Notes on Labour Parties


Richard Fidler

The following is a stitched-together compendium of notes I wrote at various points during the recent labour parties discussion and did not post for one reason or another. It may still be of interest to some.

It’s no accident that the moves toward revolutionary regroupment in Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, etc have sparked a parallel debate on this list on the tactical approach these alliances should take to labour parties. These parties, in Britain and all of its former white settler colonies including Canada, New Zealand and Australia, still command — albeit it in widely varying degrees — the allegiance of masses of working people, and exert substantial influence within and on the organized labour movement.

Although in my opinion it would be a major error to make agreement on such issues as membership in the Labour party or trade-union affiliation to Labour a condition of revolutionary regroupment at this time, I think the revolutionary Marxist current needs to have a clear position in favour of participating in, building and even initiating where possible united-front activities and campaigns with Labour. Moreover, revolutionists need to pay close attention to leftward-moving currents and trends within these parties, where they exist, and seek to engage those militants in discussion and common action.

In the long run we need to conduct patient educational debates over the nature of these parties, their history, their structure and composition, their role in relation to the working class, in short their function in the political culture of the proletariat. And we need to understand that the situations vary widely from one country to another. An analysis that may be perfectly valid in relation to the New Zealand Labour party might not apply in many respects to Canada’s New Democratic Party, or for that matter to the Australian LP.While I agree with Jose Perez that today’s social-democratic labour parties “play different roles in the bourgeois political system” than they did in Lenin’s time — generally, they are a lot more integrated in the system of bourgeois rule, their ideological hold on politically thinking workers is much more tenuous and conditional, at least outside Britain — it is important that we not exaggerate this difference or underestimate the real problem these parties present for us.

Of course they are “bourgeois parties” in the relevant sense of their programmatic content, what their leaders do in government and the role they play in upholding capitalist rule. As Ralph Miliband put it, in the opening words of Parliamentary Socialism: A Study in the Politics of Labour (1961, his best book IMHO):

Of political parties claiming socialism as their aim, the Labour Party has always been one of the most dogmatic — not about socialism, but about the parliamentary system … The Labour Party has not only been a parliamentary party; it has been a party deeply imbued by parliamentarism.“

That alone is enough to characterize it as bourgeois. And the same can be said of all of these parties modelled after the British LP.

But the ongoing problem for revolutionary socialists is that these parties, because of their historic and organic links with the broader labour movement and their role in past if not present fights for social reforms, are still seen by masses of working people as somehow congruent with their interests as they understand those interests. The masses today (much more than in Lenin&$8217;s time) see parliament as the major, if not sole arena for politics. Those individuals disillusioned with parliament and the bourgeois electoral farce are for the most part not heading toward any revolutionary pole of opposition; they are simply dropping out and abstaining from political action of any sort. While a layer of radicalizing youth are mobilizing in opposition to capitalist trade and investment deals, for example, many are inclined toward anarchism and those who are prepared to join a party are few in number — and as we know are just as likely to join a labour party, the Greens or (in the US) the thoroughly bourgeois Democratic party. At this point the revolutionary current is still recruiting individuals and conjoining existing groupuscules in broader alliances, in the hope of building something that can appear as a more effective pole of attraction and influence within the mass movement.

The underlying reality is that outside moments of revolutionary upsurge (eg Portugal, 1974-75, is that our most recent example?), the working class in the imperialist countries is essentially reformist, empirical and pragmatic in its politics. If we want to build mass revolutionary parties capable of taking state power in these countries, we know that it will take huge social convulsions before major sections let alone a majority of the class are won to revolutionary politics. And those struggles will likely, even necessarily, involve confrontations over an extended period of time with and within these mass parties of social-democracy. As Gary MacLennan says: “I strongly suspect that when the working class becomes politically active, it will do so through the ALP — at least here in Australia … we should not underestimate the residual loyalty among workers towards the ALP.”

The general characterization of these labour parties as bourgeois tells us nothing about the nature of their relationship to the working class in each particular country. These differ considerably, and the differences are important.

All have participated to some degree in government, as alternate parties of the bourgeoisie. But I think it is fair to say that all of them still generally represent, to broad layers of the workers, the reform wing in a two- or three-party system.

