A case study in centrism

Submitted by Anon on 15 January, 2006 - 11:26

In the last issue of Solidarity, Mordecai Ryan outlined the history
of the ILP
, the main British "centrist" organisation of the 1930s and 40s. Its nearest equivalent in Britain today is the SWP. As mud is a mix of earth and water so centrism is an unstable and almost always incoherent mix of bits of revolutionary Marxist political tradition and aspiration with alien, reformist, etc elements.

But the elements incorporated in any given centrist organisation and the proportion of revolutionary Marxist to other elements vary from organisation to organisation and in a given organisation from time to time.

In the ILP, for example, the ratios of revolutionary to reformist and other elements was different in the 1930s and early '40s from that of the ILP of the later '40s and '50s, after the departure of the parliamentarians. It became much more "revolutionary", while
retaining the political imprecision, the incoherence and the political eclectism common to all centrist organisations.

So too, with today's SWP. In the 1950s, its ancestor, the Socialist Review group, expressed its programme, what it existed to achieve, as a series of proposals for a future Labour government to achieve. From the mid '60s it shifted sharply to the left. From the early '70s, it adopted a sharply sectarian attitude to the Labour Party, then still
the party of the trade unions and of most working class political activists - except in elections when, to quote the late Paul Foot during the 1979 General Election, it became a strong supporter of Labour.

In the last four or five years it has shifted sharply to the right, towards cross class popular front politics and created bizare alliances with George Galloway, long-time "friend" of Saddam Hussein and even with the British offshoot of the "clerical fascist" Muslim Brotherhood.

Today the leader of "Respect", in which the SWP is the main force, George Galloway clowns it up in TV's Big Brother which he has used as a platform to attack women having abortion rights.

In all its phases however - or at any rate from the late '50s - the SWP had the exactly the same attitude as it has now to Marxist principles and Marxist theory. Theory and political principle do not guide politics - as for Marxists they must - but are selected and emphasised, jettisoned or picked up for their estimated usefulness in building the organisation. The "Revolutionary Party" is conceived of as a gang, an entity above politics; and politics exists to serve the needs of the organisation.

The relative predominance of this "organisation-first" and Marxism existing to serve the apparatus of the organisation approach, also varies from organisation to centrist organisation.

One of the most important centrist groups of the 1930s, the American organisation of the one-time leaders of the US Stalinist party, the so-named "Lovestoneites" led by Jay Lovestone, was notorious on the left for being a group of outright political gangsters, whose politics where always at the service of their organisational needs and aspirations. This organisation was linked in the late 1930s to the ILP and to the Palestinian centrist party in which SWP founder Tony Cliff received the political training that he would he would never outgrow, and whose legacy today can be seen in the antics of the right-centrist, once left-centrist SWP.

For this reason, an acquaintance with the centrist organisations of the past, of which in Britain the ILP was the most important, and with the Marxist literature on centrism, is useful and indeed essential.

The following assessment of the ILP during World War Two is reproduced as an illustrative supplement to Mordecai Ryan's article on the ILP. It appeared under the name of Marc Loris, a pseudonym of Jean Van Heijenoort, a French Trotskyists who spent seven years
living in Leon Trotsky's household as his principal secretary. During World War Two he was based in New York, acting as the Secretary of the Fourth International. It has been abridged.

The discontent of the masses of Britain is growing. The workers, the women and adolescents are chained to exhausting labour for wages which are lessened every day by the rising cost of living. The soldiers receive absurdly low pay. The capitalists are amassing greater profits than on the eve of the war. The black market rages. The leaders of the Labour Party and the Stalinists are intoxicated with chauvinism. But in the depths of the masses the war and its miseries are ripening a revolt against the regime.

Under these conditions, the Independent Labour Party last November began "A Socialist Britain Now" campaign. The programme of this campaign, remodelled several times, now has five points: 1. Social Equality, 2. Social Ownership, 3. Liberate the Empire, 4. Help Soviet Russia, 5. Socialist Peace Offensive. These five points are not unattractive, especially compared to the betrayals of the Labourite and Stalinist leaders. However, the best program is worth only the worth of the party which is trying to achieve it. That is why we must engage in a close examination of the present policy of the ILP.

