Watson, to resign.

However, as we approach this year’s conference, the picture could not be more different. The left is in complete disarray, after nearly two years of demoralising defeats across the board. Reports from CLPs throughout the county suggest many are either selecting pro-leadership delegations or simply not bothering to send anyone to Brighton at all. It is clear that the resurgent right in the CLPs, aided by regional officials, have used all sorts of manoeuvres to prevent the election of left delegates and to try to stitch up the conference for Keir Starmer. While these attempts to ‘manage’ the conference are underway, the purge and ‘auto-expulsions’ go on apace, with suspensions and expulsions for such heinous offences as appearing in a photograph with Ken Loach or attending an online meeting of a proscribed organisation like Labour Against the Witchhunt. It seems that a veritable army of Labour bureaucrats are trawling through social media accounts and recordings of online meeting to turn up evidence against the left, and then use it to exclude CLP delegates.

However, if all this points towards a very difficult conference for the left, some have noted a few bright spots on the horizon. They suggest that the unanimous decision of the Unite executive not to endorse the appointment of David Evans as Labour’s general secretary could mean that the main architect of the purge might be rejected by conference. Others also argue that similar votes on the national executive committee and conference arrangements committee reports could see defeats for the Labour leadership that offer some hope. The rumour mills are working overtime, speculating about how trade unions delegations might vote, in the light of a shift to the left on Unison’s NEC and the GMB’s new general secretary’s decision to scale back on political funding for Labour.

It all adds to the gaiety of the nation, but such micro-analysis of the internal balance of forces within the trade unions, or the CLPs for that matter, is a somewhat hopeless clutching at straws and in any case rather misses the point. In comparison with 2019, the left is in headlong retreat. Not only is it in no position to score any meaningful victories, but, in the face of the continued onslaught of the Labour right, it does not have either the politics or the strategy to do so.

Starmer has pursued the witch-hunt not because of the strength of the left but its weakness. Though there are, amazingly, those who fool themselves into thinking otherwise. The targets chosen so far, such as LAW or Socialist Appeal, have been ritual sacrifices, chosen because they are marginal, not because they pose some immediate threat to the leadership.

The conference will probably see an intensification of the purge, maybe with staged showdowns to demonstrate how the left has been put in its place: the mantra will be beating the Tories in the next general election, putting an end to off the cuff policy making and seeing the back of anti-Semitism (ie, anti-Zionism).

Mode

It is almost certain that Starmer’s speech on the last afternoon of conference will be designed in the mode of Neil Kinnock or Tony Blair, showing who is now really in charge of the party. As the current political cliché has it, Starmer will hope that his speech will be a ‘defining moment’ and set his leadership on the road to electoral success. Note, Labour has just scored its first opinion poll lead over the Tories after eight long months.

The prime audience for this speech, however, will not be in the conference hall or the living rooms of viewers catching the evening headlines. No, the main object of Starmer’s attention is the ruling class – both here in Britain and in the USA – and their media, to whom he wants to show that he can be trusted as a safe pair of hands, a reliable captain of capitalism’s second eleven. His attacks on the left are not some personal aberration or irrational vendetta: Starmer desperately wants to be prime minister and for him the war on the left is an essential part of that electoral strategy. As he works on his conference speech this week, these aims will be to the fore, but he will also be emboldened by the complete surrender of the official left in the Socialist Campaign Group (SCG) and the Momentum leadership.

But their cowardly evasions and studiedly ambiguous statements in the face of the witch-hunt are unlikely to save them if Starmer deems it necessary to expel Jeremy Corbyn, proscribe Momentum or remove the whip from individual SCG MPs – all possible options to ram the point home.

If it is unclear exactly at which point we stand in this ‘strategy of tension’, we can at least safely predict how the official left will respond to any ratcheting up of the purge in Starmer’s leader’s speech at conference, if their pathetic capitulation to date is any guide. Thus the ‘Labour Left for Socialism’ amalgam – the ‘Chatham house left’ – now seems to be falling apart, as the left trade union bureaucrats and official left careerists who sponsored it either run for cover or, in effect, abjectly surrender before the assertive Starmer leadership. Likewise, the Momentum leadership has gone down the same road and has done absolutely nothing to oppose bans and proscriptions. They hope that by keeping quiet they too can cling on to party membership and become the face of the acceptable left. Given their record, we can expect no fight from them whatsoever.

The result of this is confusion. Large numbers have either resigned or lapsed into inactivity, allowing the Labour right to regain the initiative. We will see the fruits of these failures in the weakened position of the left at Brighton and the opportunity it will give Starmer to further step up his attacks. It will be a difficult conference with a very different mood in comparison with the last gathering at Brighton.

However, that will not stop Labour Party Marxists and their supporters intervening at the conference and working alongside other comrades on the left committed to actually fighting the witch-hunt. But the politics of LPM do not stop there: we link the struggle against the purge to the need for real party democracy and the refoundation of Labour as a united front of a special kind, open to all socialist and working class organisations. The whole history of the Labour left – especially in its most recent Corbynite incarnation – shows that such a transformation cannot be internally generated. All that Labourism can produce is yet another ‘broad left’ party based on the ‘politics’ of the lowest common denominator, or – worse still – simply a Labour Party mark two.

Without a mass Communist Party that rejects reformism and participation in bourgeois governments and is committed instead to the self-emancipation of the working class, all that will result will be yet more stillborn initiatives and wasted opportunities.

 

The Gerard Coyne danger

Stan Keable reports on debates on the Unite election, the Chatham House left and our criticisms of the LPM fraction

As readers will know, union branch nominations for the post of Unite general secretary closed on June 7, and voting will take place from July 5 to August 23.1

Four candidates – one rightwinger and three on the left – achieved the 174 nominations from more than two regions required to get a place on the ballot paper – that minimum equals 5% of Unite’s 3,474 branches. For a while, only the three left candidates had reached the threshold, but hopes of a left-only contest were dashed when rightwinger Gerard Coyne scraped through with 196 nominations. For the left, this changed the question from ‘which candidate do you prefer’ to ‘which two should stand down’, so as not to repeat the Unison debacle, where Dave Prentis’s continuity candidate, Christina McAnea, held the top post on a minority vote against a divided left.

