The left we have and the left we need [1997]

Submitted by Matthew on 13 October, 2009 - 1:18 Author: Sean Matgamna

The 18-year period of rule by the Tory Party, which was ended on 1 May by the election of a New Labour government, was one of profoundly radical change. The bourgeoisie remade and reshaped institutions and social relationships and, to a considerable extent, the working-class itself.

To find anything comparable to it in scope, depth and consequence you must go back to the 6-year rule of the post-war Labour government in the second half of the ’40s.

The revolutionary left has been reshaped too — by working-class defeat; by the shrinking of the labour movement and the withering of labour militancy; by the collapse of Stalinism — the “actually existing socialism”; by the collapse of old reformism; and by the working through of the old left’s own political and ideological contradictions.

If we judge it by its performance in the May Day election, when over 100 independent socialist candidates stood against the Labour Party, the left is not in good shape.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with standing against Labour. That would be true even of Old Labour. It was not principle, but realistic calculation about the relation of forces and the place of the organised labour movement in the British political system, that long ruled out for most socialists putting up anti-Labour socialist candidates for the purpose of making high-visibility socialist propaganda. The left’s sense of reality has been eroded, like so much else.

In the 1997 General Election the trade unions remained strongly, though largely silently, in the camp of the Labour Party.

Nor is the pro-Labour tide only a negative result of anti-Tory feeling. In the ranks of the organised labour movement there is still far more expectation of desirable things from a New Labour government than Blair has given anyone reason to expect. In the election campaign, 100 years of tradition, of what “Labour” means, made many Labour voters deaf to what the Blairites were saying of themselves and their intentions!

The New Labour government faces the contradiction that, much against Blair’s will, a tidal wave of expectation has been generated around the new government. In other words, at both the level of Labour Party structures — that is, trade union financing affiliations and involvement — and of continued working-class acceptance, New Labour remains, for now at least, the mass party of the working class.

It is true that in reality the labour movement and its concerns are sidelined and smothered in New Labour, and true too that the broad labour movement’s acceptance that New Labour has a monopoly on electoral activity, has, in the last few years, become more and more an acceptance of something like self-exclusion from politics by the unions. The effect increasingly resembles the situation before the emergence of the Labour Party, when Liberal predominance blocked off working-class direct participation in politics, and pioneering socialist candidates stood in elections to show the way forward. Even so, for socialist candidacies now to show to the labour movement the way forward from New Labour, the socialists would have to be a lot clearer in their own strategic thinking than are those who stood in the election and those who back them.

The contrast between the socialist pioneers and the recent socialist candidates is stark. Despite all their differences, and the sometimes bitter conflicts between such as the ILP and the Social Democratic Federation, a single, clear, strategic idea was common to all the early Labour pioneers. That idea was independent labour representation. Labour representation independent of all bourgeois parties. Their great breakthrough, beyond socialist propaganda candidacies, came when the trade unions moved to accept this idea after Taff Vale in 1901 and, later, the Osbourne judgement (1909) which brought the miners in. The left now has no coherent strategy or strategic idea for the broad labour movement. That is what characterises it. It is a sectarian left.

In basic terms, it must be one of two roads of socialist development: either the building up, through propaganda, of a small socialist organisation by way of recruitment of ones and twos or tens, and engagement in activities, including propagandist candidacies, in competition with the existing political labour movement, with a view to one day displacing it. Or it will be progress by way of the Marxists helping to develop the existing labour movement, including the trade unions, politically, by way of experience in the class struggle and socialist educational activities, so that the earlier stage of the movement is superseded.

In principle that would not necessarily always exclude electoral candidacies for socialist propaganda. Such things might play a part in certain situations of conflict with entrenched labour movement bureaucracy.

But, in practice, here and now, those who stood in the election — and the SWP which did not dare to — counterpose these two perspectives and have picked the wrong one. They have chosen to desert the existing labour movement in pursuit of the former, the sectarian perspective. What the election revealed is that the experience and the political reality of the broad labour movement have not reached the stage of development where one can talk sensibly of independent working class politics and counterpose it to the Labour Party. In many ways the years of Tory rule have thrown the movement far backwards politically. The struggle for independent labour politics has to be for now primarily a fight within the existing movement, including the Labour Party, concerning the class character of the Labour Party and the place of the unions in politics.

The Labour Party was long ago accurately defined as a bourgeois, workers’ party. If the worker element in it is going to be destroyed by the Blairites, changing its class character, then a replacement for it can only be created by winning a major part of those labour movement organisations, in the prime place, the trade unions, which are still enmeshed in the Labour Party/New Labour, for the building of such a replacement. Within that work, Marxists argue for class-struggle politics.

At best, the far left’s attempt at electoralist rebirth in 1997 is premature, way ahead of events, and even further ahead of what the broad labour movement perceives as necessary. It is way ahead of the experience of New Labour in power, which is likely to bring the nature of ‘New Labour’ home to them. It is more than merely premature.

The left seems to have lost the very elements of strategic thinking: the dominant operational model in the work of the far left now is overwhelmingly, and in many versions and embodiments, a model of sect-building on the fringes of the broad labour movement.

