We publish here an in-depth analysis of the political situation in Britain, which was discussed at the recent conference of Socialist Appeal supporters. Although originally drafted in December, the processes and contradictions that this document outlines still lie at the heart of British politics. In this first part, we look at the long-term crisis of British capitalism, the implications of Brexit, the movement on the industrial plane, and the ever-growing anger towards the elite.
The despair and pessimism of the bourgeois everywhere is a reflection of the crisis of the capitalist system, which has reached an impasse.
Marx explained that the key to the development of society is the development of the productive forces (industry, technique science, etc.). The present crisis shows that capitalism is unable to develop the productive forces as it did in the past. At this point society enters into crisis, creating the objective conditions for social revolution.
These are the objective reasons for the decisive changes that are occurring in Britain and on a world scale. The world situation is characterised by extreme turbulence, economically, politically, and socially. This extreme volatility has arisen from the terminal crisis of the capitalist system.
The effects of the slump of 2008 are still being felt with austerity policies ruthlessly applied all over the world. This is the reality 10 years after the slump, and with no end in sight. The so-called recovery is the weakest in history, an indication of the seriousness of the crisis. Living standards are being driven down as a consequence and the working class is forced to pay for the crisis.
This organic crisis - organic in the sense that is deeply embedded in the foundations of the capitalist system - is having massive consequences politically.
The rise of so-called ‘populism’ in one country after another is a reflection of this. The unbridgeable gulf between rich and poor has never been so wide, resulting in a burning resentment. The middle ground is shrinking, and class polarisation is growing, expressing itself in violent swings to the left and to the right.
In different ways the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the United States is a reflection of this crisis, as is the rise of Corbyn in Britain and Melenchon in France. The growing anti-establishment mood and the fracturing and collapse of traditional parties are all symptoms that the old political stability has come to an end.
The attempt by the bourgeois to restore the economic equilibrium has destroyed the political and social equilibrium. A new epoch of instability has opened up, which is pregnant with revolutionary implications.
The traditional parties, both bourgeois and social democratic, are in crisis. In France, not one of the traditional parties of French capitalism made it to the second round in the presidential elections. In the recent general election in Germany, the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats had their worst result since 1949, and for the first time the Alternative for Germany, a right-wing anti-immigrant party, has entered parliament.
There is a similarly unstable picture elsewhere. In Britain social democracy (in the form of the Labour Party) is in the ascendency and likely to come to power in the coming period. But this is a result of a sharp move to the left under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn – a phenomenon that itself is a striking example of the process of radicalisation that is taking place beneath the surface everywhere.
The 1930s and now
History does not repeat itself exactly, but it is clear that we are entering a similar period in many ways to the stormy 1920s and 1930s, which Trotsky characterised as being a pre-revolutionary situation. His book Where is Britain Going? is perhaps the best way to understand the implications as well as the tasks that face us in such a situation.
At that time Britain was rapidly entering a period of upheaval. The defeat of the 1926 General Strike had resolved nothing. The left split from the Labour Party in the early part of 1932 and the evolution of the Independent Labour Party to the left was a confirmation of this fact. The slump, the rise of Fascism in Germany, and the MacDonald betrayal, all served to propel the ILP sharply from a left-reformist party to a centrist one – that is, a party that is Marxist in words and reformist in deeds.
But while there are certainly many parallels with the 1930s, it is important to understand that there are also clear differences. At that time Britain was a world power with a large empire. Today, Britain is a second-rate power, its influence and economic power much diminished.
In the 1920s Stanley Baldwin, the Tory leader, remarked that Europe was a lunatic asylum. This reflected the smug approach of the British ruling class which regarded themselves as superior to their European cousins. Trotsky retorted that England was nothing but the last ward of the European madhouse, a ward reserved for particularly violent cases.
Today, it is Britain which is regarded as a lunatic asylum by the European bourgeois. They cannot understand the madness that has gripped the British political establishment, which found its most striking expression in the Brexit referendum. It was a reflection of the degeneration of the political representatives of capitalism, who were prepared to gamble the country’s fate for the short-term electoral interests of the Tory party.
David Cameron gambled with the future of the country and lost. As a result Britain has been turned upside down. The implications are extremely serious. Not so long ago Britain was one of the most stable countries in Europe; now it is one of the most unstable. From the fastest growing economy in the G7 (spurred on by artificial means, such as consumer credit) it has become the weakest.
The crisis of British capitalism
In reality, British capitalism experienced a long and protracted decline throughout the 20th century. This decline was masked by the world economic upswing of the post-war period and the consumer booms of the pre-2008 period. But the present crisis has cruelly revealed the real extent of the British disease.
This has come as a profound shock. Living standards have fallen constantly over the last decade and the idea of returning to the “good old days” has vanished. There is general despondency and despair about the future affecting all classes.
In particular, pessimism has gripped the ruling class and its political representatives who have been seized by a kind of paralysis of the will, disoriented and hopelessly divided.
A lack of investment over decades lies at the root of the relative decline and crisis of British capitalism. Workers in Britain today produce an average of 30% less per hour than their French and German counterparts, and even 9% less than workers in Spain.
Relative to German manufacturing, Britain - the former "workshop of the world" - employs just one third of the number of robots per head of workers, and only half as many as Italian manufacturing!
These figures show how deeply rooted the problems facing British capitalism are. Such an outcome is the product not of years but of decades of lack of investment and of relative decline in the productivity of British capitalism, which is now turning into an absolute decline.
All this reflects the deep crisis of British capitalism. The spurt of growth of a few years ago has completely run out of steam, leaving the UK in a very weak position. All the economic forecasts from the top institutions have been downgraded from those of a year ago.
The latest forecast to arrive is from the European Commission which now believes growth in Britain will be among the lowest in Europe, projecting a mere 1.1% growth in 2019. Growth is “expected to remain subdued over the forecast horizon,” it said. This coincides with other assessments from the International Monetary Fund and the Bank of England, all of which have lowered their growth predictions.
This European Commission forecast is based on the maintenance of current trade relations. This is far from guaranteed, to judge by the state of the Brexit negotiations. But even leaving this ‘small’ detail aside, UK growth is still expected to be very low, while business investment will “remain subdued following a period of heightened uncertainty”.
Poverty amidst plenty
This fact is of key importance: without a flow of investment into new machinery, buildings, new products, etc., there can be no recovery.
Investment is the lifeblood of a capitalist economy. But business investment only grew by an annual rate of 1.3% in the third quarter of 2017. There is plenty of cheap money around but no investment. Big business is sitting on a cash pile of £700bn.
How can one explain this apparent contradiction? The reason is very simple. Why bother to invest when there is excess capacity (over-production) and weak demand? This is particularly the case given the uncertainty over Brexit.
