Can Labour lead a revolt against the cuts?

And what role can we expect the various Trotskyite and revisionist friends of ‘left’ Labour to perform? A reply to a critical reader.

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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A reader has commented adversely on an article published in the last issue of Proletarian, ‘“Councillors against the Cuts”: a health warning’. He writes:

Your article repeated the vile twisting of the redundancy notices issue that Kinnock engaged in. Perhaps you should have read with care … [the] chapter on this episode in … Social Democracy: the Enemy Within. Harpal [Brar]’s account is fairer and somewhat more accurate. [1] In fact, I would say the best report of Liverpool council from any non-Trotskyist. Your complete hatred of the official movement, be it Labour or unions, colours your entire analysis of the current situation.

The Councillors Against the Cuts conference was a welcome development in the growing resistance seen within the unions and Labour. When you are left high and dry by another Labour victory in 2015, perhaps then you will realise that workers ultimately look towards their official organisations in times of trouble. The mistake you make is only to see the PLP as the Labour party.

But I’ll issue you a challenge to debate with Socialist Appeal on this issue … The SA are the heirs to Ted Grant and Militant – not the Socialist Party! The SA are still working in the Labour party, which shows your lack of research before publishing the article. Let me know if the CPGB-ML wants to take up the challenge on the issue of Liverpool and Militant/SA in the Labour party?

Why do communists revile Labour?

Our reader seems to have failed to notice that the entire Labour party, left wing and right wing alike, is committed to keeping the working-class movement committed to capitalism. The left wing’s only difference with the right wing is its apparent willingness to demand from its bourgeois masters a larger slice of the cake for ordinary workers.

Its governing ideology is that workers can always get a larger slice of the cake under capitalism if they are only determined enough, and that therefore there is no need to overthrow capitalism and establish socialism, which it joins the bourgeoisie in depicting as nasty, dictatorial, arbitrary and cruel.

The whole of the Labour party, right wing and left wing, is anti-communist. Both left and right wingers are equally opposed to the working class overthrowing capitalism, establishing its own state power and suppressing the efforts of capitalist elements to get back what the working class has confiscated from them.

‘Left’ Labour stands for the continued slavery of the working class, albeit, in words at least, slavery on slightly better terms. Communists, on the other hand, stand for an end to working-class slavery; for the working class to take power and to dictate its own terms, rather than continuing to beg its present masters for a few extra crumbs.

This is what lies behind our ‘complete hatred of the official movement’ – not some frenzied irrationality, as our reader appears to be suggesting.

It is perfectly possible that Labour will win the next election as people use their vote to express their rejection of austerity. What is absolutely certain, however, is that, having won the election, Labour will (assuming the capitalist crisis continues) impose the same austerity, conduct the same predatory wars, commit the same war crimes, and persecute the working-class movement in just the same ways as the LibDems and Tories are doing.

The anti-communist logic of Labour’s ideological position forces all social-democratic governments into serving the interests of capitalism, whether they be dominated by the ‘left’ wing or the right.

What can 1980s Liverpool teach us?

The original article to which our reader objects sought to draw certain parallels between the activities of Militant councillors in 1980s Liverpool and the activities of present-day Labour councillors elsewhere, who are again making declarations about refusing to implement cuts dictated by the government’s austerity programme.

The article suggested that history should teach us to be wary of such declarations. At first, the Militant-inspired rebellion by the Labour councillors had indeed succeeded in harnessing and uniting popular anger over the proposed cuts to housing and social services on Merseyside, swelling the Labour vote and prompting some paltry concessions from central government.

But the fragile coalition between Militant and non-Militant Labour councillors swung repeatedly between revolt and compromise, with less hardy souls easily bullied into compliance with Tory cuts by the dispatch of Labour luminaries like Blunkett. In due course, with the end of the miners’ strike, the weakening of popular support and fissures in the Labour group, the revolt fizzled out.

Whilst some of the rebel councillors suffered personally from these developments, the biggest losers were the working class of Merseyside.

To be clear, the lesson is not ‘Do not rebel’. Rather, it is ‘Do not entrust the leadership of your rebellion to the safe keeping of social democracy’. As the article made clear, we welcome the fact that Labour ‘Councillors Against the Cuts’ are popping their heads over the parapet as healthy evidence of the disarray growing in the ranks of social democracy, an indirect consequence of the upswell of popular anger putting fire under its feet.

Before it can settle accounts with capitalism, the proletariat needs to expose and uproot the Labour party. It is the Labour party that has left the working class ‘high and dry’as the Keynesian consensus dries up and blows away, taking the welfare state with it.

Although in Liverpool, the Trotskyites of Militant did indeed persuade workers under the hammer to ‘ultimately look towards their official organisations in times of trouble’ and go on trusting in Labour, this bondage to social democracy is happily not eternal.

Indeed, it is becoming progressively less stable as the crisis deepens. True friends of the exploited will do all possible to hasten their release from this bondage, and will shun like the plague any notion that Labour, any corner of Labour, can be ‘reclaimed’.

The working class, the most revolutionary class in history, is capable of learning from its mistakes, unlike the exploiting classes, which are doomed to repeat them endlessly until they quit the stage. And history confirms that the proletariat, to achieve its own self-emancipation, is ‘ultimately’ fully capable of building vanguard parties informed by Marxist-Leninist science, however uphill a struggle this may appear to be in present-day Britain.