If that is your model, then there is much scope for subjective responses and for arbitrary zigs and zags to “build the party”.

Militant/The Socialist Party’s tactics derive from its expulsion from the Labour Party, on the one hand, and from very limited success in “mass work” in Glasgow on the other. Extrapolating from these events, they have shunted themselves into a sectarian cul de sac.

The Socialist Labour Party — which internally is a sectarian Tower of Babel kept in check by a repressive Stalinist regime — came into existence on an arbitrary and subjective whim of Arthur Scargill’s. He chose to regard the removal of Clause Four from Labour’s constitution as proof that Labour was no longer Labour, ignoring the main criterion of Marxist involvement in the Labour Party: that the trade unions in politics work through the Labour Party by affiliation, financing and active involvement. That has not yet changed.

Workers’ Liberty fought to keep Clause Four, whose removal was of great symbolic importance, but it is sheer foolishness to imagine that Clause Four has ever determined what Labour in office did at any time, including 1945-51. (Labour’s nationalisations reorganised decrepit industries by setting up state capitalist monopolies, paying large sums to the old owners.) It is sheer foolishness to think a Blair government would be different now, if only Blair had left Clause Four in a place of honour amidst the heirlooms of the party.

The great, the suicidal danger facing the left now is self-reduction to a condition of irrelevance, albeit self-righteous irrelevance, to the actually existing labour movement and the actually existing working class. For those who will press ahead with the Thatcher-Blair project of driving the organised working class out of politics, self-cancelling by the left will be one of their big assets. It is not the proper role for revolutionaries to play, if they believe that the working class is central to socialist politics. Despite the sectarian bluster which accompanies it, it is a public manifestation of an inward acceptance of defeat. The left now is awash with this sort of defeatism.

To make any sense of the state of the revolutionary left now, to understand what has happened to it and why, and what can be done about it, you need to know the left as it was at the dawn of the Thatcher era, around 1980. This was the left that went down like so must else before the challenge of Thatcherism.

The left today is a product of the long, general period of working-class defeat we have lived through; the two main groups of socialists who put up candidates in the election, Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party and the Socialist Party (Militant), were directly connected with major defeats — the former after an honourable and heroic battle in which the forces of Thatcherism were too much for the miners, the latter after fiasco on the Liverpool council and a treacherous deal with the Tories which left the striking miners in the lurch.

The present crisis of the left is rooted in its failure before the Thatcherite onslaught.


That entire far left had either come into existence during the years after Harold Wilson formed his Labour government in 1964, or, where groups like the present SWP and Militant/Socialist Party existed before that, they had been radically reshaped and remoulded, though in different ways, by this experience of Labour in government and by the character of the class struggle against it. The overwhelming majority of individuals in the far left spectrum then were people who had come into politics after 1964.

The pre-Thatcher left was thereafter boosted and shaped by the struggles against the Heath Tory government after 1970.

What happened in that period? Labour came to office in 1964 and won an overall majority in March 1966. It quickly disappointed its natural supporters. By the late ’60s even the trade union bureaucracy went into opposition when Labour tried to bring in anti-union legislation (“In Place of Strife”).

The trade union bureaucracy, which then had great power, had been able to impose itself firmly and almost completely on the labour movement after the defeat of the 1926 General Strike, helping the right control the Labour Party. It retained uncontested control until the beginning of a wave of unofficial struggles in the middle 1950s.

With post-war full employment, workers had the possibility of easy gains through local struggles, mainly wildcat strikes, and the trade union bureaucracy was more and more raised above and separated out from much of the process of industrial bargaining. It became even more distanced from the rank and file.

Although the seafarers’ strike of 1966 was led by the officials, the first wave of industrial struggle in the mid-’60s was largely a rank and file movement. After 1969, in the working-class upsurge which culminated in Tory defeat in 1974, the trade union officials played a leading role, regaining considerable authority.

The TUC had grown used to colluding with governments, both Tory and Labour. The TUC regularly discussed state economic policy with governments, giving its cooperation in return for limited concessions to corporate working class interests. With ‘In Place of Strife’, for the first time in decades, there was a situation where the trade union bureaucracy was radically at odds not only with the Labour Party, but also with the government, as a government.

Edward Heath’s Tories came to power with an initial policy of letting ‘lame duck’ industries succumb to the laws of the market. Jobs would go. This undercut the customary ‘responsible’ collaboration between government and trade union bureaucracy. This development went further still with the Tories’ viciously anti-union Industrial Relations Act and the fight against it which the TUC headed after 1970. At the same time the TUC repaired its links to the Parliamentary Labour Party, damaged at the time of In Place of Strife, as its society-wide bargaining agent.

The growth of struggle did allow real gains to be made by the working class, and by the big socialist organisations. But the bureaucracy had, by its militancy against Heath, partly rehabilitated itself in the eyes of key militants. The industrially strong CP helped it to do this.

The great wave of working-class struggle of the late ’60s and early ’70s was stimulated by the trade union bureaucracy’s opposition to the Labour government’s In Place of Strife, and then to the anti-union Tory governnment who returned to office in 1970.

