Britain - Militant Labour and the "mass socialist party"

Oct/Nov 1996

Over a year ago, the takeover of the Labour Party by Blair's "New Labour" leadership prompted a number of activists within the left of the Labour party, but also within the revolutionary left, to call for the setting up of a "new mass socialist party" and initiate a debate on what kind of a party this should be and how it should be built - a debate which is still going on today.

The first practical answer to this question was given by the miners' union leader, Arthur Scargill, when he announced his intention to set up a new party in November last year. However, the draft documents which he produced at the time seemed to indicate that his objective did not go beyond setting up another version of old Labour (see our article in Class Struggle #10 - Jan/Feb 1996) - in keeping with Scargill's record as a long-standing figurehead of the union and Labour bureaucracy.

Six months later, in May this year, the Socialist Labour Party was formally launched with a card membership of 1200 or so. This took place amidst protests and recriminations from revolutionary groups and activists who had initially supported Scargill's initiative - more or less critically - only to be left out in the cold by Scargill's refusal to allow them entry into the SLP - that is unless they agreed to give up their organisational independence. Since then, the internal life of the SLP seems to have been dominated by bitter wrangles as its leadership strove to track down and expel from the party a number of activists who were challenging its orientations. As to the small numbers of rank-and- file SLP members who have been genuinely struggling to inject some life into the fledging party, they have received little help from their leadership and some have already left in disgust.

Today, it still remains unclear whether the SLP has a future at all and if so, what kind of future. Will it remain what it is today - yet another isolated group surviving on the margins of politics - or will the flag raised by Scargill eventually succeed in rallying significant numbers of recruits out of the Labour and trade-union milieus, as the NUM leader clearly hoped? Only the future will tell. But what may no longer be questioned - assuming there was ever any doubt about this - is that this flag is unmistakably a crass reformist one!

As to the activists who were left out of Scargill's SLP, most have not given up their original objective. Today the largest current among them is represented by Militant Labour who initiated the setting up of a network of "Socialist Alliance" forums across Britain (including the separate "Scottish Socialist Alliance" network which was started earlier in Scotland) in order to bring together this milieu of activists. So what are Militant Labour's objectives in carrying out this policy and, since these comrades base themselves on the same Trotskyist tradition as we do, how does this fit in with the task of building a revolutionary party in Britain in their view?

Throwing the bathwater out just because baby-Blair jumped in?

To all intents and purposes, Militant's approach is based on the very same criticisms levelled by Scargill at Blair's New Labour. Thus, for instance, in a critical review of a new pamphlet on the Labour party, produced by the SWP, Militant's monthly "Socialism Today" argues that "Blair is much more than a continuation of Gaitskell, Wilson and Callaghan (..) The social reform policies of yesteryear are gone, with the adoption of radical neo-liberal capitalism and hostility to the welfare state, and indeed free trade-unionism."(June 96) In other words, just like Scargill, Militant considers that, under Blair, the Labour party has undergone a qualitative transformation which makes it radically different from what it used to be, to the point that, according to the same article, "the prospect of Labour again being a party of significant social reform" is "extremely unlikely".

But when has the fact of being "a party of significant social reform" - assuming this was the case once upon a time - ever been an intrinsic feature of the Labour party? The whole article is based on the assumption that, in the past, Labour's policies in government used to be dictated by its intrinsic features (its links to the working class, presumably) and its resulting ideological stand. But were they? Wasn't Labour's objective, each time it made it into office, to manage the affairs of the capitalist class on its behalf and to the best of its interests? Wasn't this the reason for so many unfulfilled election promises in the first place?

Indeed, at each particular juncture, the choices made by Labour governments, and the policies they carried out, were always primarily dictated by the wishes and needs of the bourgeoisie - not by Labour's intrinsic nature. Which is why, for instance, the postwar Labour government introduced limited social reforms, like the setting up of the welfare system, while pursuing a highly unpopular policy (certainly in the working class) of colonial wars across the world or sending troops against strikers. Was it that Labour implemented a "good" policy against the bourgeoisie's will - presumably due to being still "a party of significant social reform" - as opposed to other "bad" ones which sold out workers' interests? No, all these policies actually reflected a consensus which existed at the time in the high spheres of the bourgeoisie - a consensus which was itself the product of the needs of capitalist profit in the context of the then balance of forces in society (or, more precisely in the case of the postwar period, in the context of the bourgeoisie's fears of a possible working class backlash somewhere in the world as a result of the war).

