The attack on our party
By Political Bureau of RCP
[Internal circular, May 24 1944]
The recent attack against our organisation, the arrest of our comrades and subsequent trial together with the introduction of Regulation 1AA, has raised new and wider perspectives before our party and forces upon us a new tactical orientation. After a series of fairly thorough discussions, the Political Bureau decided to issue certain preliminary directives as the basis for local discussions both in relation to our Labour Party and industrial work.
The attack on our party launched by Bevin has brought our tendency before the workers in a manner which would have been impossible to visualise a few years, or even months ago. The prosecution of our comrades, which is everywhere recognised as the persecution of our party, is a historical prosecution being the first under the Trade Disputes Act, and marks a landmark in labour history. The reaction of the masses to the use of the Trade Disputes Act is one of sympathy with our party, and acceptance (though they disagree with our policies) of the fact that we are the revolutionaries – that we are the militant communists.
The new anti-labour legislation 1AA was introduced into Parliament with a full day’s debate and the main argument of the government was: this regulation is necessary to... combat the Trotskyists! The main opposition in the House of Commons to the anti-labour legislation – Bevan and Co., who received the undoubted support of the broad mass of the organised workers – comes to the defence (albeit weakly) of the Trotskyists. It can be said that the most significant “revolt” and crisis in the Labour Party since the beginning of the war is linked to the attacks against the Trotskyists, to the attacks against the Revolutionary Communist Party.
At the fusion conference it was agreed that we had once again entered the bloodstream of the organised labour and trade union movement as a distinct political trend: but only just. Now we can say that we have entered the political arena not only as a party, but one which is acknowledged as the left revolutionary wing of the working class. In the minds of the broad masses there is a marked sympathy with us, although there is little or no active and hard support. There is, however, the recognition that we are being framed because we are the most militant political and industrial trend in the country. In the left wing of the ILP, the Labour Party, and trade union movement, and even to some extent in the ranks of the Communist Party, there is the beginning of an open recognition that the Trotskyists continue the communist policy and tradition.
On the defence committee, the British Trotskyists for the first time, have a platform together with the established left reformist and centrist leaders of the labour movement. This fact has the effect of positively integrating Trotskyism as part of the labour movement in the eyes of the most advanced workers.
A new and fertile field has opened up for us which can be described as the limited united front.
In the past we tended to emphasise, almost to the exclusion of every other consideration, our criticism of the left reformist trend. Our attacks against the right wing of the Labour Party were usually in passing. We considered they were sufficiently exposed to those workers to whom we were addressing ourselves. This helped to harden out the principled cadres of the movement and helped to destroy any illusions that new members coming from the mass movement still had in the left wing leaders of these organisations. But in one sense, it was also a product of our isolation. Our appeal was directed to a small, narrow circle of the most advanced workers. But now our appeal is directed not only to the most advanced elements of the workers but to broader circles of left wing Labour supporters. An important part of our work in the present united front will be the skilful exposure of the reformists and centrists in deeds, but to slightly alter our method of approach, without, of course, withdrawing an inch from our principled political criticisms.
Our method of approach must be to bring out and emphasise the progressive aspect of the revolt of Bevan and the Labour lefts, and pose before the supporters of this trend the necessity to draw the logical conclusion from the steps which the lefts have taken against the reactionary right bloc. By this method we will place the responsibility on their shoulders for refusing to face up to the situation, and at the same time to explain the steps which we consider necessary for the left wing of the working class to take. Bevan and the lefts are the weathercocks of the labour movement. At present they sense the feeling of organised labour and reflect the pressure on part of the workers. Thousands of workers throughout the country have illusions in these lefts which will only be shattered by a process of patient explanation on our part.
It must be understood that we are dealing with capable reformists who are not amateurs at the game of “blocs”, united fronts, and manoeuvres, whereas we are entering this wider field for the first time, and with inadequate forces. We can therefore possibly make mistakes which can damage our future work. We must avoid such mistakes even if we are to make others of a rather sectarian character. If it were a question of a manoeuvre at the top and a bloc with the Bevan’s only, it would be lacking in principle and we would reject it at once. But there are thousands of the best elements in the ranks of the working class who look to these lefts for a lead and who have a genuine desire to combat the Trade Disputes Act and Regulation 1AA. It is with the purpose of integrating ourselves with these sections of the working class that we must throw the weight of our party and try to draw them fully into the struggle to combat the anti-labour laws and free our comrades.
To the extent that we can carry this out, we will raise the party onto a new level in its direct relations with the left elements of the working class. Such workers are openly hostile to the right wing of the Labour and trade union movement. But to destroy their illusions in the “lefts” it is not sufficient that we denounce Bevan as we have done in the past. It is necessary to be explanatory: to go through their experiences with them, calling on Bevan to match his words and gestures with deeds.