The number of nominations becomes a secondary question once the threshold has been crossed. Coyne will be backed to the hilt by the press, the BBC and the Labour right. Back in 2017 Len McCluskey seemed to be way in front, with 1,185 branch nominations to Coyne’s mere 187. But Coyne gained 41.5% of the vote and was only narrowly defeated by McCluskey (45.4%) on a 12.2% turnout, although third-placed leftwinger Ian Allinson took 13.1% of the vote, so the total left vote amounted to 58.5%. So this time, if there were a single left candidate, Coyne would have an uphill struggle … but could still win.

The forces that support Coyne have already chosen Howard Beckett as their favourite demon. At the June 12 Labour Left Alliance organising group meeting the Labour Party Marxists successful motion – accepted by the LLA OG with just two votes against – calls on Unite members to vote for Beckett “as the best, or least worst, of the three ‘left’ candidates on offer”. It notes “the targeting of Howard Beckett by the BBC, the Murdoch press and the Labour right, including Tom Watson and Margaret Hodge, and his suspension from Labour Party membership for speaking out against Tory government deportations”.

In the LLA-organised hustings, Beckett pledged “to call out the witch-hunt against the Labour left and to support those who have been unjustly suspended and expelled from the Labour Party”. Good – but don’t hold your breath. “On the negative side,” the motion continues, “we note that he rejects the socialist principle of ‘a worker’s representative on a worker’s wage’ – that socialist trade union officials – and MPs – should live on a skilled worker’s wage … Howard Beckett is a product of the trade union bureaucracy, a well-paid, careerist, left bureaucrat.”

As for the other candidates, former Militant member Steve Turner has made clear his departure from left politics, while Sharon Graham’s key campaign slogan, “to take our union back to the workplace”, is probably code for downgrading Unite’s involvement in internal Labour Party struggles (enough to get her the SWP’s backing – textbook economism).

Speaking of former Militant members, the Socialist Party in England and Wales is giving a master class in tailism, when it comes to the election. SPEW’s preference for both Beckett and Sharon Graham and its gentle criticisms of Turner appear to be governed by diplomacy – by which left bureaucrat members and supporters have been working with. SPEW’s June 9 statement, after nominations closed, calls Coyne “a direct representative of big business and the Starmerites”, and notes Steve Turner’s “compliant approach both industrially and politically, reflected in him clearly not being prepared to challenge Starmer as Labour leader.” Consequently, “… we believe it is Steve who should step down as a candidate in favour of Sharon or Howard to carry the battle against Coyne.”

Daniel Platts

At the June 12 LLA OG meeting, 16 delegates from affiliated local groups and political organisations attended, to decide LLA’s position. Two motions in support of Howard Beckett were on the table. The LLA trade union group motion offered only uncritical support, which was why LPM submitted an alternative motion setting out a principled approach, which I am pleased to say is now LLA policy:

Trade unions limit competition between workers, thus securing a better price for labour-power. They represent a tremendous gain for the working class, drawing millions of workers into collective activity against employers.

Of course, left to itself, trade union consciousness is characterised by sectionalism. At best trade union consciousness attempts to constantly improve the lot of workers within capitalism. At worst trade union consciousness degenerates into business unionism and sacrificing the interests of workers for the sake of capitalist competitiveness and profitability.

We openly seek to make trade unions into schools for communism. We do this by always putting forward the general interest of the working class, by fighting for workers’ unity and by fully involving the rank and file in decision-making.

Bargaining is a specialist activity. Consequently the trade unions need a layer of functionaries. However, due to lack of democratic control and accountability these functionaries have consolidated themselves into a conservative caste.

The trade union bureaucracy is more concerned with amicable deals and preserving union funds than with the class struggle. Operating as an intermediary between labour and capital, it has a real, material interest in the continued existence of the wage system.

Within the trade unions we fight against bureaucracy by demanding:

  • Trade unions must be free of any interference or control by the state or employer.
  • No trade union official to be paid above the average wage of a worker in that particular union.
  • All full-time trade union officials must be elected, accountable and instantly recallable.
  • All-embracing workplace committees. Organise all workers, whatever their trade, whether or not they are in trade unions. Workplace committees should fight to exercise control over hiring and firing, production and investment.
  • One industry, one union. Industrial unions are rational and enhance the ability of workers to struggle. Given the international nature of the capitalist system and the existence of giant transnational companies, trade unions also need to organise internationally.

Daniel Platts of the steering committee proposed an amendment (which, thankfully was defeated, but gained four votes), replacing our description of the limits of “trade union consciousness”, with Daniel’s view of the limits of trade unions. He evidently overlooked, or did not understand, the well known Marxist formulation in the very next sentence: “We openly seek to make trade unions into schools for communism.” Here is his text:

At best trade unions can illustrate the power of the working class within society, by stopping the means of production against the wishes of the capitalist class. But rarely does this happen on any considerable scale, and usually the best they offer are merely attempts to improve the lot of workers within capitalism.

I can only recommend a visit to marxists.org and reading again – or perhaps for the first time – Lenin’s What is to be done?

Chatham House left

The LLA meeting started with a political opening by Roger Silverman on behalf of the steering committee. Comrade Roger reminded us that the right would “never repeat their mistake” of allowing a left leader of the Labour Party to be elected, and noted “calls for a new party” as a result – but warned of the long list of failed left splits from Labour. However, he spoke of a “huge explosion” of discontent building up around the world: “The counterattack is coming. That will be the basis for a left split.”

In the discussion, I argued against aiming for a left split, saying we need serious Marxist organisation now, to fight inside and outside Labour. Whether or not the left is forced out of the party, the need for a socialist programme and serious organisation stands.

LPM is, of course, an opposition faction within the LLA, whose conferences have twice rejected the aim of replacing capitalism with socialism and the aim of a classless, moneyless, stateless world. So I was truly (and pleasantly) surprised to hear Daniel Platts’s confession on behalf of the LLA SC: “Most of us realised pretty quickly [after the LLA conference] that we had made a massive oversight in not putting ‘socialism’ into the LLA’s aims.” Then Tina Werkmann interjected, quite rightly: “And a membership structure!”

