Thursday, 5 April 2007

Prospects for the Labour Party: A Critique of the Socialist Party

Prospects for the Labour Party: A Critique of the Socialist Party

It may be said that in many ways the history of the far-left is the history of the labour party. From the reprimands of Lenin on the nature of 'far left communism' to the later-day Trotskyist involvements in Labour. Within this piece I intend to analyse the characterisation of Labour and the subsequent implications of this theory. In analysing the prospects of involvement for Marxists in labour it might be helpful to provide an overview of the situation "as it stands".

The Socialist Party of England & Wales tells us that the Labour Party became a "totally bourgeois party in the 1990s" [1] suggesting that we can now largely categorise Labour alongside Conservative / Lib-dem parties, a move away from the bourgeoisie-worker party characterisation of old.What form has this bourgeoisification said to have taken? It is possible to summarise three or four basic points upon which this characterisation is based; 1) The lack of a necessitated link between Labour and the TU movement 2) dwindling membership figures obscured by corporate sponsors ("constituency delegates ...outnumbered by corporate sponsors") 3) A lack of real democracy ("Real socialists have either been systematically expelled or dropped out of the party. The rank and file is there to merely rubber stamp the decisions made above.") linked in part by dwindling TU representation at conference.


The characterising analysis of the Socialist Party as a "full bourgeois party" would suggest that the Socialist Party would extricate itself completely of the affairs of potential leadership bids, in much the same way as any far-left Marxist party would deem it ridiculous to orientate itself towards the posturing of potential Tory candidates. This is not the case however, we are told that "We believe that if they are sincere .... those in affiliated trade unions should support John McDonnell's campaign for the leadership." A curious acknowledgement of the base of Trade Union support apparent within the Labour Party. Why would the Socialist Party involve themselves in this tokenistic display of 'solidarity' for the internal squabbling of a bourgeoisie party? The inherent contradictions of this policy are painfully clear. An understand of the characterisation of a bourgeois-workers party is helpful here, the Socialist Party outlines this conception as one in which there exists "a party with bourgeois at the top but has a working-class base"[7]. The assumption here is that we can now equate the base of support - reflected in large part by most TU organisations - with the support afforded the Tory party and its kin. A patently dangerous fallacy.

IT is important to glance again at some of the characterising features of this 'bourgeois party' - the first example cites the lack of a 'necessitated' orientation towards Labour. The problematic nature of this characterisation is not hard to see. "It is no longer the case that there is an unbreakable link between the Labour Party and the Trade Unions" [3]. This is essentially an empty truism. The labour party rules state that Trade Union bodies cannot allow regions to affiliate to other opposition political parties which has meant in reality that fire-fighters union FBU has disaffiliated from labour as has the RMT.

In this sense it may be said that these examples show that of course disaffiliation is a possibility, as it always has been. But what prospects do these examples offer for a unified trade union movement? The examples cited provide a picture of fragmented political representation "the London Region of the FBU had voted to support Respect while the Scottish Region may providing funding to the SNP" [3]. Within the RMT disaffiliation is reflected in the patchy and unstable network of political support upon which it has become dependent - first affiliated to the SSP, on 26 October the RMT "voted to reverse its 2003 decision to affiliate to the Scottish Socialist Party." [4]. Calls for discussion upon the "the crisis of working class representation" seem apt during a period in which the turn away from labour has lead to variant forms of either political crisis or simply an apolitical trade union movement. With the "absence of any viable political alternative" is it clear to see how the argument may be made that this leads to forms of depoliticisation. While a supportive journal of the Scottish Socialist Party points out itself that "the SSP, as the most advanced political left formation in Britain (politically and by size) does not have sufficient parliamentary representation to significantly advance the RMT’s interests" [3]. Of course the Socialist Party is involved in the process of campaigning for forms of new representative organisations which would be able to provide political representation - though they remain in their embryonic "campaign for" stages.[8]

Dwindling membership figures, the role of corporate sponsors

A point upon which the Socialist Party might seem to be upon firmer ground might be thought to be the subject of membership figures and the increasing dominance of corporate sponsorship in the Labour Party. "Labour membership has halved since Tony Blair became prime minister" reads the Guardian [5], in turn The Socialist Party cites the 'corporate sponsors' creeping in at conference and of course readers of the news and anyone attending LP Conference will have been treated to an array of corporate sponsored speaking events. It's clear that there is a section of traditional old labour supporters turning away from the party - but is it on this basis that Marxists turn away from the Labour party? Should Marxists refuse to involve themselves in political organisations sullied with corporatism? My answer is a resounding no to both of course.

