Marxist Bulletin Home Page

Where Are We Going?

A paper distributed within the Socialist Labour Party by

Ian Dudley (Dulwich and West Norwood CSLP)
Geoff Palmer (Hackney North and Stoke Newington CSLP)
Christoph Lenk (Peckham and Camberwell CSLP)

February 1997

Our party, the Socialist Labour Party, was founded because many people in the labour movement have been pushed too far by the Labour Party’s endless betrayals. In the last 20 years at least, every struggle against a hail of ruling-class attacks has been cynically betrayed by the Labour and TUC bureaucrats, from miners, printworkers, dockers, to the struggles of the racially and sexually oppressed.

We must understand what our tasks are – how to build a party that really fights for the interests of the working class. We must also understand how we got where we are today, where we want to go to, and how to get there. We all want to live in a socialist society, organised, as our membership card says, ‘on the basis of common/social ownership’.

Our Clause IV is a slightly modified version of the old Labour Party Clause IV. The question arises, therefore, as to how could the Labour Party, which for many years claimed to stand for similar things to what we stand for, commit such systematic, despicable betrayals of our class? Why did it happen? How can we fight back and win back our rights and gains that the Labourites have given away? How can we make sure similar betrayals never happen again?

Above all, what is ‘Labourism’ and what role did this ideology play in creating Blair’s ‘New Labour’? Is ‘New Labour’ really something completely new? Or is it a logical extension of the ‘old’ Labourism in a period when the bosses are on the attack, trying to smash all the past gains of our class? And if this is the case, is it good enough to re-assert the old Labour Left brand of socialism? Or do we need to develop something much more thoroughgoing and radical?

Most of our members, to some extent at least, realise that there was something wrong with the Labour Party long before Blair. The main point many make is that Labour was never a ‘pure’ socialist party – it had people in it who were opposed to nationalisation, or to any real attempt to change the relations of power in this society. The Labour Party always included people who were basically liberals, who wanted to preserve the status quo while at the same time making minor improvements to make it more palatable. These kind of people usually led the Labour Party – on the occasions when a leader was elected who came from the left of the party, who claimed to really want to change society towards socialism, one of two things always happened. Either the right would sabotage the Party, disrupt and wreck and allow the Tories to win, or the ‘left’ leaders would capitulate, and take on the politics of the right. Everyone who remembers the evolution of the party under Michael Foot, and then Kinnock, will recognise variants and combinations of the above two ways in which the right-wing manage to retain their control.

Yet there is another side to this question. Tony Benn put his finger on it recently when he said , in criticising Socialist Labour, that it is always the right-wing who leave the Labour Party, never the left. The implication being that anyone who leaves Labour’s broad church is doomed to destruction and irrelevance. In saying this, Benn is in a sense setting the parameters of left Labourism, and laying bare one of its most fundamental flaws.

What is it that has always united the left and right in one party? In reality they have always had much in common, despite their sometimes antagonistic relationship within the party. First of all, there is their belief that all social change must come about through constitutional means. The Labour Left has often advocated, and sometimes engaged in, extra-parliamentary struggles against particularly vicious ruling class policies. Yet though many such struggles have been supported by the Labour Left, from struggles such as the miners and printworkers to that against the Poll Tax, it has always been true that, for the Labour left, such extra-parliamentary tactics are an exception, a means of exerting pressure on the ruling class to make them ‘see sense’; so the Labour Left can resume its fundamentally constitutional strategy under better conditions. Understanding that the ruling class often breaks the parliamentary rules, the Labour Left has been prepared to ‘bend’ them itself, in a symmetrical opposite manner – in order to preserve the authority of the bourgeois parliamentary system itself, against the ‘excesses’ of the ruling class. This is hardly a break with bourgeois politics, rather it is a sophisticated way of shoring up such politics. Thus Tony Benn is continually putting forward bills to perfect the parliamentary system, such as his ‘Commonwealth of Britain’ bills, aimed at preserving a more democratic parliamentary system.

The political effect of these illusions in parliamentary democracy is social patriotism, which has led the Labour Party and other social democratic parties to support imperialist wars. Labour has consistently defended the interests of British capitalism in conflicts around the world, whether it be with other imperialist powers, movements for colonial freedom, to post-capitalist states like Vietnam, and threats against the USSR. The Labour left has generally opposed such wars, when it did not support them outright, from a pacifist, not a genuinely socialist standpoint. At times when the ruling class has been able to convey its war aims as in some way ‘democratic’, the Labour left has come out overtly in support of Britain’s war effort. And even when it has opposed imperialism’s wars, it has done so in a half-hearted, inconsistent manner. For instance, over the question of Ireland, there is no Labour MP, no matter how ‘left’, who clearly stands for the immediate, unconditional withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland.

