The Trade Union Movement, New Labour, and Working-Class Politics: Part III. Trotsky and anti-Labour candidates in the 30s

Submitted by AWL on 21 November, 2006 - 11:32

“Q: Was the ILP correct in running as many candidates as possible in the recent General Election, even at the risk of splitting the vote?

LDT: Yes. It would have been foolish for the ILP to have sacrificed its political programme in the interests of so-called unity, to allow the LP to monopolise the platform as the Communist Party did. We do not know our strength until we test it. There is always a risk of splitting, and of losing deposits, but such risks must be taken: otherwise we boycott ourselves” (emphasis LDT).

(Once again the ILP, November 1935. Interview by E. Robertson).

“While the revolutionary organisations are struggling to gain influence in the working class, the bourgeois ideologists counterpose the “working class as a whole” not only against the party of the working class but against its trade unions, which these ideologists accuse of wanting to “annex” the working class… The bourgeois ideologists counterpose the working class as object to the working class as conscious subject. For it is only through its class conscious minority that the working class gradually becomes a factor in history… It is wrong for Louzon to employ the terminology customarily used by our opponents…”

Leon Trotsky

“The Fourth International resolutely rejects and condemns trade union fetishism, equally characteristic of trade unionists and syndicalists.

(a) Trade unions do not offer, and in line with their task, composition. and manner of recruiting membership, cannot offer a finished revolutionary program; in consequence, they cannot replace the party. The building of national revolutionary parties as sections of the Fourth International is the central task of the transitional epoch.

(b) Trade unions, even the most powerful, embrace no more than 20 to 25 percent of the working class, and at that, predominantly the more skilled and better paid layers. The more oppressed majority of the working class is drawn only episodically into the struggle, during a period of exceptional upsurges in the labour movement. During such moments it is necessary to create organisations ad hoc, embracing the whole fighting mass: strike committees, factory committees, and finally, soviets.

(c) As organisations expressive of the top layers of the proletariat, trade unions, as witnessed by all past historical experience, including the fresh experience of the anarcho-syndicalist unions in Spain, developed powerful tendencies toward compromise with the bourgeois-democratic regime...”
Trotsky, The Transitional Programme, 1938

“Without the party, independently of the party, skipping over the party, through a substitute for the party, the proletarian revolution can never triumph. That is the principal lesson of the last decade. To be sure, the British trade unions can become a powerful lever of the proletarian revolution. They can, for example, under certain conditions and for a certain period, even replace the workers’ Soviets. But they cannot play such a role without the Communist Party and certainly not against it, but only provided that communist influence in the trade unions becomes decisive. We have paid too dearly for this conclusion as to the role and significance of the party for the proletarian revolution to renounce it so lightly or even to have it weakened.” Trotsky: Lessons Of October, mid-1924


We have seen what LDT thought about the big questions raised by J & S of the trade unions’ relationship with the working class and the revolutionary party. We will now discuss the question of electoral tactics, etc.

The easiest way into what is wrong with J & S’s presentation of the issues we face is first to discuss their quotations from LDT. They quote Trotsky:

“A party’s inability to establish correct relations with the working class reveals itself most glaringly in the area of the trade union movement… The fatal excesses of the ‘third period’ were due to the desire of the small Communist minority to act as though it had a majority behind it… No better favour could be done for the trade union bureaucracy. Had it been within its power to award the Order of the Garter, it should have so decorated all the leaders of the Comintern and Profintern.

“The revolutionary proletarian Party must be welded together by a clear understanding of its historic tasks. This presupposes a scientifically based programme. At the same time, the revolutionary party must know how to establish correct relations with the class. This presupposes a policy of revolutionary realism.”

Leon Trotsky, “The ILP and the New International”, 1933

“For every revolutionary organisation in England its attitude to the masses and to the class is almost coincident with its attitude toward the Labour Party, which bases itself upon the trade unions. At this time the question whether to function inside the Labour Party or outside it is not a principled question, but a question of actual possibilities. In any case, without a strong faction in the trade unions, and, consequently, in the Labour Party itself, the ILP is doomed to impotence even today… Yet, for a long period, the ILP attached much greater importance to the ‘united front’ with the insignificant Communist Party than to work in mass organisations…”

“But isn’t it a fact that a Marxist faction would not succeed in changing the structure and policy of the Labour Party? With this we are entirely in accord: the bureaucracy will not surrender. But the revolutionists, functioning outside and inside, can and must succeed in winning over tens and hundreds of thousands of workers…”

Leon Trotsky, “Once Again the ILP”

Trotsky is answering questions put by the Canadian poet Earle Birney (E. Robertson), a Trotskyist and a member of the ILP. It is late 1935. Britain has recently had a general election in which the Labour Party confronted a bloc of Tories, National Liberals and National Labour — the supporters of the outgoing “National Government”. This “National Government” had been set up in 1931 when the minority Labour Government (1929-31) split, as did the Labour Party, on the Labour Government leaders’ proposal to cut the unemployment benefit of millions of workers.