This role of the bureaucrats was a major factor behind the experience of the 1974-9 Labour government, and then of the incapacity to fight Thatcher. The trade union leaders sustained the Labour government (1974-9) which demobilised and disappointed workers; and then collapsed in a heap before Thatcher.


What specially had shaped the far left during those years, when it grew from virtually nothing to a current many thousands strong?

• Disappointment with the 1964-70 Labour government, and the experience of angry mass working-class resistance to it. The whole revolutionary left was, to one degree or another, involved in the Labour Party and the Labour youth movement in the ’50s and ’60s.* Between 1964 and ’68 almost all the groups except Militant left the Labour Party. The pioneers here were the sectarians of the Healy group (SLL/WRP). They did not coldly and honestly assess their attitude to reformism, the fact that they had had illusions in it [for example the IS/SWP]. They just felt disappointed. They did not settle political accounts with reformism, they just abandoned the political labour movement.

• In the late 1960s and ’70s they increasingly felt the pull of the widespread industrial direct action, and groups like IS/SWP began to extrapolate one-sided scenarios and quasi-syndicalist perspectives from it. This was where the power of the working class was manifested, time and time again and sometimes spectacularly. Industrial action by the miners in early 1974 pushed the Heath government into an ill-judged election which it lost (February 1974).

• Generally petty-bourgeois in composition, the revolutionary left had been influenced by the guerrilla, insurrectionary, and sometimes terrorist third world — and Irish — struggles, especially the Vietnamese struggle against the USA. Vast numbers of students across the Western world were radicalised, and tens of thousands of them became revolutionaries because of that experience.

• The left was greatly influenced by the ‘confrontation now’ spirit of student politics. This spirit was partly a mimicry of and an extrapolation from third world struggle. But, fundamentally, it expressed the short life-span of student radicalism. The labour movement, the ground of serious revolutionary political action was not merely a different world to them, the idea of a long haul to transform it belonged to a different class outlook. Yet short-life revolutionary students streamed into the revolutionary groups after 1967 like the alluvial flood over a desert.

• The sheer paucity of revolutionary cadres with any sort of political education, experience, or tempering, allowed an extraordinary luxuriance of left fads and experimental ideas, most of them of an ultra-left character, to develop and continue for a long time. The weakness of any stable, tempered, viable, realistic, revolutionary tradition had the same effect, as did the habitual chameleon-like willingness to adapt to its environment of the various currents of official post-Trotsky “Trotskyism”, especially its international core group, the United Secretariat of the Fourth International. They acted in various degrees as importation agencies for revolutionary fads and fashions from the Third World, and from the petit bourgeoisie, some of them wildly at odds with both the revolutionary tradition from Marx to Trotsky, and with the needs of working-class revolutionary politics — urban guerrilla movements, student power and ‘red bases’ in the universities, black power separatism. Among other things, their politics helped create layers of Deutscherites, academic Marxists in the colleges who identified progress with Stalinism, which they wanted to liberalise. Most of them were not working-class oriented revolutionaries.

• The women’s movement gave a valuable dimension to the post-’68 left, bringing forward issues that had for decades been part of the far left only in the sense that there were pages on it in important old books (for example, the chapter on women, youth and the family in Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed). At the same time, it added to the pressures which pushed the left away from the political labour movement — for that movement congealed, in its practices and attitudes, everything oppressive of women and restrictive of the drive for women’s equality in capitalist society.

• Large chunks of the left were influenced by lifestyle-ism. Revolutionary politics was not about — or only about — changing society or building socialism, but about living your life in an alternative way, about better “relationships” and better, healthier eating, or better or more numerous orgasms. It was an early, “revolutionary” anticipation of me-me-me-ism which we saw later in Yuppy-ism, and of the Thatcherite denial of society.

Many life-style ex-leftists found it easy to come to terms with Thatcher’s 1980s Britain. Lifestylism fed into the liquidationist CP current around Marxism Today.

• The toxic increase in both official state racism and of freelance and organised fascist racism, after the Labour government slammed the door on Asian passport-holders from Kenya in 1968, generated drives for the self-organisation of black people in parallel to the labour movement. That too exerted pressure on the left, who rightly involved themselves in the fight against racism, away from the labour movement, similar to the pressures generated by the women’s movement. It helped generate a current of middle-class moralising anti-racism that separated the struggle against racism from the struggle against the conditions that make working-class people — including working-class, industrial militants — susceptible to racism. It easily flowed — as did other morality-tinged championing of oppressed “minorities” — like women — into a hostility to, and contempt for, the existing working class and its movement.

• Because the Trotskyist left consisted mainly of bureaucratised — and, with the WRP, very crazy — sects, all of whom required what healthy revolutionary organisations would also require, self-disciplined and purposeful activity, there had been a continual fall out from them into an all-receiving Labour-left that re-emerged in the early ’70s and would continue for 15 or 20 years. This current of ex-Trotskyists gave its political and ideological coloration to the broader Labour left, which tended politically to be an eclectic and very Catholic bog of undifferentiated, often contradictory, ideas and individuals to which almost any cause or concern could attach itself. An example: one individual Labour Party member got the cause of trans-sexuals and their problems put before the electorate of Lambeth as a matter of urgent and immediate concern to them. Much was unbalanced and out of proportion, and sometimes grotesquely faddish and “petit-bourgeois”. This current’s other main characteristic was a lack of sharpness and incisiveness, an incapacity to draw practical conclusions from its own words, and a tendency to lose sight of the working class in the midst of its many and varied all — equally — important concerns.