Yes, an individual membership structure – an essential requirement for the effective democratic organisation of socialists – has also been rejected twice. Without either a Marxist political programme or a serious organisation, we believe the LLA will remain part of the failed official Labour left, which it was set up to replace. So we should look for opportunities to draw out and emphasise sharp lines of demarcation between principled positions which consciously uphold the long-term general interests of the working class as a whole, and unprincipled compromises which accommodate to short-term sectional interests – the career interests of the latest official left bureaucrat or MP on offer, for example.

This brings me to the second main item: the – secret – left unity talks between 25 or so groups under the title, ‘Future of the Labour left’, hosted by Don’t Leave, Organise. In respect of this, LPM had submitted a motion titled ‘Accountability’. The motion reaffirmed that, according to the LLA constitution, “the LLA officers and steering committee are accountable to the OG”, and complained that the SC minutes provided to the OG suggest that “full reporting of this activity was not happening”. The OG therefore requires SC representatives attending the talks to “produce a full work report for scrutiny at each meeting of the organising group”.

The two LLA representatives in the talks, at the three meetings which have taken place so far, were Tina Werkmann and Tasib Mughal. While the SC majority were clearly uncomfortable with the Chatham House rule – the ban on reporting – they supported comrade Tina’s view that it was better to have a voice inside, so as to know what was being decided and to influence the discussions, than to be kicked out for disobeying the gagging order. Comrade Tina’s seemingly innocuous amendment, replacing a “full” report by a “verbal or written” one, actually meant ‘verbal only’. She gave the reason for this explicitly: anything written “will end up in the Weekly Worker”, and – she believes – would be met by the LLA’s immediate exclusion from the talks.

For LPM, openness is a principle which the working class needs if it is to become the ruling class. So there should be no place for the Chatham House rule in the workers’ movement.

Criticism

Following the LLA OG meeting, the LPM steering committee has been critical of the position taken by the LPM fraction for not contesting unprincipled elements in the motions and amendments that were voted through.

For example, we should have insisted that the principled LPM motion for critical support for Howard Beckett was a replacement for the motion of uncritical support. The motions were not complementary, so we should have voted against the uncritical motion. The fraction should also have rejected the uncritical sentence praising Howard Beckett, in that he is “by far the best of the three left candidates to be our standard bearer”.

We should also have rejected outright the amendment from Tina Werkmann to LPM’s ‘Accountability’ motion, replacing the requirement for a “full” report by a “verbal or written” report. Finally, as well as requiring LLA SC representatives in the talks to report fully to the OG, the LPM motion should have gone further, and required them to publish a full report of each meeting.


  1. Official info is available at unitetheunion.org/who-we-are/structure/unite-2021-general-secretary-election; and secure.cesvotes.com/V3-1-0/unitegensec21/en/home.↩︎

Coups, putsches and revolutions

Not only real, but counterfactual history too, can provide valuable political insights. Derek James reports on the Spring Communist University, held over the long bank holiday weekend of April 30-May 3

Organised by the CPGB and Labour Party Marxists, Spring 2021 CU, was designed, in part, to cast a sharp light on the momentous January 6 events in Washington. Titled ‘Coups, putsches and revolutions’, its aim was, though, designed not just to assess what exactly happened with Donald Trump, Capitol Hill, the boogaloos, the DC police and the servile GOP establishment, but to provide a much wider picture, so that we can draw operative conclusions when it comes to our own revolutionary practice in the future.

Speakers came from three continents, and there were participants from Britain, the Netherlands, Ireland, the United States and a whole number of other countries besides. There was, too, a wide range of leftwing opinions and factional alignments in contention. From our point of view, all very welcome. We positively seek to promote internationalism, frank and honest debate on the left and, of course, the unity that is only possible on the solid foundations provided by a principled Marxist minimum-maximum programme.

David Broder began the series of talks with ‘Mussolini’s march on Rome – glorious myth and sordid reality’. As he headed the world’s first expressly fascist regime, the study of Benito Mussolini’s rise to power is an important starting point for our understanding of the nature of fascism, and raises the question of how far we can define what happened in October 1922 as a coup. David outlined the main events leading up to the ‘March on Rome’ and how the fascist movement could be described as heading a “preventative counterrevolution” to deal with the challenge that the militant Italian working class movement posed to capitalism and the constitutional order. He argued that the fascists were not simply an instrument of capital, but constituted a middle class reaction which had its own dynamics.

Basing himself on this movement of the petty bourgeoisie, Mussolini was able to act as an interlocutor and a political broker between the movement and the liberal political elite, the state and the Catholic church. The March on Rome was in no way a ‘revolution’, but rather a piece of theatre – part of a process of political manoeuvres and negotiations between liberal politicians and Mussolini, which resulted in a coalition government in which the fascists were a minority. Comrade Broder argued that the consolidation of a fascist regime was drawn out throughout the 1920s and, although it resulted from a top-down process of integration which moulded existing state structures into a new order, its conservative economic policies and wage compression made it clear that Mussolini ruled on behalf of capital.

The resulting questions and discussion covered a wide range of issues, which also came up in other debates over the weekend. A key theme in this opening session was the nature of the working class movement during the ‘Red Years’ (1920-21) and the impact that the development of the Communist Party of Italy (PCd’I) had on the ruling class assessment of the threat of revolution in 1922. Comrades asked why the PCd’I had failed to mobilise any effective response to fascism and discussed the impact of the Communist International’s intervention on the development of the party’s strategy. It was clear that communists internationally were faced with a new phenomenon in the form of fascism, and this was reflected in the shifting assessments of the possibilities of both revolution and fascist counterrevolution in Italy.

Furthermore, the formation of the PCd’I was coterminous with the emergence of fascism, while the debate within the international communist movement on the united front was at an early stage in 1922. For many comrades this raised the significant distinction between the united front and the popular front, and the ways in which communists should work to mobilise the labour movement against fascism and win the working class for socialist revolution were also important topics in the discussion. The issues of class, party and leadership, which were so clearly posed by the development of fascism and the consolidation of Mussolini’s regime, were of central importance and would re-emerge elsewhere in the revolutions and counterrevolutions of the 20th century.

