Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

The Labour Party

18. Conclusion

THE LABOUR Party today is a reformist organisation that cannot deliver reforms, only destroy them. It is committed to electoralism but is reducing its base of committed voters, eliminating its activist cadre and more and becoming more dependent on grabbing votes and members by occupying Tory territory. The political conclusions that flow from these points are clear.

Labour and reformism cannot emancipate the working class. The Labour Party cannot be changed into a force for socialism. It is controlled by a social stratum – the labour bureaucracy – whose root interests are opposed to those of the working class. This group works through the system rather than against it. Therefore the Labour Party is, to use Lenin’s phrase, an agent of capitalism within the working class movement.

Does this mean that Labour’s reformism has no future? Far from it. Reformist consciousness – the ideas of the ruling class modified by the experience of exploitation and oppression – is not dependent on the actual prospect of winning reforms, of voting Labour or being a party member. So reformist beliefs continue.

Despite Labour becoming increasingly less capable of channelling these aspirations it does not mean that other organisations can easily displace the party as the political expression of reformism. Although modified, Labour’s unique relationship with the trade union bureaucracy continues and gives it an inherent stability. Similarly the very indirect, but nevertheless real link between the consciousness and the Labour vote guarantees the party’s mass influence. Labour may temporarily attract right wing support, but its core support is the working class, its most advanced section being overwhelmingly committed to Labourism.

Whether Labour succeeds next time or not, the key issue for socialists is never the polling booth (since parliaments change things very little) but the state of the working class movement. The death of social reform, electoral defeat, and destruction of Labour’s activists has in every case strengthened the hold of the Party over the movement.

Labour can survive as reformism without reforms. In the 1960s and 1970s, apart from at election times, Labour was irrelevant to day to day struggles on the shop-floor. Today, however, the bureaucracy’s New Labour ideology subordinates every aspect to the requirements of the parliamentary game. It is the dominant influence in all areas. Only exceptionally do spontaneous outbursts of anger escape its restraints.

But conventional politics is becoming ever more volatile. For decades the Italian Socialist Party was a key player in the state. Now it has been wiped out by corruption charges. Canada’s Tories were in government one day, reduced to two MPs the next, and made a partial recovery shortly afterwards. Yeltsin was the hero of the moment and is now detested by all. ‘Communist’ regimes fell in Eastern Europe only to be re-elected soon after. A Blair government can come to power and be swept away just as easily. However, this is merely political froth on the surface of a society based on the permanent antagonism of an exploiting ruling class and the mass of the population.

For this reason, reformism will not disappear spontaneously, no matter how inadequate it is to the current needs of the working class. This applies with even greater force when the capitalist crisis brings about major working class struggles in the future. True, it is through such struggles that the mass of workers can learn to go beyond reformism. But history shows that large scale conflict provides only the potential for this to happen.

One recent example was the mass strike and demonstration movement in France. This shook the Juppe government to its foundations forcing it into major concessions. In some areas the unofficial ‘co-ordinations’ of rank and file workers showed the potential for the struggle to escape the control of the labour bureaucracy. Economic demands began to combine with political demands for the withdrawal of Juppe’s plan to destroy the French welfare state. However, the movement has, for the moment, been contained by concessions and by the labour bureaucracy. As Socialist Review puts it:

part of the nature of mass strikes is that ... they can gather momentum but at a certain stage the action begins to pose the question of power. Can the movement bring down the government and if so who will rule? Either the movement presses forward, leading to a revolutionary situation, or it begins to stall ... The movement has raised the spontaneous demands and slogans which can lead to generalisation, but they have not been accompanied by the political confidence which the workers’ movement needs. [1]

France’s recent events have only begun the process of revolutionary upsurge which shifts the vast majority to the left. In the first instance this moves the largest number from passively thinking little or no change is possible to the nearest political position – left reformism. This does not imply actual membership of a reformist organisation, but acceptance of its political ideas. As we saw during 1918–1920 and 1972–74, Labour is perfectly ready to adjust its rhetoric quickly in order to occupy this left reformist ground. The initial impact of successful class struggles is thus to revive the Labour left. A relatively smaller number will move to centrist positions and still fewer will be won to revolutionary socialist politics. In the example of the German revolution in 1919, the reformist SPD grew enormously, the centrist USPD a little less so, and Luxemburg’s Communist Party grew from nothing to just a few thousand.

The main problem for revolutionary socialists is not what happens on day one of an upsurge of struggle, but political developments thereafter. Are the revolutionaries sufficiently strong to have their arguments heard so as to win the majority to go beyond reformism to putting an end to capitalist society?

To be able to carry out such a task preparations must begin long before. The necessary starting point is an independent Marxist party which first of all clearly and openly puts forward the alternative to reformism and, secondly, emphasises the collective potential of the working class. To do either effectively it must be outside the Labour Party and the parliamentary dead end.

This is merely the first step. Although every socialists counts, few can be won by argument alone. They must be convinced in practice. It is through struggle that large numbers can discover through their own experience that revolution is the only way forward. In other words revolutionaries must propose joint activity with reformists and, by working alongside them, wean them away from belief in the Labour Party road. Even if calls for joint activity on immediate issues fail, this can show how reformists put their sectional interests above the needs of the wider movement. Revolutionaries work simultaneously with and against reformists.

The supreme example of this was Russia in the summer of 1917. In July the reformist parties, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, drove the Bolsheviks underground and jailed many of the leaders for arguing for socialist revolution. At this time the Bolsheviks were a minority in the working class and the reformists a majority. A month later General Kornilov attempted a reactionary coup. To defend the gains made so far the Bolsheviks united with the very Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries who had just persecuted them. By leading the battle against Kornilov they won the allegiance of the majority of Russian workers and opened the way to soviet power in October.

Of course Britain in 1996 hardly presents such possibilities. But the advent of a Blair government, combining soaring expectations and years of growing frustration over mass unemployment and decaying public services means that revolutionaries may have an opportunity to relate to the mass of reformists in practical struggle. Whether formally organised or not, the Bolshevik tactic of the united front, remains valid. Addressing the Communists in the 1920s Trotsky summed up the necessary approach:

We broke with the reformists and centrists in order to obtain complete freedom in criticising perfidy, betrayal, indecision and the half way spirit in the labour movement. For this reason any sort of organisational agreement which restricts our freedom of criticism and agitation is absolutely unacceptable to us. We participate in a united front but do not for a single moment become dissolved in it. It is precisely in the course of struggle that the broad masses must learn from experience that we fight better than the others, that we see more clearly than the others, that we are more audacious and resolute. In this way, we shall bring closer the hour of the united revolutionary front under the undisputed Communist leadership. [2]

The edifice of capitalism is rotten and crumbling. If it is not demolished it will cave in upon all of us. The reappearance of mass Nazi movements that thrive on despair shows that humanity once again faces the long term prospect of socialism or barbarism. In Britain the main political obstacle in the way of demolishing capitalism is the Labour Party. To win the working class we must get past the obstacle.


1. Socialist Review, January 1996.

2. Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Volume 2, p. 96.

Last updated on 24 October 2016