New Zealand: death of social democracy?

Is the New Zealand Labour Party, the prototype for Blair’s New Labour, an exception? Perhaps. Phil Ferguson and his comrades make a compelling case that the devastation produced by Rogernomics in the 1980s finished off whatever meaningful link that party still had with the country’s organized labour movement, itself in sharp decline. Like its sister parties in Australia and Canada, the NZLP is now primarily funded by the state (Blair’s Labour party is moving to implement similar provisions, I believe) — a sharp contrast from the 1970s, when 90 per cent of the NZLP’s headquarters funding came from union affiliation fees. Membership is way down, from 25,000, one of the highest per-capita memberships of any Labour Party in the 1980s (and from 51,000 in 1940 in a much smaller population) to a few thousand today. Like all the Labour parties, it functions largely as an electoral machine, with little activity at the constituency level. There are almost no industrial workers in its membership, the comrades say. They (more accurately, the special feature on the LP in issue no. 14 of Revolution, from which I extracted the above data) conclude that the Labour Party “has developed a consummate degree of autonomy from the labour movement”.

But it’s a bit of a stretch to also conclude, apparently on the basis of this sociological analysis, that New Zealand is “at the end of social democracy as a political current”, or that “the vast majority of workers have long since lost any illusions in the Labour Party”, as John Edmundson puts it in his introduction to this special issue. I found little if any information in the 22 pages of Revo’s analysis about how the Labour electorate sees its vote for that party, that is, why so many workers continue to vote Labour. And some of the sociology I found a bit suspect.

For example, one article analyzes voting patterns in New Zealand between 1954 and 1987. It says that: “Over the twelve elections since 1954, Labour has averaged 49.73 per cent of the working-class vote,” and concludes:

On this measure, about half the working class vote Labour. If the Labour Party bases itself on working class support in the elections, it does so only to the same extent as the honestly bourgeois parties. It appears that the working class sees no real difference between Labour and the bourgeois parties. It is as if the whole class tossed a coin on polling days and, in accordance with the law of averages, half voted one way and half the other.

But if half the working class votes Labour (and fairly consistently in Labour’s “safe” seats, as an accompanying table shows), this is hardly evidence that the class as a whole is indifferent between Labour and the classic bourgeois parties; surely it is more sensible to say that this fairly consistent Labour vote indicates that a large part of the class, possibly one half of it, is fairly committed to voting Labour? Incidentally, Canada’s NDP has nowhere near that level of support anywhere outside of Saskatchewan.

Australia — careerists only?

The situation in Australia is even less clear to me. The Australian LP governs in all the states and territories, including some in which it recently won election. The right-wing parties are campaigning to take away the right of unions to affiliate to the party. But the DSP’s Peter Boyle tells us that “in most cases&8221; those who call themselves socialists in the ALP are “the sort of socialists who put their progress in a current or hoped-for trade union or parliamentary career first”. That is probably a fair description of what Dave Osler, in his new book Labour Party (referring to the British LP) describes as the “party machine, supported by a considerable layer of full-timers and an even larger layer of cadres not on the payroll — the half a dozen political careerists running each constituency Labour Party dreaming of Westminster”. But is it really true of all those who consider themselves socialist in the ALP, and who number about 20,000 according to Bob Gould’s estimate? Simply careerists?

It seems there are some limited openings for the revolutionary left to engage Labour members and supporters in common actions around specific goals that are completely consistent with a class-struggle orientation. Labour for Refugees may be one of these.

Blair’s “New Labour”

As for Britain, Steve Painter and others have noted how the new layer of union leaders, the “awkward squad”, in most cases are prepared to challenge Blair from within as well as outside the BLP on such issues as privatization and Iraq. There is no substantial movement within the unions to disaffiliate from Labour, although Blair might well welcome any such initiative. Judging from the Red Pepper interview Steve Painter cited, some of these union leaders actually see affiliation as an advantage to their union struggles. In any case, the BLP is much less dependent on union funding than it used to be (down to 32 per cent from 66 per cent a decade ago). It is astounding to read that three individuals (nouveaux-riches capitalists) give more money to New Labour than the unions do. But the anticipated introduction of state funding will probably prove to be a bigger factor in lessening Labour’s organizational ties with the unions.