It is ironic that the Socialist Party members friend should in turn become its greatest foe on this issue: "Left-Wing" Communism: An Infantile Disorder. Often cited by Socialist Party members as a book others on the far-left should read (presumably before waking up and joining them in the 21st century) it provides a crystal clear analysis - at least in part - as to how Marxists should relate to mass reformist organisations, and I quote:

"If you want to help the "masses" and win the sympathy and support of the "masses" .... must absolutely work wherever the masses are to be found... in those institutions, societies and associations -- even the most reactionary—in which proletarian or semi-proletarian masses are to be found"[6]

No doubt the accusatory phrases will be resounding loud now: "this approach is out-dated!" A tired argument - to adopt a good cliche: we don't abandon the theory of gravity just because it's getting old! "This approach fails to account for the internal changes within the party!" - we have of course already seen that the Socialist Party in part acknowledges the existence of "proletarian or semi-proletarian" base of support (however threatened) within the party in its gestures towards McDonnell's campaign, and the potential TU support this campaign may be able to accrue, supported by the SP. The logical extension of Leninism is an orientation which turns towards those organisations within which the the working class can be found, however mired these organisations may be in the morass of corporate sponsorship or big-business; in essence: "Revolutionaries Work in Reactionary organisations" whenever and wherever necessary. [6]







[8] An aside, Labour is often conceptualised as a "Broad Church" formation, it's perhaps interesting to note the way in which this conceptualisation has been mimicked in different ways by Socialists outside of labour. A topic for a different post.


Anonymous said...

An intriguing first article! You could probably write an entire book exploring the themes you have touched on here.

I agree that the approach of the moral narcicism of not involving oneself in 'sullied' organisations is both intellectually unjustifiable and poltically unwise.

Yet, I go one step further. The notion that new political movements and counter-hegemonic structures must be built from outside the traditions of the Labour movement and by implication, from outside the structures of the Labour Party, would be a serious misjudgement.

Instead, those real and existing traditions must be the foundation for new and progressive programmes among the democratic left, imposed by the labour movement on itself and not from those outside who wish to drag workers away from their history.

I read today that when Amicus and the T&G unions merge, they will then affiliate with TUs in the US and Candada in recognition of the threats posed to workers by multinational corporations: globalisation.

A unified and global organised labour movement could herald an exciting future, and the democratic left should be integrally involved in taking advantage of the opportunities it presents - not carping on the sidelines like a troop of self-righteous and sanctimonious religious protesters, human sacrifices and moral narcisists.

Those tactices will win no friends, no allies and no comrades. Rightly so.

Instead, they will split the democratic left at a time where unity, vision and new radical ideas are most needed.

Tom said...

Firstly the original point of departure by Militant (later Socialist Party) from Labour was that Labour was moving towards being a fully bourgious party. It might not be there yet but it was heading inevitably in that direction so it was better to make a clean break with other trade unionists and socialists who were also leaving. I really don't see anything that has happened since the 'open turn' that would make any Militant/Socialist Party member conclude they were wrong about the direction Labour was and still is travelling, even if you want to quiblle about whether it's got to the destination yet or not.
If the support for John McDonnel is seen in this way then it makes sense as support for the Labour lefts final push within Labour. Especially as the SP, while giving support has constantly posed the question "what will the Labour left do if they don't win? Critically support Brown? Wait another 4 year's until Labour have lost government? Or split?".

This isn't so crazy. Other organisations have said the same thing, for example, a member of the AWl has said publically that their support for McDonnell wasn't based on his ability to win but rather so they could influence him afterwards.

Also, I take exception to the idea that supporting Labour somehow makes a trade union more political. If a TU signs a cheque to Labour once in a while and does little else then how is that political? Or how is that more political than say the RMT hosting a conference on working class representation and its local branches discussing and voting on who has the best policies and who should be supported? Another example would be the FBU who's members not only have political discussions about who to support but who's members are liable to come out and campaign for socialist candiates, or at least are in Scotland.

J.B said...

"I take exception to the idea that supporting Labour somehow makes a trade union more political"

To conflate the main issue of the post in this way is quite expressive of the politics of the SP on this issue. My point is not that support of Labour makes a Trade Union "more political" but rather that the dangerously far-leftist position which suggests that Labour disaffiliate during a period in which there exists NO viable alternative is a seriously flawed with patently dangerous implication . Your input has yet to provide an evidence to the contrary.

Anonymous said...

Consider for a moment the "clean break with other trade unionists and socialists who were also leaving". Those who have left Labour have ended more bitter, more marginalised and isolated than they were before. The parties to the left of Labour are just as divided over petty issues as they ever wore. Those who left are more likely to have more likely subsequently been depoliticised!

Most TUs (wisely) have not disaffiliated from Labour, and if they did they would be betraying their members by weakening their bargaining position and rendering their voices so marginal and muffled as to be worthless.

This notion of disaffiliation is pathetic. Unless 'The Left' can heal its wounds and united (little evidence of this) there is no reason or chance of any trade union leaving the Labour Party. Just as well that they are better off staying and fighting than running like the narcisistic cowards I described.

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