Britain: Marxism, the Labour Party and the witch-hunt

Socialist Appeal, the Marxist voice of Labour and youth, has been expelled from the British Labour Party, with the right wing saying they are ‘alien’ and ‘toxic’ to the party’s ‘aims and values’. But Marxism has a long history in the British labour movement, and the Labour Party. This article answers the lies, smears, and slanders.

The decision by Labour’s national executive committee (NEC) to ban Socialist Appeal and expel our supporters from the Labour Party is not a new idea. It is part of a long history by the right wing to eradicate Marxism and its influence from the party.

This should not surprise us. Labour’s right wing, who now dominate the party leadership under Sir Keir Starmer, are open agents of the ruling class within our movement, whose task is to make the party safe for capitalism. This goes as far as wrecking the Labour Party if need be.

What is certain, however, is that whatever the immediate outcome of this particular struggle, Marxism will continue to grow from strength to strength, given the organic crisis of capitalism. There can be no doubt of this. Marxism is more relevant than ever before. The right wing has forgotten a simple lesson: No force on earth can stop an idea whose time has come.


In the 1950s, when there was the post-war economic upswing, the right wing derived their strength from the fact that capitalism could afford certain reforms. But the situation has dramatically changed.

Today, capitalist crisis means that counter-reforms and austerity are on the agenda everywhere. The material basis for right-wing reformism has been completely undermined. This will provoke crisis after crisis. At a certain stage, the right wing’s domination will inevitably collapse.

Marxism, according to our detractors, is ‘toxic’ or ‘poisonous’. This is a reference, we presume, to our steadfast opposition to capitalism, which is anathema to Labour’s right wing. For them, all opposition to the market economy and the rule of profit is ‘toxic’ or ‘poisonous’. What do you expect when they worship at the altar of capitalism?

Behind their attacks on the Marxists lie the establishment and the ruling class – the masters who they faithfully serve. Their aim in expelling Marxists and left-wing members is to make the Labour Party safe for capitalism; nothing more, nothing less.

Sir Keir Starmer, our knight of the realm, is proposing to introduce bans and proscriptions on the left on a scale not seen before. Now you can be ‘auto-excluded’ on the evidence of a scoundrel or bureaucrat, with no right of appeal. The democratic rights of Labour members are to be scrapped forthwith.

No doubt stooges will be sent to spy on and photograph Socialist Appeal stalls, selling socialist literature, so as to compile expulsion lists.

These are the notorious methods of McCarthyism in the United States, which introduced the blacklist. Just like the scandal of blacklisted construction workers, Socialist Appeal supporters are on Starmer’s blacklist.

History and traditions

It is not we who are ‘toxic’, but these right-wing saboteurs and stooges for the ruling class.

Marxism has a long history in Britain, longer than even the Labour Party. Unlike Sir Starmer, Clement Attlee, a past leader of the Labour Party, gave credit to the Marxist pioneers of our movement.

Attlee Image public domainUnlike Sir Starmer, past Labour leader Clement Attlee gave credit to the Marxist pioneers of our movement / Image: public domain

“[Marxism’s] adherents showed immense courage at a time when socialist propagandists were often met with physical force,” explained Clement Attlee before the war. “It lived adventurously, and its members took a prominent part in the industrial struggles of the eighties and nineties. Its pioneer work was invaluable…” (Attlee, The Labour Party in Perspective)

In fact, one of the first working-class parties in Britain was the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). It was established in 1881 as an openly Marxist party, almost 20 years before the founding of the Labour Party.

Its members played a central role in building mass trade unions in Britain.

“The most prominent leaders [of the unions] were members of the Social Democratic Party,” again writes Attlee, “and it is perhaps in this field that the Federation did its greatest service to the British Socialist movement”.

In 1900, the SDF helped found the party of which Starmer is now leader, and was given two permanent seats on its national executive.

Unfortunately, the SDF leaders had a sectarian outlook, which had been criticised by Engels before his death. This led to the Marxists leaving the party when it failed to adopt a complete socialist programme.


Starmer attacks us for belonging to the International Marxist Tendency (IMT), composed of Marxist groups all around the world. But we have nothing to apologise for as far as our internationalism is concerned, which is a vital part in the struggle for world socialism.

In 1907, the Labour Party itself affiliated to the Second International, an openly international Marxist organisation, which brought together the socialist parties of the world.

The Labour Party’s affiliation was proposed by none other than Karl Kautsky and seconded by Lenin, who viewed it as “the first step on the part of the really proletarian organisations of Britain towards a conscious class policy and towards a socialist workers’ party.” (Lenin on Britain, p.97)

In 1912, the SDF had evolved into the British Socialist Party – a Marxist organisation that became affiliated to the Labour Party. It's most well-known figure was John MacLean from Glasgow.

Under the impact of the Russian Revolution, in 1918 the Labour Party adopted a socialist constitution containing the famous Clause 4, pledging the party to the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.

This was scrapped by Tony Blair in 1995. However, it was Socialist Appeal that inaugurated the Labour4Clause4 campaign to fight for its reinstatement, which was supported by 62% of delegates from local delegates at the 2019 Labour Party conference.

