Some reflections on the Socialist Labour League

By G. Healy

From the March 1960 issue of the Socialist Labour League’s internal bulletin Forum.

IT IS now almost 12 months since we called for the formation of the Socialist Labour League. During that time the League has been assailed by all kinds of critics ranging from the ultra-left sectarians to the right-wing opportunists. This is as it should be. The Marxist movement can only be constructed by a relentless struggle against these tendencies. It would, indeed, be food for thought if they had praised us.

The Socialist Labour League was founded in order to extend the work inside the Labour Party at a time when a more leftward development inside the trade unions and industry is gradually getting under way. The independent side of the Socialist Labour League’s activity is entirely subordinate to this perspective.

Trotskyist activity inside the Labour Party recommenced in 1947 in an organised form. From the beginning of the war until that time our movement had existed as an open organisation, the Revolutionary Communist Party. We entered the Labour Party to participate in the formation of a broad left wing under conditions where our movement would have the opportunity of influencing this left wing politically in a Marxist direction. It was and is our basic perspective that the mass movement of the British working class from the trade unions and the Labour Party will be centred in the first broad stage of development around a left wing in the Labour Party. The cold war and the continuation of the arms boom acted as an important brake upon this development of the struggle inside the trade unions. This served to isolate the left-wing movement in the Labour Party within the confines of the party itself. Such a one-sided process could not resolve the problem of reformism for the Marxists. It was necessary to wait until issues began to develop inside the trade unions as a result of the conflict of the class forces and to combine the left movement in the unions with the left movement inside the Labour Party.

In spite of the delay in the leftward development in the unions, our organisation participated to the best of its ability in the work inside the party. The formation of the Socialist Outlook in December 1948, the launching of the Socialist Fellowship in April 1949 found our people extremely active and on the look out for all possibilities of strengthening the Marxist movement.

The Korean war in mid-summer 1950 demanded a principled and public opposition to the right wing and the centrists who supported Wall Street imperialism. Such a stand temporarily isolated the Marxists and resulted in the Socialist Fellowship being proscribed in 1951. Almost simultaneously Bevan’s break from the Cabinet stirred a new wave of left-wing opposition into action inside the Labour Party. This came to a head at the Morecambe conference in 1952 when the Marxists were in the forefront organizing what was perhaps the largest left-wing faction at any Labour Party conference since the end of the war (it totalled about 80 delegates). Its influence at the conference was very important as a glance at that year’s report will show.

Almost immediately the conference was over the right wing through Gaitskell and Morrison launched an attack against the Trotskyists. During this time our comrades paid considerable attention to work on the docks and by the beginning of 1953 a prominent movement against denationalization of road haulage was organized with our people playing a leading role. The personal intervention of Aneurin Bevan served to disorientate this movement and the denationalization was successfully carried out by the Conservative government.

Considerable attention was paid to the political side of our work with the result that when the Pabloite revisionist disruption got under way during August and September 1953, the organization quickly retaliated and expelled from membership those who had broken the discipline of the organization.

The gradual decline of the Bevanites and their retreat after Morecambe 1952, again served to isolate the Marxists. The struggle against Pablo had to be fought out more or less in the open and as soon as the right wing realised that the revisionist group of Lawrence was defeated, they took steps to ban the Socialist Outlook. This ban was endorsed by the Labour Party Conference in October 1954 and from then until 1958 the Marxists had no public focal point of organization inside the Labour Party. Bevan gradually shifted towards the right, confusion grew within his circle of former supporters, the trade union struggle still remained slow and sporadic, in other words our movement had to work under conditions of further isolation.

The 20th Congress crisis in the Communist Party provided an important opportunity for Marxists to strengthen their cadre forces from the ranks of people who are now openly in opposition to Stalinism. It also provided the movement with an important outlet of activity during this period of enforced isolation in the Labour Party. Here again, the Marxists demonstrated the flexible nature of their work by training important recruits from the CP during the period of 1956-57.

Most important, however, was the beginning of a movement in industry which broadly speaking started from the BMC and Standard strikes during the summer of 1956. This struggle, which has become more pronounced all the time, centres on the need for British capitalism to step up its trade in the export markets. What was important for Marxists was that this tendency produced a friction between classes that was not there before. This conflict still continues to evolve.

Here is the situation which faced our movement during the summer of 1958. A struggle was developing in industry, the political situation inside the Labour Party was stagnating (a factor which was further aggravated by the closeness of the general election). Meanwhile the Marxist movement, which now included important new cadre forces had the opportunity of serious work in the trade unions with a view to drawing this work together with the left movement inside the Labour Party.

The preparation of the National Industrial Rank and File conference enabled us to take steps towards a consolidation of our work in the unions. The conference rejected the sectarian conception of an independent party and pledged itself to work towards a continuation of the industrial struggle within the Labour Party itself.

