Contribution by WIL to the discussion on the tasks of Bolshevik-Leninists in Britain
By WIL Political Bureau
[Original document, June 1938]
The Bolshevik-Leninists of the various groupings in Britain are united in the matter of the adoption of the broad programme of the Fourth International—the characterisation of the present epoch as the eve of new international economic convulsions heralding the death throes of capitalism [and] imperialism, the acceleration of frantic preparations for another universal war of imperialist cannibalism and the encroachment of fascism as the overtures to the coming crisis; the role of reformism and Stalinism as the crutches of moribund imperialism; the vacillating character of centrism; the need for a new Fourth International and for a revolutionary party in Britain, a section of the new international, to lead the struggle of the British workers. It is of course on the question of how to overcome the present exasperating isolation of the revolutionary elements from the broad masses of the working class that differences of opinion have risen that keep British Bolshevik-Leninists disunited. It is therefore only with this question of immediate tactics in facing present tasks that this statement deals.
On October 7 1858, Engels was able to write to Marx:
“The British working class is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat as well as a bourgeoisie. Of course, this is to [a] certain extent justifiable for a nation which is exploiting the whole world.”
This classic characterisation of the British labour movement recurs again and again throughout Marxist writings and is underlined by the growing opportunism of the British labour movement under the leadership of its aristocratic stratum, bribed by a share of the super profits arising from the colonial monopoly of the world market. The Labour Party is the culmination of decades of opportunism and social chauvinism, and today seeks to qualify as the managing board of the British bourgeoisie, to conduct tomorrow wars for it in the same spirit as liberalism conducted its wars of yesterday. Today encroaching rival imperialism by threatening the British bourgeoisie, thereby threatens also the vested interests of the Labour bureaucracy. In its open wholehearted support for British war preparations, the labour bureaucracy seeks merely to protect its own.
The plunder seized by the victors in the last great war gave a new infusion of blood not only to British capitalism but to its opportunist lackeys in the labour movement. Where in the vanquished and cheated imperialist countries the bourgeoisie was compelled to turn to fascism as the last mean to maintain its domination, in Britain as in France the labour bureaucracy was given a new lease of life! The same crisis that carried the German social democratic leaders into exile or into Hitler’s concentration camps carried the Ramsay MacDonalds into Downing Street.
Today the social economic basis for British labour opportunism is disappearing. Rearmed German imperialism, Italian aggression, Japan’s war of plunder, sharpening antagonism with the other victors in the last war, colossal armaments expenditures, increasing demands by the national bourgeoisie in the Dominions and India, colonial revolts, the approach of a new world slump—all these factors undermine the privileged position of monopolist British imperialism [and] destroy the basis of British Labour opportunism. Far from winning new concessions, the British proletariat find its old concessions increasingly threatened, its standards of life steadily gnawed away.
If there are British workers today who vote for the Tories, it is on account of the reputation which the Tories won in a past epoch when they led the struggle for the abolition of child labour, for the Factories Act, etc. The rural worker who votes Tory as his grandfather did, does so for the same reason—because it represents for him a progressive force which did after all win reforms, whereas Labour, he will point out, has gained nothing for the workers. The treachery of past Labour governments, far from clearing the road for the revolutionary party, has reconsolidated Toryism in Britain. The experience of two Labour governments does not in itself serve to guide the working class to the correct conclusions; there is needed in addition the presence within the labour movement of a vanguard which successfully drives the lesson into workers’ consciousness by means of sustained, serious and systematic criticism of policies. Where such criticism comes from select coteries external to the mass organisations, it is generally ignored, however deserving it may be of a better fate; only when it is uttered by workers within the organisations who have earned the right to criticise by means of steady work side by side with the other active members, only then is there the chance of driving the lesson home.
This piece of ABC wisdom is apparently not part of the equipment of one section of revolutionary socialists. Comrades belonging to our grouping have reported to us that they heard read out at a meeting of their trade union, the AEU a circular letter which had been issued by the executive committee of the Revolutionary Socialist League to all AEU branches. The letter contained a correct criticism of the arms policy of the AEU leadership, but it aroused no discussion and was ignored. In other branches the letter was not even read.