As Ed George and others note, there appear to be some significant radical currents beginning to break from Labourism in the periphery (Wales and Scotland, particularly the latter), but as Ed also notes, “in England, especially in metropolitan England, ther is no significant radicalisation occurring outside of the organisational or political confines of Labourism”.

New Democratic Party: stillborn or senile reformism?

Canada’s NDP is a relative latecomer, and the weak sister, in this constellation of trade-union affiliated parties. It was established in 1961 on the initiative of the central labour body, the Canadian Labour Congress, in collaboration with the NDP’s predecessor the social-democratic Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). This was a relatively cold process, with little rank-and-file initiative or enthusiasm — more the product of an ongoing social-democratic strategy to build a BLP-type party, and a political project for a trade union bureaucracy frustrated with the futility of mere lobbying and increasingly hamstrung by antilabour legislation. The Communist Party, which in the 1920s had been the major political party on the left, forfeited that position during the Third Period ultraleft binges and, although a significant force in the unions in the Thirties and Forties, was unable to supplant the CCF. In the mid-Forties it had supported the Liberals and an illusory “Liberal-Labour coalition” in opposition to the CCF from the right.

The NDP is not, and never has been, seen as a serious or credible contender for government at the level of the federal state, mainly because it has never been able to establish any serious base for itself in the province of Quebec — the de facto national territory of the French-speaking population, a quarter of the country’s population and thus accounting for a quarter of the seats in the House of Commons. The political dynamics of the country are such that no stable government can exist in Ottawa without having a substantial parliamentary contingent from Quebec. The NDP’s Canadian nationalism, its commitment to a unitary conception of the Canadian state and its hostility to the autonomist and separatist trends in Quebec nationalism, isolated it almost from the beginning from the radical Quebec nationalist currents that developed among the province’s students, workers and the trade unions in the Sixties and Seventies.

The NDP&#8217’s fortunes in Quebec tend to be in inverse proportion to the fortunes of Quebec nationalism. The party gained some short-lived popularity in Quebec in the early 1970s after it opposed Trudeau’s use of the War Measures Act to jail hundreds of activists in the wake of the FLQ kidnappings — although the NDP’s defence of civil liberties was largely motivated by the fact that those rights were suspended in English Canada as well! In the late 1980s, when the Quebec sovereigntist movement was in the doldrums in the wake of the 1980 referendum defeat and the later defeat of the Parti Quebecois government, the Quebec NDP experienced a brief upsurge in support and membership as disappointed nationalists joined the party in hopes of finding a left-wing alternative to the bourgeois PQ; most of the new recruits left and rejoined the PQ when a new PQ leader, Jacques Parizeau, promised to reorient that party toward a renewed fight for Quebec sovereignty.

In English Canada, however, the NDP has at various times formed the government in four of the ten provinces and one northern territory, and come close to forming the government in a couple of other provinces. It is currently in office in only two provinces (Manitoba and Saskatchewan, in the latter as the major partner in a coalition with the Liberals). The NDP has a highly decentralized structure, and the provincial sections are in some ways the key components; constituency associations are generally based on the provincial electoral ridings, which are smaller and more numerous than the federal ones. Constituency associations are largely dormant outside elections, and the party functions largely as an electoral machine. The federal party is to some degree (I don’t know how much) financed by the provincial parties.

Outside Quebec, most of the major industrial unions and city-wide rank-and-file labour councils and a large number of the major public sector (government employees) unions are affiliated to the NDP. However, although there is no significant movement toward union disaffiliation from the party, the unions’ financial contribution to the party is much less today than it was in the party’s early years. Although I don&$8217;t have a province-by-province breakdown, the federal party now receives only 20 per cent of its funding from trade unions, although some big unions provide loan guarantees to the party during election campaigns as well as contributing full-time staff. Only one of the six party Officers is directly chosen by labour, and only 16 of the 105 seats on the party’s federal council are reserved for representatives of affiliated unions. Of course, many union members play leadership roles in the party as constituency activists and organizers at other levels.