In the following session Kevin Bean considered whether Hitler’s November 1923 ‘beer hall putsch’ was a ‘dress rehearsal for 1933’. He outlined the history of the ‘national socialist’ Nazi Party and its early development in the turbulent period of revolution and counterrevolution in Germany in the aftermath of World War I. In particular he described how the beer hall putsch illustrated the petty-bourgeois composition of the Nazi movement and its relationship with elements of the state and the ruling class. In tracing the political, social and economic dynamics that enabled the Nazis to grow into a mass movement and a significant electoral force following the 1929 great depression, comrade Bean showed how the crisis had a major impact in radicalising the petty bourgeoisie. He stressed that, whilst the Nazis had developed “autonomously” and were not simply instruments of capitalist rule, key sections of the state and the army, along with conservative and reactionary politicians, saw Adolf Hitler and his movement as useful allies to be deployed against the left and the working class. As with Mussolini, Hitler’s assumption of power as chancellor was not a ‘revolution’, but rather represented a political manoeuvre, in which German capitalism helped the Nazis to gain control of the state and launch a concentrated counterrevolutionary assault on the organisations of the working class. While the traditional bourgeois and petty bourgeois parties were eventually all abolished, the fundamental economic structures of capitalism remained untouched.

The relationship between Nazism and big business was a major theme in the subsequent discussion, along with the related question of how close Germany was to socialist revolution in this period. Attention was paid by comrades to the analysis and strategy that the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) adopted to combat the Nazis. The KPD’S so-called ‘third period’ strategy, its description of social democrats as ‘social fascists’ and the party’s failure to build an effective united front of working class organisations to fight Nazism were important topics in the discussion.

Many comrades were clear that it was the function of Nazism as a counterrevolutionary movement and its relationship with capitalism that we should stress. Above all, there was general agreement that the contemporary insights of Trotsky and his description of fascism as the mobilisation of the petty bourgeoisie into a movement – a “battering ram” – that can smash the labour movement in order to maintain the rule of monopoly capital, were useful guides, both in analysing the reasons for the defeat of the German workers’ movement in 1933, and for understanding the function such movements might play again in the future. Given the widespread tendency by many on the left to indiscriminately label all authoritarian governments and rightwing politics as ‘fascist’, this theoretical and historical clarity is vital if we are ever going to move beyond the politics of slogans and ahistorical labels.

Kornilov to Trump

The talk by Lars T Lih, on ‘How the August 1917 Kornilov coup was defeated’, discussed one of the turning points during the Russian Revolution. Lars reconsidered the widely accepted account of the attempted coup by the ex-tsarist general, and the way in which it was defeated, by taking a fresh look at the contemporary evidence and assessments of the attempted coup. He focused on the key concept of power (vlast, in Russian) in the politics of the revolution, and how conflicts about the class nature of ‘the vlast’ played out in different approaches to the army. Lavr Kornilov and the provisional government wanted to restore the old discipline, and that meant getting rid of soldiers’ soviets, long political debates and demands for the election of officers. The Bolsheviks wanted exactly the opposite.

Lars went on to look at how the defeat of the coup strengthened the left in general, and the Bolsheviks in particular. The generally accepted view on the left – reinforced by the accounts of Leon Trotsky and John Reed – was that the Bolsheviks had taken the lead in mobilising workers and soldiers to resist Kornilov and to undermine the coup by fraternising with his troops, and that this success had boosted the Bolsheviks after the low point of the July Days, when they had been driven underground, and proved to be the beginning of a sustained surge in support that culminated in the October revolution.

Lars was unsure that the Bolsheviks, as such, played the leading role, although he agreed that the soviets, where the Bolsheviks were strong, were the vital agencies for mobilising support to counter Kornilov. For Lars, the important results of the Kornilov affair were the strengthening of ‘anti-agreementism’ and the further undermining of support for Aleksandr Kerensky and his government. For the Bolsheviks, the soviets had come back to life and proved that they constituted a real and effective vlast that could now govern Russia and carry out the demands of the working class and peasants.

The discussion that followed his talk turned on both the specific and general aspects of Bolshevik tactics during the crisis. What were the political implications of the Bolsheviks’ united front strategy against Kornilov, and how applicable is it today? Some comrades made a distinction between political and military support and saw the Bolshevik approach as taking the form of a bloc with Kerensky and the provisional government against Kornilov. However, others suggested that, as war is the continuation of politics by other means, military support is political support in its most concentrated form. Thus, Bolshevik statements that they did not support the provisional government, and acted solely in defence of the soviets against the landlord-bourgeois reaction represented by Kornilov, should be taken seriously – not casually dismissed in service of unprincipled backing for various reactionary ‘third world’ regimes and movements.

Alongside this was the Bolshevik strategy of arming the working class and splitting the army rank and file away from the officers and the high command. This was key to the Bolshevik seizure of power, and today’s left should likewise take the issue of the army seriously if it wanted to build a movement to successfully overthrow the capitalist state. It was also clear from both Lars’ account and the responses that the study of revolutionary history is vitally important – not as a simplified ‘authorised version’, but rather as a subject for constant research and re-examination following a close, accurate reading of the primary evidence.

Alexander Gallus, from the American magazine Cosmonaut, led the discussion on ‘Left responses to the events of January 6’. He began by outlining some of the different positions on the left in the United States on what most saw as an attack on democracy, but found it hard to clearly define its character as an attempted coup. The two poles of the varying responses, he suggested, were provided by Left Voice and the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA). There are those who see the storming of the Capitol as somehow representing working class anger against the political and economic system. Therefore there should be no siding with bourgeois liberals in condemning the attack. Others argue that Hitler had come to the USA and, that, therefore, we had to support Joe Biden to save democracy from an existential threat.

Alexander traced the origins of the attack to Donald Trump’s capture of the Republican Party and his constant questioning of the legitimacy of a Biden election victory. The protest was disorganised and, having wound up his followers, Trump departed the scene and denied all responsibility. Comrade Gallus went on to look at the wider political implications of January 6 and the first months of the Biden presidency for the development of the left in the US. The immediate task for the left, he said, should be to focus on raising working class awareness and class-consciousness by calling for the political independence of the labour movement, rather than remaining tied to the Democrats.

