2016 : A Letter on Entrism
Published in the Weekly Worker 21 July 2016
Peter Manson’s article “Defend Corbyn where it really matters” (WW 14/7/16) is strong on moral rhetoric – and very weak on practicalities. I get the impression that comrade Manson has no significant experience of “entry” work, and that he has not made a study of historical precedents. I did six years as an “entrist” in a very different Labour Party in the 1960s and Manson’s article leaves me with a lot of unanswered questions.
Manson states that our aim should be “to transform the Labour Party into a genuine instrument of the working class, one to which all working class organisations and left groups can affiliate.” Well, yes. People have been trying to do that more or less since the Labour Party was founded; they have all failed. Indeed, the present-day Labour Party is considerably further from that model than it was in 1945-51. Does the CPGB have some magic formula that will enable it to succeed where all its predecessors have failed?
Joining the Labour Party may be comparatively easy for an organisation like the CPGB with a couple of dozen members. For slightly larger organisations like the Socialist Party and the SWP, with up to a thousand members, it is a bit more of a problem. They may have no greater ability to actually influence the course of events than the CPGB, but they do have premises, publications and employees. Should they wind up their organisations completely, or should they maintain an open organisation alongside their entry work? (Perhaps Socialist Worker could change its name back to Labour Worker, as it was called in the 1960s, when I was briefly its editor.)
Let us imagine (somewhat fancifully) that the SWP Central Committee read Manson’s article and are convinced. What happens next? The SWP leadership can fix almost anything, but even they would need a couple of internal bulletins and a special conference. By the time they had gone through that the leadership election would be over.
And perhaps Corbyn will be defeated. He will be facing a full mobilisation of the PLP right, and an onslaught from the mainstream press, with perhaps a bit of ballot-rigging thrown in. (The venal journalists of the Guardian, concerned only to keep their jobs by sucking up to the vile Viner in her vendetta against Corbyn, will play their part.)
So what then? Do we stay for the long haul? And it will be a very long haul – the right wing won’t make the same mistake twice; the rule book will be revised to exclude the possibility of another Corbyn. Deselection, even if it could be achieved, would have no impact before 2020.
Certainly the thousands who joined the Labour Party to support Corbyn will not hang around. They didn’t back Corbyn because of his programme (he doesn’t really have one) but because he is an honest man – a rare and remarkable phenomenon among the corrupt time-servers and money-grubbers of the PLP. If he is ousted, thousands will be demoralised. Very, very few will flock to the banners of the SWP, the SP … or the CPGB.
But perhaps Corbyn will win. If so the war of attrition will continue. The Labour right never accept democratic decisions if they are on the losing side. They will use any possible means to get rid of him. If they do not resort to physical assassination, it will not be from any moral scruple but only because they wouldn’t have the first idea how to go about it.
Perhaps the Labour Party will split. On the face of it this would be the best scenario for the revolutionary left. Yet in reality this would probably mean a small left party with at best a handful of MPs, and the youthful followers of Corbyn increasingly alienated as the various Marxist grouplets battle for control. Manson should have a look at the history of the French PSOP and PSU and the Italian PSIUP.
In fact entrism would not be easy for the SWP or the SP. The SWP has a core of grey-haired activists who for decades have been known (often to their credit) as SWP members in their unions and localities. Are they supposed to now publicly renounce their past and declare they are genuine converts to the Labour Party? Even if they did so it is highly unlikely the Labour Party would admit them.
In the early 1950s the legendary Michel Pablo, who invented the concept of “entrism sui generis”, decided to enter the French Communist Party. Though his group had over a hundred members, just seven managed to enter the PCF. The Labour Party is not quite as Stalinist as the PCF – but SWP members are more visible. It is unlikely that many would get into the Labour Party, which can still draw on the expertise of those who dealt with the Militant in the 1980s and the SLL in the 1960s.
Of course there are real criticisms to be made of my old comrades in the SWP. I think they combine political tailism with organisational sectarianism. They have made no detailed political critique of Corbyn (except on the EU question), and they insist that their version of “Leninism” is timeless.
But Manson’s alternative remains on the level of abstract propaganda. To urge us to “Join the Labour Party!” without any suggestion of how this might be done in practice is singularly useless.