Criticism from outside is sometimes more damaging to the cause it seeks to serve than no criticism at all. As in this concrete instance, so in its general attitude towards reformist mass organisations, the RSL, which lacks a sufficiently strong voice to make its criticism heard from the outside, fails on the other hand to take the only alternative path and organise an effective internal criticism. The utterly ineffective, and indeed damaging, tactic adopted towards the AEU is in the case of the Labour Party glorified into a Marxist principle, and called “the independence of the revolutionary proletarian party.” The Labour bureaucracy is left entirely free to organise yet another betrayal of the British workers who are abandoned by “revolutionaries” to find their own way out of the debacle which means in effect to retrace their footsteps, to return to Toryism or even more extreme reaction.
The Labour Party reached its peak membership of nearly 4.5 million in 1919-1920, the revolutionary post-war years. Today it has less than half that number of members but there can be no doubt that it will again reflect in an increasing membership the struggle of the British workers to smash down the political barriers that baffle their efforts to maintain their standards of life.
In their attempts to cut a way through the legislative measures that hemmed them in, the workers in the British trade unions created the Labour Party as a political adjunct to the trade unions. Every time the efforts of the trade unionists to gain their demands or safeguard their interests through the unions were baffled by judicial decisions the Labour Party gained new access of strength. Future trade union struggles must inevitably come into conflict with the reactionary measures introduced by the national government and so force upon the consciousness of the workers the necessity for political action to implement trade union action. The Labour Party must inevitably experience a new growth after the next offensive or defensive struggle of the trade unions since it functions as a subsidiary political arm of the trade unions which impress upon it their own fundamentally reformist character.
Because it is an outgrowth of the trade unions and functions entirely within the framework of bourgeois democracy, the Labour Party shares one basic characteristic with the trade unions: it dwindles in “peace time” to a mere skeleton.
It is the experience of every active trade unionist that between periods of major struggle—against wage cuts, for wage increases—the trade union is carried on by a small minority of members. The majority of members do not attend meetings, although they continue to pay subscriptions and support the union passively. It is in these periods of ebb that the trade union bureaucracy consolidates itself.
For the Labour Party, functioning as it does within bourgeois democracy, war time is election time, and in the peace time period between elections, it becomes a mere skeleton, passively supported by its individual, trade union and co-operative members. At the present moment, except for the passive ripples of by-elections, its work is carried on by a small minority consisting in the main of the bureaucracy, a sprinkling of ambitious careerists, a few veterans who support the bureaucracy and the factions sent in by external organisations. In such a structure, party activity consists in a series of manoeuvres executed mainly between Stalinists and right wingers. The mass membership for whose benefit the various postures are adopted are notably absent from the auditorium.
This is the party into which a number of revolutionary socialists have entered, and their participation in the life of the party is conditioned by this skeleton structure which gives to the reigning bureaucracy a practically free hand. But far from negativing the activity of the revolutionary socialists within the Labour Party, the peace time structure gives them a political weight out of all proportion to their numerical strength.
There is in the first place the opportunity of coming into contact with politically awakening workers who in the ordinary functioning of the Labour Party would pass through the organisation as through a sieve. By posing before them a militant programme of struggle, the disillusionment that arises from the reformist character of the Labour Party is replaced with the hope of accomplishing working class aims. In this way the left wing within the Labour Party is strengthened and consolidated.
Secondly there arises the possibility of utilising the national machinery of the Labour Party as a sounding board. Where normally there would be merely the factional struggle between right wing reformism and Stalinist reformism, there is now introduced a third point of view, the revolutionary position. For example, in the present struggle between the Stalinist popular front and the right wing “independence of the Labour Party” it is possible to introduce the correct policy of the workers’ united front. In the absence of a revolutionary wing, the entire question is distorted.
In the struggle to magnify the weak voice of revolutionary socialism it is necessary to capture positions, delegations, seats on committees and councils, and this brings the socialists into direct conflict with the expert manoeuvrers on the other side. Repeated defeats, when they are examined self critically, are the soil from which spring future successes. The necessity of responding swiftly and correctly to the questions raised day after day brings valuable experience.
Thus even in the skeletonised party of the inter-election period there is to be gained new blood for the left wing movement, a magnification for revolutionary propaganda and political experience.
At the present moment the right wingers search for a stick with which to beat the Stalinists who threaten to tear the machine from out of their hands. They do not hesitate to publish selected articles by Trotsky in Forward and to quote from the Trotskyites. Only from within the Labour Party is it possible to exact a price from the bureaucracy, forcing it to acknowledge the revolutionary content of Trotskyism instead of merely utilising the anti-Stalinist aspect of its revolutionary programme.