The Labour Prime Minister, James Ramsey MacDonald, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Snowden, together with the former railworkers’ leader and Cabinet member J H Thomas, have formed the National Labour Party and joined a section of the Liberals and the whole Tory Party to form a so-called “National Government”. In the ensuing 1931 General Election the Labour Party has been reduced to not many more MPs than it had had when it made its first decisive breakthrough in 1906. MacDonald remains Prime Minister until the eve of the 1935 General Election. The “National Government” is essentially a Tory Government, and, in 1935 the Tory leader, Stanley Baldwin, becomes Prime Minister.

Some variant of the 1931 split, we have argued, is the very best we could now hope for with New Labour. But whereas in 1931 only a handful of MPs went with Macdonald and Snowden, the rest of the PLP going with the TUC, if the TUC were to break with Blair now the big majority of the PLP would, for certain, go with Blair or Brown…

After the 1931 split, the Labour Party veered sharply to the left, electing as Leader the ineffectual pacifist George Lansbury, the Michael Foot of the 1930s (only far better — in 1922 he had led the Councillors of Poplar, East London into defying the Government and going to jail in defence of the unemployed in the borough). In the 1935 election, though the “National Government” emerged with a big majority, Labour did considerably better than in 1931.

This is the situation Trotsky is talking about when he says what he does about ILP candidates in the 1935 general election — that the ILP was right to stand as many candidates as they could against a Labour Party that was tied to the TUC and virtually run by the union leaders.

In the same year, T&G leader Ernest Bevin destroyed the leadership of George Lansbury, and put Clement Attlee in as Labour leader. Bevin would be one of those who pioneered the Labour Party’s turn from the 19th century economic Liberal assumptions that had led MacDonald and Snowden to try to “balance the books” by cutting the dole, towards the ‘deficit budgeting’ Keynesian policies that would constitute the reformist/bourgeois consensus for the next 40 years.

The Labour Party of 1935 was not only seen by workers with any degree of class consciousness as their Party. It was their Party. It was the trade unions’ Party in a sense that is a million political miles from the relationship the unions and the working class have now with Blair’s New Labour Party. We can describe that Labour Party and the present Labour Party both as “bourgeois workers’ parties”, as we do, but it is a deliberate exercise in political self-blinding if we do not also recognise that they are radically different things. They are at opposite poles in the hybrid, unstable concept we call a “bourgeois workers’ party”.

And what was the ILP? Founded by Keir Hardie in 1893 — with the support of Frederick Engels — the ILP had, together with the unions, been the main founder of the Labour Party in 1900 and after. Until 1918, when Constituency Labour Parties with individual members were first set up, there would be no individual members of the Labour Party, only members of affiliated unions and of the affiliated socialist societies, of which by far the most important was the ILP. Together with Keir Hardie, until he died in 1915, MacDonald and Snowden had been the leaders of the ILP. They were pacifists during World War One. In 1921 the ILP came close to affiliating to the Communist International and “contributed” to the new Communist Party such important people as Rajani Palme Dutt, the central political leader of the CPGB until well into the 1960s.

In 1932 the ILP split from the Labour Party (leaving a lot of former members behind). In 1935 the ILP was the leftist remnant of the old party, under the leadership of James Maxton MP, John McGovern MP and Fenner Brockway. The ILP had disaffiliated from the Labour Party over the question of whether its MPs would be under Labour Party or ILP discipline. It had gravitated towards the Stalinist International, and ultimately a big Stalinist faction had split off to join the CPGB.

By 1935 it was something upwards of 5,000 strong, with a handful of MPs, most importantly the Clydeside MP Jimmy Maxton. It had declared for a Fourth International (though its affiliation throughout the 1930s would be with the international association of “Right Communists” — the German Brandlerites, the US Lovestoneites, etc). A Trotskyist fraction had developed in the ILP, led by CLR James.

The ILP had never developed politically beyond a left centrism in which the elements of reformism, pacifism and revolutionary Marxism were incoherently mixed together. As the CP moved further and further to the right — by 1938, advocating a coalition government with “progressive Tories” like Winston Churchill, it was to the right of the right-wing of the Labour Party — the ILP was the most important group on the British left. The working class mobilisation in 1936 to stop the fascists marching into Jewish East London, which deliberately cultivated myth attributes to the CPGB, was first and foremost the work of the ILP.