Cheap money is being used to buy up assets and buyback company shares, producing speculative bubbles in the economy, instead of being used for productive investment. Net export growth is also expected to “moderate marginally”, states the Commission report. This paints a very gloomy picture for the British economy and future living standards.
With inflation rising to 3.2%, the Bank of England has been forced to raise interest rates for the first time in 10 years – that is, since the outbreak of the world crisis. The interest rate now stands at 0.5%, which is still the lowest level for 300 years, apart from the 0.25% rate maintained for the last 12 months. This will cause great difficulties when the next slump comes, as they will not be able to reduce interest rates substantially as they did in 2008.
The official unemployment figures are the lowest for 42 years. But they fail to take into consideration the high levels of underemployment and bogus employment. And even the jobs growth has come to an end according to recent figures. Moreover, the jobs being created are often low-wage, low-skill jobs. Some workers have to take two or three jobs to make ends meet.
It is more cost-effective for the capitalists to employ cheap labour than invest in new technology; that is why productivity growth (the hourly output of workers) has been falling. UK productivity growth is at the lowest level for 200 years - a truly astounding fact. Without the necessary investment in high-skilled jobs, this will remain a permanent feature of the British economy, which will be a drag on living standards.
Meanwhile, the decline in real wages over the last decade is unprecedented in modern times. According to the head of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, Paul Johnson, such a fall has not been seen since 1750 and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
“Mr Hammond’s challenge,” states Paul Johnson, “is that we’ve had the worst decade of income, earnings and productivity growth and he remains constrained by the economic and fiscal situation amid a mass of uncertainty caused by Brexit.”
With inflation rising and energy bills rocketing, the mood of the workers is becoming increasingly bitter and angry. But that mood is not reflected in the union leaders, who are doing everything possible to prevent militant action.
The Brexit dilemma
The Brexit decision has exposed the real rottenness of British capitalism. The Marxists have explained that inside or outside of the European Union, the working class would face further deep cuts in living standards. We only need look at Greece to confirm that.
But Brexit has certainly accelerated the crisis. British capitalism has 45% of its markets in Europe. If tariffs are imposed on British goods, it will have a very damaging effect on trade. There is no serious alternative to the European market, despite the assertions of the Brexiteers. There are no huge markets queueing up to embrace British capitalism. Under present conditions where demand is squeezed, every capitalist power is engaged in a struggle for markets.
Theresa May has temporarily papered over the cracks in a fudged statement of intent, but this has only postponed the conflict for a short period.
The question of the Irish border has not been resolved and still has the potential to scupper the final deal. The DUP were prepared to swallow an ambiguous form of words. But as soon as things become clear all hell will break loose. May has simply kicked the can down the road.
Brexit is bringing to the fore many of the contradictions that the British ruling class have entangled themselves in in Ireland. In the Stormont elections and general elections in 2017, voting was more polarised along sectarian lines than it has ever been. The collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly revealed that the political process at Stormont has stalled and lies discredited in a dead end of sectarianism, austerity and corruption.
The British ruling class were happy to ignore this troublesome little corner of the world as long as it was feasible to do so. That is no longer the case as the crisis of capitalism gives all of the contradictions there an acute form.
When the Tories lost their majority and the DUP came to May's rescue, these contradictions were given the main stage and even the potential to blow apart all May's plans. As far as the DUP's Brexit stance is concerned, it is pure demagoguery along the lines of the Brexiteers of the Tory Party. They want an end to immigration and EU interference but have no interest in a hard border. How such a circle can be squared is anyone's guess.
Meanwhile, the Irish bourgeois are increasingly lining up with the EU against a beleaguered British capitalism. Leo Varadkar - for his own reasons - has taken an unprecedentedly hard stance against Britain and is taking an increasing interest in the politics of the North, to the greater chagrin of the DUP.
All of this is turning Northern Ireland into an unexpected but potentially very serious political, social and even diplomatic flashpoint for the British capitalist class. The Good Friday Agreement is in tatters.
The idea that Britain can negotiate a trade deal that will offer all the advantages and none of the disadvantages is utopian. The negotiations with the EU have been fraught with difficulties at every turn. Where progress has been made, it was May who has been forced to make concessions. And this is simply the opening of negotiations. It will become much harder.
The Tory cabinet is hopelessly split over the outline of an eventual deal. Half of them want an agreement that mirrors the existing terms. They want access to the single market and the customs union. But the other half wants a Canadian type deal which does not tie Britain to the EU. This split in the cabinet reflects that within the Tory Party itself.
This will be no easy agreement, to say the least. David Davis has talked of a “Canada plus, plus, plus” deal. But this is just hot air. It took several years for Canada to negotiate a trade deal with the EU and it almost collapsed at the final stage when the Walloons in Belgium objected.
We have already seen the Tory tabloid press in action, calling pro-European Tory MPs “traitors”, and Tory judges being branded “the enemies within”. Such bellicose language will inflame the situation and stir up civil war in the Tory Party.
This represents the most serious open split in the British ruling class since the repeal of the Corn Laws in the 1840s, which ended by splitting the Tory Party. In modern times Britain has never experienced such an open split.
The two sides are locked in a ferocious struggle, the outcome of which will have very serious political consequences, affecting the course of developments in Britain for years to come.
The seriousness of the situation is reflected by the pessimism of the strategists of capital. The more far-sighted bourgeois representatives understand the revolutionary implications of this situation.
“The first is the need to be clear about the danger,” warns Jessie Norman, Conservative MP and historian. “Burke saw revolution coming to France in 1789, long before his contemporaries, in part because he knew its signs: a contempt for public authority, attacks on private property, a populist yearning to ignore inconvenient facts and rush to judgment. We see all of those things today.” (Financial Times, 23 June 2017)
This warning of revolutionary times ahead is no flight of fancy. They are worried by a whole series of factors that are developing at the present time. These include:
- A deep split within the ruling class, which, as Lenin explained, is the first condition of revolution.
- Loss of faith in the old order.
- Ferment and splits within the political parties.
- A growing politicisation, restlessness and polarisation in society.
- A deepening economic crisis, with no end in sight.
These are indicative of the nature of the period we have entered and the direction in which we are moving.
However, the political crisis will have a protracted and convulsive character, punctuated with ebbs and flows. It will be more similar to the Spanish revolution which unfolded over several years from 1931 and the declaration of the Republic until the May Days of 1937 in Barcelona. Within these years, there were periods of revolutionary advance and periods of reaction (e.g. the Two Black Years).
The reasons for this protracted nature of events are, on the one hand, the weakness of the subjective factor, and on the other, the weakness of the ruling class to impose a decisive solution. The working class, despite the setbacks, has not been defeated.
