What’s character of British Labour Party?
(Reply to a Reader column)
BY JONATHAN SILBERMAN
LONDON—“Despite its bourgeois, imperialist politics, is the British Labour Party still somewhat of a labor party, or only in name?” asks reader Robby Kopec in the November 2, 2004 issue of the Militant.
Kopec is right about the party’s “bourgeois, imperialist politics.” The present Labour government is just the latest case. Since its formation in 1906, the Labour Party “in and out of government” has supported the British empire and Britain at war; doffed its collective hat to the British monarchy; exuded nationalism; and been a faithful servant of the British rulers’ assaults on workers at home.
The capitalist program, electoralist orientation and structure of the party—the party leadership has never been under the control of the ranks—doesn’t tell the whole story, however.
Fighting workers for many years viewed it as a party of labor, an echo of Labour’s origins in major working-class battles. When millions of unskilled workers swelled the ranks of the unions at the end of the nineteenth century, they forced a break with the capitalist Liberal Party, whose left-wing tail had been headed up by the labor aristocratic union leaders. But while the new party was an organizational break from the Liberal Party, it continued liberal labor politics. In 1914 the Labour party leaders rushed to support World War I. The party that emerged after the first world interimperialist slaughter was a pale reflection of even the pre-war party, let alone having anything in common with a striving for class independence. What gave Labour’s pretence to working-class credentials a new lease on life was Stalinism.
Under the impetus of the Russian Revolution of 1917 the Communist Party was founded in Britain. Prospects for building a proletarian party in the huge class battles of the 1920s were good. The Stalinist policies of those who dominated the fledgling Communist Party, however, ensured this didn’t happen. The CP prettified the reformist trade union leaders and effectively liquidated itself into left labor formations. In the nine-day general strike of 1926 they called for “all power” to the strike-breaking general council of the TUC with which Stalin maintained relations. After a flip-flop in which they exited the unions denouncing them as “reactionary” and condemning the Labour Party as “social fascist” putting further wind in Labour’s sails, the Stalinists turned to class collaborationist popular frontism: the bureaucrats in the Soviet Union kept as close as possible to “left Labour MPs” and the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), as it was called for many years, acted as the foot soldiers of the reformist union and Labour leaders giving a progressive veneer to Labour’s links with the unions.
The membership of the Labour Party still included substantial numbers of workers. Periodically, Marxist currents developed in the party, including winning the leadership of the party’s youth organizations. Workers involved in struggle would often turn toward Labour, looking for solidarity.
The last major case of unions seeking to bend Labour to their will was the coal miners strike of 1984-85. The miners won applause at the Labour Party conference and some MPs campaigned in their support. But the party leadership railed against the strikers and their leaders, playing the major part—alongside the TUC General Council—in ensuring the defeat of the strike. The party leadership also launched a purge, expelling a socialist current and making the party less and less habitable by workers. The result has been a bourgeoisification of the party’s social composition. At the same time, Stalinism—the force inside the labor movement that had kept Labour’s working class credentials echoing from the grave—suffered a mortal blow. With the shattering of the Stalinist apparatuses in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the CPGB went into terminal decline.
Millions of workers celebrated Labour’s election in 1997 and the end of 18 years of Tory government marked by the Thatcher-Reagan course of the 1980s. But hopes have been dashed. Today, workers engaged in resistance to the bosses attacks on wages and working conditions are not looking to Labour. Those voting Labour at the next general election will not be casting a “class vote.” Labour today stands before workers as a social imperialist party, looking far more like the Democrats in the United States than like the social democratic party it once claimed to be.
The Communist League in the UK won’t be calling for a Labour vote at the next general election. It will run its own campaign under the watchword “it’s not who you’re against but what you are for.” The League’s program will advance the need to build and strengthen unions. It will point toward workers and farmers taking political power.