Linked to these crippling illusions in parliamentary politics is the Labour Party’s complete separation of ‘economic’ and ‘political’ questions. It is often said that trade unions are there to look after the economic interests of their members, whereas politics is the preserve of the Labour Party. More than anything else this represents the perceived interests of the trade-union bureaucracy and the sizeable layer of political careerists in the Labour Party – both have a material interest in making sure that the ‘political’ and ‘industrial’ wings of the labour movement are kept as separate as possible. The trade-union bureaucracy earns its living from negotiating over terms and conditions, that is, the terms of capitalist exploitation of workers by the bosses. The Labourite political caste earns its living from ‘representing’ the labour movement in the bosses’ parliament. Both therefore have an interest in keeping ‘political’ and ‘industrial’ questions as separate as possible, since the systematic application of workers industrial muscle for ‘political’ purposes would mean both layers of careerists would find their occupations superfluous.

Related to this separation between ‘industrial’ and ‘political’ issues is the separation of ‘minimum’ and ‘maximum’ demands. The call for ‘common ownership’ in the Labour Party’s old constitution had absolutely no relevance to that party’s real activity. The same is true of most trade unions (or at least to those that at least pay lip-service to some sort of ‘socialism’ as among their aims). At best, the Labour Party fought for a series of reforms to the existing system. The trade unions, meanwhile, in theory fight to maintain and improve the wages and conditions within the same capitalist system. The final goal, of socialism, is sometimes proclaimed loudly, but it appears distant, disembodied, and having no connection to the immediate demands and small reforms that are/were the everyday activity of the LP and trade union movements. Of course, for the Labour Party, this was indispensable, since the LP leaders never had any intention of abolishing capitalism.

In a society whose ruling class is less and less able or willing to reconcile itself to existing working-class gains, let alone concede new ones, the LP leaders have become collaborators with the ruling class attacks on the gains of our class. Years and years of these kinds of betrayals have finally provoked a wing of the labour movement to split away and form Socialist Labour. We all aspire to build something qualitatively better than Labour. Yet there is little clarity about what that should be. Our party aims to build a genuinely socialist movement, without the openly anti-socialist elements that played the major role in the LP. Yet the SLP bears the birth-marks of its origins in the Labour Party – an analysis of the 1996 policy documents reveals this in many ways. The purpose of this paper is to lay bare many of these problems, and suggest some solutions, as an aid to discussion and clarification.

There are three areas in which there are contradictions in SLP politics that are potentially damaging and capable of leading to disaster. In this paper, they will be addressed under separate headings. They are:

  1. Parliamentarism/the state
  2. Internationalism/British sovereignty
  3. Maximum–minimum programme

In fact, all three of these things are closely linked together, and reflect the fact that the SLP is still objectively within the framework of social-democratic reformism (with an admixture of Stalinism), despite the subjective intentions of the membership (and indeed, many of the leadership).

1 Parliamentarism / the state

The fact that the SLP is standing candidates against Labour in elections is the most positive thing we have done. Many groups on the left, who pretend to attack the SLP for not being ‘revolutionary’ enough, in reality object above all to the fact that we challenge Labour on its own turf – in elections. The likes of the SWP and many of its smaller kindred groups condemn the SLP above all for being ‘ultra-left’ for refusing to call on workers to vote for Tony Blair. Such rightist, and in reality reactionary criticism should be dismissed with a sneer.

But irrespective of this spurious right-wing whining, there are problems with our understanding of parliamentarism. The most obvious cases of this are in the draft constitution, which is a carbon-copy of the old Labour constitution (with some elements of the NUM constitution mixed in). The contradiction is: we have broken from Labour because of its betrayals, which in large measure stem from its slavish adherence to parliamentarism. Yet, in imitating the Labour Party constitution, our constitution demands that we break down into branches whose boundaries are those of parliamentary constituencies – even though we have on average only about 4 members for each parliamentary seat! Even from the standpoint of waging an effective election campaign, that is irrational. It means tiny, isolated handfuls of members, separated organisationally from comrades in other areas, being forced to carry out an election campaign in conditions that are likely to lead to demoralisation. From the standpoint of effective election campaigns, it is far better to group comrades together into much larger regional branches so that proper collectivity and regional centralisation can develop, problems can be thrashed out and dealt with through the experiences of a much wider layer of comrades, and greater clarity and motivation can be achieved.