On the other hand, the ruling class cannot impose an authoritarian solution as in the 1930s, as this would provoke a social explosion. Such a path would be extremely risky for the bourgeoisie. For all these reasons the situation will be very protracted, extending over a period of years, with ups and downs.
The economic situation is becoming grave, and is set to become much worse. A bad outcome for Brexit would push Britain into a slump. But even without such a slump, the bourgeois economists forecast years of slow substandard growth, which would mean declining living standards amid further counter-reforms and attacks on conditions. This, in turn, will create the conditions for an intensification of the class struggle.
In the 1930s, Trotsky referred to Britain as an “arch conservative country” where the religion of capitalist progress has penetrated deeply into everything. This was certainly true of the past. Decades of reformism have had an effect on the consciousness of the masses.
There are still illusions that capitalism can be reformed. This idea is continually reinforced by the reformist leaders, especially the left reformists, who yearn for a gentler, kinder capitalism that can offer reforms and increased living standards, different to the “neo-liberal model”. They do not want to overthrow capitalism but to regulate it and make it more humane.
Workers on the move
The illusions of the masses in capitalism, however, are more an expression of a lack of alternative rather than any real faith in the present system.
But confidence in capitalism is an article of faith for the tops of the trade unions and Labour Party, who have no belief whatsoever in the ability of the working class to change society and have long ago abandoned any perspective of socialism. Though they consider themselves to be great realists, they are actually the worst kind of utopians.
The trade union leaders, in particular, act as a brake on the movement. Trotsky referred to them as the most conservative force in society. “Putting the brakes on the struggle are the leaders who have lagged behind the masses”, he wrote. “Their own indecisiveness, their own conservatism, their own bourgeois prejudices are disguised by the leaders with allusions to the backwardness of the masses. Such is the true state of affairs at present.” (Trotsky, Discussion with a CIO Official, September 29, 1938).
The deep seated anger and frustration of the working class after years of attacks and cuts find no expression in the trade union leaders who have failed to mobilise this movement even to defend the most basic demands. They prefer to negotiate and conciliate with the employers, wherever possible, seeking to divert the energies of the masses away from militant action.
This has been aptly demonstrated by the recent examples of the UCU strike over pensions and the NHS pay deal. In both cases, union members have been told to accept rotten deals by their leaders.
The number of industrial disputes has been relatively low, although there has been strike action of the railway workers, cinema workers, bin workers, junior doctors, teachers, bus drivers, pilots, lecturers, and other layers. Many of these are new to industrial action.
The first ever strike at McDonald’s was an indication of the real mood, especially amongst younger workers. The potential certainly exists for a massive fightback, but the leadership is lacking across the board. There has certainly been a pickup of strikes in the private sector, but these have been generally isolated disputes.
The call for united co-ordinated action across different unions has been regularly made at the TUC, but never put into action. Resolutions are passed but then simply ignored. The 2011 dispute over pensions was a glimpse of what could be possible, involving millions of workers in unified strike action. But after letting off steam, the action was quickly shelved for fear it could get out of control.
After the general election, there was a build-up of pressure to break the 1% pay cap across the public sector imposed by the government. However, instead of leading industrial action, the union leaders have welcomed the local government employers’ offer of 2% this year and 2% next year. While more than 1%, this means a further wage cut when you take inflation into account. It also goes no way to restoring the cuts imposed over the last 10 years.
In addition, there is no government funding for these rises, which will inevitably mean cuts elsewhere, possibly involving redundancies. All the union leaders are doing is pleading with the government for extra funding, but proposing no action to back this up.
Where industrial ballots have been held they have attracted a very high turnout (easily surpassing the vote threshold barriers put in place by the Tories), whether on the railways or amongst postal workers. In the latter case, the employers turned to the courts to block the strike.
While the PCS have carried out a successful consultative ballot over pay, there has been no take up of the suggestion of building for united action, despite the clear willingness of the workers to struggle.
Looking to Labour
The TUC is playing a waiting game, with a national demonstration planned for Saturday 12 May. This is being called not to build for coordinated industrial action, but simply to let off steam.
The atmosphere at the last TUC was palpably different from that at the Labour Party conference. While the Labour Party event was generally full of optimism, the trade union conference was staid. Some trade union leaders were saying they needed to get their act together. But even the best of them have no real plan or strategy. The trade union bureaucracy acts as a dead weight.
With the trade union membership being held back by the leadership, many members are now looking to the political front as a way forward. Industrial battles are still on the cards in different sectors, but this is increasingly overshadowed by the political field and the rise of the Labour Party. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader has inspired many workers.
The attraction of the idea of a Corbyn government as a way forward for the working class is seen even in one of the most radical unions, the RMT. The union is now engaged in a process which will likely lead to reaffiliation to Labour.
With the increasing crisis in the Tory government, many are now looking towards a Labour government to solve their problems. The union leaders in particular are looking to Corbyn to reintroduce national collective bargaining and other trade union rights as a way forward.
Anger against the establishment
There is a growing anger throughout British society and a growing disillusionment with capitalism and its institutions (the ‘establishment’). There is a lack of confidence in public representatives: councillors, MPs and other officials.
The Grenfell Tower disaster powerfully reinforced the sense of outrage and alienation, the idea that the powers-that-be are not interested in ordinary working class people, who are treated with contempt. This fuels the class anger in society.
The youth, in particular, who have been hit especially hard by the crisis, are becoming more radicalised, with a layer drawing revolutionary conclusions. They are a barometer of the general malaise and mood in society.
In April 2017, around 580,000 respondents in 35 countries were asked the question: would you actively participate in a large-scale uprising against the government in power if it happened in the next days or months? More than half of 18- to 34-year-olds said yes.
In Greece, the figure was 67%, in Italy, it was 65%, in Spain, 63%, France 61%, and the Czech Republic 59%. The next was Wales, with 57% in favour. Unfortunately we were not given figures for the rest of the UK, but there is likely to be a similar pattern. Of course, this is only symptomatic of the situation that is developing in Britain as well as in Europe.
The more astute strategists of capital can see where this is all leading. Anne Richards, chief executive of fund manager M&G, said: “In the current era, best described as ‘the age of anxiety’, we will see capitalism rejected unless it finds a way of fundamentally addressing this anxiety.”
Lenin pointed out that without the support of the Labour and trade union leaders, capitalism would collapse within six weeks.
Until very recently, the Labour Party was an important tool used by the ruling class to legitimise the system and keep the working class in check. When the Tories were doing badly, the ‘Second XI’ of the Labour Party - under right-wing control - were brought into government to clear up the mess. In doing so, they would discredit themselves and prepare the way for the return of the Tories. This was the general position since the war and provided a large degree of political stability.
This cosy arrangement has now ended. The bourgeoisie fear they have lost control of the Labour Party. Following the general election result, the prospect of the right wing regaining control is looking increasingly remote – at least for the immediate future.