In joint work, and on the platforms with them, the method of approach will be decisive. Insofar as the limited task of combatting 1AA and the Trade Disputes Act is dealt with, our attitude must be aggressive. Stating our clear and hostile attitude towards the bourgeoisie, we must place the responsibility for the present situation, and particularly 1AA on the shoulders of the right wing of the labour movement. On a common platform, we should not, unless absolutely necessary, directly attack our allies of the day. We should however, do so at all times and in any case, by the statement of our positive policy: break the coalition, etc. It may be that while on that platform, it becomes necessary to make a negative criticism of our “allies”. Outbursts of downright chauvinism, criticisms of strikes, of militant activity or revolutionary propaganda would place the responsibility immediately on our shoulders to criticise what has been said. But in general, on a joint platform, the broader issue of the nature of the war will be pushed into the background at this stage of the limited united front. We will expose the “lefts” positively by pointing out that they can only carry the struggle to a successful conclusion by making a break with the coalition and rallying the working class in a struggle to place Labour in power on a socialist programme. In our press an important part of our material will continue to be devoted to a criticism of the “lefts”. But here too, our weight will be shifted from savage and downright denunciations towards pedagogical criticism and explanation.
In general, this limited united front will only be of value to our party if it brings us into closer contact with wider circles of the organised working class, and if we can draw broader sections of the advanced workers into common work with us. It may well be that in this will be the beginning of a real collaboration with the left Labour workers. On the other hand, it can easily die out, and very quickly too. Our tactics will evolve empirically as we gain experience in line with the situation as it evolves. One thing is certain: we must seize the favourable opportunity to utilise what forces can be mobilised now. Party work must be mobilised around this issue.
Our industrial perspective in the light of 1AA
It is an undeniable fact that the introduction of 1AA limits the legal activities of the Militant Workers’ Federation and our party industrial work generally. Our industrial perspectives must therefore be seriously discussed, reviewed and revised. It is necessary to adopt a new tactical orientation, whilst maintaining that firm and militant stand which characterised our industrial activity in the past.
Whilst broadening the legal basis of the existing anti-strike legislation and thereby limiting the activities of all workshop militants, 1AA is aimed directly against the Militant Workers’ Federation and similar organisations which seek to coordinate the militant industrial activities of workers in each district, between districts and on a national scale. One of the most important effects of the new law is to protect the trade union bureaucracy at the expense of the rank and file. It is now illegal to discuss or advocate strike action outside the branch room or official trade union organisation. It is now illegal to circulate resolutions of support other than through trade union branches or official bodies. It is now illegal to issue sheets for the collection of funds other than through the branches or official bodies. Insofar as strikes take place, and they undoubtedly will, support must be constitutional to be legal. We should make our fellow workers fully aware of these facts. We should hammer it into the consciousness of the sympathisers and members of the Militant Workers’ Federation and its area organisations, although it should not stop us from collecting monies through the shop stewards’ organisations and factory bodies.
In our conference resolution, relationship between the legal official and “illegal” unofficial aspects of the policy of our industrial work was dealt with. The Militant Workers’ Federation generally operated on the basis of our industrial perspectives. The principal function of the Militant Workers’ Federation was the clarification of the industrial policies among the leading militants, the coordination of militant action from one district to another and the organisation of moral and financial support for workers who were on strike, together with the circulation of important information from area to area. The gains of the Militant Workers’ Federation came from the coordination of militant activity and its assistance to workers in strike disputes, and not as such from the policy which was conducted inside the union. We must not minimise the importance of this consideration. 1AA cuts entirely across this form of activity by the MWF.
1AA has of course, not stopped illegal strikes – nor will it. Nor will it stop us aiding, through the factory organisations, workers who are forced to use the strike weapon. But the application of this latter form of assistance will demand skilful manoeuvring and real support among the workers. We could continue our work in the MWF as before and test the reaction of the workers to the attacks that the state would inevitably launch against the MWF and the militants associated with it. But this would be the worst sort of adventurism. It would be an ultra-left gesture which could only lead to the beheading of the leadership and the smashing of the growing left wing.
Our task is to retreat, but to retreat in good order.
The essence of a retreat in good order is that the leadership must fully understand why the retreat is necessary and have the full confidence of the broadest layers of its supporters. To achieve this, the supporters of the MWF must be made fully aware of the nature of the problems that are involved.
The main emphasis of our work must be shifted from the coordination of strike activity (directly) to the revitalisation of the trade union branches and district organisations. To the extent that we succeed in doing this, the duties normally performed by the unofficial MWF can be performed through the official trade union machinery in the local and district organisations that the adherents of the MWF control. This will not be an easy task to perform. But it can and must be done.
The heavy hand of the bureaucracy still stifles the life of the trade union local and district machinery. But it is absolutely certain that in the next period the branches will be revived and show active organisation.
It may be that the organised workers will sweep aside 1AA in practice: that the ruling class will be unable to apply this regulation with even the minimum of success... except to ourselves! But until such a situation arises, and whilst we have no practical demonstration of the mood of the workers, we are forced to adapt our tactics to the situation that exists.
The essence of our task in the immediate period ahead is to struggle to convert the MWF into a national all-union militant minority. This does not mean the liquidation of the MWF. It means a shift in the axis of its activism from the coordination of extra-union work to that of coordinating and conducting the same form of activity through the union machinery.
The link up and coordination of shop stewards’ and factory committees will be pursued as before. There is every reason why questions of policy should be thoroughly discussed and decided upon in these meetings. The stronger the penetration of the shop stewards’ and factory committees, the less “terrible” threat of 1AA. But even less “terrible” from a legal point of view, is if the coordination can be carried out via the branches and district committees.
Note: for the purpose of learning the lessons of the old Minority movement, led by the Stalinists – its mistakes and successes – the PB will instruct a comrade to concentrate on research on this question.