The left beyond the CP, at the beginning of the Thatcher-Major era, looked something like this.

There was the Socialist Workers Party, with two or three thousand members. It did trade union work, mainly though not exclusively in white collar unions; and it made propaganda for ‘building the party’ as the way to win socialism. The party was the only thing that supposedly linked the day-to-day trade union routines and struggles with socialism and, indeed, with politics. It was both an eclectic organisation and one whose leadership had few scruples about shedding political positions, or picking them up, in the interests of recruitment — that is, serving the prime goal of building the party. For example, they did a complete about-turn on the European Community, and for nakedly “organisational” and opportunist reasons.

Insisting that Labour was dead and Parliament irrelevant, they still called for a Labour victory in elections because it would be unpopular not to. Central was the pretence that reformism was a spent force. Their “strategy”, their only strategic conception, was to “build the Party”. The Labour Party was only a possible source of recruits. There was a heavy undertone of ‘giving up for now’ in this approach. For example, resistance to Thatcher had to be undertaken by or with the existing labour movement or not at all. Time was short. Defeatism would become predominant in the SWP by the early ’80s, and to such an extent that it took them months to engage in support work — other than selling Socialist Worker — during the 1984-5 miners’ strike.

There was Militant (now the Socialist Party), 2,000 or more strong, in control of the Labour Party youth movement (and thus in receipt of financial subsidies from the Labour Party!) making passive propaganda in the Labour Party and in the unions, in some of which, such as the CPSA, it was very strong.

There was the Mandelite International Marxist Group, 700 strong and politically very unstable.

Round Socialist Organiser a tendency had developed which was active on a revolutionary basis in both the trade unions and the Labour Party, attempting to build a Marxist tendency in both.

Launched in 1978, Socialist Organiser was the journal of a very broad current, some of whom would soon control the Greater London Council. Socialist Organiser would divide in the period ahead.

Then there was Alan Thornett’s Workers’ Socialist League, and beyond that an enormous galaxy of political meteorites and cosmic political dust.**

Essentially this fragmentation was a result of the fact that, first, the SLL/WRP and, then, the SWP had become tightly-controlled and bureaucratic organisations scattering bits at every turn.

The dominant trait of this “far left” was that, for reasons and in ways already listed, much of it had taken shape apart from the labour movement and sometimes in antagonism to it and, therefore, apart from the working class insofar as it had yet organised itself as a social or political force in Britain. In many cases it stood apart from real work in the unions; in its majority, it stood apart from, and counterposed itself organisationally to, the workers’ political movement, the Labour Party, though, as we have seen, exercising indirect influences there by way of its politically unreconstructed ex-members. Paradoxically even many of the Labour left activists around 1980 had elements of such attitudes, essentially sectarian attitudes. It was one reason why so much of it — for example, the local government left — could quickly “forget” about the working class.

The post-’68 radical left had differentiated fundamentally on the issue of whether or not to have a working class orientation; but even those, the IS-SWP (including at the time Workers’ Fight, Workers’ Liberty’s predecessor), who opted for such an orientation, opted for a purely trade unionist, syndicalist definition of what they recognised as the workers’ movement.

Militant, apparently the opposite of the extra-Labour Party left, was in fact moulded negatively by the same experiences. Confronted in 1965-6 by a reactionary Labour government, and the first stirrings of working class reaction against it, Militant abandoned struggle against the bureaucracy and retreated up the ladder of propagandist abstraction, domiciling itself in loyal citizenship in the Labour Party and Labour Party Young Socialists — which it could, controlling it, have made into a mass campaigning youth force in British politics but did not — as a technique of peaceful coexistence with the Labour bureaucracy. In the unions it engaged in a low level — “we need nationalisation” — propagandist routine and in machine politics. It abstained from solidarity movements like that on Vietnam and, a sectarian, negative caricature of the faddists, disregarded issues such as gay rights and ignored the women’s movement. At every point, politically and organisationally, it had adapted, accommodating to the existing movement that the others were repelled by. The accommodation would show in multifariously backward and even racist manifestations when Militant took control of Liverpool’s Labour Party and then of Liverpool council in the early 1980s.


It was, in sum, a gloomy picture. Yet much had been achieved in the 15 years before Thatcher. Many thousands of people had been acquainted with the ideas of revolutionary Marxism. Ideas about socialism, knowledge of the real history of the modern socialist movement, of Trotsky’s fight against Stalinism for example, were very widespread. The literature of Marxism, much of it out of print for decades, had been made widely available. Numerically the forces of revolutionary Marxism were potentially very powerful already. If the forces of the left could reorientate to the working class and the real working-class movement, they still might achieve much. Thatcher might have been beaten.