On the other hand the Tory party at present is a very unreliable instrument. It is at war with itself and could split over Europe.
Crisis in the Tory Party
It is clear that the present May government is hanging on by its fingertips. Any crisis over Brexit or the collapse of the DUP deal could cause the fall of the government. The Tories are openly split, with different cabinet ministers attacking one another in public.
The party is therefore not in a position to win an election under present conditions. They only managed to scrape in by the skin of their teeth last June. Since then, they have lost even more support, with Labour now 7 points ahead in some opinion polls.
Nevertheless, despite the crises engulfing May and the Tory Party, we cannot rule out the government hanging on until the next scheduled election in 2022. Given the existing chaos of the volatile Brexit negotiations, the bourgeois do not want the further instability that the fall of May and a potential Tory split would generate. Importantly, the ruling class are terrified of the prospect of letting Corbyn into Downing Street.
The Conservative Party was once the most stable bourgeois party in Europe, the envy of their European counterparts. Today, the party is riven with splits and dominated by the most right-wing faction.
It is also in a process of steep decline, a mirror image of the decay and degeneration of British capitalism. The average age of Tory Party members is estimated to be 72. It has about 100,000 members, but less than 10% are “active”. Its social base has become very narrow. The attempt by David Cameron to modernise the party was doomed to fail. It is now the ‘nasty party’ once again.
While the ruling class prefers to rule through its direct instrument of the Tory party, this has now become a liability. This would not be too bad if the Labour Party had remained a tame and ‘loyal’ opposition. But that is no longer the case.
When Theresa May stands down, it will open the doors to a ferocious leadership contest that will further deepen the splits in the Tory party.
Already potential candidates are positioning themselves for the future challenge. Right-wing Brexiters Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg appear to be the favourites in the Tory rank and file - a clear indication of its political make-up.
Whether either of them ends up as leader is anyone’s guess, but it is unlikely that any of these can lead the Tories to victory. The party is too discredited and Rees-Mogg in particular looks like someone from another planet.
The only figure that stands out as a credible leader of the Tory party is Ruth Davidson, the Tory leader in Scotland. She appears to have gained a national following after the Tory revival north of the border. She has a certain political instinct and fighting spirit.
But it will take more than that to turn the Tory party around. In any case, Davidson has ruled herself out. Not being a Westminster MP, she wishes to strengthen her base in Scotland, although it cannot be excluded that after the next election, she could be pushed forward.
A lot of things can happen before then. And in any case the choice of candidate is not the most important element in this particular equation.
A damaging split in the Tory party is therefore clearly on the cards. The pro-European wing, which is largely marginalised within the party, has recently become more vocal, even voting with Labour against the government on the terms of the Brexit negotiations. Here we see the outline of a possible realignment of British politics.
A new Centre party?
The ruling class is toying with the idea of creating a new Centre party made up of a merger of the ‘left wing’ of the Tories and the right wing of the Labour Party.
The experience of the past, however, shows that this will be very difficult to bring about. They were encouraged by the success of Macron in France, but there are many differences with Britain, not least the electoral system, which favours the two big parties at the expense of smaller formations.
The disastrous experience of the SDP in the 1980s also weighs heavily upon them. The SDP split the Labour vote, but failed to create a viable centre party.
The political situation in Britain, as with other countries, has become extremely polarised. The basis for any Centre party is therefore extremely weak and inherently unstable.
The centre ground has collapsed, as epitomised by the defeat of the Blairites within the Labour Party and the reduction of the Liberal Democrats to a handful of MPs in Parliament. The Lib Dems were hoping for a revival, on the back of the Brexit vote, by becoming the most ardent voice of the Remain camp. But they have instead been squeezed out by Corbyn’s Labour on the left and the Tory’s on the right.
UKIP, meanwhile, has become increasingly irrelevant in the wake of the EU referendum, with much of its vote now absorbed within the pro-Brexit wing of the Tories.
Such a move towards a new Centre party, if it were to happen, would have serious consequences. It would propel the rump Tory party to the right and propel the Corbyn Labour Party very much to the left.
This is a big gamble for the ruling class to take. They will not take it lightly, and is therefore not an immediate prospect. The two-party system served them well in the past and they will not abandon it as long as there is the slightest possibility of regaining firm control of both the Tories and Labour. But that possibility seems to grow fainter all the time.
Blairites on the backfoot
The idea of winning back the Labour Party must now seem a daunting task both to the ruling class and to its Blairite agents in the PLP. The plaintive appeals of Roy Hattersley to reclaim the party for the right wing reflected their sense of desperation at losing control – a desperation that is reflected in the very wording of his appeal:
"Momentum – a party within the party which is dedicated to moving Labour to the far left of the political spectrum – is on the point of winning control of Labour’s policy, programme and constitution," wails Hattersley.
“Momentum members and supporters – 844 of the 1,135 delegates – dominated this year’s annual conference and it seems likely that elections, now taking place, will provide a clear Momentum majority on Labour’s national executive.” What an admission!
This paints a very gloomy picture for the Labour right wing, who have ruled the roost for decades. They presided over Labour parties that were empty shells, absolutely moribund, dominated by small cliques of councillors and their hangers on. They came near to destroying the Labour Party, especially under Blair.
Now the epoch of the right wing is at an end, as the transformation of the Labour Party under Corbyn picks up speed. The mass influx of new members has made Labour the biggest political party in Europe.
The right-wing cliques that control local Labour parties hoped to keep the new members from participating, and have succeeded in a number of areas. But with each attempt to kick out Corbyn, the membership grew and got involved.
Meetings previously of 20 became 200. The new activists clashed with their MPs and the right wing. They soon realised they needed to get organised to challenge the old right-wing control. Battles opened up in Brighton, Bristol, Liverpool and many other places.
Local Labour parties and individuals were suspended and even expelled for frivolous reasons by Labour’s bureaucratic machine. The ‘Compliance Unit’ was used to conduct a purge. But all this was insufficient to close the floodgates.
The right wing has used every means possible to stop the advance of the left. They use the media to regularly denounce the left for ‘intimidation’, ‘sexism’ or ‘anti-Semitism’, none of which has any basis in fact.
When the Blairites were in control, they used every dirty trick to exclude the left. But that was acceptable to the media as it was a matter of keeping the right wing in control. They have, for instance, succeeded in pushing through the conference a ‘code of conduct’ that can and will be used for political ends.
Deselection on the cards
The right wing fears that deselection is implicit in the situation. “The shift to the left will begin with a revision of Labour rules and continue with the replacement of moderate MPs and councillors with Momentum nominees”, says Hattersley, who conveniently forgets that these were the very means that he and Kinnock used to drive out the left when they were in charge.