What about entryism into the Labour Party? Trotsky favoured entryism in the Labour Party. The first British Trotskyist group had emerged from the CPGB in late 1931 when a small handful of Trotskyists — led by Reg Groves and Harry Wicks — had split off. After our movement’s break with the Communist International in response to the Stalinist’s peaceful surrender to Hitler in Germany — Jan-March 1933 — Trotsky suggested to this British group that they should join the Labour Party. Not fully emancipated from the CP’s Third Period sectarianism towards the Labour Party, and afflicted with propagandist passivity, they refused. (By the late 30s the leaders of this group were in the Labour Party, not as entryists but as citizens — and Reg Groves was a correspondent of The New Leader, the US social democratic paper run by those right wing social democrats who had split off from the left-moving Socialist Party with which the American Trotskyists had merged for a while in the mid-1930s. [See James P Cannon’s History of American Trotskyism]).

In 1935 Trotsky probably still had some hope left of winning the ILP to his politics. He expressed the opinion, obliquely, that the basis of their split from the Labour Party had been stupid, but he did not propose that the ILP re-join the Labour Party. He did advocate that the ILP, where it was not standing candidates itself, should support Labour Party candidates. (In the 1935 elections, the ILP had supported only some LP candidates, those who had opposed League of Nations sanctions against Italy for its recent invasion of Ethiopia. This was on the ground that serious sanctions imply war, and to call for sanctions was to implicitly call for war).


“Q: Was the ILP correct in running as many candidates as possible in the recent General Election, even at the risk of splitting the vote?

LDT: Yes. It would have been foolish for the ILP to have sacrificed its political programme in the interests of so-called unity, to allow the LP to monopolise the platform as the Communist Party did. We do not know our strength until we test it. There is always a risk of splitting, and of losing deposits but such risks must be taken: otherwise we boycott ourselves.”

To Trotsky it is the norm that, when it is a practical possibility, the revolutionary organisation stands in elections, even if that means letting in the Tory or Liberal — or, for that matter, the fascist.

Decades may, and did, pass during which a group of Marxists work in the Labour Party, either because the Marxists lack numbers, or because the Labour Party is as wide open as it was in the 1970s and 80s, or both, and for that reason let themselves be bound by Labour Party discipline not to stand against the party. We do so for our own reasons, not out of any general principle of deference to the Labour Party or the trade unions, or any general principle that we cannot stand in elections until we have majority support in the working class.

We no longer have any such good grounds to accept the discipline of the Labour Party; and we have never accepted the discipline of the trade unions over our political activity. (The idea of trade-union discipline over our politics is entirely alien to our conceptions of both politics and trade unions.)

What does this picture of Trotsky’s politics on how revolutionary socialists should have behaved in the general election of 1935, say to us about our situation now?

It says that for people with our politics, the fundamental and overriding question is that the Marxist organisation, the bearer of the revolutionary socialist programme, political culture and perspective should exist, should propagate its own politics, should recruit members and build its strength — whatever about the reformist mass working class trade union-based bourgeois workers’ party, and even if the standing of socialist candidates should split the working class vote and let the Tory or Liberal in.

The Marxists do not politically boycott themselves!

The nearest thing to an adequate socialist organisation in Britain when Trotsky wrote was the ILP, within which the Trotskyist faction functioned openly. Trotsky responds with some vehemence to the idea that the ILP — not the Trotskyist movement but the left centrist ILP, of whose actual tactics in the election, voting for some Labour candidates only, Trotsky disapproved — should not stand candidates.

What about the idea, which has arisen amongst us, that a prerequisite for standing a socialist candidate against Labour is the previous endorsement of that candidate by a sizeable section of the local trade unionists and even of the local Labour Party? It plays no part in Trotsky’s assessment. No part at all.

It is plain he assumes that the trade unions nationally and locally, and most trade unionists, will vote for the Labour Party and against the ILP candidate.

For Trotsky the question resolves into “boycotting” or not “boycotting” ourselves politically, programmatically.

The election is an opportunity for agitation and propaganda, and for educating, recruiting, grouping and regrouping the workers around the socialist organisation. It is an opportunity to make the socialist organisation a better and more powerful lever in its broad labour movement — in the first place, trade union — work.

He accepts that sometimes a socialist candidate will split the vote and let the Tory in. But we are not, he has said elsewhere, inspectors-general of history or of the broad labour movement — we are militants fighting to build an organisation that will be able to make our politics into a living, shaping force in the subsequent development of the mass labour movement.

Trotsky knew the part socialist candidacies had played in spreading socialism and in winning trade unions for independent working class politics in the past.