When we read the ILP press and the speeches of its leaders, we soon see that they are permitting a great number of variations on the five points of the program. Thus the first two points are often replaced by the formula "end injustice", which is merely an empty phrase of pre-Marxist socialism. The third point, on the liberation of the Empire, is sometimes used in a revolutionary sense, but it is also sometimes transformed into the reformist formula "Democracy in the Empire" (New Leader, 14 February, 1942). Finally, the party permits equivocal expressions on the war itself. Thus, Brockway contrasts the ILP's programme to "the purely military method" and presents it as "a political contribution to the end of the war" (New Leader, 18 April, 1942). The irreducible opposition of two aims, that of the bourgeoisie and that of the proletariat, is obliterated and becomes a choice between two methods for a common aim, the end of the war. The same defect is present in the speech of [ILP MP] Campbell Stephen on 15 April.

Here is his conclusion:
"If in framing his budget the Chancellor had shown vision and imagination and had sought to bring the economy of this country in line with the economy of Soviet Russia, he would have given hope to the working people who have been called to make all the sacrifices, as well as to the workers in the various parts of the Empire. He would have struck a tremendous blow at the tyranny of Hitlerism in Germany."

What confusion! Stephen asks from the Chancellor "vision and imagination" in the conduct of the war. It is an appeal to the reason of the exploiters, not a call to revolt of the oppressed.

All the ILP's propaganda is permeated with an incurable confusion which manifests itself in all questions, large and small. Each page of their paper contains several examples. We take another one at random. On 7 March the New Leader published an article on [ILP leader] Sir Stafford Cripps in the form of an open letter. This letter to the colleague of Churchill begins "Dear Comrade" and ends "Fraternally yours." Without irony! As for the contents of the article, one sentence suffices: "You delivered a trenchant speech [in 1935] on which I beg you to reflect."

The fundamental fault of the ILP's propaganda is that one finds everything in it: from the revolt of the colonies to "dear comrade" Cripps. In this jumble the opportunist declarations dominate, the revolutionary formulas lose all real content and are transformed into empty phrases. In all its propaganda and activity, the ILP is incapable of distinguishing between reform and revolution.

Sean Matgamna

How to achieve "A Socialist Britain Now"?

The ILP Ieaders insist that their program should be achieved in the very near future. On all occasions they underline the word "Now". Ridley writes on 21 February: "The time for a Socialist Britain is now and the accession to power of a revolutionary party may be nearer than even the most optimistic imagine." On 11 April the New Leader even gives a precise date in writing: "Socialist victory in 1942 is the correct slogan." The real meaning behind these quixotic phrases can be seen from the rest of the same statement of Ridley: he speaks of the "accession to power of a revolutionary party" without daring to name the party, knowing too well how far the words are from reality.

The ILP is still a small party. Naturally, no one would blame it for that. But every worker attracted by the slogan 'A Socialist Britain Now" and by the promises of the ILP has the right to ask the question: How fulfill such a program in such a short time? Unfortunately the ILP leaders, eloquent in praising socialism as against capitalism, have no breath left with which to enunciate concrete ways of reaching the aim.

When its campaign was opened last November, the inaugural appeal of the party defined the campaign thus: "The object of the campaign will be the mobilisation of all the elements in Britain which are in favour of the creation of a Socialist Government." In order to accomplish this "mobilisation" the party announced: "Regional conferences will be held throughout the country, to which delegates from all sections of the labour movement and left organisations will he invited." Four or five of these conferences took place in different towns last March, the most important in London at which a resolution was presented by Brockway, according to which "there was a growing realisation that the present system was doomed and that a better one must be born. The change would have to come from below and the Socialist Britain Campaign gave a lead in the organisation of the workers for the task." Will Morris, who seconded, "said it was clear that the Labour Party had lost faith in socialism as a practicable possibility, and the broad movement aimed at by the campaign had become an absolute necessity."