The NDP lifted the ban on corporate donations some years ago, but at the federal level at least gets little from this source. This is not only because it can&$8217t form the government, but because the party itself still bars donations from corporations whose shares are publicly traded on the stockmarket!

The NDP’s main source of funding is the state, through direct election funding programs and generous tax rebates for individual contributors. Thus it is no longer correct (if it ever was) to say (as the Trotskyists did, for example) that the NDP is primarily based on and financed by the unions. Unions are the only bodies to take advantage of the NDP’s provision for organizational affiliation, however.

The NDP’s vote has varied over the last 40 years, between a high of 20 per cent and a low of just under 10 per cent federally. At present, its deputation in the federal House is the fourth largest — considerably smaller than that of the nationalist Bloc Quebecois, many of whose MPs have a background in Quebec’s unions. Of course, NDP support is much higher in some provinces: up to 44 per cent at one point in British Columbia, and 37 per cent in Ontario, the largest and main industrial province. These votes are heavily concentrated in working-class constituencies, especially those with lots of union members. I think the NDP once received a clear majority of votes in Saskatchewan, where the CCF first formed a government in 1944. NDP governments, lacking clear majority voter support, have gained their parliamentary majorities through the first-past-the-post system. Which is the main reason why the party, especially in its major strongholds, is very leery about advocating proportional representation!

The parliamentary cretins of the NDP’s leadership have of course suffered a major loss of credibility amidst the general crisis of social democracy. A number of attempts have been initiated in the last couple of years by various groups and individuals on the left in English Canada to establish some sort of more radical alternative to the NDP. The New Politics Initiative (NPI), about half of whose supporters are NDP members, was supported by up to 40 per cent of the delegates to the NDP’s last federal convention, in November 2001, around a program essentially advocating a more muscular form of social-democracy. However, it was given little representation in the party’s leadership bodies (only two of the party’s 13 MPs supported it) and it does not appear to have made any progress since then. The NPI has so far had little to say about Quebec, and has played no visible role in propelling the NDP toward antiwar or other international solidarity actions. It is essentially a discussion group at this point. It will be holding its first “national” conference in mid-October. I plan to attend and get a clearer picture of what is happening.

A substantially smaller Socialist Caucus, in which some Trotskyist groups play a prominent role, is running a candidate in the current federal party leadership race. She is not endorsed by the NPI. The Caucus has no union support, and appears to lack any solid base in the party outside the NDP’s tiny youth section.

A “Rebuilding the Left” movement initiated by Sam Gindin, a former leading staff member of the Canadian Auto Workers Union (CAW) and a contributor to Socialist Register, while attracting some support from the left nationalist magazine Canadian Dimension, has attracted few if any new forces and appears to have stalled. The RTL proposal was to build a new “anticapitalist” force independent of and further to the left of the NDP than the NPI proposal.

There is no major class-struggle current in Canada’s trade unions. The CAW’s relative militancy in recent years has attracted new affiliates and given it a certain reputation as a progressive force on the left. But its base is still the car industry, and its protectionist pro-automobile lobbying serves to alienate it from environmentalists and to undermine its ability to project a clear class line. In the most recent Ontario election, CAW leaders attempted to displace the province’s Conservative government by advocating “lesser-evil” votes for Liberals in some ridings. It is noteworthy that one of the NDP’s harshest critics on the left of organized labour, CAW president Buzz Hargrove, has lately indicated some interest in running for leader of the federal NDP.

As this very limited survey suggests, the NDP has hegemony among workers in English Canada whose politics are to the left of the more traditional bourgeois parties. However, the class as a whole has little ongoing loyalty to the NDP. At the same time, efforts to create another pole of attraction on the left have so far attracted little support outside the NDP itself and almost no support amongst radicalizing youth. A basic problem is the marked lack of confidence among many working people in the possibility of making significant gains in their condition through political action, which they by and large equate with bourgeois elections. The growing political alienation and demoralization of the class is reflected in progressively higher abstention rates in elections in recent years. Barely 60 per cent of the electorate voted in the last federal election, in 1999, a decline from about 80 per cent twenty years earlier.

