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Full Marx Could a Labour government lead us to socialism?

For many Labour Party members, deciding whether to leave or stay will turn on the quality and politics of their local councillors and MP, writes the MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY

THE short answer is “no” but also “we’re unlikely to get socialism without one.”

Britain’s parliamentary institutions, which were secured through struggle and sacrifice, can have a potentially vital role in the advance to socialism. But today we have a contradiction: while industrial militancy, including groups such as teachers and health workers, is resurgent alongside a significant growth in environmental and community activism, Labour — and in particular the Parliamentary Labour Party — has shifted so far to the right that it currently offers no significant prospect for progressive change in Britain.

A century after Lenin’s death (and following an excellent recent symposium at the Marx Memorial Library on Lenin in Britain and his relevance today) it might be worth starting with his observation (referring to Marx’s analysis of the Paris Commune) of the way that “the oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class shall represent and repress them in Parliament!”

Not a lot has changed since.

But participation in the parliamentary struggle was nevertheless vitally important. Engels had earlier declared that in England, where the working class “forms the immense majority of the people” they should “use the power already in their hands, the actual majority they possess in every large town in the kingdom, to send to Parliament men of their own order.”

The vote — still then restricted to men and with huge imbalances between the electorate in boroughs and counties — had only been achieved through massive struggle.

Lenin challenged British socialists who argued against participation in elections, saying that in the context of Britain’s history and politics, they were a vital element — though only one element — in the struggle. Alongside Britain’s first (though short-lived) Labour government in 1923, were Communist Party MPs most importantly, Shapurji Saklatvala, a Labour MP from 1922-23, re-elected as communist in 1924.

From its formation in the early years of the last century, the Labour Party has been the mass party of the organised working class in Britain. Despite major changes in the structure of capitalism, it continues to enjoy the electoral support of large sections of workers.

But unlike its European predecessors, its politics and ideology have sought to manage and reform capitalism in response to the immediate temporary interests of the labour movement, rather than transform it in the fundamental interests of the working class and humanity as a whole.

The Labour Party has never fundamentally challenged the ruling class. Even at its best, it has only reflected and represented the “trade union consciousness” of the working class; “labourism,” seeking to protect and defend the interests of labour in relation to the capitalist system, as opposed to socialism, which seeks to change the system itself.

Today even that commitment has disappeared.

A reformist outlook dominates Labour and — apart from a relatively brief period between 2015 and 2020 — has confined the party to an exclusively parliamentary role within the capitalist system. At the national and often also at the local level, Labour sees its public work primarily in terms of contesting elections and carries out little or no socialist education or campaigning.

The Labour Party in Britain is different from left and socialist parties in other countries in one crucial respect. It was formed as a federal party with a mass trade union-affiliated base. This, together with the activities and example of Labour activists has ensured the continuation of a significant socialist trend within it.

Socialists have at times won major advances in the battle of ideas within and beyond the party. They have supported policies for democratic public ownership, progressive taxation, capital controls, trade union and welfare rights and nuclear disarmament all of which challenge monopoly capital in the interests of working people.

The Labour Party left is not a cohesive and united force. Historically, reformism, compromise and collaboration have triumphed over socialist principles in the Labour Party leadership and in Parliament so that Labour governments have at best ever tried to reform capitalism, not to abolish it.

New Labour seized control of the party in the mid-1990s, representing a new managerialism backed by sections of big business. Adapting to and then championing neoliberal policies and imperialist “globalisation,” it began openly to represent monopoly capital in an emerging new phase of imperialism.

In an attempt to turn the Labour Party into a wholehearted “party for business,” it brought the corrupting interests of privilege and power into important aspects of party and government activity.

To ensure the party’s acquiescence in this political and ideological transformation, a series of measures were adopted by agreement with compromised trade union leaders to retreat from a commitment to socialism (symbolised by the abolition of “clause four”) and to dismantle democratic processes within the party.

The resulting centralisation challenged the Labour Party’s federal character, concentrating power in the hands of a small clique at the top. The rights and participation of affiliated organisations remain severely restricted at every level of the party.

However, in opening the Labour leadership ballot to all individual members and affiliated and registered supporters to further weaken the collective voice of the trade unions, the right wing miscalculated.

For a short period, an influx of new members rejuvenated the party and the combined forces of the extra-parliamentary mass movements, the trade unions and the Labour left then propelled left MP Jeremy Corbyn to leadership, in the words of this paper, “building a strikingly new kind of politics, combining grassroots and online campaigning.”

That change has unfortunately now been reversed. Loss of membership — and income — is driving the Labour Party leadership even further into the arms of corporate capital.

Even worse than the appalling spectacle of the mendacious incompetence of the Tory Party is the absence of any significant leadership from the supine leaders of the Labour Party. That lack — of any meaningful policies; of any clear direction beyond the bland slogan of a “fairer, greener future” is the clearest indication of the bankruptcy of ideas in its leader, Keir Starmer and his supporters.

As argued in a previous Q&A a left parliamentary majority, in itself, will not be sufficient to achieve socialism. We should never forget that whenever the “democratic process” — has proved a challenge to ruling-class power, that class (domestic or external) has always sought to undermine it in any way they can — including force.

So — to return to our answer given at the outset: a Labour electoral victory by itself is highly unlikely to lead to socialism. Worse, under the present leadership, it has the potential to undermine labour struggles and solidarity and confuse and split local activism.

But in the longer term, it’s arguably unlikely that — in the context of Britain — we’ll be able to achieve victory without one. As articles and letters in this paper demonstrate, there is a wide range of views among Labour Party members themselves about the relative merits of “staying in.”

For many a lot will turn on the quality and politics of their local councillors and parliamentary candidate.

It remains to be seen whether socialist and social-democratic trends are strong enough together with trade union support to revitalise the Labour Party as a mass, socialist party of labour in Britain. For as long as some of the biggest trade unions are affiliated to the Labour Party, the potential exists to wage a broad-based fight to secure the party for the labour movement and left-wing policies. Trade union and community support will be critical to the success of any left-Labour government in power.

And to the degree that the Labour Party is able to develop beyond its electoral focus to engage with and champion progressive social movements and form alliances outside Parliament through action on equality, the environment, education, health and social welfare, there is at least a possibility that it could once again become a truly mass party capable of achieving fundamental social, economic and political change.

But that doesn’t seem likely at the moment.
Two forthcoming events (both online and on site) examine the experiences of previous Labour governments. On Wednesday March 6 Professor Mary Davis marks the centenary of the first Labour government of 1923-24 — a minority government that lasted just nine months. Was it the product of a cunning Tory-Liberal plot or an attempt by Labour to prove that it was “fit to govern?” And on Thursday March 14, John McDonnell MP examines the experience of the Labour government elected in 1974 with a manifesto that challenged the distribution of power and wealth in Britain and influenced every political struggle since. Details and registration are on the Marx Memorial Library’s website


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