The roots of the tragedy that followed — the left’s incapacity to help the labour movement rouse itself to fight Thatcher — lay in this: the experiences of the ’60s and ’70s, which allowed the far left to reach an unprecedented level of growth, combined with the disgust caused by Labour in power, had, by creating a very widespread sectarianism, ensured that these revolutionaries were badly equipped to do the first work of revolutionaries — to reach and mesh with the existing working class and labour movement and help it towards self-emancipation from bourgeois ideas and, ultimately, from the bourgeoisie.

That made it very difficult for them to reorientate after 1974, when Labour returned to power on the crest of a mass movement of industrial militancy. That, in turn, had a fundamental importance for the state of the left which had to face the Thatcherite offensive, ensuring that it was fragmented and much of it politically abstentionist. The revolutionary left had in the main failed to learn the lessons of the experience in 1974 of mass working class direct action resulting only in a Labour government, and then in the Tory election victory of 1979.

Yet, after 1974, it was a to-be-or-not-to-be question for serious socialists to face certain conclusions:

• In addition to supporting militancy, revolutionary socialists must also challenge the ‘reformist’ bureaucrats on the level of mass, working-class politics.

• Direct action was not enough, even for working-class self-defence; and, short of general strike, it had no possibility of generating the necessary society-wide alternative to the bourgeoisie. Even then, the outcome would be shaped by the struggle of different political perspectives and of working-class tendencies. The reformist leaders of the Labour Party and trade unions were able to derail the movement of the ’70s, and kept political dominance.

• Despite its attempt at anti-union legislation (1969) and wretched performances in government in the ’60s and ’70s, the Labour Party was far from being a spent force in working class politics, as, for a while, it might have seemed to be in 1969, and as it deserved to be. It became necessary to understand that a ‘revolutionary movement’ like the SWP, built outside the real workers’ political movement, was a white elephant, a stupid repetition of the sectarian mistakes of the SLL/WRP in the ’60s, and of the CP earlier. It was in fact not a revolutionary movement at all, but a caricature of one — ‘toy-town Bolshevism’.

Most of the revolutionary left failed to make the necessary reassessment.*** Their self-righteousness against the Labour Party had been reinforced by the experience of the 1974-9 Labour government and they lost sight of the underlying realities of the political labour movement.

In terms of numbers, the major reorientation by far left forces in the years before Thatcher was the one made by the separate individuals going into the Labour Party, cumulatively creating the “Labour left” described above.

The movement after Labour’s 1979 defeat, for Labour democracy, and the life-and-death urgency of a labour movement response to the post-’79 Thatcherite challenge, was the proof that the toy town ‘Bolsheviks’ had gone off at a tangent. Instead of the Labour Party being irrevocably discredited, as most of the organised far-left had, with good reason, said it was, the flexibility of the movement and the organic Labour Party-trade union links allowed a powerful campaign to develop for political renewal and reclamation by socialist of the political wing of the movement.

More to the point, this was the only force that could conceivably organise the political dimensions of the urgent and irreplaceable fight against Thatcher. Local government, controlled by the ‘left’ from the early ’80s, could have been an organising centre for that fight.

It could have helped trigger into action the “big battalions” of industrial militancy which the passive, sectarian propagandists could only hope for and wait for, like a farmer waiting for crops to grow.


This was the “far-left” that, against a background of continuing though weakening industrial militancy and a strong “Bennite” left-wing backlash against the Labour Party performance in government, faced a life or death struggle when the Thatcherites went on the offensive immediately on taking office. What needed to be done? Organise the left in and around the trade unions’ political party, the Labour Party; fight for trade union democracy; build a trade union rank and file movement to co-ordinate action and fight the bureaucrats; build a coherent non-sectarian Marxist organisation on a basis democratic enough to allow the coexistence of different Marxist tendencies.

If we had achieved this, could Thatcher have been beaten? Surely the scope of the labour movement’s defeat proves that our failure or success wouldn’t have made much difference, that Thatcher’s victory had deeper causes? That Thatcher’s victory was inevitable?

No! Thatcher could have been beaten. As late as the 1984 miners’ strike, the Tories could have been crushed. Proof?

The revolutionary left inhabited a world with the following important characteristics:

• The working class was undefeated in industry — the same working class that had in 1972-4, by industrial direct action, pitched Edward Heath out of office [February 1974] and battered open the doors of Parliament for the Labour Party.

• Unemployment had risen to the post-war record of 1 million under Labour. But it had not yet damped down the class, or thrown a large part of it on the dole — including a whole generation of young people.

• A powerful network of militant shop stewards existed all across industry.

• The Labour Party was a powerful grassroots political force. In its conferences and branches, the Labour Party had been a vigorous critic of the Labour government, from the left. The local Labour Parties had real life in them; between them and their affiliated local trade unions there were organic ties and a free flow of membership. If the Labour Party membership was often heavily middle-class, they were on the party’s left.

The general idea and mood then was expressed in the title of a collection of essays, edited by Ken Coates in 1980: “Never again!” Never again a Labour government out of tune with the labour movement and ruling against what the movement saw as its interests. Never again a Labour Party that would run capitalism for the capitalists at the expense of the workers. Never again a right-wing Labour Party.

To some it seemed as if the political labour movement was being refounded and reshaped on a new militant socialist basis. Tony Benn talked enthusiastically of the work the left was doing as “refounding the Labour Representation Committee” — the original seed of the trade union-based Labour Party.