Yet the decisive role of the balance of social forces, is consistently ignored throughout Militant's argument in this article. Indeed, Labour's political orientation does not stand in a vacuum. It is, and has always been, primarily dictated by what the bourgeoisie considered acceptable given the current balance of social forces. What we have seen happening over the past two years, with the rise of New Labour, is only another illustration of this fact.

Today, with the present balance of forces heavily tilted against the working class, due to the demoralising effect of unemployment in its ranks, what is acceptable to the bourgeoisie is different from what was acceptable, twenty or fifty years ago. Having had a very successful profit drive over the past decade or so, without coming up against any significant resistance from the working class as a whole, the capitalist class is highly confident and wants yet more of the same. This is what Blair's present policies reflect, just as Gaitskell's did, in the context of the Cold War - a trend in society rather than a fundamental change in the party's nature. Should the balance of forces change the other way in society, with the bourgeoisie being forced into making concessions to the working class, it is very likely that Labour, and possibly Blair himself, would respond to this change with a parallel turn to the left in their public policies - although not necessarily in what they would actually do in government, depending on whether the bourgeoisie chooses to take a confrontational course or not.

The same article then goes on to say that, due to Labour's change in policy, "the vast majority of the working class no longer looks to Labour for significant reform, let alone socialism, but as merely a "lesser evil"." That the working class is disenchanted with Labour is unquestionable. But this is not exactly a new phenomenon. The emergence of New Labour has only amplified a trend which had been growing since the second part of the 80s at least. But what Militant fails to say, is that in the working class, this trend goes together with widespread cynicism and bitterness towards politics in general. The fact of the matter is, that overall, the idea of social change has considerably less credibility in the working class today than it had in the previous period. And this results partly from the past record of the Labour (old Labour!) and union leaderships, but mostly, once again, from the present shift in the balance of forces in the class struggle against the working class.

Militant's conclusion, in this article, is that "the British working class is faced with re-founding socialism" - which is undoubtedly true, but has been true ever since the Stalinist degeneration dealt a deadly blow to the fledging communist party in this country, in the 20s - and that "a new mass socialist party is objectively on the order of the day". "Objectively"? What objective circumstances are making this more a possibility today than it was yesterday? The changes introduced by Blair in the Labour party, presumably. But what about the chances of success of such an enterprise? Where are the masses looking eagerly for a new political perspective which, surely, such a new party would need to find in order to be a "mass socialist party"? Militant does not say; nor can we see them.

A "mass socialist party, but a reformist one

So what kind of party has Militant in mind? These comrades use various formulations to describe it: "new, broad socialist party", "mass socialist party", "new socialist party". A more precise definition could be found in an article written by Militant's leader, Peter Taaffe, in November 1995. Opposing the idea of a "Labour Party Mark II", Taaffe argued that "a new socialist party must represent a new point of departure for the British working class. It must be an explicitly socialist party, pledged to end the rule of capital in Britain and throughout the world" (Socialism Today - Nov 1995) How would the programme of such a party see the way to end the rule of capital? Taaffe does not say.

Earlier this year, Militant published a pamphlet called "Rebuilding Socialism - Militant Labour and the SLP", which was a collection of articles on the subject, including the one by Taaffe just mentioned. In the whole of the pamphlet, which was therefore meant to encapsulate Militant's view on the issue, the word "revolution" was not used even once! No wonder Militant does not use formulations like "revolutionary socialist party" - the programme of the new party they have in mind is clearly not meant to include the socialist revolution, despite including a pledge "to end the rule of capital". And if so, this means that what they have in mind is necessarily a reformist party using an ambiguous anti- capitalist rhetoric.

Let us note in passing that Scargill used a similar rhetoric until the SLP's founding conference. Since then, the SLP's language has become much less anti-capitalist, shifting back to Labour's traditional reformist references.

What then, would be the aims of this new party? The introduction of the pamphlet already mentioned, provides the following answer: "The ideas of socialism have to be re-established amongst new sections of the working class and the radicalised middle class. The function of the new party would be to provide a forum for those moving in an anti-capitalist direction, uniting the forces available around a fighting programme and through discussion and action to arrive at an understanding of the need for socialism and a strategy to achieve it."