Even if J & S did not, as they do, muddle and confuse all the concepts employed in ‘The Case for Revolutionary Realism’, for people in Trotsky’s tradition nothing they say would amount to a serious argument against standing socialist candidates even against the old Labour Party in one of its better periods (1935). It is a sobering thought to imagine what Trotsky would say if he came upon us now, faced with the Blairite party, engaged in this very odd discussion! (On the other hand, for our side of the argument, it is an encouraging thought to imagine what he’d say to J & S and their co-thinkers!)

Even at the beginning of the 1980s, when the Labour Party was wide open to socialists, the Labour Party in the country had been bitterly at odds with the recent Labour Government, and virtually everything we needed to do could be done openly and through the Labour Party — even then we never argued that it would be wrong in principle to stand candidates against the Labour Party.

For example, the General Election of 1979 was one of the great turning points in 20th century British history. It put the Thatcherites in power, with all that followed from that. We understood and publicly explained what was at stake. We denounced the stupid sectarian antics of the left coalition called Socialist Unity which stood a few candidates. We organised the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory which, under the Labour Party banner, stood socialist candidates who openly criticised and condemned the outgoing Labour Government and used the SCLV literature we produced in their campaigning. (We used as our model the Communist Party in the early 20s, when Communists were still able to stand under the Labour banner).

In 1992, the Kinnockite Labour Party was gestating the Blairite coup. We opposed the anti-Labour candidacy of the Militant in the Walton by-election, a candidacy backed by virtually all the left. One of us wrote a series of bitter polemics against the antics of the sectarians in Walton. Even then we wrote in one of the polemics that opposing anti-Labour candidates for us was not and never could be more than a matter of calculations that in the given situation it did not make political sense.

The survey above of LDT’s comments on the 1935 General Election does not deal with the question of trade union affiliation to the Labour Party. Trotsky did not want the unions to disaffiliate. But Trotsky’s keynote idea, that you do not boycott yourself and your own politics, together with his hard-boiled attitude to the likelihood that socialist candidates will sometimes do damage to the trade union-based mass “workers’ party”, by splitting the working class vote and letting the Liberal or Tory in — does, in fact, amount to a pretty clear implied statement. If union support for socialist candidates led to disaffiliation he would have had the same attitude to that as he takes to trade union splits resulting from right wing reaction to militancy and the growth of the influence of Marxists.

You do not boycott yourself politically even to avoid episodic damage to the broader labour movement. That idea indicates an implied attitude to what we are discussing.


J & S cling to the “norms” that made sense to us when we did much of our political work in and through the Labour Party — long after everything that dictated that approach has changed radically and when changed circumstances have given that approach a radically different class content.

In effect, they say, the revolutionary socialists should accept the political discipline of the Blairite party in order to preserve the unions’ links with the Party!

For J & S, not standing in elections, not challenging the Labour Party, even the Blairite New Labour, is the norm.

They say they will make an exception if a candidate with strong union backing is blocked by the Blairites. Then the unions may be asked to give money for the campaign against the official Labour candidate — but not otherwise!

What is wrong with that? It puts up an enormously high threshold of trade union support to be reached before we can get, or try to get — right now that is all it means in practice — union support against New Labour. For anything more than an odd, freakish such candidate to be possible, the process of unions separating from New Labour must already have gone a very long way.

Their conclusion for now and for the calculable future is that we accept — and defend against “the sectarians” — the Blairite/union-leader status quo.

We give “the unions” a veto on what we do in politics! We are bound by the discipline of the Labour-TU relationship! We give the Blairite party a veto on what we do to fight them!

And if socialists or labour-representation candidates stand? We say to them — hands off union funds! All you want is for “the working class organisation to hand over money to somebody else”.

It all adds up to a position that the Marxist political organisation should subordinate itself to the status quo and go on letting the Blair Labour Party have a monopoly on “labour movement” candidates. Indefinitely.

That would be suicidal nonsense!

Repeat: the norm is for the Marxist organisation to stand where it can in elections.

On principle we reject all restrictive bourgeois state rules that require that a candidate must have the prior endorsement of a sizeable number of electors.

We reject on principle all rules that demand of a candidate a deposit which may be “lost” if the candidate gets too few votes.

We do not do that to then accept that a self-imposed, prohibitively high threshold of trade-union support can be used to inhibit revolutionary socialists standing in elections. Trotsky said it: “we do not boycott ourselves”.

The measure of J & S’s politics is that this is exactly what they want socialists to do.

In practice all sorts of tactical questions, including local trade-unionist support, would come into our calculations. But in principle we accept no minimum of trade-union support without which we cannot act or support others acting. Election work can help us win support from trade unionists which we did not have before.


