Duncan Hallas

Reforming the Labour Party?

(May 1975)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.58, May 1975, pp.23-24.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Parliamentary Socialism
Ralph Miliband
second edition, Merlin Press, £1.25 (paperback), £2.50 (cloth).

What, then, is it reasonable to expect from the Labour Party in the years ahead? There are two entirely opposed ways of answering this question. The first proceeds from the view that the Labour Party, whatever its past and present shortcomings, can be turned into a socialist party. The second view is that it cannot be turned into such a party. Of the two, the second seems to me much the more realistic.

So writes Ralph Miliband in the Postscript to this timely re-issue of his book (subtitle – A Study in the Politics of Labour). Other voices on the Left disagree. Eric Heffer’s The Class Struggle in Parliament – published last month – argues the old familiar case that the Labour Party is, and must be. the only party of the organised workers’ because it is based on trade union affiliation, that it can indeed be turned into an instrument for the socialist transformation of society, and that Eric Heffer and his friends in the Tribune group are busy in this good work, have made great progress and should be joined by all men of good will. In particular, the argument runs, the “ultra-Lefts” – meaning socialists outside the Labour Party - ought to stop their “unrealistic” attempts to build a revolutionary organisation and join Tribune’s happy band of class war warriors.

Hope springs eternal in the breasts of the left Labourites. They are latter-day disciples of the once-famous Dr Coue, who believed that all ills can be cured by “auto-suggestion” and who advised his patients to repeat each night and morning “everyday, and in every way, everything gets better and better”.

But even the most determined Coueist must be badly shaken if he brings himself to read Ralph Miliband’s book. It is a deadly, pitiless exposure of the actual record of the Labour Party, in office and out of office, from the days of Hardie and MacDonald to the days of Wilson and Jenkins. And it is a devastating account of the political bankruptcy of the successive ‘left-wing’ movements within the party, all the more effective because of its moderate tone. Miliband writes more in sorrow than in anger. He would like to believe in the myths of the Labour Left, but the sheer weight of the evidence he produces compels him, however reluctantly, to see them for the fairy tales they are.

Parliamentary cretinism

The socialists and Social-Democrats of the Second International take the stand of vulgar petty-bourgeois democrats and share the prejudice that the fundamental problems of the class struggle can be solved by voting.
Lenin: Elections and the Proletarian Dictatorship.

It has often been noted that all the ‘successful’ Labour Party leaders – the ones who become Prime Ministers – gained the leadership of the parliamentary party on the basis of a ‘leftist’ reputation (however spurious), with the support of the “left” MPs and against a right-wing opponent. Thus Ramsay MacDonald, who had opposed the First World War, beat the pro-war Clynes with the enthusiastic aid of the ‘wild men of Red Clydeside’ in 1922. Clement Attlee in 1935 (“The moment to strike at capitalism is the moment when the government is freshly elected and assured of its support. The blow struck must be a fatal one ...”) enjoyed the unanimous support of the Left against the right-wing candidate, Morrison. And, of course, Harold Wilson, the former Bevanite, defeated right-winger George Brown in 1963 with the fervent help of the Tribune Lefts.

On each of these occasions more sober activists – revolutionary socialists – pointed out that the current hero of the Left differed from his opponent mainly in his willingness to make left-wing noises when it suited his purpose, and in no sense stood for a basically different policy. The warnings were brushed aside as coming from “incorrigible sectarians”. The ‘Lefts’ were deceived, in spite of ample and obvious evidence, because they wanted to be deceived, and they wanted to be deceived because in terms of parliamentary politics they could see no alternative but to support the ‘lesser evil’ – and then pretend that he was no evil at all but rather, as Frank Allaun wrote of Wilson, “the best Labour leader since Kier Hardie”.

This is the crux of the matter. In Ralph Miliband’s words:

Of political parties claiming socialism to be their aim, the Labour Party has always been one of the most dogmatic – not about socialism, but about the parliamentary system. Empirical and flexible about all else, its leaders have always made devotion to that system their fixed point of reference and the conditioning factor of their political behaviour.

And this is equally true of the Lefts. Miliband makes the point that they have accepted the ‘parliamentary road’ only “with a certain degree of unease and at times with acute misgivings”. But accept it they have, and by doing so have cut themselves off from the possibilities of developing mass actions into a real political challenge to the State or even to the party’s right wing.