In the following discussion a number of comrades from the US offered a range of perspectives, both on January 6 and the long-term strategy for the left. There were differing assessments of the coup attempt, but most comrades argued that it was part of a strategy to create chaos in an attempt to change the outcome of the presidential election. Given Donald Trump’s position as head of state and commander-in-chief, this was a serious action – a self-coup that had some of the characteristics of Louis Napoleon’s 18th Brumaire, one American comrade argued. All were agreed that these dramatic events were very significant and showed the uncertainty and instability at the heart of the world hegemon.

As might be expected, the future of the Democratic Party was central to the debate. Some contributions looked at the early stages of Biden’s presidency and what his present neo-Keynesianism told us about the orientation of the US capitalist class and its relationship with the Democrats. Was it possible to develop a clear political differentiation between bourgeois politicians and the left by working within the party and standing on a Democratic ballot? One response rejected this argument and suggested that instead the left must make a savage critique of the Democrats and go for a clean break. Above all, demands for political independence should not be limited to simply calling for a ‘Labor Party’, but should instead focus on building a revolutionary Marxist party and a programme committed to the real transformation of the US.

Middle East

‘The August 1953 coup against Mohammad Mossadegh – the CIA’s first Middle Eastern coup’, a talk given by Yassamine Mather, looked at the role of the US and Britain in overthrowing the elected prime minister in Iran. Yassamine provided a detailed background to the history of British and later American interventions in Iran, focusing both on oil and diplomatic interests, as well as explaining the close relationship between the ruling Pahlavi dynasty and British imperialism. The nationalisation of the British-owned oil industry in 1950 raised tensions between Iran and the British and formed the immediate backdrop to the coup. According to official documents released in the last 10 years, the CIA and its British counterpart, MI6, cooperated in 1953, using local agents to spread disinformation and build tension within the country. Significantly they also attempted to press the shah to dismiss Mossadegh and reverse his policies.

Whilst the shah dithered, Mossadegh seized the initiative after hearing rumours of a coup and mobilised the army to protect his position in Tehran. Despite appearing to have the upper hand, events then moved quickly against him, following a pattern of US intervention that would become familiar over the next 50 years. Local gangs, religious leaders and a wide range of ‘dirty tricks’ were used to encourage division, violence and disorder to undermine Mossadegh’s government over a four-day period in August 1953.

The CIA also persuaded policymakers of the necessity for intervention by stressing the threat to western interests posed by the ‘official communist’ Tudeh party. Troops from a rural background and loyal to the shah entered Tehran to ‘restore order’ and the US client, general Fazlollah Zahedi, was declared prime minister. This was followed by executions and thousands of arrests, which crushed the opposition and consolidated the shah’s regime.

Comrade Mather stressed that these events took place in the context of the cold war and long-standing diplomatic rivalries between imperialist powers, and later the Soviet Union, for control of Iran. She argued that the overthrow of Mossadegh’s regime helped shape Iranian politics in the years that followed and reinforced an existing hostility to foreign intervention in Iranian affairs. Above all, the coup against Mossadegh provided a model for US policy in organising future coups ‘on the cheap’ – without the direct intervention of American troops and all the bother of openly controlling a country.

In the discussion comrades looked at both the specific history and politics of Iran, and the wider issue of neo-colonialism and the cold war. There was a particular focus on the nature of imperialism and its historical origins.

Esen Uslu’s outline of ‘Turkey 1980 – the nature and the significance of the generals’ coup’ began by giving us a very detailed account of the role of the army in Turkish politics and society in the 20th century. He explained the importance of the army in the nation-building project following the end of World War I and the disintegration of the Ottoman empire, and the ways in which capitalism was developed to sustain the power and role of the army. Given Turkey’s membership of Nato and its pivotal role during the cold war, the significance of the Turkish army as a political force increased in the post-1945 period, alongside the development of a military-industrial complex within the country. Comrade Uslu also stressed the importance of wider Turkish economic development, which not only resulted in the growth of an urban working class and a decline in the rural-based population, but also saw militant protests and revolutionary politics emerge in the 1960s.

In response to this growing opposition, the right launched the ‘Grey Wolves’ campaign of violence against the left and the working class movement, which only intensified the tensions and polarisation in society. The September 12 1980 coup aimed to restore order and further modernise the Turkish economy and society under the aegis of the army as the embodiment of the nation. Turkey was opened up to foreign capital, and state controls over key areas of economic life were lifted. This was combined with the repression of the opposition by the generals, who detained over 100,000 political prisoners in an attempt to stabilise the regime.

Esen also discussed the development of the Communist Party of Turkey and its record. He argued that its version of proletarian internationalism was not really related to the other struggles going on in the region: it saw the world and its neighbours through the prism of the USSR and its state interests. However, given the diplomatic support the USSR gave to the generals’ regime for its own strategic purposes, the party’s leadership was clearly in a bind and failed to adequately respond to the crisis: the result was that critics of the leadership who wanted a more determined opposition were expelled.

These issues were taken up in the discussion, along with the question of how far the coup could be accurately described as ‘fascist’. Comrades pointed to the size and militant nature of the working class movement, and how, despite that, the general’s coup all but destroyed the Turkish, as opposed to the Kurdish, left. Comrade Uslu agreed that ‘fascism’ should not be used as a catch-all term and that revolution was impossible without splitting the army.

The discussion also considered recent developments following president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s defeat of an attempted coup by dissident army units. Has the army finally been tamed? Esen thought not. There is, after all, the ongoing war against the Kurds and Turkey’s wider strategic ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean, north Africa and in the Turkic-speaking regions to the east. The possibilities of conflict in all these regions and the impact of this instability on the working class movement were also raised as being important factors in the immediate future.

Finishing off the sessions on military coups, Joel Beinin talked about ‘The Egyptian coup d’état of July 3 2013’. Again, this was a very detailed, informative account, which gave a clear picture of the role of the army in Egyptian society from the 1950s and the nature of the various movements and protests in the period before the 2013 coup. Joel detailed the relationship that the army had to the various elites in Egyptian society, as well as their relationship with the US. He outlined the protests against the Mubarak regime in 2011, explaining that the various strands, such as the movement amongst the youth, the protests against police repression and the demands from the intelligentsia for democracy, had little regular contact with the working class – which developed a rapidly increasing willingness to protest and strike over its own, largely economic, demands during this period.