The inevitable consequence of mobilising workers behind ‘left’ Labourism was that, once the defeat came, they were left without an ideological compass and were therefore vulnerable to the re-imposition of Labour in its more openly reactionary form.

Taaffe and Mulhearn, in their highly-coloured 1987 account of the Liverpool events, Liverpool: a City That Dared To Fight, are obliged to acknowledge this, confessing that “It is true that the right wing of the labour movement … have managed laboriously to construct what they consider to be a ‘safe’ Labour council and Liverpool District Labour Party.

But this inconvenient truth is glossed over with the assertion that “this is not due to any change in the consciousness either of the advanced workers or of the mass of the working class: it is the result of a crude purge combined with bureaucratic machination to exclude ‘undesirables’ from the labour movement and throughout the country”.

But what left workers vulnerable to such ‘crude’ manipulation by Kinnock and his successor Blair, if not all those fairy tales about voting Labour to achieve socialism in one city?

As the working people of Liverpool, 30 years on, are confronted yet again by cuts across the board, implemented by one more Labour council, the last thing they need to hear now is that ‘rebel’ Labour messiahs are again offering themselves as a political rallying point for class resistance.

Councillors Against the Cuts do not stand before the proletariat as humble penitents, casting aside their former allegiance to the imperialist Labour party and resolutely taking their place in the ranks of anti-capitalist resistance.

Instead, they continue to posture as ‘real’ Labour, as opposed to the Parliamentary Labour Party, or the ‘tops’, or ‘New Labour’, and rely upon a microwaved rehash of 1980s labour history to revive the flagging pretence that when the final trumpet sounds, Labour will rise from the grave and prove itself the true mass party of the working class, the true harbinger of the socialist revolution.

Incidentally, when open reactionaries in the Labour Party led the witch-hunt against Militant with claims that these ‘revolutionaries’ were an alien force sneaking into Labour by the back door, they did less than justice to the genuine social-democratic loyalties that kept these Trotskyites bound to Labourism.

Here are Taaffe and Mulhearn talking about the origins of Trotskyism on the Mersey: “The late 1930s saw the first beginnings of a Marxist [anti-Marxist, more like!] force which was to play such a decisive role in the labour movement in the 1980s. Trotskyism – the genuine continuation of the ideas of Lenin and the Russian revolution – originated in Liverpool not from the Communist Party, but from the Independent Labour Party and to some extent from the Labour Party.

Militant entryism was less a case of ‘revolutionaries infiltrating Labour’ than fake ‘revolutionaries’ helping Labour to go on infiltrating the workers’ movement, the better to undermine the influence of genuine communists. The fairy tale about ‘Trotsky the Bolshevik’ invites the same contempt as the joke about ‘Labour, the mass party of the working class’.

How can we fight austerity?

There is no dispute that, whatever the faults or shortcomings, both the Liverpool struggle and that of the Lambeth councillors led by Ted Knight represented fairly serious attempts to defend working-class people and communities. All the more reason, then, for us to learn the right lessons from the experience.

The way the rebel councillors were hung out to dry (along with the miners, a lot more significantly) ought to have been the very last nail in the coffin of any idea of the Labour party as a party that can be won to defending working-class interests.

That is why the belated posturing of Councillors Against the Cuts is an utter damp squib and pale shadow compared to Liverpool and Lambeth (let alone the titanic miners’ strike).

The battle to uproot the pernicious influence of Labour from within the workers’ movement will intensify as social democracy reveals its treachery ever-more starkly with the sharpening of the crisis.

Today, some Trots are still grimacing from behind the skirts of the Labour party; while others are half-heartedly proclaiming the need for a ‘new workers’ party’ with an ‘Old’ Labour agenda. Either way, the lowest common denominator emerges of Trotskyism coming to the rescue of Labourism by keeping workers trapped behind social-democratic illusions.

Taaffe and Mulhearn positively celebrate this dubious achievement, exulting that “It is a historical fact that not one city-wide council or general election in Liverpool was lost by Labour from 1983 to 1987. On the contrary, support for Labour was immeasurably stronger in 1987 than it was at the outset of the struggle.

So in this rocky period for British capitalism, when the developing overproduction crisis dictated a major and abrupt shift away from the Keynesian consensus and towards open class warfare, the crowning achievement of Militant’s intervention was to mobilise the simmering rage of workers and drive it back down the social-democratic drain. Terrific!

And what a poor recompense for the personal sacrifices made by 47 surcharged Labour councillors, let alone the much greater and more long-term sacrifices made by the people in whose name the revolt was raised.

Better leave it to the various Trot factions to work out between themselves who, if anyone, deserves to succeed to the ideological inheritance of Militant. We communists will get on with facing the real challenge: rebuilding a Bolshevik party in Britain capable of equipping the proletariat with the revolutionary theory of which the class has for so long been cruelly defrauded, thanks to the faithful guard-dog duty performed for imperialism by the Labour party and its revisionist and Trot outriders.

Much of all this is surely known to our indignant reader, given his recommendation to study Social Democracy: the Enemy Within by Harpal Brar, especially the chapter on the Liverpool events.

We would simply invite him to consider afresh the full implications of the conclusion which that chapter reaches, that “so long as the Labour party retains any influence over mass struggle, that struggle is bound to fail”.


[1] For the record, the ‘vile’ account of the redundancy notices given in our article differs in no way from the ‘fairer and somewhat more accurate’ account in Social Democracy. Readers are invited to verify this for themselves by buying and reading the book!