If the trade unions unanimously or in their big majority made a co-ordinated effort to reclaim the Labour Party, to end their subordinate donkey-to-rider relationship to the Blairites, then a great deal could be done. The election of new trade union leaders has opened up possibilities of a fight here that for years simply did not exist. We urge the trade unions to fight to assert themselves in the Labour Party. We urge the more combative unions to do that even if the majority lags behind and tries to use the call for “unity” to hold them back.

The results of a big union fight-back would certainly be to split the New Labour Party; and almost certainly the “reclaimed Labour Party” would shed the big majority of the PLP. It would be in effect the foundation of a new trade union based Labour Party.

Short of that concerted action, or a sudden miraculous change of heart or collapse of self-belief in the dominant Blairites, the trade unions are tied to an explicitly pro-bourgeois parliamentary party — to a big bourgeois party in the narrowest and most clear cut day-to-day sense.

The idea that nothing has changed except that the PLP reflects the change of the unions to “business unionism” is, as a historical account of how ‘New Labour’ replaced Old Labour, plain nonsense. Even in terms of “business unionism” this government is more or less entirely on the bosses’ side — with the bourgeoisie and against the business unionists.

There is no partnership with the business unionists, such as there was between previous Labour governments and the reformist trade unions. The only way you can argue otherwise — as for example Polly Toynbee does regularly in the Guardian — is to point to things like low inflation, employment figures and the minimum wage, and claim that these are great gifts from the New Labour Government to the labour movement.

A symptom of J & S’s one-sidedly trade unionist point of view is the strange deployment of a quotation from Trotsky — the first of their epigraphs — in which Trotsky is concerned with the revolutionary organisation’s relations to the trade unions. It has nothing to do with the points in dispute! Nothing whatsoever.

The first quotation at the top of their piece is strung together by way of making very large cuts in Trotsky’s texts. Because so much that they say rests on a conflation of the trade unions and the Labour Party, it is worth while to quote here what was cut from Trotsky. We allege confusion, not chicanery.

Trotsky: “A party’s inability to establish correct relations with the working class reveals itself most glaringly in the area of the trade union movement … “ — so far J & S. This is how Trotsky continues.

“That is why I consider it necessary to dwell on this question. The trade unions were formed during the period of the growth and rise of capitalism. They had as their task the raising of the material and cultural level of the proletariat and the extension of its political rights. This work, which in England lasted over a century, gave the trade unions tremendous authority among the workers. The decay of British capitalism, under the conditions of decline of the world capitalist system, undermined the basis for the reformist work of the trade unions. Capitalism can continue to maintain itself only by lowering the standard of living of the working class. Under these conditions trade unions can either transform themselves into revolutionary organisations or become lieutenants of capital in the intensified exploitation of the workers.

The trade-union bureaucracy, which has satisfactorily solved its own social problem, took the second path. It turned all the accumulated authority of the trade unions against the socialist revolution and even against any attempts of the workers to resist the attacks of capital and reaction. From that point on, the most important task of the revolutionary party became the liberation of the workers from the reactionary influence of the trade-union bureaucracy. In this decisive field, the Comintern revealed its complete inadequacy.

In 1926-27, especially in the period of the miners’ strike and the General Strike, that is, at the time of the greatest crimes and betrayals of the General Council of the Trades Union Congress, the Comintern obsequiously toadied to the highly placed strikebreakers, cloaked them with its authority in the eyes of the masses and helped them remain in the saddle. That is how the Minority Movement was struck a mortal blow. Frightened by the results of its own work, the Comintern bureaucracy went to the extreme of ultraradicalism.” (After this comes the second part of the J & S quote: “The fatal excesses of the ‘third period’ were due to the desire of the small Communist minority to act as though it had a majority behind it… No better favour could be done for the trade union bureaucracy. Had it been within its power to award the Order of the Garter, it should have so decorated all the leaders of the Comintern and Profintern.”).

But Trotsky continues thus: “As was said, the trade unions now play not a progressive but a reactionary role. Nevertheless, they still embrace millions of workers. One must not think that the workers are blind and do not see the change in the historic role of the trade unions. But what is to be done: The revolutionary road is seriously compromised in the eyes of the left wing of the workers by the zigzags and adventures of official communism. The workers say to themselves: The trade unions are bad, but without them it might be even worse. This is the psychology of one who is in a blind alley.”

And their quote on “revolutionary realism” is cut in the middle of the sentence. “This presupposes a policy of revolutionary realism, equally removed from opportunistic vagueness and sectarian aloofness.”

“Opportunistic vagueness” is not a bad description of what J & S seem to be advocating…

The bits J & S cut are, like the bits they quoted, not to the direct point in our discussion. They are, however, very much to the point of a more general issues behind this discussion: the difference between the revolutionary Marxist and the left trade union point of view.