Since March, the ILP apparently has abandoned the "conference" method. What then are the ILP's other methods for attaining "a Socialist Britain now"? After having read and reread the ILP press, the question remains without an answer. Certainly, there is no lack of grand phrases: "Our task is to carry on the struggle against the Vansittarts and the other enemies of socialism in Britain, to press on with the building of a Movement here which will be capable of making Britain socialist." Writing "Movement" with a capital letter does not, however, bring us an inch nearer the solution of the problem. "We must inspire the people." "We launch our Spring offensive, an offensive which will not die with the Spring, but gather momentum as it rolls forward to the new dawn of international Socialism." Strange as it seems, these are the least vague phrases we find on the question of how to realise a Socialist Britain now. And don't forget that "Socialist victory in 1942 is the correct slogan"!

This confusion in methods only reflects the uncertainty of the goal to be attained. At the initiative of the rank and file and against the opposition of the leadership, the recent ILP national conference undertook to examine the character of "Socialist Britain." "Conference carried by a large majority an amendment which declared that Socialists should co-operate in the creation of a Socialist Britain in which the working class will achieve power through its own organisations, industrial unions and workers' councils which will organise at one and the same time the economic and political might of the working class. This was designed to expand a statement in the original resolution that Socialists should "combine in an effort for the established of a Socialist government." It is clear: the leadership proposed an extremely vague resolution and the rank and file members felt the necessity of giving it indispensable preciseness. Then what happened? Two members of the leadership "strongly opposed the amendment on the ground that it put undue importance on industrial organisation and, by implication, played down the importance of Parliamentary work." This opposition shows how far these "Ieaders" are from revolutionary methods "the importance of Parliamentary work" is opposed to the soviet form of socialist power! But listen to the end: ILP leader "James Maxton wound up the debate on behalf of the National Committee and declared that the point at issue wasn't important." "Socialist victory in 1942 is the correct slogan " but a fundamental problem of the revolution is deemed by the leadership to be "not important''! Underneath their grand radical phrases the ILP leaders have no serious perspective of revolution.

At the national conference of the party in April a resolution was presented for free education from nursery schools to universities and for other democratic demands in that field. The conference included in the resolution an amendment demanding that education should be secular.

Whereupon James Maxton took the floor and declared that the amendment "made the resolution thoroughly impracticable and that an attempt on the part of the Government to satisfy the demand would arouse the bitterest controversy; the Government, therefore, would not even consider the proposals." Who is speaking? Mr Churchill or the leader of a party which wants a "Socialist Britain now"? For Maxton the thing that counts is the present parliamentary mechanism and he must carefully restrict his demands to that which it can give. After Maxton's intervention, the conference voted down the resolution together with the amendment. Then what to think of the programme "a Socialist Britain Now" ? According to Maxton's criteria it is highly "impracticable," for, no doubt, it would arouse the bitterest controversy"!

The Problem of the Labour Party

The Labourite leaders cynically collaborate with the Tories in order to bring the imperialist war to a successful conclusion. The English workers feel more and more ill at ease, but are still organised in the Labour Party. How get out of this impasse? How take a step forward?

To this fundamental question, point of departure of all the problems of the English revolution, the leaders of the ILP bring no answer. By this they betray the purely abstract character of their propaganda. How would a Leninist leadership approach this task? It would address itself to the members of the Labour Party saying: "End the political truce! Break with the representatives of Capitalism ! Labour to power! Here is the program we propose for a Labour government." And the revolutionary leadership would present a series of fundamental demands.

That is the policy which our English comrades propose. The leaders of the ILP lost no time attacking them. In the February 21st New Leader, F. A. Ridley writes:

"ln fact, everything indicates that this war will mark the end of the Labour Party just as the last one did that of its liberal predecessor, despite the valiant efforts of the Trotskyists to revive the fast putrefying corpse. The spirit died in it long ago. After all, even Christ gave up the dead as hopeless after three days!"

What supercilious conceit! And at the same time, what lack of comprehension of revolutionary tasks!