The events of January 25, which overthrew president Hosni Mubarak, were, comrade Beinin argued, “half revolution, half coup”, with the army ‘joining’ the uprising and assuming power through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces – which remained in control until the inauguration of Mohamed Morsi as president in June 2012. Morsi was the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood – the only organised group with a national profile and coherent structure in a position to mount any real challenge to army dominance. Conflict between the elected president and the army culminated in a popular campaign for his recall, organised covertly by the army and military intelligence and supported by the Saudi and United Arab Emirates regimes.

Tensions mounted, as large-scale demonstrations – crucially those in Cairo’s Tahrir Square – demanded that Morsi resign in June 2013. The army stepped in, using the familiar arguments about ‘restoring order’, and deposed the president. The coup drew in a range of support from the independent trade unions, feminists, leftists, liberals and Salafi Islamists. Those opposed to the army’s overthrow of the elected president included, of course, the Muslim Brotherhood and regional powers such as Turkey, but not the left. The coup was met with demonstrations by the Brotherhood, which in turn faced severe repression and brutal violence by the army.

During his discussion of the post-coup period, comrade Beinin looked at the role of the US and its support for the Egyptian army. He also discussed the role, social composition and politics of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Another important issue was the position adopted by the left, both in Egypt itself and internationally. What should our position be towards a reactionary movement like the Muslim Brotherhood and how should we react to the overthrow of an elected president like Morsi by the army? Surely, the left ought to be able to oppose the army and yet not support the Brotherhood. Surely, the left could defend a revolutionary situation and the democratic space that had been gained after the fall of Mubarak, against what was the army’s restorationist coup.

The political gymnastics undertaken by the Socialist Workers Party in Britain and its Egyptian co-thinkers in the Revolutionary Socialist group showed the ideological and political bankruptcy of many on the left. It seemed to the comrades taking part in the discussion that this would continue to be a recurring pattern in the absence of a working class party that could generalise and unite the various protests around a coherent programme as a force for socialist revolution and transformation – not only in Egypt, but throughout the Middle East. Interestingly, comrade Beinin, a member of the Democratic Socialists in the USA, refused to advocate a party. It is, apparently, a failed model … Egyptian workers will find their own way forward. True, in part … but sooner or later Egyptian workers will of necessity form themselves into a party (not this or that confessional sect).

Napoleon to Trump

Mike Macnair’s discussion of ‘Louis Bonaparte’s 1851 self-coup: the army, universal suffrage and referenda’ took us back to one of the seminal works of Marxism, which still has a great deal to say to us about how we can understand coups and the role of the state during a political crisis and a revolutionary period. Mike began with an account of events in France following the February 1848 revolution and the suppression of the French workers’ movement during ‘June Days’. He explained the dynamics of the revolutionary period and showed how, in the aftermath of this repression, the ‘alliance’ between the working class and the republican middle class was shattered.

One of the results of the revolution was a new constitution, which granted manhood suffrage and a government headed by a directly elected executive president. The ‘Party of Order’ in the national assembly had hoped to elect a president – general Louis-Eugène Cavaignac, the butcher of the June Days – who could ‘save society from anarchy’, but it was Louis Napoleon Bonaparte who was elected in a landslide. In building support and consolidating his power, Bonaparte utilised latent nostalgia for the glories of the Napoleonic period, but also presented himself as both a man of the left and a supporter of the Catholic church, as the occasion suited.

Comrade Macnair discussed Bonaparte’s strategy after his election and the way in which he was able to manoeuvre and manipulate the divisions in the assembly and the Party of Order, alongside a media campaign to spread fake news. By placing the assembly in the wrong because they wanted to restrict male suffrage, he gained the advantage, which allowed him to move against his opponents in December 1851. His ‘18th Brumaire’ entailed bringing loyal troops into Paris and arresting leading members of the assembly. He followed this up with a plebiscite, which gave him a 92% vote in favour of extending his term in office – and a further consolidation of his power in November 1852, which saw the re-establishment of the empire – this time confirmed by a 96% majority in a referendum.

Mike concluded by looking at the role of plebiscites and manhood suffrage in legitimating the coup, together with the significance of Marx’s analysis of the character of Bonapartism. He argued that Marx’s writing on this is still taken seriously by many bourgeois historians and commentators, but that does not mean that we should treat his work as an infallible text, to be learnt and repeated ad nauseum as ‘holy writ’. Thus, he argued, we should read Marx critically as a stimulus to analysis, not simply as a form of citation grazing or the confirmation of ‘orthodoxy’.

These points helped to frame a lively discussion on the nature of Marx’s analysis of Bonapartism and the state, and how far his ‘predictions’ had been borne out by later developments in France. It also provoked a discussion on the role of referenda in bourgeois politics and what the attitude of Marxists should be towards them – especially where they are an accepted part of a constitutional system. The experience of the Brexit referendum in Britain came into the discussion, as did the classical Marxist opposition to referendums as instruments to frame political debate, weaken party politics and split the working class along artificial lines.

The penultimate session was the presentation by Daniel Lazare on ‘The nature and global significance of January 6’. Daniel’s wide-ranging opening looked at the changes in the international situation and the increasing instability, both within and between states, following the 2008 financial crash and the period of ‘endless wars’. It was in this context of political crisis and uncertainty, comrade Lazare argued, that the ruling class was faced with growing discontent and constitutional malfunctioning. Thus the emergence of populist reaction. He drew attention to the particular difficulties experienced by the US, Britain and France.

Daniel rested his case on a close analysis of the situation in the US and the political stasis that results from what he described as a pre-modern constitution, which binds a 21st century society to the dictates of the 18th century ‘founding fathers’. Focusing on the events of January 6, comrade Lazare argued that Trump aimed to create chaos and use the resulting confusion to overturn the results of the election, declare a state of emergency and so remain in office. It was a serious attempt at a coup, he believed, and cannot be easily dismissed as a comic opera. As regular readers of the Weekly Worker will know, comrade Lazare has defined the political divisions as akin to a civil war and he developed this argument during his introduction to the discussion by reference to the growth of white militia groups and the Black Lives Matter protests, and the carrying of the battle by Republicans to restrict voting rights into even more states. There may be a period of temporary calm under Biden, he argued, but he believed the structural causes of this crisis of governance cannot be easily wished away. There was every reason to believe that the political and economic crisis would only intensify in the years to come.