But if this party is aimed, as this pamphlet says, at providing "a forum for those moving in an anti-capitalist direction" to help them "to arrive at an understanding of the need for socialism", does this means that, although "socialist" in name, it would not require of its members that they support its socialist programme? Or does this mean that the "socialism" of its programme would be vague (or "broad" to use the language of the pamphlet) enough to accommodate a wide range of views - all the more so as, according to the same pamphlet, "there needs to be a debate on the character of the socialist programme required in this new period and too on the form that a new, prospective mass party should take." Are we talking then about an "explicitly socialist party" which does not know what its own "socialism" really means or involves?

And which side would this party take "explicitly" in the class struggle? That of the working class? Would its "broad" socialism be class-based? Or would it also use "broader" formulations in order to accommodate "those moving in an anti-capitalist direction" or "new sections .. of the radicalised middle class" who haven't yet reached the point of identifying with the working class? Militant does not say.

Militant does have models in mind for the new party, however, particularly those, mentioned in its pamphlet, of "the Party of Communist Refoundation (RC) in Italy and the United Left (IU) in Spain", which "despite their origins in former Stalinist parties, have had to take a more open form, recognising a "plurality" of views and the right of groups and factions." But, what are these models? RC is a split of the Italian Communist Party which refused to drop the communist label and drift even further towards social-democracy. But RC remains fundamentally what the Communist Party was already before, a reformist party which relies mostly on the ballot box to gain influence in society and aims at managing the affairs of the bourgeoisie. In order to boost its membership and increase its electoral support, RC chose to open its doors wide and many activists from the revolutionary left joined, partly due to the collapse of many Italian left groups. But this did not alter in the least the crude reformism of the RC leadership, which is now the left flank of the broad coalition that came to power after last April's general election. As to IU, it is primarily an electoral coalition which has retained a loose existence in between elections and whose policies are mostly the reformist policies of its dominant component, the Communist Party.

Neither of these two "models" are "new point of departure" for the working class, nor are they likely to do very much to re-establish socialist ideas in the working class. But what seems to be attractive to Militant in these "models", is the fact that both won a small but not negligible share of the vote in the elections. And that they allowed revolutionary groups which were comparable to Militant in size and influence to join in with the "big boys" of mainstream politics and have access to the parliamentary table - which they would have been unable to do on their own steam. But at what price? That of putting themselves in the tow of the reformist policies of the bigger players in the game!

The myth of the "new radical layers"

Unfortunately for Militant, there is no such possibility in Britain since there are no significant political forces occupying the space between the Labour party and the revolutionary left. So Militant is left with the old traditional model of the Labour party, that of a federation of groups loosely linked together by a "broad" programme - exactly, once again, what Scargill suggested originally for the SLP. The question then is how could such a party gain some political influence given that it would start, in the present context in any case, from next to nothing?

In an article critical of Scargill's SLP, Socialism Today answers this question in its March issue: "The present situation sees millions of youth and women who have never had a job, let alone been in the unions or Labour party. From among them come many of the most radical and dynamic forces in this society, who animate campaigns and movements as diverse as those against domestic violence, road building and the Criminal Justice Act. These kind of forces are often sceptical of any kind of "party"; they will be especially repelled by the bureaucratic and exclusionary constitution which Scargill and his immediate lieutenants seem determined to foist on the SLP."

This targeting of what Militant describes, in the above-mentioned pamphlet, as the "fresher layers of workers and young people who have never been active in traditional labour movement organisations" is clarified in the draft constitution for the Scottish Socialist Alliance (presented at the end of the same of the same pamphlet) which lists the groups who would be considered eligible for affiliation to the SSA, provided they agree with its "Aims and Objectives" document and its constitution: "political group, trade union at any level, environmental group, tenants' organisation, community group, anti- nuclear group, civil rights organisation, animal rights organisation, anti- racist organisation, international solidarity campaign, etc.."

So, these are the forces that Militant relies on to join together and re- establish socialist ideas in Britain! The idea is not exactly new. Thirty years ago, it used to be called the "Rainbow Coalition" by activists in the US. And in the past decade, it has been the main strategy of a number of Trotskyist currents, including that of the United Secretariat of the IVth International - the "Alternative" as they called it.