Faced with its inability to progress electorally, the federal NDP recently established a task force (the NDP “Renewal Committee”) to travel throughout the country to hear suggestions for improvement. It has so far produced a 100-page report which is largely devoted to summarizing the “thousands” of submissions it received. Although the predominant thrust of those submissions is to move the party to the left, the committee’s recommendations propose no major changes in existing policy and (predictably) focus on process.

The Canadian Labour Congress, for its part, adopted by a large majority a “statement on political activism” at its June 2002 convention. It reaffirms, in a remarkably shamefaced way, the unions’ support for the NDP (labour’s political activism, it says, “must include a political party”, “a viable political alternative which voters are willing to support: a threat that needs to be present, other wise governments may ignore us”), but acknowledges that “labour’s official support [for the NDP has translated neither into union members joining the NDP nor into solid support at election time.” The CLC recommendations, like those of the NDP, break no new ground. There is no movement to disaffiliate unions from the NDP, however.

What this means is that for most workers in English Canada, independent political action (ie by the unions, in the interests of working people) still takes the form of action through the NDP. This is the reality that everyone on the left, including revolutionary socialists, must confront. At the same time, there is a significant and growing layer of radicalizing young people who at this point are not attracted by electoral politics and for the most part are not active in unions (although some are beginning to wield modest influence in some unions; the unions, BTW, although they have suffered some losses in recent years, still represent about 30 per cent of the workforce, more than twice the proportion of union membership in the United States).

The presence of the NDP, and its relative hegemony, means that any radicalization in the working class will necessarily in the foreseeable future be reflected within that party as well. Furthermore, the party, simply by virtue of its size and influence in the working class, serves as a strong gravitational force on any other left currents. This was true even of the 1960s youth radicalization, when the broad anti-imperialist feeling of many youth — in Canada, it included a strong Canadian nationalist component which presented some peculiar problems for revolutionary Marxists! — took the form for a period of a large left-wing current in the NDP, the “Waffle” as it styled itself for reasons I need not explain. In 1971, the Waffle candidate for the federal NDP leadership won 44 per cent of the delegate vote. Soon after that, this caucus began to win adherents and influence within some of the major industrial unions affiliated to the NDP in southern Ontario, particular the Steelworkers and Autoworkers. It was then banned by the rightwing leadership and its supporters were expelled, but only after a major fight. The Trotskyist organization I belonged to at the time participated actively in the Waffle, and a section of the Waffle leadership subsequently joined the Fourth International supporters in Canada.

The Comintern debates: optimistic illusions

The early debates on the British Labour Party in the Communist International, while of interest historically, are in my opinion of little use in developing our position towards the labour parties of today. In fact, rereading the discussions at the Second Congress of the CI, in 1920, I am struck by the surrealism of the proposals and of many of the contributions, including Lenin’s, even for that time.

Lenin (in Left-Wing Communism) proposed that the fledgling British CP, with barely four thousand members, approach the Labour Party, which had four million affiliated trade-union members, and make a formal proposal to apportion candidates and seats between the two parties! On its face, this audacious proposal had no chance of success. Apart from the impossibility of applying a post-election apportionment of seats in a first-past-the post single-member constituency system, there was simply no logical reason to think that the BLP leadership would seriously entertain such a proposal. It was clearly, for Lenin at least, a purely propagandistic tactic, formulated as he was beginning to think through the united-front tactic that was later adopted by the Comintern at its Third Congress.

The Comintern supporters in Britain, who were just then forming a Communist party, were sharply divided in their approaches to the BLP. One group, the British Socialist Party (BSP), was affiliated to the Labour Party. Other groups, such as Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers Socialist Federation (WSF), were outside the BLP and strongly opposed to affiliation or entry. Some of the groups were syndicalist and opposed even to any participation in parliament or bourgeois elections.

Lenin’s primary concern, of course, was to get these early Communists in British to recognize the importance of challenging the bourgeoisie on all political terrains. This included making participation in parliament a mandatory obligation of the CP. This was a major item of discussion at the Second Congress of the Comintern. A secondary issue was whether the new CP should seek formal affiliation to the Labour Party, ie continue the BSP relationship to Labour. These issues were given some urgency by the presence of an inchoate left wing that was developing within the Labour Party. There was considerable sympathy for the Soviet Union in the British working class, and sections of the Labour Party were even adopting resolutions in favour of soviets, etc.

