Revolutionaries and the Labour Party: “fostering struggle from below is key”

Roddy Usher argues revolutionaries should concentrate on forging links between a new generation of Labour activists and real, concrete, struggles. He suggests that joining Labour would be a wrong turn at this point, but that this should be a position open to review in the future.  

Photo: Steve Eason
Photo: Steve Eason

The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader last September, and his current battle to retain the leadership, has opened up a hugely important debate on the left over how to respond. Many on the left, including on the revolutionary left, have decided that now is the time to join the Labour Party. Others have argued that joining Labour would be likely to drag revolutionaries into the internal machinations of the faction fight between right and left, and more broadly into a politics that prioritises electioneering over campaigning, subordinating the latter to the former.

Contrary to this, some who have joined have argued that the scale of the movement – with over 7,000 attending Corbyn’s recent rally in Liverpool – makes it vital that revolutionaries are part of it. According to this view, joining Labour is vital because there is no way revolutionaries can gain the respect of the many who are joining, and truly stand alongside them, unless they themselves join.

Furthermore, it is also argued that the method of organisation followed by revolutionaries over the past century has failed. One new member, Adam, writing in an earlier article on this website, argued:

We have seen 80 years of attempts by activists across the globe to recreate the model represented by the Bolsheviks in 1917 and to some extent exported successfully in the early years of the Comintern, but nowhere have these attempts led to a stable organisation with a greater than 4 figure membership.

In light of this, joining broader formations is advocated as an alternative way for revolutionaries to organise.

To begin with, let me state that in principle I agree that for revolutionary organisations such as rs21, to join Labour at this stage would be a mistake, risking energy being sucked out of needed work building social and industrial movements, such as over migrant rights, and into parliamentary and bureaucratic politics. It would also risk revolutionaries being dragged to the right.

Furthermore, there is no doubt that the Labour party has been historically an instrument of suppressing and controlling the working class rather an agent of their liberation. True, Labour governments have in the past introduced important reforms, such as the NHS, but these have always been constrained by the needs of the capitalist system. Such reforms have thus taken place in the context of Labour governments fully committed to furthering the interests of the imperalist system and who have acted to break strikes and workers’ resistance to capitalism. Revolutionaries joining such an organisation would consitute a marginal force in a party whose existence is premised on the defence of capitalism through the co-option of workers.

In reality, the question of whether to join Labour is something of a red herring. It should be perfectly possible for revolutionaries to become involved in this new movement without joining Labour. How we do so is a matter of practicalities. It is likely in reality that it will depend on what is happening in each locality. For instance, in some areas Momentum may be an excellent forum, in others it may be to use the current suspension of Labour Party branch meetings to organise meetings with Labour members in order to encourage them to organise, preferably alongside others.

However, the arguments that have arisen over whether to join Labour have thrown some fundamental questions into sharp relief. As we enter a new, exciting but bewildering period, it makes sense to consider again some fundamental points. These include the nature of reformism and its realistic prospects in Britain today, and the ways in which revolutionaries could and should organise. These are important because answering them can provide clarity as to the best strategic orientation for revolutionaries at this juncture. Crucially, although joining Labour would be a wrong turn at this point, that should be not be seen as a principle written in stone.

Central to the argument for the need for revolutionary politics is the view that capitalism cannot be reformed. It is important to clarify the basic premise of revolutionaries’ rejection of reformism. The argument is not that reforms are impossible under capitalism – as they quite obviously are – but that neither the fundamental contradictions of the capitalist system nor its exploitative nature can be transformed through reforming it. Historically, there have been a number of points where reformists have been able to take power and introduce meaningful reforms. The Attlee government in Britain is one such example, and the Venezuelan government of Hugo Chavez another more recent example.

This is important because the introduction of reforms would benefit workers and other subaltern groups in society. Anyone who has seen Ken Loach’s flawed but interesting documentary ‘The Spirit of 1945′ will be left in no doubt that the introduction of such reforms as council housing and the NHS did have a dramatic positive impact on workers’ lives. Furthermore, if reforms are won through struggle from below, rather than solely through the actions of governments, this can raise morale by demonstrating to workers that they do have the power to change things.

At this point in time, the revolutionary left in Britain, and also across much of the rest of the world, is tiny, possibly smaller, proportionally, than at any time in history. As Adam argues above, it is undeniable that, bar possibly one or two exceptions, the project of building Bolshevik-style revolutionary parties has not borne fruit. Consequently, it would appear highly unlikely that successful socialist revolutions are going to occur anywhere in the world in the forseeable future, and quite possibly for many decades. On the other hand, we now have a rising wave of left reformism, a wave which includes SYRIZA and Popular Unity in Greece, Podemos in Spain and of course Corbynism in the UK. If revolutionary change is a distant prospect at this point, it makes sense to consider the prospects of the current reformist wave, and whether anything could be realistically accomplished through it.

