Perspectives and tasks
[Original draft document, winter 1942]
The meeting of the national conference this year is a suitable time to check up on the ideas and perspectives adopted at the last conference and to modify or alter them in the light of the experience of the last twelve months, if that is necessary. The developments of the last period if anything have reinforced and given added weight to the conclusions embodied in our document Preparing for power. Our general perspectives remain fundamentally unaltered. There is no necessity then to repeat the basic ideas developed and adopted as the policy of the party.
Since last year the military position of British imperialism has completely changed. In the Pacific the onrush of Japanese imperialism has been checked and stemmed. In Europe the resistance of the Soviet Union has weakened and undermined the power of German imperialism. For two years the Nazi war machine has been battering itself to pieces in the vain endeavour to destroy the Soviet Union. The elite of the German troops lie buried on the plains of Russia. And meanwhile the flower of Soviet youth and a great part of the industrial wealth of the Soviet Union has been destroyed. The mutual destruction of these two powers suits the interests of British imperialism perfectly. For two years the British imperialists have had the opportunity of preparing their rearming on a tremendous scale, while their losses in equipment and manpower have been relatively small. As a result, far from facing the peril of imminent destruction the imperialists now face the prospect of victory over the Axis.
But what is important to note is that the changed position of British imperialism is not due mainly to her own efforts but to those of her “Allies”. The changed prospects are due to the efforts of the Soviet Union and to the staggering armaments programme of American imperialism.
Thus the rosy prospects of British imperialism are somewhat illusory. It is thanks to her position as a base from which the United States can come to grips in a death-grapple with her most formidable competitor and rival that on the surface British capitalism’s position as a world power has been strengthened and preserved. In fact this has been a means of concealing the stark reality of the decline and decay of British imperialism as a world power.
American imperialism has ruthlessly stripped the British capitalists of their foreign investments and grabbed strategic economic and political positions within the British dominions and colonies. Even in Europe the American bourgeoisie are manoeuvring for position so that Britain will not have the lion’s share even there. The decline of British imperialism is concealed somewhat by the huge shipments of food and munitions under the lend-lease agreement to Britain by the American capitalists. But once this huge subsidy is withdrawn the position of the British bourgeoisie will become really serious. It is on this international background that political life has developed in Britain. The main line of development has proceeded on the lines sketched out in the perspectives. There has been a further growth of the radicalisation and discontent of the masses. This has proceeded apace despite the military victories which have been obtained in this period by the ruling class. The radicalisation has affected nearly all the strata of the population. The victories of the Common Wealth at the bye-elections have been a symptom of this process. Further illustration of this process has been the production by the ruling class of the Beveridge report as a means of harnessing and side-tracking the discontent of the workers with promises of “social “security” after the war. Even this measure has been regarded as too “revolutionary” by the decisive sections of the British capitalists who realise only too well that they will have a difficult job of surviving American competition after the war and are preparing the greatest attack on the standard of living which the masses have experienced for the past century.
Even more striking as a means of gauging the changes of consciousness among the masses has been the widespread scepticism and disbelief in the efficacy of the scheme as a means of ameliorating their lot with which the plan has been greeted, especially within the ranks of the working class. This has indicated the maturity and development of working class consciousness in the last quarter century and provides a favourable background to the development of the revolutionary party of the working class. Even a complete and decisive military victory for British imperialism in the next period cannot prevent tremendous revolutionary convulsions among the masses.
The situation which is rapidly developing in Ireland where the masses are moving left in a terrific wave is but a pale reflection of the process that will develop in Britain at a later stage. In Ireland, with a predominantly agricultural population, the Labour Party, the most left party in the political arena, has developed from a tiny force into a major factor of the situation. In Dublin they have won the majority of the population to their banner. Even in backward and reactionary Ulster the Orange workers are gravitating towards socialism. In the case of Ireland this development has taken place because of the steep fall in the standard of living of the population, due mainly to the deliberate economic measures adopted by Britain to exert pressure on Eire. A similar economic pressure will be exerted by American imperialism on Britain, once they have defeated the Axis. Thus the pressure of America will be one of the main levers of the revolutionisation of Britain. Except that if we wish to have a parallel with Eire it is to the developments in Dublin we would have to look rather than Eire as a whole. Britain with its rich proletarian tradition and its proletarian majority of the population far more swiftly and far more intensely will move towards the left under the impact of development of events both abroad and home.