The affiliation proposal at the Second Congress (in July-August 1929) went far beyond the united front tactic (“march separately, strike together”) later formulated by the Comintern. It was predicated entirely upon the belief, propagated by the BSP and hammered home by Lenin in the Congress discussions, that the CP could operate within the Labour Party with full freedom to present its views and criticize the reformist leadership. This political independence was made a condition of both Lenin’s proposal for an electoral bloc and for affiliation to the BLP, and the CI resolution likewise made full programmatic freedom of the Communists within the Labour Party a condition of affiliation. Here’s Lenin (July 23):

<blockquote“We must say frankly that the Party of Communists can join the Labour Party only on condition that it preserves full freedom of criticism and is able to conduct its own policy. This is of supreme importance. … with regard to the British Labour Party, it is simply a matter of collaboration between the advanced minority of the British workers and their vast majority.”

More fundamentally, the affiliation proposal was predicated on the assessment that the Labour party had a number of features that made it unique among mass reformist parties. Lenin again:

“Members of the Labour Party are all members of trade unions. It has a very unusual structure, to be found in no other country. It is an organisation that embraces four million workers out of the six or seven million organised in trade unions. They are not asked to state what their political opinions are … The British Socialist Party can quite freely call Henderson a traitor and yet remain in the Labour Party. Here we have collaboration between the vanguard of the working class and the rearguard, the backward workers. This collaboration is so important to the entire movement that we categorically insist on the British Communists serving as a link between the party, that is, the minority of the working class, and the rest of the workers. If the minority is unable to lead the masses and establish close links with them, then it is not a party, and is worthless in general &#8230 “

In the end, of course, affiliation proved to be a moot issue. The CP made repeated requests for affiliation to the Labour party during the 1920s, and was repeatedly rebuffed.

Although affiliation was the focus of the CI debate on the Labour Party, and Lenin referred to it at one point as a question of “principle”, it is more likely that he regarded it as a way of forcing debate on the wider issue of the tactical approach to the reformists. Pankhurst later reported that in private discussions with her Lenin “dismissed the subject as unimportant, saying that the Labour Party would probably refuse to accept the Communist Party’s affiliation &*230; ”

The issue of affiliation, he said, was not a question of principle “but of tactics, which may be employed advantageously in some phases of the changing situation and discarded with advantage in others.” [S. Pankhurst, Soviet Russia As I Saw It (London: Dreadnought Publishers, 1921), pp. 45-46]

Lenin, of course, was trying to convince Pankhurst that her group, the Workers Socialist Federation, should join the CP, notwithstanding the WSF’s bitter opposition to Labour Party affiliation. Pankhurst’s contribution to the Comintern debates makes interesting reading today. She warned the Congress that if Communists joined the Labour party they would not have the freedom to criticize that McLaine alleged, and that they would simply confuse the masses as to the revolutionary program:
<p“I emphasize once more the great degree of dependency and discipline within the Labour Party. If you speak of the Labour Party then you must also speak of its extremely ossified structure and of the structure of the trades unions which belong to it which are also bureaucratic, ossified organizations. Thus you find quite a different structure from what you thought. It is impossible to remain inside the party and change this organization in any way.” [All quotes from The Second Congress of the Communist International, vols. I and II (London: New Park Publications, 1977)]

It was Pankhurst, not the BSP delegate McLaine quoted by Lenin in support of affiliation, who was accurately describing the reality of the Labour Party. Incidentally, it was McLaine who referred to the Labour Party as “the political expression of the workers organized in the trades unions.” Lenin corrected him (August 6):

“[W]hether or not a party is really a political party of the workers does not depend solely upon a membership of workers but also upon the men that lead it, and the content of its actions and its political tactics. Only this latter determines whether we really have before us a political party of the proletariat. Regarded from this, the only correct, point of view, the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie. It is an organisation of the bourgeoisie, which exists to systematically dupe the workers with the aid of the British Noskes and Scheidemanns.”