“If the extremists begin to deselect moderate MPs, others – who are, or believe themselves to be, under threat – that will split the party and keep Labour out of office for a generation.”
Here we have the real threat to Labour: a threat from the right, from the careerists and bourgeois infiltrators, who have been temporarily forced to keep their heads down but who will never be reconciled to Corbyn and the left. They will be prepared to carry out their threat to split the Party at a suitable moment when required.
“The cull of councillors has already begun,” states Hattersley. “The assault is most violent in the London boroughs in which Momentum thrives. Last month, it moved through Haringey, ward by ward, claiming to be Corbyn’s revolutionary guard – although his leadership is no longer in question – and pretending that it stands for democracy when it really seeks Labour’s domination by a narrow clique.”
Hattersley and co. conducted their own purge to drive out the left and secure the domination of the right. They were ruthless in carrying out this purge. They closed down left-wing local Labour parties, suspending and expelling members at the drop of a hat. Now that they have lost their support, they squeal about losing their positions. This whole diatribe reeks of hypocrisy.
“The Haringey meetings were swamped by recent recruits. Many of them came to selection conferences with the premeditated intention of sacking the sitting councillors. The same overt hostility poisoned the atmosphere at the annual meeting of the Wavertree constituency in Liverpool, where Momentum won nine out of 10 of the influential offices. Long-standing party members described the atmosphere as ‘intimidating’. Several of the aggressive newcomers were identified as recent pamphleteers for the far left.”
“In Manchester and Sheffield, moderate councillors have already been deselected or have chosen to resign rather than face the humiliation of rejection. In Liverpool, the old gang is back.”
The accusation against Wavertree is completely unfounded and reflects the cynicism of the right. This was shown most graphically in another Merseyside CLP, Wallasey, where the accusations of homophobia raised in the leadership race have been quietly dropped without explanation.
Hattersley states that they defeated the Militant in the past. But now the tide has turned. The left is backed by Unite and other trade unions. Hundreds of thousands have joined the Labour Party - not to support cuts and austerity, which are being regularly voted through by right-wing councillors locally, but to transform the Labour Party into a party of real social change.
Of course, the right wing will continue to fight to maintain its grip on the Party. But the balance of forces has shifted towards the left.
In the past, delegates from the Party branches were overwhelmingly right wing. Today, the opposite is the case. Momentum had 844 of the 1,135 delegates to this year’s annual conference. The left now dominates the conference. It has won a majority on the NEC of the party. The right are very much on the retreat or have been routed.
Hattersley has the cheek to lecture Corbyn about how to win an election with ‘moderate’ policies, when he, along with Kinnock, lost every general election he ever fought to the Tories!
Welsh Labour and Plaid
The political situation in Wales of course differs to a certain extent to that of the rest of Britain, with the existence of the national question and the rise of Plaid Cymru. The national question, however, is far less prominent than in Scotland. Labour has dominated Welsh politics for generations. Labour currently holds 28 out of 40 Westminster MPs, the Tories have 8 and Plaid has 4. The Lib Dems have zero.
The Welsh Labour Party is very much dominated by the right wing, as has been the case for a long time. The Welsh assembly, in turn, is dominated by right-wing Labour under Carwyn Jones.
In the 2017 general election, the right-wing Welsh Labour leadership deliberately distanced themselves from Corbyn under the banner of ‘Welsh Labour’. They hoped that Corbyn would fail. But Labour’s success across the country, including in Wales, put the right wing on the back foot, as it has nationally.
The record of the Labour Party in Wales has produced widespread scepticism towards the party, which has only been cut across by the rise of Corbyn nationally.
Plaid has made certain gains over the past period, with the loss of traditional Labour strongholds to Plaid in areas such as Rhondda and Grangetown. This was due to the right wing policies pursued by Labour. The rise of Corbyn will tend to cut across Plaid’s success. In any case, support for independence, unlike in Scotland, is extremely low, at around 5%.
The election of Corbyn has certainly had an effect on the Welsh Labour Party, but for the moment the right are still in control. Eventually, through events, this grip will be broken and there will be a shift to the left in the party.
For the moment the ‘official’ left is split by a bureaucratic divide between Welsh Labour Grassroots, who claim the banner of Momentum, and the national office of Momentum, who also organise branches in Wales. New layers will come into activity that will eradicate this problem and a genuine left will emerge.
Reformism vs revolution
The left have now become increasingly dominant in the Labour Party. The right wing still nevertheless dominates the PLP, but they have become more and more demoralised. They have now also lost control of the machine at national headquarters, with the appointment of the new general secretary, Jennie Formby.
A number of MPs have fought off local challenges to their position, but others are very much under pressure to either submit or go. A growing number of right-wing councillors have decided to retire rather than carry on fighting a losing battle. Their hope that Corbyn would be crushed at the last election proved baseless. Now, without a perspective, they are demoralised.
The Blairites have been forced to temporarily retreat, but they have not yet lost all hope that they will eventually regain control of the Party by one means or another, when circumstances change.
They are well aware of the failure of the Social Democratic split from Labour and are reluctant to surrender without a fight. They will manoeuvre and intrigue for as long as they can, and will probably only jump ship when they are directly threatened with deselection.
It is quite likely that they will hang on until after a general election. Some may even accept posts in a Corbyn cabinet, only to betray when the time comes.
At what point the right will split away from the Labour Party is difficult to predict. It could come during the lifetime of a Labour government. The ruling class may choose to bring down a Corbyn government at a certain point by creating some kind of scandal. The Blairites will act as a Trojan Horse.
Even if Labour survives and is defeated at an election, it will be the right wing who will be blamed and they could be vomited out of the Party. Different variants are possible and it is impossible to be precise about the timing of future events.
The main thing is to understand the fundamental processes and the internal contradictions within the Labour Party that will inevitably lead to a split at a certain stage.
A split in the Labour Party will impel it further to the left. Under conditions of crisis, it can shift very far to the left. This will have far reaching consequences.
The Labour Party could even be pushed in a centrist direction - not centrism in the colloquial sense (the mythical ‘centre ground’ of politics), but in the sense used by Trotsky; i.e. to a position that stands between reformism and Marxism.
We need to be clear about the limitations of left reformism and centrism, however. In the Spanish Revolution, the centrist POUM leadership failed to give a consistent revolutionary lead and ended up in the bourgeois government which liquidated the workers’ committees. Then they were driven out and crushed.
Leading left reformist commentators introduce the maximum confusion by promoting the illusion that capitalism can be reformed. This is the function of the likes of Owen Jones, who has now flipped back over to supporting Corbyn, and Paul Mason, who looks “beyond Marxism”. Their job is to provide the arguments and justification for left reformism.
While we stand for the victory of the left wing over the right, we still maintain our criticisms about the limits of reformism. There can be no illusions in left reformism and centrism. We cannot blur the differences between revolution and reformism.