During the discussion these issues were taken up by a number of comrades, who agreed that January 6 was a serious coup attempt and that this showed the extent of the divisions within the American ruling class. However, given that the state – especially the army and the key bureaucratic elements – were clearly opposed to Trump, the chances of the coup succeeding were limited. Some comrades also took issue with Daniel’s claims about the pre-modern nature of the US constitution. However, at least when it comes to the future, there was agreement between comrade Lazare and ourselves that Marxists in the US need to fight to abolish the presidency, the Senate, state rights, the Supreme Court and the standing army. There has to be a new, democratic constitution.

Comrade Lazare wound up by arguing that the US faced a profound existential crisis and was increasingly dysfunctional.

Our strategy

The final session was opened by Jack Conrad on ‘Why prime minister Jeremy Corbyn would have faced a coup and how we can defeat counterrevolution’. Jack looked at the emergence of the Corbyn movement and the series of challenges his leadership faced from the Labour right and their friends in the armed forces, the secret state and the media. This required a detailed account of the politics of the last six years, but comrade Conrad concentrated on the nature of the politics of the Labour left and the reasons why the ruling class was so vicious in its attacks on Corbyn. He argued that Corbyn’s leadership was both the perfect opportunity for the Labour’s official left to demonstrate the ‘correctness’ of its strategy to achieve socialism though parliamentary gradualism and a tragic demonstration of the utopian nature of left reformism.

Jack indulged in a counter-factual thought experiment, imagining an alternative reality in which Labour had resoundingly won the December 2019 general election. What would the reaction of the ruling class be to such an extraordinary event? Comrade Conrad posited a number of constitutional options that were open to the bourgeoisie – such as the queen appointing an alternative prime minister from the Labour right, who could command a majority in the Commons. This was a perfectly constitutional process, although for a long time it had not been needed. Other options were also available, Jack continued, ranging from an organised run on the pound and a ‘strategy of tension’ to sap the will of a Corbyn-led government, through to more direct methods using the organs of the state, such as the army, intelligence services and the police, if push came to shove. The bloody experience of Chile on September 11 1973 showed what can be done against a timid left-reformist government.

The thought experiment continued with Jack suggesting that the election of a Corbyn government, even with its very limited ‘bourgeois socialist’ programme, had already produced a bourgeois fear of a crisis of expectations amongst the working class. Faced with this possibility, what would have happened? Jack ended his ‘what if’ counterfactual by suggesting that the official left’s binding commitment to a Labour government as the only way to implement a step-by-step programme of ‘socialism’ would produce a political disaster and calamitous defeat for the working class.

How would a Corbyn government and the official left have reacted to the inevitable pushback by Mike Pompeo, the Labour right, the Tories, the secret state, the media and the capitalist class? As they are not serious about challenging the constitution or the nature of state power, they would only lead our movement into a deadly trap. The historical experience of the Bolsheviks shows how we must seriously prepare for power by explaining to the working class the nature of the state and how we must undermine its counterrevolutionary power by splitting the army and winning its rank and file to the side of the revolution.

As was to be expected, comrade Conrad’s talk prompted a wide-ranging discussion on the nature of revolutionary strategy in Britain and the way in which Marxists should orientate towards Labour. Issues raised included the perspective of transforming Labour into a ‘united front of a special kind’, the relationship between the cycles and phases of economic and political struggle, and the dominant place that the ‘crisis of expectations’ occupies in the strategy of the contemporary left.

Jack summarised both the session and the Spring Communist University as a whole by arguing that political rearmament and education, such as we are undertaking, are essential if we are to arm the working class, win the movement to Marxism and build a revolutionary party that alone can see the back of capitalism.

Chatham House ‘left’

Who stands for what and who says what – such basic information should not be treated as the private property of a select few. Derek James calls for openness

After over a year of ‘political lockdown’ following Labour’s general election defeat in 2019, the election of Keir Starmer as Labour leader and the continuing witch-hunt, the Labour left now stands at something of a crossroads. The ‘official left’, in the form of the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs and the left trade union officials, have largely kept their heads down, hoping perhaps for better days ahead. Wishful thinking!

The defeat of the Corbyn movement and the ascendancy of the Labour right has only produced demoralisation and disintegration on the Labour left. Leaving aside the expulsions and suspensions, thousands have left the party, either going into ‘activist campaigns’, such as ‘Kill the Bill’, or dropping out of politics altogether.

Groups that were established to organise the left in the Constituency Labour Parties and trade unions, such as the Labour Left Alliance, have also suffered from the same process of disorientation. In a series of online conferences, rallies and meetings since March 2020, comrades have come together to discuss how we might rally the Labour left and carry the fight to the right, but all that seems to have happened is a proliferation of networks and campaigns that have not gone very far.

It was in this light that the LLA’s organising group (OG) met on Saturday April 24, with ‘left unity’ high on its agenda. In particular, members of the OG were eagerly anticipating a report about recent developments and the news (first heard in March) that sections of the organised left in the party and trade unions had been meeting to discuss a strategy to reorientate and rebuild after the defeats we have suffered. From the start we in Labour Party Marxists had warmly welcomed these discussions and fully supported the participation of the LLA in any such initiative, especially if it aimed to develop a common left slate for future national executive committee and other internal party elections.

However, our hopes that this initiative might actually be based on the adoption of a serious and principled politics were dashed. The report from the LLA representatives who had attended the meetings and the discussion on the OG showed just how far away this ‘left unity’ project really is from such politics and – what was worse – how far the majority of the LLA leadership were willing to go along with it.

Everything that was reported back to the OG showed that this initiative, far from being a new beginning, is completely suffused with the restrictive political culture and bureaucratic methods of the official left. The meetings take place using the so-called ‘Chatham House rule’, which means that there can be no reporting of who attended and who said what.