Equally, the proposal to field 100 candidates at the general election is based on a fetishisation of elections. We do not have to pretend to be bigger than we are to wage an effective campaign. It would be better to select a considerably smaller number of key seats, and mobilise the membership

around some really effective, concentrated campaigning, rather than spreading our resources so thinly in a way that could easily lead to demoralisation and loss of members.

These are not just organisational matters. They stem from political problems. We have to break from social-democratic politics, not just from the Labour Party. Reading the 1996 policy documents, the political basis of these organisational problems becomes clearer. There are many excellent and supportable demands in the SLP’s policy documents. But our Achilles heel is our unclarity on the nature of the state. Many long lists of demands, such as in the sections on the Health Services, Health and Social Services, Disabilities, Pensions, Education, Housing, and others are straightforwardly aimed at wresting gains from the bosses, and are very good and supportable. Yet they are posed in terms of what an SLP government would do. It is not clarified as to what the organisational basis of such a government would be: whether it would simply be based on a parliamentary majority, or whether it would be based on the mass organisations of the working class, exerting their power against the ruling class, dispensing with the fiction that parliamentary ‘democracy’ stands above class.

We must be clear from the experience of the Labour Party – the ruling class will only tolerate a workers party in governmental office so long as that government acts as a pliable tool for the bosses, as a means to keep the working class under control. Conversely, all prior historical experience suggests that a party that comes to governmental office with the serious intention of implementing the sort of far-reaching social and economic demands contained in our policy documents, will be removed from office by force, crushed and its supporters jailed or even massacred unless it is able to effectively neutralise the military power of the ruling class, and substitute for it organised bodies of working people capable of maintaining order and guaranteeing public safety and security. One does not have to shout about the technical aspect of this – that follows in a logical manner – but a parliamentary system, where the Tories and other bosses’ parties are allowed to return to power through force, is absolutely excluded here. We need a situation where the democratically organised mass organisations of the working class exercise unlimited power, which requires the replacement of the old repressive forces that have served and protected the wealthy with new bodies committed to defend the interests of the overwhelming majority, not the privileged few.

2 Internationalism / British sovereignty

The second extremely important weakness and indication of our party’s incomplete break with social-democracy is on the question of the European Union and British sovereignty. The policy paper on the EU states:

‘The SLP is against the EEC/European Union, its existing institutions, and its plans for the future. It adopts this position not out of narrow nationalism, but because it sees that racism, fascism and war breed in the soil of the capitalist system defended by the Common Market. We are tough on racism and exclusive nationalism and we are tough on their causes, including the policies embodied in the European Union…’

This suffers from the same kinds of unclarities pointed out earlier in this paper. It is not clear whether the policy paper is saying that the working class, upon conquering power under the leadership of our party, could not participate in a capitalist institution, or whether it is saying that capitalist Britain, as presently constituted, should leave the EU. To raise the latter demand is to ignore the crucial fact that it is not just the EU that defends the capitalist system. The British state does so too, and has done for a very long time. It was not the EU that sent legions of police strikebreakers into the coalfields in 1984-85! The working class should be essentially indifferent to the supposed ‘requirements’ of the bosses – for high or low tariffs, economic integration or independence, etc. We must reject the plans for a European imperialist super-state as well as the Thatcherites’ alternatives, which point to an isolationist, protectionist Britain. With or without the EU the past gains of our class can only be defended, and new ones won, by mass working-class struggle. And for this we need international working-class solidarity (as well of course as between sections of the British working class).

There are several reasons why this is a crucial question for us. One is, as argued previously, we must be clear that the present state machine, symbolised by parliament, is irreformable, so that we do not get sucked into attempting to administer that state machine after a future possible election victory.

We must clarify that this is not our state for another reason also. Both the Labour and Communist Parties have put forward the view that the British state can be reformed, and made to act in workers’ interests. And both these parties have, in living memory, supported the British state in

war. It follows logically from the belief that the British state can be reformed, that under the ‘right’ circumstances (whatever they may be) the same state can wage a ‘progressive’ war. Given the nature of the imperialist-dominated world we live in, sooner or later our party will be confronted with the test of war. Unclarity on the nature of the state in circumstances of war would be fatal for our party – the ideological pressures on us would be ferocious. Everyone who remembers the capitulation of large sections of the Labour left and radical opinion to war hysteria over Iraq and Bosnia must realise how crucial a question this is. British imperialism is our main enemy, here at home! We cannot defend Britain in any war until the boss-class is totally removed from power.

