Lenin and Labour: a gross distortion

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The ascendency of Labour left veteran Jeremy Corbyn from backbench rebel to unlikely leader has raised the question as to whether socialists should support Labour in the General Election on 8 June. The fact remains that the vast majority of Labour MPs are right-wing reactionaries opposed to Corbyn, who has made a series of concessions to sustain the unity of the party above all else. As our Don't vote - fight for socialism! General Election statement explains, he has sacrificed his anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist principles. He has also authorised Labour councils to implement devastating cuts to local services. Corbyn has ensured that Labour remains a racist, pro-austerity, imperialist and warmongering party.

Yet the majority of British left organisations argue – as they always have done regardless of who the leader is – that socialists should support Labour. They claim this is the tactically correct position. It is usually justified by citing Lenin’s advice in 1920 that the British Communist Party should affiliate to the Labour Party. But as explained in the following passage from the Revolutionary Communist Group’s 1984 manifesto, The Revolutionary Road to Communism in Britain, such justification ‘depends on a gross and ignorant distortion of Lenin’s position':

‘The crucial struggle facing communists in Britain today is the fight against opportunism which as Lenin pointed out is the “principal enemy”. The urgent task is to fight for a split from the reactionary opportunist leadership of the organised Labour and trade union movement and its political expression, the Labour Party. This is the only basis for building fighting anti-imperialist organisations from which a new communist party can emerge.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of the corrupt bourgeois and pro-imperialist character of the Labour Party, the middle class left almost without exception calls for support for the Labour Party. This political standpoint is frequently justified by citing Lenin’s advice in 1920 that the British Communist Party should affiliate to the Labour Party. Such justification depends on a gross and ignorant distortion of Lenin's position.

Lenin’s attitude to this question was a tactical one based on a concrete analysis of the conditions then prevailing. Firstly, the revolutionary upsurge of the working class movement in the immediate aftermath of the First Imperialist World War was already in decline by 1920. Secondly, the Communist Parties affiliated to the Third International had succeeded in winning and organising sections of the vanguard to their ranks but had yet to win the masses away from their social democratic leadership. Thirdly, it was believed that sufficient ‘freedom of criticism’ existed to allow the British CP, if affiliated to the Labour Party, to conduct open propaganda and agitation against the Labour Party leadership for the purpose of winning workers to communism. Fourthly, the British Labour Party had not yet formed a government. With all these conditions in mind and insisting on the precondition that ‘freedom of criticism’ existed, Lenin recommended affiliation.

What Lenin meant by ‘freedom of criticism’ was made clear by the example of the British Socialist Party which was allowed to have its own press in which the Labour Party leaders were attacked as ‘social traitors’. Also it was possible to openly raise the question of affiliation to the Third International and force an open discussion in all party branches and sections on the issue. Today’s example of the Militant Tendency (in 1984 - now split into the Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal) makes it absolutely clear that such ‘freedom of criticism’ has long since been abolished. The reactionary pro-imperialist Militant Tendency finds itself attacked, and its leaders expelled, for its extremely muted ‘criticism’ of the Labour Party leadership. In any case, the Labour Party consistently rejected affiliation from the British Communist Party.

That the issue was a tactical question is further confirmed by Lenin’s quite different attitude in an earlier period. In early 1916 during the Imperialist War Lenin praised the British socialist who called for a split from the Labour Party:

‘In Britain even a moderate paper like the Labour Leader publishes Russell William’s letter urging the necessity for a split with the trade union “leaders” and with the Labour Party, which he says, has sold out the interests of the working class.” (Lenin Collected Works Vol 22 p128)

In this period a split from the social democrats to build a new anti-imperialist movement to lay the basis for a new International was the necessary and urgent political task. The task was to create independent Communist Parties in all countries. Workers in this period were increasingly responding to an anti-war, anti-imperialist position. Also at this time social democratic leaders were participating in imperialist war cabinets. In these conditions, the issue was not affiliation to or support for the Labour Party but a split from it.

Today the necessary and urgent political task facing communists in Britain is to build an anti-imperialist anti-racist movement as the basis for building a Communist Party. To do this requires a fight for a split from the ‘trade union “leaders” and the Labour Party’ as they politically represent the interests of the labour aristocracy and are steadfast supporters of British imperialist interests in the working class. Secondly, the crisis has pushed to the forefront of the struggle a section of the most oppressed layers of the working class who through their opposition to the racist British state will oppose British imperialism. This layer has arisen outside the traditional working class organisations and must be organised independently of those organisations. In these conditions to call for support for the Labour Party amounts to an attempt to drag these forces back into the fold of the Labour Party and under the control of a labour aristocracy whose interests it expresses. It is also an attempt to prevent other sections of the working class from following the lead of these new forces.

The political attitude of the middle class left organisations to the Labour Party flows from their overall political stance. The relative prosperity of the post-war boom in the imperialist nations allowed the creation of new relatively privileged layers in the working class. This new layer of mainly salaried white-collar workers has grown with the growth of state and social services employment. Its social and economic status depends on the continued prosperity of imperialism and the accompanying conditions of bourgeois democracy. As the imperialist crisis deepens, this layer finds itself threatened. On the one hand uprisings on the streets and growing anti-imperialist struggle internationally threaten to destroy the very imperialist system which sustains it. On the other hand, the imperialist response to the crisis – military and police violence, erosion of democratic rights, cutbacks in the state sector and the prospect of nuclear war – also threaten to undermine the social and economic conditions which were the basis of the security, enhanced status and privilege of this layer in the post-war boom. They are increasingly confronted with a choice: either to side with the oppressed fighting imperialism or, in a desperate and doomed effort to maintain their position, to side with the oppressor – the British imperialist ruling class and its Labour and trade union allies in the working class movement.

The small forces of the British middle class left draw their membership predominantly from this new privileged layer and reflect its political standpoint. Confronted by the central choice – to side with the oppressed or with the oppressor – the British middle class left has, in the past few years, made it clear that it has chosen to side with the Labour Party and organised trade union movement against the oppressed.’

See the below articles for further analysis of the relationship between British communists and the Labour Party in the 1920s:

John MacLean – Part VII: Organise for the working class: Organise against Labour / FRFI 152 Dec 1999 / Jan 2000

Communist, internationalist and fighter for women's rights: the legacy of Sylvia Pankhurst / FRFI 226 April/May 2012

Labour: a party fit for imperialism

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