Chatham House, also known as the Royal Institute of International Affairs, is, of course, a bourgeois think tank that provides a platform for political insiders to express themselves with what for them amounts to a rare honesty. Current presidents are Baroness Manningham-Buller (former MI5 director), Lord Darling of Roulanish (former Labour chancellor) and Sir John Major (former Tory prime minister). The so-called Chatham House rule was adopted in 1927, and states: “When a meeting, or part thereof, is held … participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”

LLA officers seem to have taken this to the point where the “information received” is itself to be guarded. Even the LLA’s own discussion on the left unity meetings finds itself going unmentioned in the OG’s official minutes. Unbelievable! Why the secrecy? Concealing political participants, political differences and political proposals from rank-and-file scrutiny is par for the course for the bureaucrats and careerists, but what has the authentic left got to hide? Why can’t we know who has been attending the left unity meetings and learn what they said? Reports are circulating that Shami Chakrabarti has chaired meetings, with leading trade unionists from Unite, the Fire Brigades Union, the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union and representatives from over 30 Labour left groups. The state and Keir Starmer certainly know who was there: why can’t the rank-and-file members of the labour movement know as well?

The Chatham House rule should have no place in the workers’ movement. The left must tell the truth to the working class: when it comes to politics we have nothing to hide; democracy requires knowledge and the open expression of differences, not privileged access to information, gagging orders and a secret inner-circle of unknown individuals. After all, knowledge is power. It enables everyone in a democratic organisation to understand what is going on, make judgements and take action on the basis of all the facts, not just what a select few wants to let us know.

The LLA was formed by leftwingers who rejected the control-freakery of Jon Lansman’s Momentum project. Yet now, by going along with the vow of silence imposed by the official left, the LLA leadership is effectively colluding in the same secretive politics and bureaucratic manoeuvring. This ‘left unity’ project is already repeating the deficiencies of the previous form of left unity it is meant to replace – the Centre-Left Grassroots Alliance (CLGA), in which a stultifying unity is imposed from the top and from which the politics of the militant left are excluded. In last year’s NEC elections, the LLA rejected that position: why retreat now, by falling in behind the official left, when the need to assert an authentic left position is all the greater?

Principle

The cause of unity must go hand-in-hand with principle: if we simply repeat the compromises and bureaucratic politics of the past, this can only produce yet more defeats for the left.1 The authentic left should not be content to merely act as spear-carriers or voting fodder for the official left, but should instead put forward principled conditions for its support during any discussions about joint actions. In this spirit, supporters of LPM presented a motion to the LLA’s OG. Amongst its key sections was this argument:

The slate should have a clearly defined, principled basis, which all candidates must sign up to. While the specific demands can be defined during the discussions, they should include elements such as the rejection of the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) misdefinition of anti-Semitism, and the re-admittance of comrades suspended or expelled during both the ‘first’ and ‘second’ waves of the witch-hunt, along with democratic demands, such as ‘a worker’s MP on a worker’s wage’ and the accountability of the Parliamentary Labour Party to the NEC and the party conference.

The motion also put forward a clear strategy that the LLA should adopt during any negotiations about a common slate. Bearing in mind the strong showing of candidates the LLA supported during the 2020 NEC elections, LPM asserted that the LLA should have a candidate on any common left slate in a winnable position, not just a token slot at the bottom of the list. The LLA should not just go along for the ride: as far as LPM was concerned, it should not be a case of ‘unity’ at any price – essentially a repeat of “the tried and failed politics of the past that resulted in unacceptable compromises and countless retreats by the official Labour left”, as our motion put it. It concluded with a clear, principled position that, if an agreement on these terms cannot be reached amongst the left, the LLA should stand its own slate of candidates on a principled platform.

In the discussion, the same tendencies to compromise quickly became apparent. Although there was no objection to the specific demands that the LPM argued should be “the clearly defined, principled basis which all candidates must sign up to”, setting “conditions for our support during these discussions” was too rigid and would tie the hands of the LLA leadership, should they be lucky enough to be offered a seat at the negotiating table. We had to be flexible and not impose demands, we were told. Furthermore, by being insistent at this early stage, ‘the red lines’ LPM demanded would alienate potential supporters.

In response to LPM comrades’ demands for a clear and principled position, supporters of the majority of the OG suggested that we were not serious about any negotiations for ‘left unity’ and that, if the LLA adopted the LPM motion, it might result in the LLA’s exclusion from any future meetings. All familiar stuff for comrades who have been around the Labour left for more than five minutes – except this time the arguments for taking things gently and not frightening the horses came not from careerist MPs or trade union bureaucrats, but from comrades in the LLA leadership, who think of themselves as principled, left militants! The amendment that watered down the LPM motion was carried by 8 votes to 5 (no abstentions), with the substantive, neutered motion being passed by 9 votes to 5, with one abstention. Needless to say, our LPM comrades voted against the motion.

It is clear that the LLA leadership will not be informing its supporters, or its affiliated organisations, about these secret negotiations. It seems happy to treat the Chatham House rule as a ‘superinjunction.’ LPM comes from a different tradition, the tradition of openness and gaining strength by seeking out the truth. As Lenin put it: “publicity is a sword that itself heals the wounds it makes”.2 We, therefore, expose all the shady manoeuvres on the Labour left – from the split that led to two similar monthly publications called Labour Briefing to Jon Lansman’s Momentum coup in October 2016.

This was an approach applied by our co-thinkers who founded The Leninist in 1981 and it is one that our political current has upheld in the various attempts to unite the left since the 1990s, such as the Socialist Alliance, Respect and Left Unity.3 It is one that we shall continue to adhere to. We are obliged to inform the rank and file about what is going on behind their backs, and to arm them with the principled politics needed to build a militant, principled and well-informed left.


  1. weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1340/getting-our-act-together.↩︎
  2. marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1913/apr/30.htm.↩︎
  3. For the article in The Leninist, see communistparty.co.uk/who-we-are/reforging-the-cpgb-1981-present/founding-statement-of-the-leninist/. See also the Weekly Worker archive, and labourpartymarxists.org.uk/2012/05/31/divisions-surface-and-split-beckons/; labourpartymarxists.org.uk/2016/10/30/jon-lansmans-coup-in-momentum/↩︎

Refound Labour as a permanent united front of the working class

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