What happened in Greece when SYRIZA came to power provides a very instructive lesson on the limits of trying to find a way out of the crisis within the confines of capitalism.
Labour in power
In the next period we are likely to see the coming to power of a Corbyn Labour government. This could take different forms depending on the parliamentary arithmetic. It could be a majority Labour government or possibly a minority government supported from outside by the SNP.
Whatever the complexion, this will constitute a fundamental change in the situation. We will fight for a Corbyn government, but on a socialist programme. We will fully participate in the campaign with workers and youth and explain our ideas.
The sabotage that a Labour government will experience in power will show in practise - not in theory - the limits of reformism, and will provide a valuable lesson for the workers and youth of Britain of the need for revolutionary change.
Of course, there will be enormous support for a Corbyn government to begin with. There will be big illusions and hopes in such a government. There will be a lot of radical talk in the honeymoon period. At first, such a left-reformist government will seek to carry out piecemeal reforms that do not cost any money. They will try to operate within the confines of capitalism.
But capitalism is in crisis and cannot afford reforms. The government will therefore quickly come up against the resistance and sabotage of the bankers and capitalists. It will have to decide – as Tsipras in Greece had to decide – whether to stick to its programme and take action against the banks and monopolies, or to bow to the pressure of big business and abandon its programme and introduce cuts.
If the latter happens, it could result in a swing away from Labour among the middle class and even sections of the working class, disappointed by the results.
We must understand that it is not a question of how sincere or not the left-wing leaders are. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. It is the programme and the laws of capitalism that are decisive. If you base yourselves on capitalism then you will be forced to carry out the dictates of capitalism. It is as simple as that.
It is the interests of the monopolies that decide and dominate the economy. That has been the whole experience of past Labour governments, as well as of Hollande in France, Tsipras, and other reformists in the recent period. The only alternative is to break with capitalism and introduce revolutionary measures to achieve a socialist programme.
The limits of Keynesianism
John McDonnell has surrounded himself with a group of Keynesian advisers; a panel of seven economists, which included Ann Pettifor and Danny Blanchflower, formerly from the Bank of England. Several of these advisers quit in the wake of the EU referendum and the attempted Blairite “chicken coup”, leaving just Pettifor, who predicts that a Corbyn government would be good for business because it would be “economically expansionary”.
The Labour leadership will ultimately turn out to be pragmatic, she suggests. “You just have to look at past Labour governments. The party is prepared to work with business and the City of London.”
But there is one small detail: this whole experience led to the capitulation of these governments to big business.
“Falling incomes and spare capacity have not been good for business,” states Pettifor. “While the Treasury, the Office for Budget Responsibility, an independent watchdog, and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, a think-tank, have obsessed over supply-side issues, politicians have been persuaded by economists to sit on their hands, as Britain’s economy falters under huge, unused capacity.”
But this overcapacity is due to the contradictions of capitalism, where investment is falling. It is a symptom of the overproduction of capital and the limits of the market. Why invest when there is over-capacity, too much machinery, too many buildings, too much everything (for the narrow limits of the market)?
No wonder that in 2016, UK investment remained pitifully low – 116th out of 141 countries in terms of capital investment as a percentage of GDP. Yet without investment there can be no real development of the economy.
But what the capitalists lack are not simply markets, but profitable markets. Weak demand is only one side of the capitalist equation. These contradictions are a product of the laws of the capitalist system, which cannot be resolved by ‘reforms’.
In order not to frighten big business, Pettifor tries to show how harmless and business-friendly a Labour government would be.
“There is, nevertheless, anxiety over the scale of Labour’s public investment plans and their impact on the UK’s credit rating. But Labour has a record, in key respects, of being more fiscally conservative than Conservatives. For example, a review by economists at Policy Research in Macroeconomics of current budget deficits or surpluses (that is, excluding public investment) for the whole period before the global financial crisis, from 1956 to 2008, reveals that Conservative governments had an average annual surplus of 0.3% of GDP, while Labour governments had an average annual surplus of 1.1%.”
This apparently is an attempt to show how ‘sensible’ and fiscally ‘responsible’ a Labour government would be.
“The shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s plans include a commitment to a ‘fiscal credibility rule’ – the state would only borrow to invest in capital projects which will, over time, pay for themselves. In the event of a recession, this rule would only be suspended when technocrats at the Bank of England decide monetary policy can no longer operate with interest rates around 0%,” explains Pettifor.
This attempt to mimic the Tories is hardly a radical policy. But it will not reassure the City or convince the bankers and capitalists to drop their opposition to a Corbyn Labour government.
Labour will “at last take action to stimulate a private sector that has significant spare capacity; one not yet fully recovered from the catastrophic impact of the great financial crisis and that still lacks confidence.”
“Business leaders know their biggest problem is spare capacity and a shortage of customers coming through the door. That is why they have been willing to listen to the shadow chancellor’s ‘tea offensive’, and that is why they will ignore the Daily Mail’s Pavlovian howling,” states our ‘left’ economist.
This shows us the kind of advice given by such economists to McDonnell and Corbyn. In effect, they say we must capitulate and cooperate with capitalism and the City of London and all will be well!
They believe austerity is a political choice, not something imposed by the crisis of capitalism, which they refuse to recognise.
This policy is the road to disaster. It is the same road that Tsipras took and saw his complete capitulation to the Troika. Now Tsipras is implementing austerity policies worse than in the past. His support has collapsed. This is an important lesson for Britain.
Crisis of reformism
John McDonnell’s ‘tea offensive’ is aimed at convincing big business where their best interests lie - in a Labour government. But this is a pipedream. All attempts to appease big business will end in tears. It is not the government that dictates to the economy, it is the capitalist economy that dictates to government.
Capitalism is in a deep systemic crisis worldwide that cannot be cured by Keynesian meddling. A Keynesian programme, i.e. ‘deficit financing’ to boost demand, will simply not work. Instead it would prepare the ground for an even deeper crisis in the future.
Even if Corbyn could expand the economy, it would only suck in imports and create a balance of payments crisis. This is what happened to the Mitterrand government in France in 1981-2. Hollande too was soon forced to abandon his promise to tax the rich and reverted to orthodox economic policies.
In the same way a Corbyn government will be under intense pressure to capitulate from the very first day. Given the bleak economic situation and the ever-growing demands of working people, it will be buffeted from one side to the other. It will be a government of crisis. And the Blairite Fifth Column will be waiting for an opportunity to stab it in the back. This will give rise to ferment and debate within all sections of the labour movement as to the way forward.
The crisis of capitalism means a crisis of reformism, which are inseparably bound together. The bankers and capitalists will explain that the system cannot afford reforms, only counter-reforms. But the workers will explain that they cannot accept any more austerity.
