Which Way Forward for the Left?
Letter published in Labour Worker, April 1967, at a time when I had briefly dropped out of the International Socialists. One of the Cliff articles referred to is at http://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1967/01/labour.htm (See also pp. 269-70 of my biography of Cliff).
The present political perspective of Labour Worker, outlined in Tony Cliff’s recent series of articles, and implicit in the paper as a whole, seems to be as follows: the importance of the Labour Party as a field of activity for socialists is declining, and in particular the traditional parliamentary leadership of the left has exhausted its potential; the real challenge to capitalism comes from the fragmented but militant struggles in the factories, and by tenants and other sections of the rank-and-file.
All this is true and needs to be said; illusions about parliament, lobbying and resolution-passing are still rampant. But in itself it is only half a perspective.
Labour Worker has been deliberately vague about what seems to me a central question. Do fragmented struggles naturally and automatically become political, or is there not rather a grave danger that they can fizzle out and collapse? Labour Worker attaches great importance to the growth of strong shop-floor organisation in a period of full employment and wage-drift. But the future for such militancy appears dubious, as steady unemployment and entry to the Common Market become part of the political complex.
Already in 1966 Britain had fewer strikes than in any year since 1953, with sharp falls in working days lost in industries like motor vehicles and engineering.
Of course, developments like the introduction of trade-union legislation, or even Wilson’s denunciation of political interference in the seamen’s strike, contribute to raising the level of political awareness. But the task of politicisation cannot be left to the enemy and the natural pattern of circumstances. The need is for a much sharper political analysis and campaign.
The growth of bodies like the London Shop Stewards’ Defence Committee is one of the most encouraging developments of the last year. Nonetheless, the propaganda put out by such bodies seems to be largely directed to militancy on the factory level, and to imply that such militancy is self-sufficient.
Of course, such bodies cannot transform themselves overnight into political parties. But militants within them should raise the political issues and perspectives with much more clarity than anyone seems to be doing at the moment, even at the cost of losing a few friends.
The fragmentation of the left is reflected in the campaign against the Vietnam war. Even the best sections of the anti-war movement are immersed in the organisation of a War Crimes Tribunal which, though a useful publicity gimmick, will show no more than that wars are unpleasant. Meanwhile, many sections of the “hard” left give only token opposition to US imperialism to concentrate their energies on “more immediate” issues.
In fact, Vietnam could be central to an explanation of the relation between Britain’s economic crisis and the crisis of international capitalism.
In the Labour Party, marxists always rejected the call for “unity” when it was not clear what the unity was for. Unity of the left in the present situation cannot be at the price of concealing or suppressing political differences. To suggest that there can be unity with such men as Frank Cousins or the leadership of the Communist Party in the struggle against the wage freeze is to spread illusions that could be more dangerous and long-lasting than the freeze itself.
The need, then, is for revolutionary groups not to “submerge” themselves in rank-and-file struggles, but to establish an open political identity which can be a focus for the various partial struggles. If such open identification means expulsion from the Labour Party, at least expulsion is better than impotence.
To cite the case of the Socialist Labour League is irrelevant; the SLL’s open break was sectarian, hysterical and adventurist. Its failure merely poses anew the problem of how to build a revolutionary alternative that can lead out of the morass of economic fragmentation into a political challenge to British and international capitalism.