Where such actions occur, as in response to attempts to enforce the Industrial Relations Act, the Labour Party, as a party, is on the other side – because the “sovereignty of parliament” is its central shibboleth. Thus official spokesman Reg Prentice denounced the workers who struck to free the Pentonville Five. Individual ‘left’ MPs may show their “unease and misgivings” in the odd speech or question but they too are prisoners of the same theory. Eric Heffer, Frank Allaun and Michael Foot accept the “sovereignty of parliament” just as much as Roy Jenkins, Reg Prentice or Harold Wilson.

The main concern of the Labour Party’s Left wing has always been to secure the supremacy of party conference over the parliamentary party because parliament is what really matters to them. The Left succeeded, insofar as it has ever succeeded, as early as 1907, when conference carried the famous resolution – still formally operative – declaring that conference was the deciding body “on the understanding that time and method of giving effect to those (conference) instructions be left to the party in the House, in conjunction with the national executive”.

“In practice”, Miliband notes, “as experience was to show, this gave the leadership as much, or nearly as much independence as it desired. On the other hand, it greatly enhanced the activists’ faith in the efficacy of conference resolutions and their ineradicable conviction that the passage of resolutions at annual conferences must automatically entail important consequences in regard to party policy. In fact the whole history of the Labour Party has been punctuated by verbal victories of the Labour Left which, with some few exceptions, have had little influence on the Labour Party’s conduct inside or outside the House of Commons, but which have always been of great importance in keeping up the hopes and the morale of the activists.” Exactly right, and as true today as it always has been.

The “dynamic” analysis

The dictatorship of the proletariat means the overthrow of the bourgeoisie by a single class, the proletariat, and by its revolutionary vanguard at that. To demand that this vanguard should first ensure the support of the majority of the people through elections to bourgeois parliaments, bourgeois constituent assemblies etc., i.e. by elections held, while wages slavery still exists, while the exploiters exist and exercise their oppression, and while the means of production are privately owned – to demand this or to assume it, is actually abandoning the dictatorship of the proletariat and going over to the stand-point of bourgeois democracy.
Lenin: Draft of RCP reply to the Independent Social-Democratic Party of Germany

The key weakness of the Labour Lefts is their lack of connection, as an organised force, with the day-to-day struggles of the working class, and consequently their lack of any independent base. Suppose this could be remedied. Then, it is argued, the Left could gain real and not just paper victories. This is the basis of the strategy of the Communist Party. “As communists”, says the CP programme, “we sincerely desire the strengthening of the left trends within the Labour Party. We believe that the struggle of the socialist forces to make it a party of action and socialism will grow and that the growth of the Communist Party will help this development. When the Labour Party rejects reformism, moves into the attack on capitalism, ends the bans and proscriptions against the Left, it will ensure itself a vital role in the building of socialism.”

To the argument that there is not the slightest possibility of the Labour Party launching an attack on capitalism, CP spokesmen reply that this is true at the moment but that it will change. It will change, first, as a result of intensifying class struggle – on the wages front, on housing and rents and so on – which must find a reflection in the Labour Party because it is a party based on the unions. It will change, second, because of the conscious activity of the Communist Party, which does recognise the need to develop “the mass movement outside parliament”, and works with the Labour Lefts “to break the right-wing domination in the labour movement and to win a left-wing majority in the Labour Party” (all these quotations are from The British Road to Socialism).

Of course the sharpening of the class struggle has its effect on the Labour Party. The party today is verbally to the left of its 1970 position. Given a sufficient threat to the system from below, the Labour Party can move much further still. After all, in June 1917 Ramsay MacDonald supported a motion calling for the formation of British councils of workers’ and soldiers delegates “in every town, urban and rural district”. Yet he remained Ramsay MacDonald – a skilful, treacherous enemy of socialism, adept at the use of socialist phrases to deceive the unwary.

For it is not simply a question of reformist ideas – though it is that too – but above all a question, as Lenin, in his “crude” way put it, of “bourgeois agents operating within the labour movement, permeating that movement with bourgeois influence, bourgeois ideas, bourgeois lies and bourgeois corruption” (the emphasis is Lenin’s). It is a question of a party whose leaders are “tied by a thousand threads” to capitalist society – and many of the threads are of gold and silver, not just the gossamer of ideas. It is a question of a party which will make almost any promises to a real mass movement in order to keep control, to head off and ultimately to destroy that movement. The Labour Party is a major obstacle to the development of a real, that is revolutionary, socialist movement in Britain.

To the degree that the Communist Party persuades socialists to devote themselves to an impossible ‘reform’ of the Labour Party, it becomes an accomplice of the Labour Party leaders. To the degree that it spreads illusions in an electoral, parliamentaty road to socialism, it becomes itself a reformist roadblock in the path of the socialist movement.


Last updated on 10.3.2008