In 1920, the newly-formed British Communist Party, which had absorbed the British Socialist Party, voted to affiliate to the Labour Party. But this request was turned down, in part by the way it was formulated which invited rejection. Despite this, Communist Party members could still be individual members of the Labour Party up to the Liverpool conference in 1925.

The right wing, including the trade union leaders, were determined to draw a line by the imposition of bans and proscriptions.


Ever since then, the Labour Party's right wing considered the Marxist left a threat to their pro-capitalist policies. Those it could witch-hunt were then expelled for their views.

Aneurin Bevan Image public domainAneurin Bevan, founder of the NHS, is often praised by the Labour right, but they certainly would've expelled him today / Image: public domain

Stafford Cripps MP was expelled by the NEC in 1938, who was followed by Aneurin Bevan MP and George Strauss MP.

Later Michael Foot and Sydney Silverman, both Labour MPs, had the whip withdrawn, as with Corbyn today. In this on-going witch-hunt, others were also expelled and left-wing papers banned.

“If every organised effort to change party policy,” wrote Bevan, “is to be described as an organised attack on the party itself then the rigidity imposed by party discipline will soon change into rigor mortis.” He warned that the Labour Party should take care not to transform itself into “an intellectual concentration camp”.

It is ironic that the right wing still feel the need to praise Aneurin Bevan, the founder of the National Health Service. But as Michael Foot wrote in his biography, “He [Bevan] was a convinced Marxist.”

“He accepted the Marxist stress on the need for a full theory of social change and went so far to accept the Marxist analysis of the weakness and disabilities associated with social democratic leadership.” (Foot, Aneurin Bevan 1897-1945, p.150)

Marx and Engels

In 1947, the Labour Party went so far as to reprint the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels, with an introduction by Harold Laski, to mark the document's centenary. The foreword explained:

“In presenting this centenary volume of the Communist Manifesto, with the valuable Historical Introduction by Professor Laski, the Labour Party acknowledges its indebtedness to Marx and Engels as two men who have been the inspiration of the whole working class movement.

“The British Labour Party has its roots in the history of Britain… But British socialists have never isolated themselves from their fellows on the continent of Europe. Our own ideas have been different from those of continental socialism which stemmed more directly from Marx, but we, too, have been influenced in a hundred ways by European thinkers and fighters, and, above all, by the authors of the Manifesto.

“Britain played a large part in the lives and work of both Marx and Engels. Marx spent most of his adult life here and is buried in Highgate cemetery. Engels was a child of Manchester, the very symbol of capitalist industrialism. When they wrote of bourgeois exploitation they were drawing mainly on English experience.”

Of course, making a few complimentary remarks about Marx and Engels was one thing, but allowing Marxists to organise in the Labour Party was quite another. They even came to regard the Labour Left as a threat.

Despite being lauded for creating the NHS, the right-wing leadership were determined to once again expel Nye Bevan and his ‘Bevanite’ supporters. While he narrowly escaped expulsion in 1951, the Bevanite organisation was banned.

There is no doubt that Nye Bevan would be up for expulsion in Starmer’s Labour Party.

Tony Benn

In the 1980s, the Militant was branded as a ‘party within a party’ and banned. But this was simply a precursor for a general purge of the left under Kinnock and preparation for a shift to the right in the party, ending up with Tony Blair and New Labour.

Tony Benn Image RwendlandTony Benn: “I believe that no mature tradition of political democracy today can survive if it does not open itself to the influence of Marx and Marxism" / Image: Rwendland

Militant was attacked not because it was organised – after all, the right were well organised – but because it was so successful.

They started by expelling the editorial board. This was followed by 220 further expulsions.

Tony Benn, although not a Marxist, nevertheless rose to Militant’s defence. “I believe that no mature tradition of political democracy today can survive if it does not open itself to the influence of Marx and Marxism,” stated Benn.

The Communist Manifesto, and many other works of Marxist philosophy, have always profoundly influenced the British labour movement and the British Labour Party, and have strengthened our understanding and enriched our thinking.

“It would be as unthinkable to try to construct the Labour Party without Marx, as it would be to establish university faculties of astronomy, anthropology or psychology without permitting the study of Copernicus, Darwin or Freud, and still expect such faculties to be taken seriously.”

Tony Benn also made reference to Trotsky’s vital contribution:

“Trotsky should be remembered as the first and most significant Soviet dissident, hunted and later murdered by Stalin. His critiques of Stalinism merit respectful study and his contemptuous exposé of the milk-and-water socialism of some Labour leaders in the 1920s in his book Whither Britain, entitles him to a place in our history.”

He concluded: “...I am profoundly opposed to any attempt to outlaw, expel or excommunicate the followers of Leon Trotsky from the Labour Party.”

According to Michael Foot's biographer, Kenneth Morgan:

“Both [Michael Foot and Tony Benn] pay tribute to the inspiration of Marx, whose role in British socialist thought had been virtually ignored during the Cold War years. Even if neither was seriously a Marxist socialist, Marx had been an influence on both over the years.

