Recomposition in Britain: A reply to Dave Osler

DAVE OSLER writes well and his articles are always interesting to read, but I often find his political analysis less than convincing. His piece “Recomposition and the British Left” in What Next? No.6 is a case in point.

The article follows on from Dave’s earlier contribution, “Britain’s Party of Recomposition: Why Trotskyists Should Join Socialist Labour”, in issue No.3 of the journal, where he argued that Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party (SLP) would provide the vehicle for socialist regroupment in Britain and that it was therefore incumbent on revolutionaries to join it. Within a relatively short time, he predicted, the SLP would have a membership of 5-10,000, enough to act as a pole of attraction for significant sections of the Labour Left.

Now, after his experience of the SLP leadership’s grossly undemocratic practices, including his own disgraceful expulsion, Dave rejects Scargill as another God that failed. But he insists that the strategy of recomposition – political realignment within the labour movement, centring on the formation of a new socialist party in opposition to the Labour Party – remains viable, even though the SLP itself proved an inadequate instrument for this. Indeed, he now tells us that there are good prospects for the launch of an entirely new party which will be “perhaps 10,000 to 20,000 strong”.

Dave is evidently an adherent of the Fred Astaire school of political strategy – pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again. We can admire his perseverance, but isn’t it necessary to learn some lessons from the SLP’s failure? After all, if the situation in Britain in 1996-7 really was ripe for building a new socialist party with thousands of members, then Arthur Scargill was surely the man to do it. A high-profile figure who, in the eyes of even the least politically-conscious member of the labour movement, was the embodiment of a class struggle ideology which stood in total opposition to Blairism, Scargill was the ideal person to head a recomposition project. Yet the real membership of the SLP at its peak barely reached four figures, never mind the 5-10,000 Dave Osler was anticipating.

Dave believes that the explanation for the SLP’s failure to attract members lies in Scargill’s authoritarian behaviour: “Lack of democracy has translated into lack of morale and therefore lack of growth.” But I would argue that the SLP leadership’s bureaucratic methods flowed directly from the premature character of the SLP itself, launched as it was in advance of any mass break from the Labour Party. This resulted in the formation of a very small organisation which was wide open to a takeover by the ultra-lefts, who descended on the SLP mob-handed, intent on imposing their own sectarian agendas. In a genuinely broad-based socialist party, these forces would have been kept in check by thousands of ordinary members. As it was, Scargill obviously feared that the implementation of democratic procedures would lead to the lunatics taking over the asylum. Rather than the SLP’s “monstrous internal regime” (as Dave accurately describes it) being the cause of the party’s failure to win a broad membership, I would suggest that the reverse was in fact the case.

Yet now, even after the uniformly negative experience of the SLP, Dave blithely informs us that a new attempt at socialist regroupment in 1998 can expect to attract up to twenty thousand members – double the size of the party he thought the SLP was capable of building! Where are these members to come from, and around which prominent political figure or figures will they rally? Since the Blair government came to office, the nearest thing to Scargill’s split has been the expulsion of MEPs Ken Coates and Hugh Kerr. Neither of them has anything like the public profile of Scargill, and in any case they have both made it clear that they have no intention of launching a new political party.

In “Recomposition and the British Left” one of the potential avenues for socialist regroupment that Dave Osler mentions is “the revitalisation of the Socialist Alliance movement south of the border and the [positive] reaction of the Socialist Party to such a development”. So it was no surprise to see Dave at Conway Hall in February at the launch meeting of the London Socialist Alliance, which has since announced that it will stand 100 candidates against the Labour Party in the May 1998 local elections.

But the idea that Labour voters will desert their party in any significant numbers to support an organisation they have never heard of, led by people who are almost entirely unknown to them, would be self-delusion of the highest order. Perhaps one or two Socialist Alliance candidates who enjoy a good individual reputation locally will receive less than derisory votes, although I’ll be astonished if a single one of them gets elected. At most the Alliance will enable its constituent organisations – the largest of which is the Socialist Party (formerly Militant), whose national membership is around 800 – to acquire a few new recruits during the election campaign. But if recomposition means anything, then presumably it involves rather more than that.