What does Ridley mean when he characterises the Labour Party as a "fast putrefying corpse". Does he mean that the workers are rapidly abandoning this party, to come, for example, to the ILP? Unfortunately, this is not so. Ridley himself recognises this fact;
in the 4 April New Leader he writes: "The British masses are only in the earliest stages of mental emancipation from the mists of reformist illusions." Only in the earliest stages of mental emancipation, not even yet of organisational emancipation! Then what is meant by the fast putrifying corpse"?

In the same article Ridley explains that "the official Labour and trade union movement must surely be a proletarian 'Bourbon"" for it can learn nothing from experience. And he concludes:
"In view of this, we notice with astonishment that the ('Trotskyist') Socialist Appeal is still appealing for a third Labour Government. It will appeal in vain. If anything could drive the disillusioned masses into apathy and/or fascism it would be a third Labour Government fiasco. We fear that the demand is merely another instance of 'revolutionary conservatism': what Lenin said in 1920 under quite other historical circumstances."

There are so many errors and falsifications in these few lines that we must examine the carefully. Firstly, the comrades of the Socialist Appeal have never spoken of a "third Labour government". Instead they have explicitly rejected this formula to better show that a Labour Government must not be permitted to be a repetitionof the unfortunate experiences of the past, but must be a stage in the development of the English revolution. This cheap falsification shows that Ridley is not conducting an honest discussion.

Ridley then affirms that those appealing for a Labour Government "will appeal in vain". Naturally the course of the English revolution is still unknown. But if one can be sure of anything, it is that this course will pass through a Labourite stage and that this stage will be marked by an enormous enrichment of the political experience of the masses and will prepare them to undertake higher tasks. Without doubt, Labourite leaders are "Bourbons" But can the English workers learn nothing from experience? To answer in the negative is to abandon all perspective of revolution. And isn't the first task of a revolutionary party to facilitate the experience of the masses in order then to lead them farther? The present internal situation of the Labour Party only confirms the correctness of the policy of our English comrades. At the recent convention of the Labour Party, an attempt to halt the political truce with other parties was defeated by the very close vote of 1,275,00 to 1,209,000. One can easily imagine what pressure there was from the leadership in favour of maintaining the truce and one can affirm with assurance that the great majority of the rank and file workers are clearly for the end of that truce.

For years one of the ILP's most frequent objections to the Comintern was its "sectarianism". In fact, it complained even more bitterly of the "sectarianism" than of the opportunism. But the ILP's present attitude towards the Labour Party shows that it understood nothing of the "sectarian" errors of the Comintern. Towards the Labour Party the ILP takes an ultimatistic attitude which resembles that of the Comintern towards the German Social Democracy [in the early 1930s, when Hitler was driving for power] . As every one now knows that policy was the principal reason for Hitler's success. Does Ridley hope to win the English workers for the revolution by repeating the ill-famed words of [German CP leaders] Thaelmann and Remmelle?

Under the grand ultimatistic phrases, however, the deep seated opportunism of these people becomes evident. The clearest example is the electoral policy of the ILP. There is a Liberal-Labour-Tory electoral truce in the by-elections. The ILP has put up some candidates against Tories and made important successes (from 15 to 29 per cent of the votes). But the ILP does not oppose Labour candidates. Why? Since Labour candidates run without Tory or Liberal opposition, no one can argue than an ILP candidate would help reaction. Therefore a Marxist party could, in general, oppose its candidates to the Labourite candidates in these by-elections. Naturally, the rule is not obligatory in all cases and often such a party could answer yes or no to the question, according to local circumstances. But for the ILP it should be logically necessary to run candidates. It proclaims that the Labour Party is a "fast putrefying corpse" and that it is reactionary to call on this party to take power. Hence for the ILP it would be obligatory to have everywhere and always its own candidate against the Labourite candidate. But here the opportunist appears under the sectarian mask. The recent national conference of the ILP discussed the electoral problem. Under the pressure of the leadership "a resolution expressing the view that the time was now opportune for the ILP to make a stand against the Labour Party at by-elections was rejected." Listen to the arguments of the leadership:

"Maxton declared the Party should only fight by-elections in which there was a chance of a vote which would impress the public that the ILP was a serious political party." The Labour Party is a "fast putrefying corpse," but the ILP leadership refuses to oppose it in the elections in order not to risk its reputation as a "serious" party.... Reality has cruel revenges.

