Labour democracy and the fight for a workers' government (1980)

Submitted by martin on 1 September, 2009 - 2:11 Author: Sean Matgamna

Introduction to the December 1980 pamphlet published by Socialist Organiser, "Labour democracy and the fight for a workers' government".

This pamphlet contains a selection of articles from the newspaper Socialist Organiser. The Organiser is published fortnightly by a national network of supporters' groups, consisting of individuals in the Labour Party and trade unions whose politics cover a wide range on the far Left.

Socialist Organiser has played an important role in the labour movement in the last period. We initiated the Rank and File Mobilising Committee, which united most of the Labour Left to defend the decisions of the 1979 Brighton conference on Labour democracy, and helped win victory for reselection at Blackpool in 1980. And we initiated the Women's Fightback: movement and newspaper,

Socialist Organiser is dedicated to the following basic propositions:

- That a socialist society, in which the economy is owned collectively by the producers who live in a self-controlling and self-administering socialist democracy, is what we want as the alternative to capitalism - which is a system of exploitation of the vast majority by a small class who own the means of production They use their ownership of the means of production to extract and store up wealth for themselves, not hesitating, for example, to put two million people on the dole if it is necessary for that purpose.

- That here and now the alternatives are either the continued deterioration of the working class itself as capitalism rots around us, or such a socialist system.

- That only the working class can create such a system, by taking control of society out of the hands of the capitalists.

- That for this to become possible, the existing labour movement - Labour Party and trade unions - must transform themselves organisationally, by a process of democratisation and by breaking the undemocratic power of cliques, bureaucrats, and uncontrollable Parliamentarian elites within the organisations of the labour movement.

- That, simultaneously, the labour movement must re-arm itself politically with the ideas and the immediate goal of a revolutionary socialist transformation of society.

- That because socialism is impossible until the working class acts to realise it, and because there is only one working class and one mass labour movement, revolutionary socialists must work and organise within the existing labour movement, built by many decades and even centuries of working class struggle, to help the movement achieve this political and organisational self-renovation,

- That if those who hold to the basic ideas of revolutionary socialism refuse to do this, they condemn themselves to sterility, by way of impotent sideline carping at the movement as it has been shaped by history so far, and to sectarian irrelevance in the irreplaceable work of changing the movement.

- That there are in stark logic only two alternatives: either to fight to change the existing labour movement, including its organic political wing, the Labour Party. Or, to adopt the project of building one's own 'pure' labour movement from the ground up, in parallel to the one the working class has so far created. And therefore that those who reject the former, and, implicitly, accept the latter, are in fact pessimistic and defeatist about the prospects facing the labour movement in the next historic period... no matter how 'left' and 'revolutionary' be their talk and their view of what they themselves are, and however 'intransigent' and 'uncompromising' their denunciations of the existing labour movement are.

For if we do not, in the relatively short period ahead, succeed in reorganising and politically transforming the existing labour movement, which is the only mass labour movement, and which holds the allegiance of millions of the most advanced workers, and if we fail to win it for revolutionary socialist politics, methods, and perspectives, then the working class will face a historic defeat. Even if we kick out the Tories -as we have the strength to do, for now - we will, as in 1974, when we kicked out Heath, have only a politically bankrupt (Foot/Healey-led) labour movement as our 'alternative' to the Tories.

- That therefore there is great urgency about the work of organising a non-sectarian and anti-sectarian left wing in the labour movement, to help it make itself ready to answer the needs of the situation which the working class faces as capitalism declines and rots.

Because such a left wing must unite the revolutionary left around a perspective of winning the existing labour movement to revolutionary socialism, it must also be a left wing which fights (by reason and argument) the sectarians who counterpose political shibboleths not in consonance with the class struggle or who counterpose their own organisations to those of the mass labour movement in a way which is destructive of the work that needs to be done.

In addition, Socialist Organiser believes:

That this Left must set itself the goal of winning the labour movement to fight immediately to drive the Tories out and install a Workers' Government. This will differ from the Labour Governments so far in being based directly on the organisations of the labour movement, being under the labour movement's direct control (at least to a serious extent), and fighting to serve the working class interest against the bourgeoisie

That the fight to democratise the labour movement-the Labour Party, and the trade unions too- is the fight to make such a Workers' Government a possibility. If we drive through the Brighton and Blackpool decisions on reselection, if we subordinate the Parliamentary Labour Party to the labour movement, and if we get a serious proportion of the votes for electing the Labour leader (i.e., if Labour has a Parliamentary majority, the Prime Minister), and if we succeed in politically re-arming the labour movement with radical working-class socialist policies, then such a government will be attainable.

The articles reprinted here are a contribution to educating and organising the hard left wing current we need.