Supporters of the Socialist Alliance strategy seem to assume that because the Labour Party leadership is now so right wing, with the Blair government implementing what to all intents and purposes is a Tory programme, and because large numbers of Labour supporters are angry and disillusioned, this in itself is a sufficient condition for launching a new socialist organisation which will attract widespread support. But past experience indicates that a new political formation to the left of social democracy does not arise as a result of individuals and small groups coming together to form a joint organisation, denouncing the treachery of the social democratic leaders and appealing to disillusioned workers to support a new party. A new socialist formation – or at least one with any significant level of support among working people – emerges as the result of a crisis in an already existing mass-based working class political organisation. This is a lesson that the advocates of recomposition usually ignore.

For example, in recent years comrades have often pointed to Rifondazione Comunista in Italy or Izquierda Unida in Spain as examples of the sort of multi-tendency socialist organisation which can provide a model for recomposition in Britain. Quite aside from the fact that recent developments in the two organisations might lead you to conclude that this enthusiasm was somewhat misplaced, the truth is that neither could serve as a model for socialist regroupment in Britain, as both of them arose from crises in pre-existing mass Communist Parties. Nothing of the sort could or did happen in this country. When the old CPGB went into crisis and split in the 1980s, neither of its offspring – the Communist Party of Britain or what later became the Democratic Left – could provide a focus for recomposition because the original organisation lacked a mass political base.

If we are to look for international parallels with the situation in Britain, I think we would be better advised to look at New Zealand. There are obvious similarities between the Labour Parties in these two countries. Both emerged out of the trade unions and both established a virtual political monopoly in the workers’ movement – in neither case did a mass-based Communist Party emerge to challenge Labour. And the New Zealand Labour Party leadership anticipated Blairism by many years, when it implemented a Thatcherite programme of privatisation and attacks on the welfare state during its period of government between 1984 and 1990.

The result was mounting opposition inside the party to the government’s policies, which led in 1989 to the launch of the New Labour Party (NLP). In 1991 the NLP joined forces with the Greens and other left parties to form a new organisation, the Alliance. This development – originating in a crisis and split within the Labour Party – was the actual form that recomposition took in a country which, as I have said, has much closer similarities than Italy or Spain to the political situation in Britain.

Even with the formation of the Alliance, however, the Labour Party question did not lose its relevance for socialist strategy. For the split that led to the formation of the NLP was a partial one, initiated by a single MP, Jim Anderton (although of course a large number of party activists followed him out of the party). Only a minority of trade unions broke from Labour to support the NLP/Alliance, while the experience of the 1996 general election showed that most workers still looked to the larger Labour Party as being best placed to defeat the right wing National Party. With its leaders refusing to enter into a pre-election coalition agreement with Labour, the Alliance found its vote reduced to 10 per cent.

It would be simplistic to expect an exact repetition of these events in Britain. Here it is more than possible that the split will come from the right, with the Blairites doing a Ramsay MacDonald and opting for a new bloc of “patriotic unity” with the Liberal Democrats and the pro-EU Tories. But there are some obvious conclusions to be drawn. The first is that outside of a significant split in the Labour Party it is highly unlikely that a new socialist party with any political weight can get off the ground. And unless the trade unions could be broken from Labour in the course of the split, such a new political formation would still need to apply united front tactics towards Labour, which would remain a bourgeois workers’ party. Developments within the Labour Party are thus crucial to the emergence of any serious process of socialist regroupment.

Ideally, therefore, Marxists should concentrate their efforts on the fight against the Blairite right within the Labour Party. Alas, we live in an imperfect world, and in recent years the self-styled Marxist groupings, even those who have traditionally attached importance to Labour Party work, have increasingly abandoned entryism. On one level this is no doubt based on the purely cynical consideration that the Labour Party in its present state does not offer fertile ground for recruitment to a revolutionary socialist group – and it is this consideration, rather than any concern for the future of the labour movement as a whole, that determines the actions of most of the far left. On another level, however, there is an element of honest ultra-leftism involved, as many socialists – particularly younger comrades – are so repulsed by the actions of the Labour leadership that they find it impossible to remain in the party. Rationalising their position, they convince themselves that the majority of working people feel likewise and will therefore be responsive to the call for a new party.