The EU policy paper also says:

‘Socialist Labour is unequivocal in its commitment to complete withdrawal from the Common Market and will campaign for Britain’s involvement on a true international basis, in particular developing and expanding its links with the nations of Africa, Asia, the South Pacific, Latin America, the Caribbean, including countries such as Cuba which face blockades and sanctions imposed for political reasons by international capitalism.’

While a workers state in Britain would aid Cuba and engage in considerable trade with ‘third world’ nations, there is no way we could ‘opt out’ of the political life of Europe. We should rather have to take the fight against capitalism to the European continent, and use our political and perhaps even military strength to help defend the workers movement in France, Germany, etc. We could not ‘withdraw’ from Europe because European capitalism would not ‘withdraw’ from us -- it would use every means at its disposal, including military means, to destroy us. We would have to appeal to, and attempt to provide political leadership and inspiration to, the French and German working class. Without their help, our socialist government would be in grave danger of being overthrown from without.

In this regard, the following phrases from our International policy paper are seriously wrong:

‘Socialist Labour believes that Britain’s defence industry and defence forces are much too big for our real needs… we would … cut our defence budget by two thirds…

‘… Britain does not need nuclear weapons … Socialist Labour supports unilateral nuclear disarmament…’

In the policy paper, these phrases are mixed in with correct demands, such as for Troops out of

Ireland. But the same kind of confusions referred to earlier are evident. Either these demands are to be carried out by a ‘left’ parliamentary government, in which case they have a certain logic (though the bosses, with their state machine intact, would de-stabilise and destroy such a government). Or else these are proposals for a genuine workers government, in the aftermath of a revolutionary transfer of power. If the latter is the case, these proposals for ‘cutting’ armaments would lead to the destruction of a workers’ Britain by our external enemies. The USSR was not able to do away with its defences, and neither will we – until the main capitalist classes in Europe, Japan and North America (and Russia?) have been overthrown by the workers.

3 Maximum–minimum programme

A consequence of our party’s unclarity on the nature of the state is the ‘Chinese Wall’ that exists between the demands we raise here and now, on the one hand, and our ultimate goal of socialism, on the other. This division occurs repeatedly throughout the 1996 policy documents.

For example, in the Economics paper, under the heading of ‘Socialist Labour’s programme for Britain’, a whole series of demands are raised, aimed at repairing the damage to the British working class from 20 years of attacks and betrayals. In summary form, these include:

  • Rebuilding manufacturing industry
  • An integrated transport and energy policy
  • Rebuilding the NHS and welfare
  • Rebuilding the housing stock to end homelessness and bad housing
  • Ending unemployment through a four-day week with no loss of pay, an ban on non-essential overtime, voluntary early retirement on full pay at 55
  • Cutting arms spending, taking back privatised industries, to finance the above programme.
  • Abolition of VAT, progressive taxation.
  • A minimum wage of two-thirds male median earnings, no tax on first £10,000 earned.
  • A substantial company taxation policy.
  • [etc]

This is not comprehensive, but a summary for brevity’s sake of Socialist Labour’s programme of immediate demands.

But then the Economics paper goes on to say:

‘These policies, though – however effective – can but ameliorate the destructiveness of the present system.

‘The only way we can permanently resolve our economic and political crisis is by changing that system.

‘To do this, our party must be able to galvanise mass opposition to injustice, inequality and environmental destruction, and build the fight for Socialism.

* * *

‘Socialist Labour must make clear that it is prepared to be at the heart of extra-parliamentary action, necessary to bring about change. It must fight alongside the single-issue campaigns, but at the same time must be prepared to challenge for seats in both local and national elections…

‘This involves responsibility – in a situation of ongoing struggle, for constructive economic policies in the short term alongside political strategies in the longer term – including direct action – which will resolve Britain’s economic injustices by creating a Socialist society.’

The major weakness in these passages is the yawning chasm between the programme of immediate demands, which is explicitly posed as a series of reforms to the existing system, and the final goal of ‘creating a socialist society’.

We should be aware that this kind of division, between ‘immediate demands’ and the ‘final goal’ (also known as the ‘minimum’ and ‘maximum’ programmes) is a characteristic hallmark of Labourite/social democratic politics. The Labour Party, right through the days of Ramsay MacDonald through to Wilson/Callaghan, could tolerate airy talk of its ‘final goal’ as expressed in the old Labour Party Clause IV, as long as its programme of immediate demands were kept completely separate from anything that pointed to the necessity to go beyond capitalism. To the Labour Party, any demands that pointed concretely to the need to destroy capitalism itself constituted ‘extremism’ and were to be avoided like the plague.