Socialist Organiser was started two years ago, in September 1978, as a campaigning paper to organise the Left in the Labour Party and the unions on a class struggle programme and on a commitment to fight both the Tory party then pushing towards office and the pink Tories who then held office in the Callaghan-Healey Labour Government.

Initially it was a monthly published solely by the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory, an organisation set up at a national conference in July 1978 of 200 activists from a broad spectrum of the Labour Party and trade union Left.

Our immediate goal was to organise a parallel election campaign within the official Labour campaign. We produced leaflets and broadsheets for distribution in the election campaign by activists and by official Parties (five CLPs used our material to one extent or another).

The leaflets on Ireland, racism, women, and the unions explained the political positions in our 'Where We Stand'. As well as warning against the danger of the return of the Tories, our campaign criticised the Labour government and argued for a commitment to fight for Socialist Organiser's policies whoever won the election.

Thus we contributed to the fight to keep the Tories out, but in such a way as to organise and politically arm a section of the movement to be better able to oppose the inevitably anti-working class policies and activities of a new Labour Government under Healey and Callaghan.

We tried to give socialists who had good reason to be disgusted with the Wilson-Callaghan-Healey government a perspective of struggle against them, within the vitally necessary effort to mobilise the labour movement to keep the ultra reactionary Tories out.

Our achievements in the election were limited, but only by our small forces. In principle we proved it possible to mount a distinct left-wing campaign within the Labour Party's campaign -for the first time since the Independent Labour Party's break with the Labour Party in 1932 or maybe even for the first time since the early 1920s when the young Communist Party and the Labour Party were still organisationally entwined and some CP members stood on the Labour ticket. (The sharp organisational breaking point was in 1925 with the definitive rejection of CP affiliation at the Liverpool conference of the Labour Party).

Our campaign was therefore, despite its limitations, a very important experience for the Left and the labour movement, the harbinger, perhaps, of a new relationship between the broad Labour Party and the revolutionary left. If more of the revolutionary left would abandon its sectarian self-exclusion from the mass political party of the British working class movement, we could do much more to make it such a harbinger.

There were two alternative ways in which self-proclaimed revolutionaries dealt with the tact that the official Labour alternative to the Tories was Callaghanism: the Socialist Workers' Party's way and that of the International Marxist Group/Socialist Challenge. It is worth while examining what those organisations did in some detail, for their performance in the election is a good illustration of what 'the cancer of sectarianism' amounts to in practice. And sectarianism is an important feature of the far left in Britain now.

The Socialist Workers' Party. which has spent the last 11 or 12 years proclaiming Labour to be a spent force, not too far from being stone dead, went on an anti-Tory binge, with the intentionally implied message that Callaghan/ Healey were unconditionally better than the Tories. This was exactly what the official Labour policy said too.

It may have been true that the Tories were worse than the Labour government, but the problem for the working class, for the labour movement, and for serious socialists, was that the policies of the Labour Government, which in the election were the official Labour Party policies, were not an acceptable alternative to the Tories, and had nothing to offer but more of the (milder) Callaghan-Healey version of squeezing the workers with cuts, austerity, and unemployment, to pay for the broken-down state of British capitalism.

The responsibility of socialists was to find a way of arguing for a real socialist alternative to both Thatcher and Callaghan at the same time as participating in-the labour movement's fight to keep out the Tories.

Not to do that was to become reluctant Callaghanites for the duration of the election. To rely on shallow anti-Toryism and say or do nothing about the problem of Labour's policies was to be a-political for the duration of the election.

The SWP's leading publicist, Paul Foot, put it with unaccustomed frankness in the Londoner's Diary of the Evening Standard: "For the next three weeks I am a strong Labour supporter. I am very anxious that a Tory government shouldn't be returned. and I shall be going around to meetings we are having telling everyone to vote Labour".

Anti-Toryism is the beginning of wisdom, but for all that it is not much wisdom. And it is also the chief an d only stock-in-trade of the Labour Right. Nut to go beyond general anti-Toryism is to let them off the hook. It is to prove yourself, like the SWP in the election, to be no more than 'peacetime' opponents of the Labour Right and its soft-left accomplices, willing to go along with them as good anti-Tories in a situation as serious as the 1979 election.

Of course, Socialist Worker was faced with the dilemma and the choice of either pursuing the logic of its organisational sectarianism and its ritual denunciation of the Labour Party, and putting up its own candidates (or abstaining) in the election, or politically disavowing itself 'for the duration'.

Its organisational sectarianism ruled out a vigorous, critically socialist, campaign inside the official campaign of the labour movement (the labour movement, not just the Labour Party) - being of that campaign without being limited to the political content given to it by its official leaders. Its sense of the realities of the rank and file of the labour movement and the attitude of militant workers ruled out following the political logic of its 'peace-time' practices and verdict on the Labour Party, and advocating abstention.

Because it was not in a position to offer an alternative to Callaghan-Healey, it could only offer - ' for the next three weeks' - Callaghan-Healey as the alternative to Thatcher!