While Marxists can and should oppose premature splits from social democracy, once these splits take place we have to argue that the new socialist organisations which emerge should adopt a serious orientation to the reformist parties which, despite their leadership, still have mass working class support. There are a number of precedents for this – the Spartacus League’s break from the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) in 1918 to form the German Communist Party (KPD), for example, or the secession of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) from Labour in 1932.

In the case of the KPD, as Mike Jones has pointed out in What Next? No.5 (“Luxemburgism versus Leninism”), Leo Jogiches was the only one of the Spartacist leaders to argue against the break from the USPD at the time, while such experienced revolutionaries as Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and Paul Levi supported it. But Levi, who took over the KPD leadership after the murders of Luxemburg, Liebknecht and Jogiches, later came to the conclusion that the 1918 split had been premature and, with the backing of the Communist International, he turned the KPD towards the left wing of the USPD. The result was the decision of the USPD majority in 1920 to fuse with the KPD, thereby providing German Communism with a mass membership. If the KPD had turned its back on the USPD, as the ultra-lefts wanted, it would have remained a revolutionary sect with minimal influence in the workers’ movement.

The case of the ILP, on the other hand, demonstrates the destructive consequences of a failure to orient towards the mass organisations of the class, and Trotsky’s views on the subject are worth studying by present-day supporters of recomposition. Having initially supported the ILP’s decision to split from Labour, Trotsky later concluded that it had been a mistake. But he argued consistently that, having broken from the Labour Party, the ILP should turn its face towards it, advocating a Labour vote where ILP candidates were not standing and even carrying out limited fraction work inside the Labour Party. The fact that the ILP leadership rejected this argument and adopted a sectarian attitude to Labour was a crucial factor in the organisation’s numerical decline and eventual collapse into political irrelevance.

Applying these lessons to formations like the Socialist Alliances means arguing for a serious attitude towards the Labour Party. It means that when the Labour left comes into conflict with the party’s Blairite leadership, as they repeatedly will, they should be supported and encouraged, not denounced as reformist traitors or instructed to stop wasting their time, give up the struggle against Blair and join the socialist alternative. When Socialist Alliance candidates stand against Labour they should do so against right- wingers, not against Socialist Campaign Group supporters, and in seats where there is no threat of splitting the vote and letting in a Tory or Liberal Democrat. In general, it means rejecting the silly view put forward by the Socialist Party and others that the Labour Party is a bourgeois party through and through, virtually indistinguishable from the Tories or Lib Dems – when it is a party to which the trade unions are still affiliated and in which up to 100,000 members voted for Campaign Group candidates in the last elections to the constituency section of the NEC.

Dave Osler will probably reply that he and his comrades don’t require a lecture on elementary political tactics and that this is the line they intend to pursue anyway, in the Socialist Alliances or in any other similar formation. But they will face the same problem as Scargill did with the SLP, namely that, in the absence of a significant split in the Labour Party, only relatively small socialist organisations can be formed, which are liable to be swamped by the ultra-left. At the London Socialist Alliance launch meeting, for example, the tone of the discussion was set by groups which are distinguished by their hopeless sectarianism towards Labour: the Socialist Party, whose speakers argued that it would be impossible for the Alliance to call, even critically, for a Labour vote; the CPGB/Weekly Worker, who think it is a matter of principle to stand candidates against the likes of Ken Livingstone; or the Marxist Bulletin tendency, who insisted that the new organisation should be built on an uncompromisingly “anti-Labour” basis.

I’m not against reasoning with these comrades and trying to persuade them to take a more serious approach to socialist strategy. However, we’re not dealing here with politically raw youth, but with people who have in most cases been in politics for years and whose sectarianism is deeply ingrained. It is worthwhile Marxists committing some of their time and energy to intervention in organisations like the Socialist Alliances, but Dave’s argument that we should abandon all work in the Labour Party in order to devote ourselves to this sort of doubtful regroupment project, while consoling ourselves with fantasies of tens of thousands of recruits, represents a serious lapse of political judgment.

Published in What Next? in 1997