Our party bears heavily the birth-marks of these politics, understandably so, since our origins are in Labourism. Yet there is a confused attempt to go further than this mixed in with the ‘maximum–minimum’ programme most clearly articulated in the Economics paper. The document talks about being ‘at the heart of extra-parliamentary activity necessary to bring about change’ and calls for ‘political strategies in the longer term – including direct action’ to ‘create’ a socialist society. Yet it does not explain in any way how its programme of reforms -- the ‘immediate’ or ‘minimum’ programme, is linked to the ‘political strategies in the longer term’ that will bring about socialism.

It is obvious that there is a gap here, which needs to be bridged. It is not enough to put forward a programme of immediate reforms now, and talk airily but hypothetically about ‘socialism’ at some time in the undefined future. With the increasingly barbaric nature and palpable decay of modern capitalism, we need a ‘bridge’ between these immediate demands that flow from the felt needs of workers in the here and now, and the programme of the revolutionary transformation of society, of the abolition of capitalism.

The germ of a correct idea, that could become a component of such a bridge, is to be found in Socialist Labour’s immediate demand for dealing with the problem of unemployment:

‘As for the evil of unemployment, it can be eradicated, but only by revolutionary policies: the introduction of a four-day working week without loss of pay; a ban on non-essential overtime; voluntary early retirement at 55 on full pay.’

This is an excellent idea, because it directly attacks unemployment and points to a solution to it at the capitalists’ expense. But the demand needs to be extended – such a demand, if implemented, might still only deal with part of the unemployment problem. Furthermore capitalism in its further decay can be expected to produce considerably worse unemployment levels than those that we are currently experiencing. We need to demand, as a right, work-sharing on full pay for the whole working class population, a sliding scale of working hours.

Due to the deflationary ‘monetarist’ policies of mass unemployment pursued by recent British governments, the problem of inflation has not loomed as large at that of unemployment in British politics for quite a while. But the implementation of the ‘work sharing at full pay’ demand would undoubtedly lead to a new rise in inflation, as the capitalists would seek to pass their increased wage costs on to the consumer. Hand-in-hand with work-sharing on full pay, it would be necessary to demand a sliding scale of wages, that is, for every percentage rise in prices, the working class would obtain at least the same rise in their pay, as a right. And rather than relying on government statistics, which under capitalism are fraudulent at the best of times, committees of working-class consumers, not the bosses’ government, would be responsible for collecting the inflation statistics to determine the automatic pay-rise for the working class.

These demands could only be implemented as a result of a massive, extra-parliamentary struggle to force the capitalists to submit to them. They in fact imply, and point to, a whole further stage – workers control. That is, a right of veto by the workers movement over all management decisions. Such a right of veto, gained through mass struggle, could only be exercised by elected workplace committees, which would be workers organisations, a stage higher than trade unions. Such committees, which would constitute an alternative power (‘dual power’) in the workplaces, would open up the possibility of the emergence of dual power in society as a whole – pointing the way to a genuine workers government based not on the capitalist parliament, but on mass organisations of the working class.

There are other demands in the ‘Programme for Britain’, such as the demands for the re-opening of closed industries, the mass construction of housing, the reconstruction of the NHS, which can also play the role of part of a ‘bridge’ to the abolition of capitalism. We should demand that the capitalists themselves pay for a massive programme of public works, to meet our needs. Forcing them to concede such demands would again require a massive extra-parliamentary struggle, pointing to the need for a workers government.

Then there is the question of welfare, pensions and universal benefits. We should demand full, living benefits for all, with no means testing. More and more the ruling class is complaining that such luxuries can no longer be ‘afforded’. We must demand the opening of the books of the entire national economy – a workers audit both of individual enterprises, and of the capitalist society and government as a whole – to discover where the funds that were supposed to be providing us with our wages, pensions, benefits etc are being salted away to. This could not be done on a purely national basis – it would necessarily involve massive co-operation with workers around the world in all our mutual interests. The complete abolition of so-called commercial and government secrecy is in the interest of the overwhelming majority of the world’s population, and could only be the outcome of titanic struggles. It necessarily points to the abolition of capitalism itself.

The above are probably only a small sample of these kind of demands that could be formulated, given the class-struggle experience and intellectual capacity that exists in this party, if we were to adopt this kind of approach to linking the minimum programme of immediate demands, and the overthrow of capitalism itself. This paper does not pretend to be a comprehensive or finished programme, but rather it aims to put its finger some of our most important political weaknesses, and to suggest some solutions.