Others of us thought that this could be made to happen.* It required an organised body of Marxists who knew what needed to be done and could organise for it in the Labour Party and the trade unions. But there were massive anomalies and contradictions.

In the heady days of ’80-’81 the strange spectacle was seen of trade union leaders — Moss Evans, General Secretary of the T&G, then Britain’s biggest union, to take one example — whose own unions left a great deal to be desired in terms of democracy, lining up their block votes with the left in a campaign to make the Labour Party “more democratic and more accountable”! It was a contradiction that ultimately boomeranged on the left, and — as those of us who simultaneously campaigned for militancy and democracy in the unions argued it might — cut its head off. These bureaucrats abandoned the left to go along with Kinnock and then Blair. And the trade union rank and file could not stop them, because they had not been organised as an independent political force.

But, for a while, the Labour left swept everything in the Labour Party before it. The system was established of electing the Labour leader in such a way that the labour movement and not the Parliamentary Labour Party would have the major voice in choosing the next Labour Prime Minister. When ex-Prime Minister James Callaghan resigned as Labour leader, Michael Foot, for long the face of the left in Parliament, replaced him. By this time, Foot was tarnished and politically and emotionally gutted by years of ministerial responsibility and of wheeling and dealing with the dirtiest of them in Parliament. But Foot’s victory was undoubtedly a victory for the left. Successful left-wing socialist policies were like daisies in a summer field on Labour Party conference agenda books. And just as Callaghan moved out of Downing Street and Thatcher moved in, the left — beginning with the left-wing takeover of Lambeth council in 1979 — began to win a series of victories in local government that by the early ’80s saw the left in power in most of the key cities, from Greater London up to Manchester and Sheffield. In Liverpool, people calling themselves Trotskyists took effective control of the council.

The prospect seemed good of refounding the political labour movement on a better model, in the crucible of the class struggles that seemed certain to erupt as the labour movement resisted the ruling class offensive. But, in fact, the labour movement collapsed on every front, and so did organised working class resistance.

The Tories constitutionally achieved everything the ruling class could have wanted, legally reducing the trade unions to the condition recently described by Tony Blair as “the most repressive trade union legislation in the western world”. What were the features of this collapse? Why were we defeated? What happened, and why? To what extent and in what ways was the left described above responsible for failure and defeat?


The previous labour upsurge had been on a direct-action, objectively syndicalist, basis, even when it was fighting for political objectives, and even when, for lack of an alternative, it looked to Labour in 1974. It was a product of the long years of full employment. This direct action, which was so powerful that it was able to smash the offensive of the Tory government, wasn’t armed with a programme which came to grips with the political reality. It was not led by a revolutionary Marxist organisation. The Labour government that came to power in the wake of the miners’ strike in 1974 was elected on a basis of left talk about a “radical redistribution of wealth” and promises by Shadow Chancellor Denis Healy to “squeeze the rich ’til the pips squeak”, and on a real class upsurge; but it had no means of dealing with the capitalist crisis other than according to the laws of capitalism. The Labour Party was committed to capitalism; the government couldn’t have broken with it.

Much of the limited previously active labour movement socialist consciousness, summed up in Clause Four, had been eroded as ‘socialist’ projects for nationalisation were realised by the post-’45 Labour government as state capitalist reorganisation of industry, leading to disappointment and — for many workers in those and other industries — proof that nationalisation wasn’t necessarily in their interest. The 1974-9 Labour government carried through considerable nationalisation measures — and Tony Benn had large numbers of requests from shop stewards’ committees to nationalise their industry — with the same disillusioning effect.

The then influential Tribunite Labour left’s best idea of a socialist alternative to Wilson and Callaghan was modelled on the experience of wartime controls. It was, in fact, the worst kind of sectarian schema-mongering; but that was the nearest thing to a ‘socialist’ set of proposals available in the broad movement. The result was that the ‘left’ was politically disarmed in face of the capitalist system-serving Labour leadership.

The labour movement that had proved strong enough in 1972 to win a mini-1926, defeating the government and forcing it to release 5 dockers jailed for illegal picketing was politically disarmed after the mid-’70s. It had no policy to answer the capitlist crisis.

The direct action of the early ’70s could not on its own allow workers to get to grips with the overall realities of capitalist crisis, or spontaneously generate a plan to deal with it.

In sum, the industrial militancy proved itself inadequate and what had passed for a socialist alternative had not too much credibility left.

The industrial militancy collapsed after 1975.

Wide layers of the working class were soon thrown on the streets by the slump that developed in 1980. The Tories deliberately used and intensified the effects of the slump to help them in their war against the labour movement and, indeed, against the working class.

They waged social war on the militant working class. They laid waste whole areas of the country. They destroyed whole working-class communities in the name of their god, “market forces”, and with its help. The deliberate destruction of the mining industry in the 1980s, the single most militant and most powerful segment of the working class and labour movement in the 1970s, is the best-known example.

The trade union leaders did not fight back seriously, including the left trade union leaders — Jones, Scanlon, etc. — who, tragically, had great and inhibiting authority with the rank and file, and close connections with the CP-organised Broad Lefts. There was no independent rank and file movement worth speaking of, no alternative leading centre in the unions. The rank and file movements that existed, such as they were, were CP-influenced and tied to the ‘left’ trade union leaders. The SWP ‘rank and file movement’ petered out.