The revolutionary elements correctly oriented within the mass workers’ party grow with the growth of the party. As the crisis forces increasing numbers of workers from passive to active support of the Labour Party, they find within the party a nucleus around which to gather, and party growth means growth of the left wing. To gain the maximum development along lines of revolutionary struggle requires the throwing of the entire available forces of the militants into the work of building the left wing. It is possible to learn from military theoreticians, who have summed up the central principle of military tactics in the formula: “all strength at the point of attack.” The adoption of this formula in “the contiguous field of political strategy” means the abandonment of any external “independent” organisation. The experience of our grouping has proved that it is possible to carry out the special work of an independent organisation, publication of pamphlets, propaganda, news, etc. even though its entire forces are immersed in the Labour party, attempting to carry out the functions of building the left wing, voicing the revolutionary policy and training cadres. The actual carrying out of this policy has consolidated the numbers of the Workers’ International League in opposition to any concession whatsoever to the sectarianism which seeks to concentrate the efforts of militants on the framing of unread manifestoes and unread criticism.
These arguments apply with even greater force to the task of mobilising working class youth, now being drawn increasingly into economic struggles, under the banner of revolutionary socialism. Within the Labour League of Youth, which is a rallying ground for the younger and fresher elements of the politically awakening proletariat, there are basically the same trends and an even better field of work than in the senior party. It is among the youth that the Stalinists who have entered the Labour Party exert the greatest influence, utilising their virtual control of the organisation for the purpose of lining up the youth for imperialist war. Failure to build a left wing in the Labour League of Youth means the abandonment of working class youth to social patriotism and to wholesale slaughter.
The struggle for the winning of the youth opens up new avenues for reaching that section of the youth that has already come under Stalinist influence. The increasing disintegration within the Communist Party manifests itself in a growing internal opposition to popular frontism, deepened by the recent defeats for the peace alliance. Side by side with the instinctive rejection by a part of the membership of the Stalinist policies of class collaboration there is the havoc brought by the latest Moscow Trial. The possibility is now created of taking advantage of those self-inflicted breaches in the Stalinist wall both by a direct tackling of the problem of reaching the Stalinist rank and file and through the Labour Party.
Since the dissolution of the Socialist League there has been no left wing organisation within the Labour Party to serve as a rallying point for Labour militants. Both the Socialist Left Federation and the Militant Labour League have been still born; neither has met with any response within the Labour Party. On the other hand if the movement of the ILP towards re-affiliation to the Labour Party culminates as most observers expect, the ILP with its long tradition and its verbally left programme must become the core of the left wing. Events in Spain have driven the ILP away from the Communist Party and towards the Labour Party. On February 3 1938, Fenner Brockway was reported as declaring: “We would be prepared to re-affiliate to the Labour Party if we had the conditions from that Party which would enable us to maintain our revolutionary socialistic views.” The Labour Party executive refuses “any special reservations or privileges for ILP members as MPs.”
The re-entry of the ILP into the Labour Party will relegate both the Socialist Left Federation and the Militant Labour League into oblivion. Our entire perspective within the Labour Party must be adapted to the new conditions now arising, which necessitate working upon the ILP to hasten the process of differentiation which has already begun in the ILP in the movement of its parliamentary section towards the Labour Party bureaucracy. With our small forces opposed to the overwhelming numbers and resources of the enemy, we are forced to adopt guerrilla tactics, to offset our smallness of numbers with greater mobility, resourcefulness and activity. As our forces grow and spread in their scope, practical problems of co-ordination and unification are raised. The solution to these problems are found as they arise and it is in the actual solving of concrete problems that the organisation is created to serve as the living instrument of workers’ militant struggle. Only a brief breathing space is allotted to us for the forging of that instrument. We must utilise the time at our disposal in the most effective manner, and that means—all our forces into the Labour Party—full strength at the point of attack.
 Amalgamated Engineering Union
 Forward was a Glasgow-based socialist journal established by the Independent Labour Party in 1906.
 The Socialist League was a left group formed in 1932, led by Stafford Cripps, as a split from the Independent Labour Party in opposition to the ILP's policy of disaffiliating from the Labour party.