Reproduced from issue 3 of the journal
Editorial Introduction (Dominic Smith)
An understanding of the Labour Party is key to understanding the political landscape in Britain today. Despite the meteoric rise of Jeremy Corbyn to Labour leader in September 2015 and the explosion of its membership to beyond half a million, the two main ‘revolutionary’ groups in Britain, the Socialist Party (SP) and Socialist Workers Party (SWP), refused to seriously orientate towards Labour Party members. Indeed, they refused to re-evaluate their perspectives and tactics in the light of the historical accident that took place. Only belatedly after over a year of Corbyn at the helm has the SP half-heartedly put out a petition demanding that the Labour memberships of old members are reinstated. Their case would have had at least some chance of succeeding had the majority faction of Militant (led by Peter Taaffe), an entryist group which became active within Labour in 1964, left in 1991 and became the Socialist Party in 1997, not repeatedly stood candidates against Labour, denouncing it as a capitalist party no different to the Tories. This failed approach flowed from their flawed political analysis and misunderstanding of social democracy and the class collaborative nature of the Labour Party. Other organisations, such as the Revolutionary Communist Group (RCG), simply denounce Labour for treachery and imperialism without bothering to engage with the wider membership, alienating many thousands of potential supporters.
Militant’s analysis and approach back in the 1980s was far more ‘correct’ than the above mentioned sects, and we republish Militant’s article below, ‘The Predecessors of Labour – The Role of the Social Democratic Federation’. This is taken from the Militant pamphlet History of the Labour Party which was produced in order to educate Militant members in the contradictory role of the Labour Party as a bourgeois-workers’ party.
The article outlines some of the important lessons for building the revolutionary movement today. One of these key lessons is that a patient approach with workers in the trade unions and labour movement is required. People learn mainly from their own practical experience. Theory is extremely important and must be taken seriously, but workers will learn at their own pace. Refusing to engage with mass movements and workers’ organisations because they don’t have a socialist outlook or programme from the get-go is the height of sectarianism, as displayed by the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). In practice this approach is a rejection of the united front tactic that is needed to win workers to revolutionary Marxism. That is why supporters of Marxist World are involved in the Labour Party and engage with members, whilst at the same time pointing out the deficiencies of the Labour programme, policies and methods from a Marxist perspective. As Militant’s main theoretician explained,
To the sectarian splinter groups on the edge of, or to the left of the Fourth International, the problem is posed in the simplest of terms: the Social Democracy and Stalinism have betrayed the working class; therefore the independent party of the working class must immediately be built. They claim the independence of the revolutionary party as a principle, whether the party consists of two or two million. They do not take into account the historical development of the movement of the working class, which conditions the tactics, while maintaining the principles of the Marxists. Without flexible tactics it is impossible to win or train the forces which must be won before a revolutionary party can be built. Unfortunately, the movement of the working class does not proceed in a straight line. Otherwise, all that would be necessary would be to proclaim from the street corners the need for a revolutionary party – as the SPGB has proclaimed for 50 years the superiority of Socialism over capitalism – but with completely barren results (Grant 1959).
Despite these correct lessons we can garner from the article, one must also be careful to avoid the ‘socialist myth’ of the founding of the Labour Party, i.e. that the Labour Party was founded and politically driven by socialists as a socialist party and would have remained socialist if the SDF hadn’t have ‘misunderstood’ their role and that of the working class. Another variant of the ‘socialist myth’ is that it was Tony Blair and New Labour that wrecked the Party, and thus we should return to a pre-Blair Old Labour when it was ‘left wing’.
To the contrary, even before the consolidation of the reformist and pro-capitalist leadership of the Labour Party, the Independent Labour Party (ILIP) was a contradictory coalition of different liberal and working class organisations. The ILP leadership saw themselves as continuing in the vein of the Liberals and acting as a working class pressure point for progressive liberalism on the Liberal Party (Seymour 2016). It was only after the event of the Russian Revolution in 1917 that workers swung behind the Labour Party and adopted Clause IV, formally calling for common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Even then, the Labour and trade union leaders only paid lip service to this ‘socialism’ for fear of being outflanked by workers from the Left; The leadership continued to mediate between the contending classes; such is the very essence of social democracy. We therefore agree with the likes of the RCG that social democracy is the left flank of capital, but we also think they are wrong to stand on the sidelines and ignore those half a million workers in the Labour Party.
Furthermore, it is likely that any new future political party that emerges to challenge Labour from the Left in this country will not have a well-rounded Marxist programme from the outset, but Marxists would still participate within it in order to prevent a petit-bourgeois leadership becoming entrenched. One of the lessons of the SDF is that they denied themselves of even the possibility of preventing this scenario when the Labour Party was embryonic and still in the process of formation due to their own sectarian attitudes towards the Labour Representation Committee and the ILP.