For the Keynesian reformists, a programme of state borrowing (and spending) will solve the chronic crisis of capitalism. But if it was as easy as that it would have been successfully implemented elsewhere long ago.
Lacking a firm anchor in theory, the reformists have latched onto Keynesian economics, despite the fact that it has been shown to have completely failed. They think they can spend their way out of a crisis.
But Jim Callaghan, the Labour Prime Minister, as far back as 1976 explained this was no longer possible. Deficit financing was leading to an inflationary spiral. Governments were forced to turn to monetarism as a way forward. Of course, this solution of cuts was also a dead end. Neither Keynesianism nor monetarism is a solution for the working class.
At the end of the day, if the government is going to spend, the money has to come from somewhere. The state cannot simply create it out of thin air. It has to come from taxation, either on the working class or the capitalists.
If they tax the capitalists, this will cut into profits and cause a further fall in investment, intensifying the crisis. And if they tax the working class, they cut into consumption and thereby reduce demand even further. Whatever they do will end up cutting the market either by reducing investment or consumer spending.
Such measures are simply tinkering with the capitalist system. However, as explained, the problem of capitalism is not simply demand, as the Keynesians say, but profitable markets, which they fail to address.
Capitalism is not a system based upon production for need, but production for profit. Without profit, the capitalists will not produce or invest. However, to increase profits, this will mean attacking the working class, as profit comes from the unpaid labour of the working class. Thus, either way, the state cuts into the vitals of the capitalist economy.
Blackmail and threats
“With Theresa May’s grip on power looking ever more vulnerable, business leaders are starting to realise they need to take the prospect of a ‘hard left’ UK government seriously,” explained the Financial Times. (7/12/17)
“Executives are worried about many of the promises in the Labour election manifesto from June, with its multiple nationalisations, a higher minimum wage and hint of a land tax.” The document promised £48bn a year of additional public spending, partly funded by £19bn of extra corporation tax and higher income tax on top earners, an ‘excessive pay levy’ and a new crackdown on tax avoidance, etc.
Nevertheless, the Confederation of British Industry has warned that plans to nationalise the rail, energy and water industries — as well as Royal Mail — would “send investors running for the hills”.
The reason why the ruling class fears a Corbyn government is not so much Corbyn and McDonnell, but the forces that stand behind them. They fear the pressure of the working class on such a government, which could force it to go further than they intend against capitalism.
Richard Angell, head of the Blairite organisation Progress, expresses things more bluntly by warning: “They are growing in confidence and the ideologues run the [Labour] show. They are going to start asking fresh questions, such as, why stop at three big nationalisations?”
More serious was the threat from Morgan Stanley, which predicted in November that a Corbyn government could play havoc with stock markets and the pound, which has fallen more than 10 per cent since the eve of the EU referendum vote.
CME Group, a US financial company, sent a paper to investors warning of a “nightmare scenario for the pound”. During a private equity conference in Amsterdam, meanwhile, Bobby Vedral, a banker partner at Goldman Sachs, said a Corbyn win would make the UK look like ‘Cuba without the sunshine’”, explained the “Financial Times” (11/12/17).
This is a dire warning which expresses the real worries of the ruling class. These worries were then confirmed within days of the Morgan Stanley warning, when Corbyn released a video saying that City “speculators and gamblers” who paid themselves billions in bonuses faced a day of reckoning!
“When they say we’re a threat, they’re right,” he said. This is a clear threat to their business interests and profits if Corbyn becomes prime minister. For them, such a man cannot be trusted.
“The rise of Jeremy Corbyn has not made me feel that relaxed,” said Edi Truell, a private equity investor who has already taken his entire £250m family fortune out of the UK and moved it to Switzerland.
“I would be devastated if he got into power. It would be disastrous…I’ve heard from investors who say ‘we don’t want to invest in the UK, not because of Brexit but because of Corbyn’,” Mr Truell said.
Garry Wilson, managing partner of Endless, a specialist private equity group, made a similar point, saying investors “won’t send some money to the UK but will also think about how to get their funds out” if Corbyn becomes prime minister.
“There is a lot of talk about becoming Venezuela overnight” said Dean Turner, an economist in the UK investment office at UBS Wealth Management.
They know Corbyn will be under intense pressure to deal with the desperate problems faced by sections of the working class.
Those at the bottom are being crushed by rising debt and falling wages. In London and other cities, rickets – a product of poverty - has reappeared. Child poverty is on the rise, with 700,000 children living in poverty in London alone. This is set soon to rise to 900,000. 70% of those in poverty are in working households.
The situation is becoming more desperate by the hour. The cuts and austerity have reduced layers to below the poverty line who have to rely on foodbanks to survive. Desperate situations demand desperate measures. People cannot afford to wait.
This will lead to massive pressures on the Corbyn government, which has promised - so far - only to reverse a third of government cuts.
The strategy of the ruling class will be to discredit this government and attempt to bend it to its will. They will revert to extra-parliamentary methods and struggle to bring the government to heel.
We have already seen the open threats of the military tops and generals towards a Corbyn government. Some were prepared to threaten a coup if Corbyn reduced military spending.
While a coup is out of the question under the present class balance of forces, it is an indication of how they would act in the future in defence of Queen and Country. If they were prepared to conspire against the mildly reformist Labour government of Harold Wilson in the 1960s, they would certainly regard a Corbyn government, which they see as ‘Marxist’; as extremely dangerous.
John McDonnell created a stir when he revealed he had asked advisers to draw up scenarios for how to handle sabotage, such as a run on the pound or a strike of capital. Each of the counter-measures to such sabotage, however, is simply framed within the confines of the capitalist system.
But there is no solution to sabotage on a capitalist basis. The capitalists hold the economic power. Only by mobilising the collective power of the working class will it be possible to defeat capitalist sabotage and open the way for the expropriation of the banks and big monopolies.
For the reformist leaders, such an alternative is ‘impractical’ and ‘unrealistic’. However, the ones who are impractical and unrealistic are those who imagine that it is possible to convince the bankers and capitalists to collaborate with a socialist government by means of soothing speeches. It is like trying to persuade a tiger to become a vegan.
The ruling class will be conspiring and plotting from the very beginning against a Corbyn government. They are doing so now. They will be helped by the Blairite wing of the PLP, which will act as a reactionary Fifth Column.
They are very familiar with these ladies and gentlemen. The Blairites are from the same social milieu, went to the same schools and universities, and are often members of the same exclusive clubs. It was no surprise when it came to light that Chuka Umunna was a member of one of these VIP Clubs, with his own £300 cognac locker.
When things eventually come to a split, the right wing will depart with the same ease as a person crossing a room.
The signal can be given by the ruling class through a campaign in the media, setting off a panic to bring down the government. They did this in 1924 with the fake Zinoviev Letter.
