Fourth International 1992: The end of the Soviet Union

Opportunism and the British Elections

This article first appeared in the Bulletin on March 10, 1992.

Recent issues of the Workers Press, weekly paper of Cliff Slaughter’s fraction of the British Workers Revolutionary Party, carry a series of three articles by Slaughter entitled, “Why Vote Labour?” In this series, Slaughter advocates a vote for Labour, a party which has explicitly repudiated its reformist program and is running on a program indistinguishable from that of the Tory Party.

This is no small point. All over the world, Stalinist and social democratic parties have dominated the workers movement for decades, leading it from one disaster to another. Today, under conditions of the deepening capitalist crisis, they have all without exception openly repudiated even the lip service they once gave to socialism. Labour’s campaign slogan is “The party that business can do business with” and party leader Kinnock tirelessly explains that he aims to “make capitalism work better than the Tories.”

Labour is committed to maintaining Thatcher’s anti-union laws and has pledged not to renationalize industries privatized by the Tories. And, as an indication of their reliability as a tool of bourgeois rule, the local Labour governments have fined and imprisoned more people for nonpayment of the poll tax than the Tories. The Labour Party leaders themselves insist that the next Labour government will not be a government of reform. So anxious are they to repudiate their former connections with the working class that they advised the Trades Unions Congress not to make its traditional call for a Labour vote.

Under these conditions, calling for a vote for Labour, whatever phrases accompany it, amounts to an endorsement of Labour’s right-wing program.

Slaughter makes the vague and unspecified claim that “the vote of millions to get the Tories out... can be a beginning of a real and essential change in the working class movement.” No doubt there are workers who will continue to vote in these elections for the Labour Party. But how will a call by the WRP for such a vote contribute to “a real and essential change in the working class movement”? Slaughter doesn’t explain.

Slaughter’s entire thesis is completely Pabloite and objectivist. He writes: “Socialism will come about not because people become convinced it is a good idea, but because they will be forced by the results of capitalism’s contradictions to struggle to overthrow it and organize production on the only rational basis: nationalized social ownership and planned production for use.” This is nothing but the repetition of kindergarten phrases. Socialism arises neither immediately out of the contradictions of capitalism, nor is it an automatic punishment for the crimes of this or that bourgeois government. A vast amount of historical experience has demonstrated that, indeed, it is necessary for the working class to become imbued with an understanding of the historical necessity for socialism.

Workers today must be confronted openly with the fact that all the old bureaucratized organizations which have politically suffocated the working class for decades have been transformed into corporatist appendages of the bourgeois state. Slaughter’s call for a Labour vote in fact diverts the attention of workers away from these fundamental changes and, far from contributing to the development of the struggles of the working class, serves only to disarm workers politically.

At one point in his series Slaughter says: “It is necessary to face up to the truth of Lenin’s: ‘We support Labour as a rope supports a hanged man.’” This is theoretical charlatanry. Lenin makes clear in Left-Wing Communism—an Infantile Disorder, written in 1920, that Marxists must not ignore the level of the political development of the working class. He says: “The fact that British workers still follow the lead of the British Kerenskys or Scheidemanns and have not yet had experience of a government composed of these people—an experience which was necessary in Russia and Germany so as to secure the mass transition of the workers to communism—undoubtedly indicates that the British communists should participate in parliamentary action, that they should, from within parliament, help the masses of the workers see the results of a Henderson and Snowden government in practice, and that they should help the Hendersons and Snowdens defeat the united forces of Lloyd George and Churchill.”

Can anyone make the claim that these considerations mean that Lenin’s tactic can be mechanically applied today? The conditions of 1992 could hardly be more different from the situation in 1920. The working class has now experienced the treachery of a Labour government not just once but multiple times. With British capitalism in an advanced stage of decay, there is no possibility of the working class using a Labour government to wrest even limited reforms from the bourgeoisie. The Labour Party has even expelled from its ranks those who continued to advocate policies which were espoused 20 years ago in the party leadership itself. In fact, the bourgeoisie counts as one of its most significant achievements this transformation of the Labour Party and one of the leading dailies in Britain recently commented, “The biggest success of 10 years of Thatcherism has been a modem Labour Party.”

Why, then, does Slaughter not consider it appropriate to simply tell the working class bluntly that it must construct a revolutionary party? Why is a special campaign needed calling on workers to vote Labour?

Slaughter’s running advertisement for the Labour Party is, in reality, a political service to social democracy. It is the political expression of a social layer. It is no accident that all the petty-bourgeois groups in Britain carried banner headlines saying: “Vote Labour!”

Slaughter’s concern is not with the development of revolutionary consciousness in the working class. He has worked out the line which is best suited to the preservation of the WRP’s relations with the scoundrels in the local Labour governments and the further strengthening of the WRP’s connections with the bureaucracy in the trade unions. This is political cynicism of the worst sort. It also has a history. The opportunism of the WRP today is a continuation of the unprincipled politics developed by Slaughter and Healy from the mid-1970s onward. At the very point when a struggle began in the working class against the Wilson-Callaghan government, the WRP began to establish the most opportunist relations with elements in the Labour Party such as Livingstone and Knight and with even right-wing officials in the TUC.

Slaughter has never made any principled criticism of this. Instead, members of the WRP who hold positions in the unions have since developed their opportunist relations with the bureaucracy even further. Dave Temple continues his role as an important prop for the NUM bureaucracy. Peter Gibson has recently been promoted to the executive council of the Transport and General Workers Union. Simon Pirani has taken Healy’s opportunist line in relation to the NUM bureaucracy one step further by becoming a lackey for the bureaucracy, editing features for the NUM journal. Nowhere in Workers Press can one read about any struggle taken up by these individuals against the program and policies of the trade union bureaucracy. What has happened is that key elements in the WRP have, in time, made the transition from being opportunist supporters of the bureaucracy to becoming fully-fledged bureaucrats themselves.

With this series of articles, Slaughter has once again demonstrated his role as an agent of the Labour and trade union bureaucracy and a petty-bourgeois representative of British imperialism. It is on this basis that he appeals to every other petty-bourgeois tendency against the International Committee of the Fourth International. Slaughter extends the hand in these elections to the diseased Militant tendency, which claims that the Labour Party can be transformed into a socialist organization. Slaughter attributes to these bagmen of the right wing “a principled struggle with the treacherous Labour leadership.”

Whatever the outcome of the elections, the working class will confront the most reactionary government in British history. A real contribution to the development of the struggles of the working class will be made only by those who are able to provide the working class with a new revolutionary orientation and a profound understanding of the reactionary role of social democracy. In Britain, there is only one party which fights for this, the International Communist Party, British section of the ICFI.