Such a course has nothing whatever to do with recent developments characterized by reader Robby Kopec as “unions disaffiliating from Labour, though not necessarily towards independent working class politics.” One union, the Rail Maritime and Transport union (RMT) has broken organizationally with the Labour Party, having been expelled after backing non-Labour election candidates in Scotland. The Fire Brigades Union (FBU), involved in a series of strikes last year, threatened to end its affiliation. But neither of these represent a shift toward independent working-class politics. They are part of the labor bureaucrats’ wars of position as they seek to compensate for the membership decline that’s a consequence of the continuing weakening of the unions.
Why communists don’t call for
a vote for British Labour Party
(Reply to a Reader column)
BY JONATHAN SILBERMAN
LONDON—“What happened to the character of the Labour Party?” asks Kristoffer Schultz in a letter to the editor published in last week’s issue. “What changes have occurred in the Labour Party” that underlie the position of the Communist League in the United Kingdom not calling for a vote for Labour in the next election in contrast to the general election of 1997?
The answer to the first question is that there has been no qualitative change in the Labour Party’s character for 90 years. That is true of all the social-democratic parties that mobilized support for the war efforts of “their own” bourgeoisies in World War I. Their record ever since has confirmed, and reconfirmed, their character as social imperialist parties. From that moment in August 1914 when the social democracy betrayed the working class, the decisive task facing the workers’ vanguard has been to build communist parties in each country and a new revolutionary international.
The answer to the second question about what to do in a general election lies in the realm of tactics: how to advance the building of a communist party. And tactics change depending on the conditions of the day in the class struggle.
In the general election of 1997, the Communist League campaign centered on our own candidates who campaigned for a revolutionary working-class program and course of action, independent of the capitalist class. As an aid to advancing this program, the League joined with masses of workers who voted to dump the Conservative Party that had been running the government for 18 years—a period marked by the politics of the Reagan-Thatcher assaults on working people. We said to workers at the time, “You have great expectations that Labour will advance the interests of working people. We don’t agree. But let’s agree on the program we need, vote together as a class, and fight together for this program.”
As we said in this column in the November 30 Militant, millions of workers celebrated Labour’s electoral victory in 1997. “But hopes have been dashed. Today, workers engaged in resistance to the bosses attacks on wages and working conditions are not looking to Labour. Those voting Labour at the next general election will not be casting a ‘class vote.’”
A vote for Labour in 2005 will reflect quite a different dynamic than it did in the 1997 election. It will come in the context of eight years of the Labour government acting as the main instrument in the British ruling class’s march to war against working people at home and abroad. The coming general election will be more akin to what happened in Spain in March of this year. Then, two days after gigantic reactionary mobilizations against alleged “Basque assassins”—mobilizations of millions supported by the Socialist Party and Communist Party of Spain—the social democrats won the election. In no way could this possibly be described as “workers casting a class vote” against representatives of the boss class.
This gives a pointer to answering Kristoffer Schultz’s third question: is there any basic difference between Labour and what he calls “social democratic parties in Germany, Denmark or Sweden—parties also based on the unions”? The answer is no. All are social imperialist parties with years of experience in administering their respective imperialist states. While they continue to have organized relations with the trade unions and receive financial backing from the union bureaucracy, they less and less base themselves on or appeal to the mass of workers organized in the unions. Their composition and orientation is more and more in line with their bourgeois program and structure. You don’t find any Marxist currents developing in these parties today—as was the case with the British Labour Party in the past.
The biggest change since the 1990s, however, isn’t what’s happened to these parties per se. It’s the decline of Stalinism as a force within the workers movement, a consequence of the shattering of the Stalinist apparatuses in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. It was Stalinism that gave a second lease on life to the working-class credentials of these parties and their links to the unions, something that would have been buried decades ago if genuine revolutionary parties with substantial weight in the working class had developed. With the decline of Stalinism, the appearance of the Labour Party to vanguard workers has changed.
Today the Labour Party looks far more like the Democratic Party in the United States than the party of labor it pretended to be. That is why militant workers today seeking to organize unions and mobilize union power to defend the interests of workers and farmers don’t turn toward the Labour Party to generalize their struggles and get help in resisting the bosses’ offensive. Calling for a vote for these parties today would be an obstacle, not an aid, to winning vanguard workers to a communist program and course of action.