This ensuing crisis and panic would provide the ideal setting for the launch of a capitalist Centre party, with the pro-European Tories also splitting to the ‘left’ and joining up. What is left of the Lib-Dems would be absorbed within this, as in the National Government of 1931.
Such a party would be launched under the banner of the ‘National Interest’, seeking to bring the leaders of all parties together for the good of the country (read: British capitalism). The collapse of the Labour government would be followed by a ferocious election campaign, leading to a coalition government of pro-bourgeois parties.
Under such conditions the Labour Party would probably suffer a heavy defeat on the electoral front. But it would not be completely destroyed. In opposition the Labour Party would shift dramatically to the left, further than at any time in its history.
A bourgeois coalition government carrying out a policy of cuts and austerity would not necessarily stay in office for long. It would prepare the ground for an even greater swing to Labour.
It is self-evident that Momentum, for all its deficiencies and limitations, has now emerged as the organised left, as was evident at the last Labour Party conference. However, under the control of Jon Lansman and his supporters, it has mainly become an election machine for the Corbynistas within the Party and for national or local elections. Its politics are of the soft left variety and it is dominated bureaucratically by the leading (unelected and unaccountable) clique.
Momentum’s social media campaigns have been used to great effect to mobilise the ground troops for elections. Rather than a real-life left-wing movement, the present set-up of Momentum suits the needs of the left bureaucracy, as this minimises debate and channels energies to organisational issues devoid of politics.
The left split in Momentum a year ago did not lead to anything. Activists have simply vanished into the CLPs and local Momentum groups, which act independently of the national organisation.
As expected, the leaders of Momentum fear a real fight with the right wing. That is why they oppose mandatory reselection. They believe they can co-exist with the Blairites. Again, this is a reflection of the politics of reformism, which seeks the line of least resistance. But this cannot last. The Blairites regard them as a deadly enemy, as Hattersley made clear. They are regarded as not much different from Militant, “the enemy within”.
If the Momentum leadership really wanted to, they could sweep out the Blairites. But this would mean a civil war, and this is what they wish to avoid.
Nevertheless, Momentum has the wind in their sails. They claim over 35,000 members and a database of 100,000 supporters. They have taken over the NEC and have the political support of the majority of the party membership. They have won control of the Conference Arrangements Committee, which will now give them complete control of the Party conference and over any proposed rule changes. This will force many on the right wing of the party to give up the fight and look to a different career.
The role of the Marxists
We have entered the most unstable period in history, characterised by unstable coalitions and governments of crisis. At a certain stage in the future, one can envisage the coming to power of a Kerensky-type government in Britain. Under such circumstances, the ruling class will be preparing for a showdown with the working class.
In such conditions a Marxist tendency, if it acted properly, could grow by leaps and bounds on the basis of events. It could comprise an increasingly important tendency within the radicalised left, in effect, forming the organised revolutionary tendency of the left.
In criticising the centrist ILP, Trotsky said that “the ILP had not freed itself by far of all the defects of the left wing of the Labour Party (theoretical vagueness, lack of a clear programme, of revolutionary methods, of a strong organisation)...”
That is a fair description of the confused ideas of many of the self-proclaimed ‘left’ leaders in the Labour Party today. It is this ideological confusion and amorphousness that will destroy them in the end. By contrast, theoretical clarity and ideological firmness is the chief hallmark of the Marxists.
In the turbulent years that lie ahead, there will be a dramatic polarisation both to the left and to the right. The mass organisations will be in ferment, with splits to the right and to the left. Under these conditions there can be massive changes in consciousness in a very short time, especially amongst those new layers entering into struggle.
“The revolutionary situation, however, begins only from the moment that the economic and social premises of a revolution produce a break in the consciousness of society and its different classes,” explained Trotsky.
Sharp and sudden changes are implicit in the whole situation. We must be prepared for these.
A revolutionary tendency must use every avenue at its disposal to explain its ideas, including the parliamentary field. Trotsky explained the importance of such a platform for Marxist ideas and propaganda.
“It would be particularly wrong to ignore or minimise the importance of parliamentary work. Of course, parliament cannot transform capitalism into socialism or improve the conditions of the proletariat in rotting capitalist society. But revolutionary work in parliament and in connection with parliament, especially in Britain, can be of great help in training and educating the masses.”
This is particularly true in Britain today, where the working class has gone through a very long period of bourgeois democracy and parliamentarism. It will have to go through the school of parliamentarism again in order to learn the necessary lessons from its own experience.
In 1935, Trotsky wrote:
Far-reaching social reforms cannot be carried out amid the conditions of crumbling capitalism. The workers would be more and more insistent in demanding more determined measures from the [Labour] government.
In the parliamentary section of the Labour Party the revolutionary wing would split off, the right wing would be drawn more and more openly to a capitulation on the MacDonald pattern.
As a counterweight to the Labour government and a safeguard against revolutionary action by the masses, big capital would set about energetically supporting (this it has already begun to do) the fascist movement.
The Crown, the House of Lords, the bourgeois minority in the House of Commons, the bureaucracy, the military and naval commands, the banks, the trusts, the main body of the press, would merge into a counter-revolutionary bloc, ever ready to bring up the bands of Mosley or of some other more efficient adventurer to help the regular armed forces.
(Trotsky, Introduction to the Second English Edition of Terrorism and Communism, in Writings on Britain Vol III)
Unlike in the 1930s, the forces of fascism today have been reduced to squabbling sects with no roots in society. Even the xenophobic UKIP has been reduced to a rump. The ultra-left sectarians who are always shouting about the alleged threat from fascism have no sense of proportion or perspective. Serious reaction can only arise after a series of serious and decisive defeats of the working class movement. But we are a long way from that.
At the time, Trotsky tried to give the small group of British Trotskyists a vision of what was possible, provided they were dedicated, energetic and connected with the real movement of the working class. In his advice to the ILP in 1933, Trotsky explained that:
“The revolutionary proletarian party must be welded together by a clear understanding of its historic tasks. This presupposes a scientifically based programme. At the same time, the revolutionary party must know how to establish correct relations with the class. This presupposes a policy of revolutionary realism, equally removed from opportunistic vagueness and sectarian aloofness.”
The excellent advice that Trotsky gave to the British Trotskyists in the past was wasted because of sectarian stupidity.
We must of course have a sense of proportion. The Marxists in Britain are not yet a revolutionary party - only the embryo of such a party. First and foremost we are ideas, programme, perspectives and methods. We are still assembling the initial cadres. But that is only half the battle. It is necessary now to link our relatively small forces to the mass movement of the working class.
That is the greatest challenge facing us. There is no one else who will do it. We must do it ourselves. If we fight with energy, enthusiasm, and elan, we will build a powerful Marxist tendency in Britain.