Meanwhile developments during the course of the war within Britain are an indication of the events which are yet to come. Under the pressure of the masses the first dress rehearsal of how the Labour Party is going to react has taken place. Definite hints of the splitting away of the right wing have been given as was forecasted. The revolt of the majority of the Labour MPs on certain issues such as the Beveridge plan, in which they voted against the coalition, is another. Inevitably the LP will be driven into opposition at the first serious crisis, when an active mass movement has developed. The coalition will be smashed under the pressure of the Labour workers. Meanwhile the decisions of the last Labour conference do not in the least invalidate these conclusions. The shameful Vansittart resolution and the defeat of the resolution asking for the ending of the electoral truce did not in the least reflect the feelings of the rank and file Labour workers. They merely indicate how far the trade union bureaucracy and the Labour bureaucracy have degenerated and separated themselves from the masses. Possibly even in the coming year the LP might be compelled to end the coalition. Whether the coalition will be maintained or not does not depend in the least on the vote recorded at Westminster but on the movements of the class struggle in the next period. The inactivity and lifelessness of the LP organisations has continued over the country as a whole. But in some areas a definite revival of the LP is to be observed. The continuation of the truce will further stifle and kill the activity of the local Labour organisations. Only at a later stage will the LP revive, and form a fruitful ground for activity. At the present time the hopelessness of basing all activity within the LP has been completely confirmed. Nevertheless the most striking feature of the situation is the critical attitude of big sections of the Labour workers towards the leadership. This scepticism among the workers organised in the trade unions and the LP is an important capital for revolutionary socialism, and has had further reinforcement by the antics of the Labour leaders in the past 12 months. Of course the moment the masses swing forward the Labour leaders will be compelled to thrust forward their left face and will even use revolutionary phrases in order to keep control of the movement. It is virtually certain that then the broad masses will swing behind them. But the critical attitude and the suspicion of the policy of the Labour leaders will remain firmly fixed at the back of their minds. At the first signs of a failure to turn words into deeds they will look elsewhere for leadership. Hidden for the moment are some very nasty shocks and surprises for the Labour bureaucracy in the movement and ideas of the workers.
The first big wave of enthusiasm for communism which embraced millions of the workers after the entry of the Soviet Union into the war has now subsided. The CP in Britain had temporarily received a rich harvest in sympathy and support as a direct consequence of this mood among the masses. But the wholesale and vicious anti-working class activity of the Stalinists has had its effect. The strike-breaking and cynical betrayals of the interests of the workers wherever conflicts have broken out between the workers and the employers have aroused antagonism and hatred towards the Stalinists by most of the workers involved in such disputes. This flies so much in the face of tradition of class solidarity of the British workers that it has produced a violent reaction against Stalinism wherever workers have come in contact with it. The CP has definitely lost the support of tens of thousands of worker-militants, the natural leaders and fighters of the working class. Not only that, dozens and hundreds of the best elements of the CP refusing to stomach their vile policy have been expelled, driven out or simply dropped out of the CP. Even in their strongholds, South Wales and the Clydeside, especially the latter, the CP is losing ground. For a time the Red Clydeside tolerated the sell-out, out of their tradition of loyalty and their class instinct of wishing to support the Soviet Union. But now among the best sections of the workers the CP is falling to pieces. According to a document issued by the CP the sales of literature and dues collected have fallen tremendously in comparison with other areas. The dissolution of the Comintern has been the last straw and CP speakers attempting to explain it away outside factory gates on the Clyde have been received with jeers and insults from the workers.
So strong has been the reaction against the Stalinist blacklegs that the Daily Worker and the CP have had to tone down their attack on the workers. The Daily Worker in dealing with strikes no longer hysterically denounces the worker but writes against the strikes almost as “objectively” as the Daily Mail. This to prevent a complete loss of support among the workers. The CP has grown from the ranks of the more backward sections of the workers, among a section of the petit-bourgeoisie and even from formerly entirely non-political areas. The best elements are alienated by the support for the Tory candidates at the bye-elections and other phenomena.