We believe that many workers today, both inside and outside the Labour Party, will become the revolutionaries of tomorrow and go forward to smash capitalism in all its various guises.
Grant, T. 1959. Problems of Entrism. Militant. https://www.marxists.org/archive/grant/1959/03/entrism.htm
Seymour, R. 2016. Corbyn: The strange birth of radical politics. London: Verso.
The Predecessors of Labour – The Role of the Social Democratic Federation (Militant)
Today in the labour movement the label ‘Social Democrat’ is often associated with that section of the Labour Party that supports a mixed economy. A ‘Social Democrat’ believes that poverty and inequality can be overcome within the framework of capitalism.
However, the original meaning of ‘social democracy’ was completely different. For instance, the Social Democratic Federation had as its programme ‘the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’, a demand which today Reg Prentice and his friends in the Social Democratic Alliance would consider dogmatic and old-fashioned!
The Social Democratic Federation (SDF) was one of the first organisations in this country to support Marxism. Despite its political weaknesses, it played a large role in winning workers to the cause of socialism.
It was formed in the 1880s at a time when British capitalism was beginning to face a challenge on the world market by other industrial nations. This had forced British industry to make an effort to modernise. It meant an increasing tendency towards monopoly of industry. It meant the breakdown of skills and divisions within the working class. Out of this, the large unions of unskilled and semi-skilled unions were built.
The struggles of the workers in the unskilled unions led the need for an independent working class party, and for a new form of society – i.e. socialism. As Engels predicted, in his article in the Labour Standard in 1881, ‘ … the time is rapidly approaching, when the working class will have understood that the struggle for higher wages, and shorter hours, … is not an end in itself, but a means, a very necessary and effective means … towards a higher end … the abolition of the wages system altogether’. The time was ripe for independent labour politics and a growth in support for socialist policies amongst the working class.
What sort of role was the SDF to play? The SDF was founded by Hyndman, an ex-Tory, who had become impressed by Marxist theory. It was joined by Chartist leaders, such as Bronterre O’Brien who provided a link with earlier working class struggles. Unfortunately, Hyndman and his followers who were the leadership of the SDF never fully gave up the belief that poverty and unemployment were really due to the stupidity of the ruling class. As a result, they had no clear idea of the part to be played by the working class in the struggle for socialism.
1889 Dock Strike
Many industrial workers joined the SDF, which they saw as a real alternative to the Liberals and Tories (in the absence of an independent working class party based on the trade unions). By 1900 there were 43 branches of the SDF in London alone and members of the SDF held a majority on the London Trades Council.
Leading industrial militants such as Tom Mann, Ben Tillett and Will Thorne joined the SDF. These were the people who were to play a key role in the organisation of the unskilled workers, the dockers and the gasworkers. They were to lead the dockers’ strike of 1889 for 6d an hour. They were also in the forefront in the TUC in the fight for independent Labour representation in Parliament.
This helps give the lie to the myth, fostered by the ‘Social Democrats’ of today, that the working class movement has always been led by ‘moderates’. Marxists played a leading part in the building of the labour movement as we know it today.
Despite the successes of the rank and file of the SDF in the setting up of independent working class organisations, the SDF as a whole was never able to make much headway in committing these organisations to campaigning for a socialist programme. This was because its leadership did not know how to link the need for socialism to the everyday problems facing the working class. They saw the struggle for reforms: the eight hour day (which the movement saw as a solution to unemployment), free school meals, and for wage increases, as completely separate from the struggle for socialism.
They regarded socialism as a theory to be preached to the working class at street comer meetings, in the hope that a majority could be persuaded that it would be a better system of society. The activities of the SDF consisted, on the one hand, of lectures on socialism, on the other hand of pure trade union activity. They did not see that the working class would be won to socialism through its own experience of struggling for better conditions.
In advising his supporters to join the Independent Labour Party (ILP), Engels wrote of the SDF that it had continued ‘to reduce the Marxist theory of development to a rigid orthodoxy, this theory … to be forced down the throats of the workers at once and without development as articles of faith, instead of making the workers raise themselves to its level, by dint of their own class instinct’. This is why the SDF would remain a sect.
The SDF, like the leadership of the Social Democratic Party in Germany, at the time understood neither the role of the working class, nor of their own party in the socialist transformation of society. They talked about the inevitable collapse of capitalism which was always ‘just around the comer’, and they believed that socialism would automatically arise from this ‘collapse’.
They were not aware of the need of the working class to actually carry out the task of replacing the capitalism system with a socialist society. Their programme of reforms, which included the elimination of the national debt, nationalisation of the banks, railways and land, and public provision of housing, was not intended to convince the majority of the working class of the necessity of socialism, but to improve conditions for the working class, so as to avoid any premature uprising. This showed their total lack of confidence in the workers.