In spite of Ridley's twaddle, the majority of the rank and file of the ILP is in favour of the Leninist policy toward the Labour Party. "Conference accepted a resolution ... [declaring that] the ILP should call upon the Labour, Trade Union and Communist leaders to
break their anti-working-class alliance with the National Government, and to wage a campaign for power on the basis of nationalisation and workers' control of production " Naturally, the ILP leadership was opposed to this resolution, which was adopted in spite of this opposition. (Unfortunately, the report does not give the number of votes for and against.)

This vote against the leadership now explains Ridley's antics against the Trotskyists.... In actual fact his articles were directed against the [Trotskyist] fraction of the ILP which supports the Leninist policy and which obtained a majority vote on this question at the conference. The ILP leadership knew very well of the existence of this opposition to its policy. What would have been the duty of an honest leadership? To open a discussion on this important question above all since it was the eve of the national conference. What did the ILP leadership do? It had Ridley attack the opposition by attacking a Trotskyist group outside the party. Instead of a serious discussion, the result was some journalistic notes, superficial and rather venomous, clarifying nothing. We have already seen that the II.P policy is not without resemblance to that of the Comintern some years ago. Does the ILP leadership also wish to imitate the Stalinists in its internal methods.

The ILP's Attitude Towards Stalinism

In England as elsewhere the Stalinists are jingoes. In the by-elections they mobilised all their forces to support the Tory candidates against the ILP. At Cardiff, in the by-elections in which the ILP put up Brockway against a Tory, the slogan of the Stalinists was "A vote for Brockway is a vote for Hitler!" On many occasions the distributors of the New Leader have been attacked by Stalinist hoodlums. Yet the ILP still lacks a clear position on Stalinism. The national conference rejected, at the request of the leadership, a resolution which gave a precise analysis of Stalinism and which concluded: 'The Soviet regime and workers' democracy can only be restored, by the overthrow of the bureaucratic clique in the Kremlin." What then does the leadership of the lLP offer the Soviet workers? Nothing.

Instead the leaders still find the occasion to praise Stalin. In his 23 February Order of the Day, Stalin declared: "It would be ridiculous to identify Hitler's clique with the German people and the German state. The experience of history shows that Hitlers come and go whereas the German people and the German state remain" The declaration does not contain a drop of internationalism. Translated into clear terms it simply signifies that Hitler can be eliminated without social upheaval. The "German state," that is the capitalist state, will still exist. The English and American imperialists, as well as the German bourgeoisie, are not to fear proletarian revolution; Stalin will look after that, if need be. That is the meaning of Stalin's declaration. Nevertheless, James Maxton availed himself of that despicable declaration to exclaim to Parliament some days later: "The speech made by Premier Stalin is an infinitely more statesman-like utterance than anything that has come from the Government of this country."

That reveals the ILP's profound opportunism not only towards Stalin, but also towards the British government. What criterion has Maxton for judging ''statesmanship''? Is he reproaching Churchill for inadequately defending English imperialism, or for inadequately preparing the proletarian revolution? How can a revolutionist reproach Churchill for his lack of "statesmanship"? A criticism of this type implies common interest, the defence of the Empire. As for Stalin, he must be delighted with Maxton's compliment: he knows now that he speaks better than Vansittart!

On March 21 the New Leader informs its readers that a plaque on the house in Holford Square where Lenin lived forty years ago was unveiled by [the wife of the USSR Ambassador, Ivan Maisky]. The editors added no commentary. On the 25 April the paper described a new ceremony:
"A memorial bust of Lenin in Holford Square was unveiled by the Soviet Ambassador Mr MaiskyŠ The bust is a cast of the official bust at the Soviet Embassy. Natural light is directed on it with a crimson background which casts a permanent red glow. A few broken links of chain are set into the base of the memorial to represent 'the workers have nothing to lose but their chains' John McNair, General Secretary represented the ILP at the ceremony."

The Stalino-chauvinists, personified by the ex-Menshevik Maisky, try to conceal their betrayal behind a bust of Lenin. The New Leader hasn't a word of criticism on this disgusting ceremony; instead the ILP is represented at this obscene act by its General Secretary.