We are not in the same sort of historical period as Trotsky. That fact has to be taken into account when we evaluate these words of Trotsky for what they may tell us about our situation. But much of the picture he paints of the nature and limitations of trade unions and of the trade union bureaucracy is as true for us as it was for Trotsky.

The role of the trade union bureaucracy in the victory and consolidation of Thatcher in the country; in the victory and consolidation of Blairism in the Labour Party; and in creating the self-induced prostration of the trade unions before Blair and Brown for so long, is known to us all. Solidarity published an editorial nearly a year ago arguing that the fundamental significance of the emerging “left” trade union leaders lies not in their “leftism”, which by no means is to be trusted, but in the fact that their emergence signals the revival of real trade unionism, of unions that pursue the interests of their members (however inadequately).

The quotation from Trotsky used as their second epigraph in CRR (which is mislabelled and misdated: it is taken from In The Middle Of the Road, November 1935) is from their point of view scarcely less maladroitly chosen than the one we have been discussing.

Trotsky pictures a Labour Party that “bases itself on the trade unions”, a Labour Party that has such close relations with the trade unions and the labour movement that one’s attitude to the Labour Party “almost coincides” with — is pretty much the same thing as — one’s attitude towards “the masses and the class”. He pictures a world in which if the ILP has fractions in the trade unions, it will, he thinks, automatically have a Labour Party dimension.

The Labour Party we are discussing, and the trade unions, and we ourselves, do not live in such a world!

The use of that quotation suggests that J & S think the situation which Trotsky describes, or something close enough to it to make Trotsky’s quotation relevant, exists now. Does it? In fact isn’t it downright ridiculous to assert or imply that anything like the situation Trotsky depicts exists now, and that the issues in play in our discussion are the issues that Trotsky outlines?

The dominant forces in the New Labour Party and its government are organically tied not to the working class, “the masses”, or to the trade unions, but to the big bourgeoisie. There is none of the ambivalence of the past. For over 6 years they have used repressive Tory legislation to curb the labour movement.

Contrast the 1945 Labour government’s immediate moves to repeal the repressive legislation that the Tories had introduced in 1927 after the defeat of the General Strike. Or, for that matter, the moves by the newly elected Liberal Government of 1906 to legislate to undo the effects of the Taff Vale judgement — which made trade unions financially liable for damages inflicted on an employer by strike action; and their eventual legislation to undo the Osborn judgement of 1909, which worked against trade union financing of the new Labour Party.

Of course no one should idealise the past of the Labour Party: in 1951 the government brought dockers’ leaders to court under unrepealed wartime legislation. The point is that, even the worst of the old Labour leaders, even the Gaitskellites, who ruled the Party from 1955 to early 1963, felt some commitment to the labour movement, and to egalitarian social reform.

The allegiance of Blair and those who dominate New Labour lie elsewhere — entirely and unambivalently. In terms of the past, the best you could say of Blair and company is that they correspond politically to the Liberal Party/Radicals of around 1890.

Today things are not remotely as they are in the picture Trotsky draws or takes for granted. Certainly the trade unions could do a great deal more in the Labour Party, as we continue to urge them to, and they still give Labour a lot of money. But the idea that the existing relations of the trade unions, the trade union bureaucracy, and Blair’s Labour Party to the working class “masses” amount to the same thing as painted in the picture by LDT in 1935 — that is simply ridiculous (as is the pedantry of J & S, attempting to assert on the basis of one resolution carried at Labour “Conference” that the Labour Party rank and file can as of old counterpose itself to the government).

What are we discussing? What to do in the trade unions about the hi-jacking of the trade union party by the Blairites. How to evaluate the Blair Labour Party. How to combine urging that the unions should fight within the Labour Party with challenges to the Labour Party in elections. By way of this quotation, these issues are presented as if they add up to the same question as how the revolutionary socialist organisation relates to the basic organisations of the proletariat — the trade unions as trade unions!

This mixing up of trade union and political organisation (in fact, both the Labour Party and the AWL itself) is central to J & S’s confusion. The substitution of what Trotsky says on the trade unions — and on the CP’s crazy Third Period attitude to them — for an answer in our discussion about the Labour Party now, is a graphic illustration of the way they conflate and mix up quite distinct things.

They take a trade unionist and not a revolutionary Marxist point of view — and then they talk about the Labour Party as if it is exactly the same thing as the unions!

The way they draw an equals sign between Blairite Labour and the trade unions now would have been utterly wrong and politically crippling even when the old Labour Party was at its best in terms of representing the labour movement and the working class. Reread what Trotsky says about the ILP standing against the 1935 LP!