“Both adopted Marx's view of historical necessity and the centrality of class. Foot, as we have seen, spent time reading through the Marxian dialectic in his Socialist League days, and instructed Barbara Betts in the fundamentals of Marx's message. Benn discovered Marx much later in life, and first read The Communist Manifesto in his fifties.” (Morgan, Michael Foot, pp. 407-8)

Although it is true that many of those influenced by Marxism later went off in different political directions, and even became hostile, it nevertheless clearly indicated the importance of Marxism as an influential trend in the history of the British Labour Party.

The main reason for Marxism’s attraction was it explained the class nature of society, the economic crisis of the thirties, and provided a coherent explanation of what was happening.

The British Labour movement generally had a disdain for theory, and relied heavily on pragmatism. This was its prime weakness, as this provided the strength for reformist ideas and class collaboration.

Strength to strength

Sir Keir Starmer, as an agent of the ruling class, is now determined to continue in the footsteps of the same fine witch-hunting tradition as Orwell’s thought police. He has become the new Witchfinder General, determined to cleanse the party of ‘toxic’ revolutionaries.

He is under orders to clear out the left. The ruling class was horrified by the victory of Corbyn. For the first time, they lost control of the Labour Party. Their only bases of support were the careerists in the PLP, the party bureaucracy, and a residue of local councillors.

Through the sabotage of the right wing they battled, using foul means, to take back control of the party. Having regained control under Starmer, they are determined that such an experience is never repeated again. This is the reason for the present purge, which has only just begun.

The right wing accuses Socialist Appeal of being the ‘continuation of Militant’. Well, there is no denying that we have supporters who, more than 30 years ago, were proud supporters of Militant. We never abandoned Marxism. It is therefore a fact that today we represent the Marxist tendency within the Labour Party, and the movement generally.

It is not we who are the ‘entryists’, but the right-wing careerists and saboteurs who infest the Parliamentary Labour Party and act as a prop for the establishment.

Socialist Appeal has been going since 1992, some 30 years, without being banned or proscribed. The reason that this is happening now is due to the successes of Socialist Appeal in the recent period. We have gone from strength to strength.

This substantial growth has had an increasing impact on the Labour left. As a result, we have become a real thorn in the side of the right wing.

We will never give up. Above all, we will continue to argue for a bold socialist programme that aims to do away with capitalism. This is the only solution to the problems facing the working class.

Such ideas are gaining a real echo – not only in Labour’s ranks, as indicated by the support for reintroducing Clause IV, but amongst workers and youth generally.

Tide of history

The problem for the witch-hunters is that you cannot expel an idea whose time has come. Capitalism is experiencing its greatest crisis for 300 years. And Marxism has never been more relevant.

The ban on Socialist Appeal will be a setback. But it will certainly not cow us. And it is certainly not the last word. In fact, it will cause us to redouble our efforts!

The deep crisis of capitalism will radicalise consciousness and shake up the whole situation, again and again. We are in a period of sharp and sudden changes.

In the process, the mass organisations will be transformed and re-transformed in the years that lie ahead. What we saw in the Corbyn years will be nothing compared to what is going to happen. The left will reemerge – renewed, hardened, and steeled; and on a much higher level.

Marxism will emerge as a powerful tendency in the British Labour movement and the youth.

Unlike the reformists, Marxism takes the long view of history. We are not mesmerised by this or that local difficulty, but seek to uncover the underlying contradictions in the situation which will sooner or later break through to the surface.

This is the whole essence of dialectics, which sees things not as static entities, but as contradictory processes.

The whole history of the labour movement has reflected the ebb and flow of the class struggle. With the defeat of Corbynism, the left have been in retreat. This is largely their fault.

Rather than appease the right, which they did continually, the left should have gone on the offensive. This weakness simply emboldened the right. After all, weakness invites aggression. And the best form of defence is attack.

The deepening of the capitalist crisis, however, will open up a fundamentally different period, which will transform the situation and transform the left. Marxism can build a powerful position under these circumstances. On the basis of events, the right wing ascendency will be shattered. History is against them.

Forces of Marxism

We will not change our orientation towards the mass organisations, the Labour Party, or the trade unions, in which the class struggle will sooner or later find its expression.

Support Socialist Appeal Image Socialist AppealWhatever the right wing does, there is no way that Marxism can be separated from the Labour movement / Image: Socialist Appeal

Whatever the right wing does, there is no way that Marxism can be separated from the Labour movement.

Of course, we will not adopt a sectarian attitude. History is littered with the wreckage of small sectarian groups, who have attempted to mould the workers’ movement around their preconceived plans, and have failed.

The urgent task now, the overriding task, is to fight this witch-hunt. However, this must be linked to the struggle to build up the forces of Marxism, in order to intervene decisively in the turbulent events in front of us, and to prepare for the future.

Whatever the subjective wishes of this or that MP, union, party leader, or bureaucrat, there is no power on earth that can stop the growth of Marxist ideas.

We will participate decisively in the struggle of the working class to eradicate the capitalist system, and to create a better life, free from exploitation, greed and conflict.

We therefore appeal to all those who want to carry on the fight: whatever happens in the Labour Party – join us and build the forces of Marxism. That is the real answer to this witch-hunt.

Join us

If you want more information about joining the IMT, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.