It will be recalled that before and during this conference a witch-hunt of considerable proportion got under way and this was no accident. The employing class are very sensitive to the weaknesses of the Labour Party. They try, at all costs, to separate developments in the Labour Party from developments in the trade unions. When they realized that the Marxist movement inside the Labour Party proposed to utilize the industrial struggles to strengthen the work in the Labour Party they immediately brought pressure on the Right-wing to take action against the Marxists. It must be said that the right wing was reluctant to do so because of the closeness of the general election, nevertheless we were placed in a position where important people were being expelled from the Party under conditions where it was impossible for us to remain silent. Furthermore the prolonged isolation of our movement inside the Labour Party served to expose our lending people in a manner that could not be avoided by organizational manoeuvre. After all, our movement had spent almost 12 years inside a party fighting as Marxists against the right wing. It was impossible to avoid isolation under conditions where the trade union struggle lagged behind events in the Labour Party.

Our movement was therefore faced with the position of either standing and idly watching its people being expelled piecemeal from the Party or adjusting its tactics under conditions where the expulsions would serve to strengthen our work in the unions and provide new forces for the work inside the Labour Party. Our decision to form the Socialist Labour League had important political and practical implications for two reasons.

Firstly, previous experience of left movements in the unions particularly after the First World War emphasized the trend of militants to by-pass reformism and move in the direction of communism. The left movement lead by the shop stewards in World War I provided nearly of the basic cadres of the Communist Party when it was launched in 1920. At the same time it would be a mistake to argue that this limited movement of militant trade unionists had a direct response within the class. It only indirectly reflected the feelings of an advanced element of the class who still continued to support the Labour Party even after its betrayal in the First World War. For this reason it was necessary for Lenin to write “Left-wing” Communism in an effort to reorientate the young communist movement in Britain on the basis of the struggle in the Labour Party and against the right wing of reformism.

From this historical experience and the success of the National Industrial Rank and File Conference our organization concluded that if we were to win militants from the experience of this new wave of industrial struggle a more open organization would be necessary in order to educate and train them for the forthcoming struggle inside the Labour Party. Therefore at the beginning of 1959 when we faced a wave of expulsions which could not be avoided as well as the need to compete more openly with the Communist Party inside the trade unions, we proposed to launch the Socialist Labour League.

Secondly, instead of allowing our people to disappear into the wilderness as a result of expulsions, we now saw the opportunity to reorganize them more openly as the core of the Socialist Labour League itself. In other words the formation of the Socialist Labour League was a strategic modification of our total entry policy to a new situation which could not have been foreseen when out movement entered the Labour Party in 1947.

The work of the Socialist Labour League in the next period must continue in this direction. The conflict on nationalization revealed at Blackpool is a measure of the merging of the problems of the trade unions with the problems of the Labour Party. It is in fact the first time that a major domestic issue has tended to produce a crisis in both sectors simultaneously. Whilst it cannot be excluded that a temporary upswing in the economy may slow down the evolution of this crisis, nevertheless since the fortunes of British imperialism are tied to an export market, which is now becoming the battlefield for the most cut-throat price reduction there is every indication that the conflict between the employers and the working class will continue.

The struggle on nationalization enables us to bring about a regroupment between the left forces of the trade unions with the left forces in the Labour Party. That is why the National Assembly of Labour was even more successful than the National Industrial Rank and File Conference which marked a new stage which coincided with the development of the Socialist Labour League in drawing together the left wing from the unions and the Labour Party. In addition the Assembly was able to establish a relationship with professional people and students greatly disturbed by the possibility of nuclear war. The National Assembly of Labour was the forerunner of a new type of left wing which will approximate to the type of left wing we envisaged when we first entered the Labour Party in 1947.

It is impossible now for our group to organize inside the Labour Party as an illegal grouping. This problem is not only confined to the Marxists. The emergence of the New Left reveals some of the problems which centrists face also. Just as Marxists find it necessary to establish an open relationship with trade unionists who are not members of the Labour Party and recruit them into the Socialist Labour League, so the Victory for Socialism, ex-Bevanite group have to reach out to professional elements in the New Left some of whom have been refused admission to the Labour Party because of their past association with the Communist Party. The Marxists and the centrists orientate towards different social strata, but they both have to combine work outside the Labour Party with work inside the Labour Party. This, in fact, is another example of the deep-going crisis in the Labour Party.

Whilst the Marxists turn towards the working class, we will not neglect our work in the New Left and amongst the students and the better elements of the pacifist groupings.

We are facing a period of fruitful political activity where the strength of a working class in action against the employers can demonstrate to intellectuals entering politics for the first time how the working class is the real force in society. This is the most important opportunity our movement has ever had in Britain.

The formation of the Socialist Labour League has therefore been fully justified. It was neither an adventure nor was it opportunist. It was a step that had to be taken during a specific period of our work in circumstances which our organization fully appreciated. In the same way, as we tenaciously held on during the period of our illegal entry in the Labour Party, so we must continue to strengthen the Socialist Labour League as the core of the new left wing now coming to the forefront.

The open work of the Socialist Labour League at this stage must therefore be subordinated and organized in such a way as to facilitate the growth of the Marxist movement inside the Labour Party and the trade unions.

1 January 1960

Return to Appendices

Return to Contents