Political reality, whose complexities the sectarians try to deny by creating for their own consolation a simplistic world where everything is black or white, yes or no, nevertheless can play brutal pranks on them, and in serious situations it normally does.

The other approach was that of the too-hopefully named 'Socialist Unity' campaign, consisting essentially of supporters of the IMG and its paper Socialist Challenge, and a few tiny organisations like Big Flame. They stood ten candidates on a political platform considerably 'softer' and less revolutionary than the politics the SCLV mounted its campaign around. Everywhere they garnered only a handful of votes.

Because their political ideas came packaged with a central proposal to break labour movement ranks and vote for an obviously hopeless candidate, it is unlikely that even their propaganda work did much good: it may even have prejudiced some serious people in the labour movement against basic revolutionary socialist ideas.

Essentially 'Socialist Unity' was a self-promoting gimmick by the supporters of Socialist Challenge. It was sectarian and irresponsible because it was counterposed to the class-struggle political logic of the situation, and ignored the relationship of political forces in the labour movement in 1979. The evidence suggests that their motive was, basically, factional competition with the SWP; but even here, if votes were important, and they were, the Socialist Unity campaign was a resounding failure.

Both of these alternative approaches to the election were negative proof that the only way to fight the Tories without - "for three weeks" - endorsing Callaghan's record or current policies (the SWP). and at the same time to fight Callaghan without (marginally! ) helping the Tories (Socialist Unity) was the SCLV and SO way - by organising supporters, individuals and local Labour Parties to run a parallel election campaign which fought for a Labour victory in the first place and. in the second, rejection of Callaghan and preparation to fight him in or out of office.

This collection of articles deals with the need to fight the Tories with everything we have got. industrial action. filibustering in Parliament, mass demonstrations. And with what an immediate alternative to the Tory Government must be - a Workers' Government. different from all previous Labour Governments in being directly under the control of the labour movement and fighting consistently to serve its interests.

The struggles for democracy in the Labour Party arc analysed from the point of view of their role in making the possibility of such a government a real one, and as steps towards a radical transformation of the movement.

There is an examination of the state of the economy and a debate for and against the Alternative Economic Strategy which is widely accepted on the Left of the labour movement. John Bloxam and Graham Norwood debate the Common Market. And Ernie Roberts MP discusses rebuilding a mass membership in the Labour Party.

The first instalment of a rolling manifesto, put out in July 1980 by the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party, is criticised, as are those who advocate incomes policies and import controls. A socialist alternative is argued for.

The danger of nuclear war, and the lessons to be brought to the new mass CND movement from the experience of the failure of the last one, are covered. The struggles of women, of gays, and of blacks, are dealt with from the point of view of uniting the working class by fighting against all discrimination, injustice, and oppression within society within the working class, and within the labour movement.

One of the articles on racism, the call by councillor Patrick Kodikara which appeared on the front page of the first Socialist Organiser in September 1978, is especially noteworthy. It made an urgent call for the physical defence of Brick Lane, and the supporters of Socialist Organiser brought hundreds of people there for that defence.

When the National Front announced that it would march to Brick Lane during the Anti-Nazi League Carnival, the serious error made by the SWP leaders of the ANL to continue to treat the Carnival as first priority and not to commit more than a token group of their comrades to the defence of Brick Lane poisoned relations between large sections of the militant blacks in the area and most of the 'white left'. Understandably.

Socialist Challenge, for example, described the Nazi march on Brick Lane - that is, on the black people of the area-as "a provocation"... against the ANL carnival! Socialist Challenge continued to shamelessly defend the ANL's - that is, the SWP's - decision, long after SWP leader Tony Cliff had conceded that perhaps they had made a mistake. Then as in the General Election eight months later, Socialist Challenge's first concern was its foredoomed courtship of the SWP.

We reprint the article not only because we are proud of the work of Socialist Organiser then - though of course we are - but because the incident can perhaps help some people imprisoned by sectarian prejudices, according to which the revolutionaries in the Labour Party do and can do nothing but pass resolutions, while only the 'real revolutionaries' - those who denounce work in the Labour Party - can be responsible about the struggle in the streets and the factories.

Socialist Organiser believes that the class struggle must be fought in the factories, on the streets, in ideological war against the enemies of socialism and the working class inside and outside the labour movement and also in the political institutions of the society we live in. And we have - of course, in a too limited way so far - showed that membership of the Labour Party in no way hinders any of these activities.

The final article in the collection explains Socialist Organiser's drive to organise the class-struggle left in the labour movement We publish this collection, as a more or less comprehensive presentation of the conceptions, perspectives, and politics for which Socialist Organiser fights to win the labour movement (and, in the first place, the Left in the Labour Party and the unions). We hope that it will be a useful tool for accomplishing that work.

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