There are two main flaws in this strategy. The first one is that it is more easily said than done. If the Greens joined the United Left in Spain, it was not because of the participation of groups coming from the revolutionary left wanting to re-establish socialism, but primarily because they were hoping to benefit from the modest, but not insignificant electoral weight of the Communist Party. In France, on the contrary, where the only promoter of the "alternative" was a Trotskyist organisation with no electoral weight, this strategy has been a consistent failure - simply because the Greens were much keener, given the chance, to enter into some alliance with the Socialist Party or with some splinter groups from the Communist Party which had at least a little electoral credit, if only through their leading figures. In the case of Britain, what incentive would the Green Party or similar groups have, to join ranks with Militant or other groups from the revolutionary left in a broad socialist party if they know in advance that the electoral dividend is likely to be negligible?

But much more importantly, on what political basis would these groups be prepared to join the new party? Militant may have been very impressed by the size and dynamism of the mobilisation by animal rights protesters in the recent years, but this does not make these groups close to socialist ideas by any stretch of imagination. Quite the contrary in fact. Most of them feed on reactionary ideas, based on a moralistic or even religious approach. The fact that the fate of calves, however shocking it may be, generates such indignation among the protesters, to the point of having running battles with the police, but not the treatment metered out by the capitalist class to the millions of men and women who are pushed onto the dole in Britain, or to the hundreds of millions suffering from starvation across the world, does not reflect a progressive trend in society, but a reactionary one.

Of course, there are certainly individual activists who are potential socialists in the groups listed above, but in most cases it is despite the orientation of the groups in which they are involved. And there is nothing Militant can do about it. This is, here also, the reflection of the social balance of forces in society. Socialist ideas can only become widely attractive provided their main bearer, the working class, shows its strength and a glimpse of its potential to change the world. Short of this, whatever radicalism may be found in society is bound to be impregnated with the dominant class prejudices - something that Militant itself is forced to recognise. Yet, that these layers are usually "sceptical of any kind of "party"", as Militant admits, is an understatement - rather than sceptical, they are hostile, and not just to any kind of "party", but also to politics in general, and to the very idea of the working class acting collectively and consciously to change society (even if some of these young activists come have a working class background themselves).

An alliance between real forces which have very different political programmes is either based on a balance of forces which allows one of the partners to impose its agenda on the others (but Militant has not got that sort of weight, otherwise it would not even dream of such an alliance in the first place) or on a compromise designed to accommodate all participants. In the case of the disparate collection of forces mentioned above, this greatest common denominator can only be very small, and in any case not the kind of programme which is bound to re- establish socialist ideas in the working class, since that is what Militant claims to be aiming at.

One can be rightly suspicious of the likely outcome of Militant's drive, however, judging from the example of the Scottish Socialist Alliance. Far from being the mass socialist party it aims at, or even its embryo, the SSA is merely an alliance between Scottish Militant Labour and a small but disparate milieu of left and Scottish nationalist activists who seem primarily tied together by a common commitment to campaigning for the right of Scotland to self-determination. Quite apart from what we may think of this choice, as communist internationalists, we can only wonder how much Militant's members in Scotland feel they are re- establishing socialist ideas in the working class, while spending so much time getting people to sign petitions for a sovereign Scottish Parliament!

And the revolutionary programme?

The search for shortcuts in building the revolutionary party is an old and common disease in the Trotskyist movement - the product, among other things, of decades of social and political stability in Britain. And Militant's drive to build this "mass socialist party" just seems like yet another one.

Militant is not a newcomer is this field. Their long decades of deep entryism in the Labour party were just another shortcut, one which led them to write in 1985, for instance, that the Labour party, with a Marxist leadership (as Militant's leaders called themselves) "can carry through its historical task, the socialist transformation of British society." (Militant - 12/10/1985)

Today, Militant's leader Peter Taaffe says that "the only issue under dispute is whether this process (i.e. the transformation of Labour into a liberal capitalist party - CS) has been completed, that Labour has now exhausted its historical role as a vehicle for socialists and workers in the struggle against capitalism, or if it is still possible to halt the Blair juggernaut" (Socialism Today - Feb 1996). And Taaffe, of course, chooses the first option. Eleven years after, therefore, Militant still talks about the "historical role" of the Labour Party, even if it is to say that this role is over (at last!). As if the Labour Party had ever been a "vehicle for socialists and workers in the struggle against capitalism" and not a bulwark of capitalism! Or is it that, now, Taaffe considers that the "historical role" of the Labour party was just to offer Militant a home inside its apparatus and no longer "the socialist transformation of British society."? And since Militant eventually left the Labour Party in 1992, this role is over...

