22 February 2021

Theses on the Labour Party (2004)

Adopted by the January 24 2004 meeting of CPGB members and supporters. Published in Weekly Worker 513, available on the WW archive here.


1 – The Labour Party came onto the historical agenda only with the ending of Britain’s industrial and commercial supremacy. Specifically the trade union bureaucracy turned towards building a Labour Party after the perceived failure of Lib-Labism. However tentative and flawed, in British conditions, the formation of the Labour Party marked a step forward for the real working class movement.

2 – Nevertheless the Labour Party was from its birth irredeemably reformist with a leadership militantly opposed to anything that smacked of revolutionary action by the working class. There was never a golden age. Even when the aim of ‘socialism’ was formally adopted in 1918, it was conceived as a cynical ploy to divert sympathy for the Russian Revolution into safe channels. Needless to say, the Labour Party’s version of socialism was antithetical to working class self-liberation. Rather it was a version of state capitalism. Capital would be bureaucratically nationalised and the mass of the population remain exploited wage slaves.

3 – Historically – in terms of membership, finances and electoral base – the Labour Party has largely relied on the working class. Politically, however, the Labour Party acts in the spirit of the bourgeoisie and the interests of capital. This is ensured in no small measure by the intermediate social position occupied by the trade union bureaucracy which has a material interest in the continuation of the system of capital. Lenin correctly characterised the Labour Party as a “bourgeois workers’ party”.

4 – From its origins till recent times the Labour Party distinguished itself by championing the social democratic state – full employment, council housing, universal education, social security benefit, the national health service, etc. This ‘social ransom’ served capital as a way of absorbing social unrest and putting off socialism. The social democratic state is a manifestation of the decline of the law of value and anticipates socialism, albeit negatively.

5 – Throughout its existence the Labour Party has been rent by a left-right division. There is, however, a symbiotic relationship. The right gains coherence by the serious business of providing the system with a reliable government or, failing that, a responsible opposition. By contrast the left is generally in the business of gestures. It is therefore doomed never to secure any lasting or meaningful control over the Labour Party machine, let alone the commanding heights of the parliamentary Labour Party. Occasional victories are scored by the left – particularly at the annual conference. They serve to maintain the hopes and morale of activists, but do little else other than embarrass or inconvenience the dominant right wing.

6 – Overcoming Labourism is a central task of communists in Britain. To bury oneself in the bowels of the Labour Party and subordinate everything to staying in there till the glorious day when the class struggle miraculously transforms it into an instrument of socialism is naive at best. At worst it is downright treachery. On the other hand to stand aloof from the Labour Party and its internal disputes and conflicts is as good as useless. It is a sectarian pose.

7 – Unlike the Social Democratic Federation, the British Socialist Party – which succeeded it – sought and gained affiliation to the Labour Party. Its paper The Call constantly attacked Labour’s social chauvinist leadership on a principled basis. Lenin urged the newly formed Communist Party of Great Britain – the BSP being the main component source – not only to seek affiliation but to work to put the Labour Party into government. A short-term tactic, not a long-term strategy. Communists had to demand “complete freedom of criticism”. Affiliation was therefore a two-pronged tactic. If the Labour leadership rejected CPGB affiliation, that would expose the utter falseness of its claimed commitment to socialism. Likewise putting Labour into office would expose it in practice in front of the whole of the working class.

8 – Lenin recognised a mass Communist Party in Britain as a burning necessity. Socialism can only come through that revolutionary portal – not a reformed Labour Party nor a new Labour Representation Committee. Lenin knew, however, that a mass CPGB was impossible without the communist vanguard actively and closely cooperating with that broad section of the working class which possesses medium-level class consciousness. Namely the membership and base of the Labour Party.

9 – Though successive Labour Party conferences rejected CPGB affiliation, communists maintained individual membership. In 1922 two CPGB members were elected as Labour MPs. That presented a constant reformist danger for the CPGB. But such a danger is inevitable when operating within mass organisations of the working class, especially in a country like Britain. The sectarian alternative offers unsullied purity – it is though of the grave.

10 – The CPGB was the main driving force behind the formation of the Left Wing Movement in the 1920s. Its Sunday Worker, edited by CPGB member William Paul, attained a 100,000 circulation. This was a creative application of the united front tactic advocated by the Communist International. Throughout the 1930s too, members of the CPGB successfully worked in the Labour Party, as did followers of Leon Trotsky – the weak forces of Trotskyism developed the tactics of entryism. Amongst the Trotskyite epigones, especially those around Ted Grant and Peter Taaffe, the tactic of entry was incorrectly elevated to the level of a grand strategy.

11 – British capitalism plumbed new levels of relative decline in the late 1960s. The contradictory gains of the social democratic state were put under threat. At the same time full employment and an intact social security system allowed key sections of the working class to go onto the offensive. Though it spilled over into other arenas on occasion, in the main this was largely confined to the economic terrain. Between the late 1960s and the mid-1980s there was a whole period of heightened class struggles. Stunning advances were made by the working class, but in the end the better organised power of the state and the capitalist class secured a series of solid victories culminating in the crushing of the miners over 1984-85. Britain now has the most oppressive anti-trade union laws in western Europe. Strikes in 2002 were at an all-time low.

12 – Blairism is a continuation of the counter-reformation. ‘Modernisation’ of education, the NHS, the UK constitution and the Labour Party itself are integrally linked. It is an attempt to complement the bourgeois offensive – commonly known in Britain as Thatcherism – in the sphere of politics. Scottish and Welsh devolution, the GLA and regional mayors, PR in EU elections, etc go hand in hand with tilting the bourgeois and proletarian poles of Labourism to an extreme never witnessed before.

13 – Under Blair the annual conference – always a powerless affair – has been further downgraded, constituency parties are shells of their former selves and big business financing has eclipsed in importance support from the trade unions. A qualitative break could occur at any moment. Nevertheless, for the time being the Labour Party remains a bourgeois workers’ party. That necessitates correct communist tactics.

14 – This is especially so because far from the Labour left lying prostrate the opposite is now the case. The overall trend in the trade unions is to the left. A string of trade union lefts have been elected to top positions. That and mass protests against the Iraq war have fed into and revived the left in the Labour Party. Meanwhile the Socialist Alliance stagnates under Socialist Workers Party’s sectarian misleadership.

15 – A wilful refusal to differentiate between the Labour left and right when it comes to elections is commonly nowadays a manifestation of crass rightist sectarianism – of the kind exhibited by the Scottish Socialist Party, the Socialist Party in England and Wales and the dominant factions in the Socialist Alliance. Bourgeois and petty bourgeois nationalists and sections of the mosque are projected as natural allies – elementary notions of class are thereby subsumed. Base electoral opportunism proves to be merely the opposite of auto-Labourism.

16 – Communists by contrast seek to unite with Labour leftwing candidates and crucially their organised mass base of support. But through our political programme – even presented as a set of minimum demands – we seek to simultaneously challenge and offer an alternative.

17 – Our overriding goal is to organise the advanced part of the working class into a Communist Party. Obviously that involves a whole series of stages and associated political struggles. The fight for a Communist Party is inseparable from conducting an organised intervention in the Labour Party.

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