They quote Trotsky in order to imply an analogy between AWL and the SWP now, in the SA etc., and the ILP and the Communist Party in the early 30s. SWamPophobia is, for political health, too big a part of their motivating concerns.

“Yet for a long period, the ILP attached much greater importance to the ‘united front’ with the insignificant Communist Party than to work in mass organisations”

The point is not well taken.

AWL has attached much greater importance to the “united front” with the SWP than to work in mass organisations? Where? When? Which mass organisations? The trade unions? Preposterous nonsense!

By the “mass organisations” that are neglected they mean the Labour Party? Then they should say that and argue for it. In terms of membership involvement — not to mention working class involvement — the Labour Party is not a mass organisation. And in terms of even a passive membership, they have been losing tens of thousands in the last period. For example, the number of people who attended the recent AGM of the Nottingham South Labour Party, Alan Simpson’s constituency note, was just eight!

Certainly, the Blair LP still has electoral support, but from the point of view of socialists investing their resources in LP structures, it matters how many or who attend meetings, or can be expected to. A “correct policy” which would focus our efforts on powerless resolution-peddling to desultory, infrequent, and small meetings of elderly hold-outs is, in real life, not so “correct” after all.

Trotsky does not say that the ILP — still less the Trotskyist group — should pay no attention to the CP. Indeed it was out of the CPGB that the first Trotskyist nucleus had been won. Until mid-1933 the Trotskyist organisations everywhere had confined themselves almost exclusively to an orientation to the Communist Parties.

Even if one describes the Socialist Alliance as a united front, our relations with the SWP have had nothing in common with the ILP’s relation with the CP!

For this discussion to be useful we need to disentangle the stuff in CRR about Marxist tactics in the trade unions from what we are discussing — our policy in the trade unions about how they should relate to politics, to the Labour Party and to independent socialist candidacies.


“Marxist trade union tactics have to start from the reality of the class as it is, rather than as we would like it to be. We ground ourselves in the collective discipline of working class organisation and struggle, and we seek to hammer out a line of march, a set of tasks around which we group militants and fight.”

Again, this is a crass example of substituting a trade unionist, “citizens of the existing labour movement”, point of view for the outlook of revolutionary socialists. Of course, we “start from the reality of the class as it is”. Of course we “seek to hammer out … tasks around which we group militants”.

But what does “ground ourselves in the collective discipline of working class organisation” mean in the context of our discussion? What can it mean?

In the trade union struggles, we “ground ourselves” for certain things in the union’s discipline. Where else? And in fact there are exceptions even to that. In certain circumstances, in the interests of the struggle as defined by the revolutionary organisation, we act entirely contrary to the union’s discipline, which too often is the bureaucrats’ discipline! We have seen Trotsky discuss this in “Communism & Syndicalism”.

There might be circumstances when we would not accept the discipline even of rank and file trade unionists, fellow workers, taking strike action in what they saw as their own best interests. In a racist strike, for example. And racist strikes have happened.

It would be a purely tactical question whether you would cross a racist picket line, that is, scab on your racist fellow workers, or stand outside the gate with a placard denouncing the strike.

When, early in 1968, London dockers struck work and marched in support of the racist Tory Enoch Powell, militant dockers who disagreed with them faced just that choice. For example, take the case of Terry Barrett, Secretary of the London Docks Liaison Committee, the rank and file organisation.

Just a few months earlier, Barrett had led these men in a heroic ten-week strike against the Labour government’s plans to reorganise the ports in the bosses’ interest. What should he have done when they marched for Powell? Accepted their “discipline” in an action which they thought was in self defence but he knew to be shameful, stupid, and in the long run suicidal?

In fact, he “scabbed”. He made a point of crossing their picket line. One may think it would have been better if he had stood at the gate with a placard denouncing the strike. One of us did think that at the time. But that was only a question of tactics.

In the substance of the thing, Barrett was 100% right. Had any action been attempted by, let us say, his union branch, to “discipline” him for scabbing, we would have defended him. On what grounds? That there was something involved that was higher and more important than trade union discipline!

In that case “we” could not accept the “discipline” even of striking workers who at that time were the most militant and combative trade unionists in Britain. So what exactly do J & S think they are talking about?

In the context they seem to imply that for big-P Politics we “ground ourselves in the discipline” of both the status quo in the Labour Party — which of course is the Blairite status quo — and the dominant tempo of the broad labour movement in politics, in this case of the trade union leaders in the Labour Party, and of the Labour Party parliamentarians to whom they are tied.

If this is not what they mean to say, or half-mean to half-say, it is difficult to decipher what they think they mean.

It is a recipe for political suicide!

Different things are conflated in their presentation of the issues.