One of the first acts of the Thatcher government and its first decisive victory over the labour movement was their success in bringing in the first layer of anti-union laws (1980/1) — and making them stick. Afterwards the unions were inhibited and at a great disadvantage. The fatal role played here by first the trade union leaders and then by the “left-wing” Labour Party leaders and all those who did not fight can not be exaggerated. This was the first — the failure of the local government left was the second and the betrayal of the miners’ strike the third — turning on the road to the labour movement’s present situation.

In the early ’80s, the Labour left took power in a range of councils up and down the country. Local government could have been made a stronghold of the left and used as a basis for broad mobilisation against Tory policies, especially Tory cuts. But that was done nowhere, though a noisy pretence of it was made in Liverpool and Lambeth.

Because large sections of the left-wing forces in the Labour Party, being as described above, were not seriously committed to class struggle socialism and, often, were radically out of contact with the working class, and absorbed in their own concerns and shibboleths, many of them had political contempt for the working class.

Instead of defying and resisting the Tories, turning local government into fortresses of the left, the mainstream left ducked the issue. Instead of mobilising against the Tory cuts, they passed them on to those they should have mobilised in the form of higher local taxes (rates).

This local government left was decisively not a class-struggle left. In 1980-81 the forces around Socialist Organiser split on this issue. Those who advocated class-struggle politics then are now in Workers’ Liberty. The other side is personified — in Parliament — today as then by Ken Livingstone, one-time leader of the GLC.

The Labour Party, led by one-time leftwinger Michael Foot until 1983 and then by one-time left-winger Neil Kinnock, reneged on an early public promise by Michael Foot to “raise a storm of indignation” against mass unemployment, and the destruction of the hopes for a decent life of a whole generation of working class young people in northern England. Failing to mobilise on the streets, the Labour left had nothing to do but engage in electoral competition with the Tories. Most of them had, while still talking left, recently learned reformist “realism” and submissiveness in local government. In 1982, with an election looming the following year, the long march to the right began: everything had to focus on getting the Tories out. To do it, Tory policies were, as the ’80s drew on, mimicked and assimilated. The soft-left slowly turned into the right. By the time New Labour finally did beat the Conservatives in the 1997 general election, New Labour was politically one of the heirs of Margaret Thatcher.

The sole outright working-class challenge to Thatcherism, the great miners’ strike came late and was fought without the class solidarity that could have made it the spearhead of a successful working class offensive. The miners’ strike saw the final great betrayal of working class politics, and of the working class, by the local government left. The most important betrayal was perpetuated by people calling themselves Marxists. In Liverpool, Militant [now the Socialist Party] chose to do a short-term deal with the Tories rather than go into a confrontation with the government that would have linked up with the miners, and might have made the difference between victory and defeat.


These are the experiences that shaped and reshaped the left that now confronts the New Labour government and the Blairite challenge to the survival of mass working class politics.

To the question whether an economic slump (or boom) stimulates or depresses working class militancy, Leon Trotsky replied simply that it depends on what has gone before. The great slump after 1929 depressed the British labour movement because it had recently suffered the defeat of the General Strike. The same slump triggered the American working class into organising the modern mass trade unions of the CIO. They had had no great defeat, but had had great prosperity in the ’20s. So it is with the left. Just as it was a working class militancy formed in the years of full employment that collapsed when faced with the radically changed conditions of the ’80s, so it was the left already described that faced the experiences and challenges sketched out above. It was a left characterised above all by sectarianism and unrealism and by ‘revolutionary’ political ideas that that had often been petrified into fetishes. The prime sectarian fetish was the universal sectarian fetish — the fetish of “building the party” as a goal in itself, separable and apart from the working class and the labour movement. The point is that the revolutionary party cannot be a revolutionary party if it is so separated — and so built.

The result is that the world in which the far left in Britain now operates looks like this.

Industrial militancy was stamped out by unemployment, the destruction of traditional industries and the operation of the “least liberal trade union laws in the western world”. The politics of the working class who remained outside the fold of Thatcher’s Tory populism became by the late ’80s the politics of waiting for the Tories to be kicked out. Labour movement people tolerated everything Kinnock did and said, in the hope that the Tories could be kicked out. They have tolerated Blair too. The Labour left has withered to very little. Many of the former left leaders are Blairites, or their prisoners. There is very little life in the Labour Party though that may change in the euphoria of Tory defeat. Outside the Labour Party, the CP collapsed with the collapse of the Soviet Union - having in the 1980s played the role of right-wing think-tank for the Kinnockites.

How does the far-left look? What remains - there has been a very great shrinkage in terms of absolute numbers - looks roughly like this.