Nevertheless the process does not develop in a simple fashion. The CP has lost heavily in influence in the last year. But it still remains as a strong force and on the basis of mass upsurge may once again increase its influence especially on the less conscious elements of the workers, and in those areas where the workers have not seen the Stalinist policy in action, in direct conflict with the workers at elections and during strikes. But the opening of a mass movement will pose tremendous difficulties for the leadership even if the present policy is “modified” under the influence of events. If the alliance with the Soviet Union is continued the CP will have to carry on the present policy despite the results. This opens up the prospects of serious clashes between the membership and the leadership. From the ex-members of the CP and the best elements who remain we can expect to make big gains.
It is not yet clear whether the subsidies from the Kremlin will continue to be sent or the funds will be cut off, through the agreement between Stalin and Anglo-American imperialism. If the funds are cut off it will cripple the CP. But even if not, the CP will undergo big tests in the coming period which will splinter it to pieces.
Independent Labour Party
The last twelve months have seen a steady growth in membership and support for the ILP. Big increases in membership can be observed. But already the centrist or rather left-reformist leadership is preparing to sell out to the reformists. This will immediately open up contradictions with the left workers in its own ranks. The perspective of growth of the revolutionary left will be further enhanced and reinforced by the influx of left workers from the Labour Party and outside attracted to the ILP as a left force. Our fraction within the ILP while it has achieved good results is still very weak. Not sufficient broad agitation around concrete issues has been systematically developed. The issues of internationalism and the attitude towards the Labour masses must be utilised as the basis of our activity among the ILPers. Strides have been made but a tightening up of the work will be necessary.
Industry and the unions
The key work of our party lies within industry and the unions at the present time. Events of the past 12 months have indicated the process taking place among the working class. After years of quiet the basic section of the workers are beginning to stir. Strikes among the miners, transport, railwaymen, engineers, shipping, etc., have taken place. The unions have received an enormous influx of members bringing the number of organised workers to the highest recorded in British history except for the peak year 1920. There is not a basic sector of industry where the mood of the workers is not turning towards the left. The ferment within the ranks of the advanced militants in industry, and the desire to co-ordinate the activities of the fighting elements against the attack of the bosses, taken in conjunction with the necessity to combat Stalinist treachery and the sabotage and indifference of the trade union bureaucracy, has led to the formation of the new organisation of shop stewards and militants. Similar in many respects to the Clyde workers’ committee, which was set up for like reasons in the last war, the present organisation—while possessing many weaknesses and facing obstacles that the Clyde committee never had—nevertheless this council is on an entirely higher plane. The level of consciousness of the guiding layer is far above that of the workers who set up the Clyde workers’ committee. The last 25 years of experience have lifted the movement to an entirely higher level. The movement though weak in its initial stages is looking towards a national orientation rather than limiting it to only one industry and one part of the country. We are already playing a leading role in this movement and by developing correct perspectives and [with] correct work should succeed in winning over to our banner the best industrial militants, who will be attracted to the militant programme of this organisation throughout the country in the coming period. These are the natural fighters and leaders of the working class who are selected on the basis of the actual struggle in the workshops and wield enormous influence among the workers. With a correct policy on our part they can through their actual experience draw the logical political conclusions and find their way into the ranks of the revolutionary party. These workers are of the finest revolutionary material and from them should come perhaps the biggest influx of members, certainly the most valuable portion in the coming period.
The general strategical orientation of the organisation has been borne out by the experience of the past 12 months. Modest but important gains have been recorded for the organisation and we have made steady if slow progress. We have been established as a definite tendency within the ranks of the labour movement. The period that opens up is one of sharp turns and sharp breaks in the situation. In the industrial as well as the political sphere a period of storms and crises looms ahead. The sharp breaks and crises in the situation must not take us unawares. Despite the strides which we have undoubtedly made the organisation is still very weak and shaky. Our trained cadres are still few and inexperienced. The process of building the cadres and building the party must be accomplished simultaneously. Twelve months’ work and twelve months’ experience indicates the necessity to continue on the path which has been mapped out at the last national conference.