Certainly, we can ultimately do nothing without the working class. For mass actions we are perforce tied to its “discipline” and its tempo. We always put forward perspectives for the working class and the broad labour movement.

But in our practical immediate politics, that is, in what the revolutionary socialist organisation says, does and urges those it influences to do, the only “discipline” we accept is our own collective discipline.

Accepting the discipline of the workers’ movement in politics would in virtually all cases now mean ceasing in politics to be what we are — political pioneers of working class politics.

It would mean politically liquidating the organisation into the broad labour movement.

The tenor of “The Case for Revolutionary Realism” (CRR) implies cutting ourselves down from revolutionary socialists into trade unionists: its core point of view, if they understand what they say and mean it, is that of trade unionists, not revolutionary Marxists.

Implicitly they are advocating that AWL should cut itself down into a political pressure group in the unions.

Do they mean what they seem to say? Do they ‘forget’ that the broad labour movements are bureaucratised, class-collaborationist, at best reformist, labour movements? Of course, “in general” they don’t! But in this exposition, yes they do.

Obviously, Marxists will try to keep within the rules of labour movement organisations. But were we to accept the existing movement’s “discipline” in any spirit other than accepting formalities interpreted flexibly and intelligently so as neither to prohibit the activities specific to ourselves nor to involve us in needless conflict with the trade unionists we want to influence and re-educate, then we could not work to transform that movement by, where necessary, counterposing ourselves to the union’s dominant politics and modes of operation.

That is often true even on narrowly trade union questions; it is more or less always true in politics.

We are both citizens of existing labour movements and also, simultaneously, citizens of those labour movements we exist to shape and create: citizens of a labour movement that will not exist, apart from us and a few others, until we have radically transformed the existing movements.

We exist in the tension between this, so to speak, dual citizenship — citizenship in both the labour movements now and in the reconstructed and politically transformed labour movements of the future.

We take account of the discipline and the tempo of the existing movement, otherwise we are political fools. But we are neither confined to, nor defined by those things.

What we seem to be faced with in J & S’s document is people going beyond our characteristic concern with the existing movement, in which we “accept the discipline” etc. in order to radically transform the movement, into an urge to merge, subsume, collapse AWL into that movement. These are two very different, and quite incompatible, things.


“A rational perspective requires a ‘concrete analysis of a concrete situation’.”

Yes indeed!

They present “the basic facts”:

“The Labour affiliated trade unions encompass the overwhelming majority of the organised working class in industry, and the bulk of low paid workers in the public sector. At the same time a decisive majority of class-conscious workers continue to vote for and support the Labour Party. Meanwhile the revolutionaries are a tiny minority with extremely tenuous connections to most of the class. The Labour Party has won two landslide election victories and looks certain to win the next. In England and Wales socialist candidates get an average of less than 2% of the vote. No more votes than any left wing challenge over the last 30 years. In Scotland that figure is 7%”.

But this is a broad-brush description, not a “concrete analysis of a concrete situation”. It ignores many things that “concrete analysis” could not afford to ignore, such, for instance, as the falling-off in old-Labourite working-class support for Blair in the last general election. Their “concrete analysis” loses this in the phrase: “At the same time the decisive majority of class conscious workers continue to vote for and support the Labour Party”, as if voting Labour were a function of their class consciousness!

They ignore the fact that only a fairly small minority of industrial workers, and a tiny proportion of young workers, are in the unions, and the other important fact here that industrial workers constitute only a minority of overall trade union membership.

Not only do J & S over-egg it a bit with their talk of the overwhelming majority of class-conscious workers choosing to back Labour, and in implying that their doing that is a function of their being class-conscious. While being severely precise in their figure for Socialist Alliance results in elections, they use a general phrase — “the overwhelming majority of the organised working class in industry” — to hide the reality that the unions are not the working class.

Worse than that. They paint a picture of “Labour” and the trade unions forming an overwhelming mass compared to “the revolutionaries”. The point? The point seems to be that it is hopeless to step outside the concerns, structures and “discipline” of that mass.

Develop that idea a little bit further along its own trajectory and the conclusion must be that it is hopeless to be revolutionary socialists in this situation.

The labour movement as it is, is everything, the revolutionaries, and Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty, nothing.

Where their picture is contradicted by facts, as in Scotland, they note: “In Scotland the figure is 7%” — and hurry on.

What is most surprising is that they seem to forget that this discussion of ours is happening because the long-stable block of “Labour” and the unions has been undermined and destabilised by the hijacking of the Labour Party and the record of the New Labour government.

We provided a “concrete analysis” and a comprehensive one in “A workers’ voice in politics” (WVP). They ignore most of it and instead devote themselves to attitude-mongering and cloudy philosophising. Why?

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