• There is the SWP, claiming 10,000 members - very loosely defined**** - and disposing of considerable material resources. Politically it has gone through an astonishing series of zig-zags, even dipping a limb occasionally into the third worldism and populism it used to despise. In the 80s it turned itself into a beleaguered, banked-down organisation hibernating against the cold winds of the world around it, and has drawn some benefits from this. It does some very unambitious trade union work. Its essential politics are the politics of self-promotion and "building the party". It is a very undemocratic organisation, with little internal life and a cult of its octogenarian prophet, Tony Cliff, who is both organisational monarch and doctrinal pontiff. It has, despite zig-zags, learned and unlearned little since 1968: its leading layer is stuck in a state of arrested development centred on or around the events of that year. Hostility to Israel is one of its central political principles.

• There is Militant. Most Trotskyist groups have never had the chance to play a decisive part in the class struggle: in Britain only Militant has. In Liverpool it reproduced a caricature of the Second International - "building the revolutionary party" as a bureaucratic apparatus and buckling under the threat posed to that apparatus "party" by confrontation with the Tories in Liverpool - choosing to try - vainly - to preserve that apparatus and leave the striking miners in the lurch, when the aid Liverpool council could have given might have proved decisive in the class struggle. It was built as a big tendency in protected territory, in the Labour Party Young Socialists, which it controlled after 1969 for 16 or 17 years. In all that time, until the Kinnockites demolished it in the aftermath of the tendency's failure and fiasco in Liverpool, it never seriously clashed with the Labour bureaucracy. It took shape around certain mechanical "perspectives", with more of the Meccano-set than dialectical Marxism in them. The Labour Party was inexorably evolving towards becoming a mass left-wing force and would, beyond that, soon elevate "the Marxists" - Militant - into leadership of the labour movement; the world was evolving towards socialism, with progressive Stalinism showing the way. They have been very badly shaken by the collapse of Stalinism and by their own late 80s expulsion from the Labour Party. All their certainties have gone - as has Ted Grant, the founder of the group - and they are now typical "kitsch-Trotskyist" eclectic socialists, possibly about to fuse with the Mandelites. They have built a respectworthy base of local government activity in Glasgow. Recently, this 60-year old tendency was rebaptised as the Socialist Party. In terms of numbers it has greatly declined. Outside of Glasgow, none of its candidates in the general election rose much above the figure "Monster Raving Loony" and other joke candidates achieved.

• There is the tendency around Workers' Liberty.

Beyond that there are a large number of fragments from the former Mandelite organisation - Socialist Outlook, Socialist Action, the (Castroite) Communist League and others - and splinters from the SWP and Militant; fragments of the Healyite WRP, which shattered into at least 10 pieces in the mid-80s. There are fragments of the old CP, some of which have made their way to something like revolutionary politics.

It is a cluster in marked intellectual decline and decay. Where there were - in Militant, for example - wrong but coherent ideas, there is now anchorless eclecticism. Where there were politics that were at least clear, if mistaken, such as the demand for Britain to leave the European Community, or to pull out of Northern Ireland immediately, there is now only the remnants of these policies, in positions which imply what has gone, but no longer have the courage or the energy to state them. Thus opposition to Maastricht now takes the place of opposition to the EC and unthinking support for the Provisional IRA policies the place of the old position on Ireland, Troops Out.

This is a left in a process of continued decay. Its lurch into sectarianism vis-ˆ-vis mass working class politics is probably fundamental to it.

To reconstruct a serious, Marxist left, politically renovated, a clearing of accounts with the history of this old movement is necessary - work such as we undertake in Workers' Liberty.

In politics now, the central dividing line separating the sectarians from the serious left - the left that aspires to build in the actually existing labour movement, that is, which seriously aspires to lead the working class towards the making of a socialist revolution - is expressed in this question: it is agreed that Marxists must organise as a distinct formation, but beyond that do we build sects, or do we exist to develop mass working class politics? If the Labour Party is dead or about to become dead as a workers' party on even a minimal level, do we shout, "build the the revolutionary party" or - while building an organisation of Marxists - campaign in the trade unions and the working class for the perspective of a mass trade union-based workers' party? The left will develop and reshape around the axes of conflicting answers to this question and in the struggles which the Labour victory in the general election and the return of hope that has accompanied it will help generate.


*They had been hegemonised by the Labour Party after the great triumph of reformism in the '40's, sometimes so far as to lose sight of their own supposed identity.

**There was also in the 60s, 70s and 1980s on the "revolutionary left", the Workers Revolutionary Party of Mr Gerry Healy. It was in political terms first sectarian, then very sectarian, and, finally, by the late 70s, way-out crazy - it was against the return of a Labour government on the grounds, inter alia, that it would provoke a military coup. The WRP was also, and very obviously, in the pay of Arab governments like those of Saddam Hussein and Colonel Ghadaffi. Yet it gained some serious influence in the Labour left of the early 80s and the collaboration of figures like Ken Livingstone MP. For Livingstone, the Healyite recipients of Arab money, created a semi-front weekly, 'Labour Herald', edited by Stephen Miler, a member of the WRP Central Committee, in competition with Socialist Organiser.

***Even the Workers Fight group, which had begun to reorientate in 1972 and, with more energy, in 1973, found itself inhibited and dragged back by the combined weight of 'left' emotionalism and propagandist methods.

****The actual membership can be calculated quite precisely from SWP figures on their number of branches - 250 - and their average number of members per branch -6.6 x 250 = 1,500

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.