These policies of the leadership of the SDF were to lead it to adopt a completely sectarian approach towards the developing labour movement. This began with the trades unions. Originally Justice, the paper of the SDF, had led a campaign for the organisation of unskilled workers. Now it denounced these unions as part of the capitalist system. Trade unions were useless, they claimed, because they left the wages system intact.
They also became hostile to strikes. An article in Justice in 1890 claimed that the 1889 dock strike, one of the greatest victories for the working class, had been a waste of time. Dockers were still out of work, they claimed, and were being used as blacklegs in the gasmen’s dispute. Instead of calling for 100% trade union membership to end blacklegging and for work-sharing without loss of pay as a solution to unemployment, the SDF denounced strikes as useless.
In 1911, Lee, Secretary of the SDF, was to write in a pamphlet ‘ … that industrial struggles, such as we have been going through, inconvenience the general-public … add to the bitterness left towards the working class by the middle and upper classes.’ By rejecting the class struggle as the means to achieving socialism, the SDF had ended up putting itself on the side of the ruling class.
Far from earning itself the right to lead the working class towards socialism, it could do no-better than echo the views of the Tory press. Apart from the real improvements in living standards which could be won and were won through industrial action, the SDF ignored the educative role of strikes – a weapon which once gained could never be taken away from the workers.
Its policy of ‘waiting for socialism’ condemned the SDF to isolation from the labour movement and loss of members. Tom Mann and other leading trades unions left to join the Independent Labour Party which, though reformist, had links with the trades unions and was a genuine political expression of the working class.
The same errors were to be committed in relation to the Labour Party. The SDF took part in the formation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900. Its proposal to commit the LRC to a socialist programme was not accepted by the majority of trade unionists. So the SDF disaffiliated, despite the LRC coming out decisively in favour of independent working class representation against the parties of the capitalist class.
Although the SDF itself had left the LRC, individual members attended conferences as delegates from their trades unions. Every year they moved resolutions in favour of socialism and every year they lost the sympathy of the other delegates by urging that these resolutions be adopted as a matter of principle. They did not explain in terms of wages and conditions of employment why it was necessary for a party based on the trades unions to adopt a socialist programme.
Events were to overtake the SDF. Within a few years, the LRC was to double its trade union affiliation and to adopt a socialist programme. Because of its sectarianism, the SDF was unable to take a lead in this attempt to transform the Labour Party and to win support for a Marxist leadership. It left the party in the hands of the mild leaders of the ILP. This meant that there was no effective challenge to the leadership of MacDonald and Henderson.
This sectarianism was rejected by the members of the SDF in the North where it had working class support. They continued to argue for the affiliation of the SDF to the LP. As a member from Blackburn said ‘ … the LRC movement is a semi-conscious recognition of the conflict of interests between the proletariat and the master class. It is better in character than its leaders in the House of Commons … we want to make it a socialist movement and must establish sympathetic relations with it’.
In 1914 the SDF merged with branches of the ILP, became the British Socialist Party and re-affiliated to the Labour Party. It is clear that the sectarianism of the SDF crippled its ability to build a basis of support for Marxism within the working class movement, the trades unions and the Labour Party. Its inability to explain the necessity for socialism in a way which was relevant to the everyday struggles of the labour movement meant that it failed to popularise the ideas of socialism at all. One result of this failure was that members of the SDF, in their daily work in the movement, became entirely and uncritically involved in the work of running local councils and public health boards, without using these as a platform for socialist propaganda. This illustrates how sectarianism and opportunism go hand in hand.
Hyndman took up the view that municipal bodies alone could challenge capitalism. In his eyes the London County Council became the ‘London Commune.’ It was against this tendency of sectarianism and opportunism within the parties of the Second International that Lenin was arguing, when he wrote that it was the duty of the Social Democratic Party to lead the struggle of the working class ‘not only for better terms for the sale of their labour power, but also for the abolition of the social system, which compels the propertyless to sell themselves to the rich,’ and that a socialist should ‘take advantage of every event in order to explain his socialist convictions, and his Social Democratic demands to all in order to explain to all and everyone the world historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat’.
The failure of the SDF to build a socialist alternative to the right wing leaders of the labour movement, even at a time of crisis and massive struggles on the part of the working class, has lessons for us as socialists today. Socialists must reject sectarianism, must reject the method of standing on the sidelines and preaching to the movement.
It is the responsibility of socialists to be active members of the labour movement, involved in the fight for better living standards for the working class as a whole, knowing that it is in the course of struggle, whether it be a strike or an election, that people will be most receptive to socialist ideas.
At the same time, we must not leave the distinction of ‘being practical’ to the present day ‘Social Democrats’. We have to convince the movement that socialism is not only a good idea, but the only practical solution to the problems facing the working class today.