But in retrospect the most remarkable aspect of the Comintern debates on the Labour Party is the triumphalism with which they are imbued — the common belief that the ideological hegemony of the reformists over the masses would soon be dissipated. Lenin was simply expressing the consensus when he said, in Left-Wing Communism: “If Henderson and Snowden gain the victory over Lloyd George and Churchill, the majority will in a brief space of time become disappointed in their leaders and will begin to support Communism.”

Mark Shipway, a contemporary Council Communist, has written an interesting account of these debates, and their aftermath, in Anti-Parliamentary Communism: The Movement for Workers’ Councils in Britain, 1917-45. Here is an excerpt:

“These expectations were put to the test in January 1924 when the Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald was invited to form a government. According to [CP leader] Harry Pollitt’s analysis, at the end of 1924 this first Labour government was ousted from power ‘because of the disillusionment of the masses with the policy of the Labour leaders’. The large majority with which the new government took office was ‘in itself evidence of the workers’ disgust with their leaders’ pusillanimity’. This sounds like the scenario envisaged by Lenin and Pankhurst — except that it was not to the Communist Party that workers had turned in disgust and disillusionment with Labour; the government which replaced Labour in office was formed by the Conservative Party! Furthermore, the Labour Party received over a million more votes in the 1924 general election than it had done before taking office, while the CPGB’s total vote, and its average per candidate, both fell.” [footnotes omitted]

Behind the false expectations of the Comintern was a more general problem: a misreading of workers’ readiness to switch their political allegiance to the new revolutionary leadership. Although I don’t share all of his conclusions, Alistair Mitchell has written an interesting discussion on Marxists and the Labour Party, available on-line at . Mitchell writes:

“The main question for the Comintern was: could a small CP organised separately from the Labour Party become a mass party? For Trotsky the answer was a confident yes. In his pamphlet Where is Britain Going? of 1925 he writes: “the revolutionary qualities of the British Communist Party will, given, of course a correct policy, pass over into a quantity of several millions. ” [L.D.Trotsky, Writings On Britain, Vol.2, p.119]. Trotsky still had such a view three years later: “with a correct, courageous and intransigent policy which steers clear of any illusions with regard to detours, the English Communist Party can grow by leaps and bounds and mature so as to be equal in the course of a few years to the tasks before it &#822i;. [The Third International After Lenin, p.124] Yet in the meantime Britain had gone through a General Strike and the CP had made only “meagre gains”. [H.Dewar, Communist Politics in Britain, p.66] Of course, from Trotsky’s point of view the Stalinist degeneration of the Comintern and the CP meant that the British Party would be deprived of the correct policy — gross illusions in the left reformists allied with the CP in the Anglo-Russian Committee, then the wildest denunciation of the Labour Party as “social fascist ”, and finally political blocs with bourgeois forces in the Popular Front. Undoubtedly, the centrist zig-zags of the CP wrecked any chance of the CP becoming a mass force. But could a healthy policy have built a mass CP in this period?

“In the 1920s and 1930s significant sections of the British working class were still coming over from Liberalism to Labour. The working class had yet to put most of its support behind a Labour government, and Labour would not get a parliamentary majority until 1945. Thus, the failing of Labour in 1924 and 1931 would be excused by the working class — there was no movement from Labour to Communism after either of these Labour governments. Many workers accepted Labour’s lack of a Parliamentary majority as sufficient reason for its failures. It is likely that a revolutionary CP would have fared better than the bureaucratic centrism of the Stalinist party, however, it seems improbable that the Communists could have overtaken Labour given the state of the workers consciousness. We should treat class consciousness as an important factor, however, for Trotsky “the subjective conditions — the consciousness of the masses … are not a fundamental factor.” [Trotsky, “A Summary of Transitional Demands”, in Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, p.99.] Seeing class consciousness as a subjective factor was an inheritance from Second International “Marxism ”. Connected to this was the belief in an automatic, always progressive evolution of workers’ consciousness. In the Second International it was widely thought that the main task of parties such as the SPD was to assemble the party and trade union apparatus so as to be ready to take over the running of society when the great day came and the SPD had gained majority support amongst the populace. Less emphasis was put on intervention in struggles to fight for leadership. Whilst Trotsky was, on the contrary, very aware of the fight for leadership (indeed he fetishised it), he also had tendencies to see class consciousness automatically developing … ”


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