At the ILP national conference an amendment was presented asking for "the advocacy of the production and transport of war materials to the Soviet Union under workers' control.' The idea of tying the defence of the Soviet Union to the class struggle of the English workers is excellent. The slogan has an offensive character, as much against the English bourgeoisie as against its agents, the Labourite and Stalinist leaders. But the leadership of the ILP hastened to oppose this proposition. The arguments of its spokesmen were, taken as a whole, that ''the proposals are impracticable." Thus, the ILP leaders reveal once more their total incomprehension of the dynamics of revolutionary action How render "practicable" tomorrow that which is "impracticable" today? They have no idea. They find it very "practicable" to praise the "statesmanship'' of Stalin, to insult Lenin by attending fraudulent ceremonies; but to call on the English workers to demand an accounting from the capitalists on the aid to the Soviet Union, that is "impracticable''! How can a worker take seriously the internationalist phrases of the ILP leaders when they at the same time hold such a capitulatory attitude towards Stalino-chauvinism.

The Task of the Vanguard

The ILP's present position remains entirely in line with its former policy. And this policy, for years and years, has been the policy of equivocation. The ILP remains, in the full sense of the word, a centrist party. To give precise answers to the problems of the revolution is beyond the powers of the party leadership. Incapable of dispelling the confusion, the leadership tries to cover it by radical phrases - which lead it to new errors, for example its attitude towards the Labour Party. Trotsky's remark that a sectarian is only an opportunist frightened by his own opportunism has never been more true than for the ILP.

Doesn't the party's campaign for "a Socialist Britain now" represent a step to the left? Let us examine this question a little. The ILP is the only traditional party in England which recognises the imperialist character of the war and proclaims the necessity of socialism. Of course in the mouths of the IUP leaders that recognition retains an abstract character. But against the background of complete betrayal by the Labourite and Stalinist leaders, the party acquires a revolutionary glitter. The ILP leaders remain where they were before, but the war has, for the present, lengthened the distance which separates them from the social-patriots.

This fact, although not sufficient to give a revolutionary temper to the ILP leaders, has provoked important changes inside the party. Even for an observer who writes at a distance, it is clear that the party has recruited new elements which take seriously the revolutionary talk of the leadership. The lastnational conference clearly showed this. The preceding conference, a little more than a year ago, had been a debate between the present leadership and the social-patriot wing (C A. Smith). The April 1942 conference revealed a new situation. The leadership proposed a confused revolutionary programme and the whole conference consisted of the efforts of the members to elucidate and to correct the policy of the leaders. In all the debates a notable minority (29 per cent against 71) held a much more revolutionary position than the leadership. On several extremely important questions (workers' councils, the attitude towards the Labour Party) this minority was able to rally a majority of the members against the leadership. The picture is clear: the rank and file members are trying to "lead" the leaders. The conference revealed two important facts: the party is moving to the left, but in this movement the base is inevitably coming into collision with the inertia or the leadership.

The left wing of the parry, we are sure, will follow up the work of clarification undertaken at the national conference. To dispel the confusion, to denounce the inconsistencies, to patiently explain the Leninist policy - such are the tasks of the hour. But all these tasks merge into a single one: to expose to all the incapacity of the leadership. The present leaders are not political novices. For many years they have shown their inability to assimilate the Leninist policy. To expect them to change is to hope for a miracle. The members of the ILP must always remember the tragic example of the POUM in Spain. That was, like the ILP, a centrist party but incontestably very much more to the left. As a proletarian leader, Nin was a hundred times superior to Maxton. But when the difficult hours of the revolution cam, the POUM knew only how to float on the surface of events, incapable of directing them. For this tasks it is necessary to have a party with has broken all ties with the dominant class and its appendages, a party which knows how to inculcate the oppressed with a fierce hatred of bourgeois society, at the same time a party which does not become befuddled by phrases but which is imbued with a profound revolutionary realism. It is such a party that the English workers must have for the severe ordeals which are coming.

From the magazine Fourth International, New York, June 1942

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