In the days when they were in the Labour Party, Militant found themselves at times in a position of influence, by taking advantage of the weaknesses of Labour's apparatus. Such was the case in Liverpool in the mid-80s, when Militant was able to exercise a real influence on the local Labour Party and the local council. It was precisely for this kind of opportunity that Militant had been waiting inside the Labour Party for so long, in the hope that being in its ranks and operating from within its machinery would allow them one day to gain more influence than they would have been able to gain by remaining outside. Yet, when such an opportunity presented itself eventually, they were unable to use it. Because their primary concern was to defend the positions they had won in the Labour Party, they never used the platform they had to offer a revolutionary policy to the workers who were looking towards them - particularly in 1984-85, at the time when Liverpool council was under attack while the miners were staging their year-long strike - when such a policy could have helped to change the balance of forces in favour of the working class. Instead, their language was that of left reformism and the only perspective they offered workers was to help them hang on to the council, at any cost, instead of using Liverpool as a springboard for a wider counter-offensive against Thatcher's attacks.

It seems that today, Militant is trying to re-create similar possibilities to those it had thanks to the positions it held in the Labour Party, before being sidelined by the Kinnock leadership, after the Liverpool defeat. Except that, the Labour Party not being an option any more, another reformist party needs to be created. But to think that it is easier to create, almost from scratch, a sizeable reformist party, than it is to build influence for a revolutionary organisation, is at best naïve. At worst, by diverting the energies of hundreds of revolutionary activists away from class politics, this illusion could cause major opportunities for the revolutionary movement and the working class to be missed at crucial points and prove to be a dramatic miscalculation.

Revolutionaries have to face up to the facts. And these facts are that we have lived for some time already in a period of retreat for the working class as a whole, in Britain and internationally. It is difficult for revolutionary organisations to develop fast in such periods because it is difficult for people to make a genuine and solid commitment to socialist ideas when the working class appears weak and the situation bleak. But at the same time, this period of retreat will be followed by a rebirth of militancy, dynamism and thirst for ideas in the working class - which could come sooner or later, but it will come, anyway. This is what revolutionaries have to prepare for, and to facilitate, if they have the necessary weight. Not passively - far from it. In the present period, there are many small opportunities which can allow workers to measure the limits of reformism and turn their eyes towards revolutionary ideas. As we have seen over the past years, the tiniest dispute has come to be seen as a threat by the union bureaucracy. Day-in and day-out, reformist policies prove unable to defend even the most immediate and basic interests of the working class. But for these lessons to be learnt, and used in due time, in the future struggles, there needs to be an alternative on offer, a revolutionary policy which stands clearly apart from that of the bureaucrats, without being blurred by dubious alliances and a fuzzy language.

More than at any other time, in a period of retreat like the present one, when entire sectors of the world economic and social fabric threaten to collapse, due to the capitalist crisis, what is required is that a clear revolutionary programme is put across to the working class. That workers do not grab it straight away is not an issue. They have no reason to trust revolutionaries just on their word, they need opportunities to test them, their organisations and their ideas. And, so far, they have never had such opportunities.

If revolutionaries choose to embark on some blind-alley, trying to square the circle by watering down their programme in an effort to paint in socialist colours, forces which are alien and even hostile to the working class; if they fail to use the present circumstances, when illusions in the system are more likely to recede, to put forward the full extent of their programme in front of the working class, to spread their ideas, to win credit among workers because they are still there fighting when all the odds seem to be lined up against them, they will miss what could turn out to be a decisive opportunity.

If on the contrary, revolutionary activists and organisations did use the possibilities of this period to the full - if they accepted that they will not recruit easily to their ideas, that they will not enjoy illusory successes at union or Labour conferences, but that they can use the situation to build fresh and solid roots within the ranks of the working class, particularly in its industrial strongholds, and to steel themselves in preparation for the future struggles - then the unresolved question of the revolutionary party might find the beginning of an answer in the course of these struggles, when and if revolutionaries prove capable of arming a section, at least, of the working class with their programme.