Among the most important considerations is that for every reformist government that has successfully implemented some reforms, there are many which failed to achieve anything once in office. The governments of SYRIZA in Greece last year, of Mitterand in France in the early 1980s, and the experience of several Labour governments in Britain, are all examples of this. It is extremely important not to foster illusions that electing a Labour Party led by Corbyn is by itself a path to any radical social change.

In a recent article on this website, Colin Wilson argued that any Corbyn-led government would in normal circumstances quickly be forced to abandon any radical promises. Combined pressure from international capital markets and the British state apparatus, including the civil service and the military, to which we can add the media, would make it impossible for a Labour government to implement anything beyond the mildest measures.

This is particularly the case because Labour is not a party set up to organise and lead militant popular struggles. And here an important caveat needs to be raised. The signs are that Team Corbyn is very interested in moving Labour more in that direction, and indeed Momentum was described very much in those terms when it was set up. There are real questions over Momentum’s likely potential, but nonetheless a dynamic between a mass social movement and a radical left government could bear fruit. Let us posit a situation in which an insurrectionary moment occurs in Britain, similar perhaps to that in Turkey in 2013, and that Corbyn is able to lead Labour into heading up this movement. The Tory government falls, a snap election is called and Labour wins a clear majority. Such a government could be in a position to introduce substantive reforms – but crucially only if the movement stayed on the streets after the election. The government could then leverage the movement in support of its goals. Even better, the movement could find itself able to push the government to go further than it wanted in wresting concessions from capital.

Of course, most readers would regard this scenario as rather unlikely – and in truth it probably is. More likely is the development of a permanent left reformist presence on the British political stage. The current Labour Party civil war opens the possibility of a split, with with the left and right wings – the latter including most of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the party bureauracracy – walking off in separate directions. Such a split would create the possibility of a new radical left party with substantive parliamentary representation, an event that could help shift political debate sharply to the left.

This would only be genuinely useful if it helped foster struggle from below. There is always a danger with movements coalescing around political parties aiming for parliamentary power that militancy is dampened down and activists drawn away from struggle and into electioneering. On the plus side, there is some evidence that current events have dramatically strengthened the numbers who are now actively engaged in the pro-Corbyn movement. In a recent article for Vice, Richard Seymour suggested that the Labour right’s attempted coup has demonstrated to members they cannot simply leave it to Corbyn. Whether this turns out to be the case has yet to be seen, but a situation where thousands are turning up at street meetings in support of the left is one where building resistance more broadly is likely to be somewhat easier.

Whatever happens, the role of the revolutionary left in developing things is likely to be marginal, due to its small numbers and fragmented state. It is more a question of how to build a new revolutionary pole of attraction that matters, and which can make a difference in the years to come.

The question of organisation becomes crucial here. Some Marxists in the past have in the past argued that revolutionary parties are more likely to emerge as a result of splits and fusions involving other parties, including splits from broader left parties. The forerunners of today’s Socialist Resistance are one such example. In today’s context, with mass left reformism making a comeback, the question of whether revolutionaries should build out of broader formations rather than seek to form separate organisations is now relevant. The attitude to this among revolutionaries should in my view be flexible, and calculations should be made on a case by case basis, depending on the likelihood of being able to build a revolutionary tendency inside any broader formation and the risk of ending up drifting into reformism.

A split inside Labour of the kind I have described would be a potential game-changer as because the organisation bearing the name ‘Labour Party’ would then not be the same party that currently bears the name. It would be shorn of much of the right wing that has historically dominated, and would be a very different beast, closer in form to SYRIZA or Die Linke.The formation of a new revolutionary pole may be easier to build inside a broader left-wing formation of this type, provided – and this would be a crucial point – that revolutionaries were allowed to organise openly.

Whether this becomes the path to follow would depend on a number of factors. However, two clear points can be made at this point. The first is that at no point should we adopt the traditional tactit of ‘entryism’ whereby revolutionary groups seek to enter the Labour Party and surreptiously form parties within parties. The right to openly organise is paramount here. The second point is that revolutionary groups should not fetishise organisational independence. Historically it has been seen as important for revolutionaries to organise separate revolutionary organisations, but Lenin and other leading Bolsheviks always had a pragmatic attitude to this question and depending on circumstances it may very well be the right thing at certain points to join a broader party.

Right now, the main task of revolutionaries should be to support Corbyn and his wing in the Labour Party. If we take the view that fostering struggle from below is key rather than getting involved in Labour Party machine politics, then this means concentrating on forging links between this new generation of Labour activists and real concrete struggles. The presence of Labour activists inside campaigns will help to both radicalise them and deepen and broaden the roots of the struggles themselves. And the presence of Corbyn, MacDonnell and others at the top of the Labour tree, with their strong sympathies for many of the struggles we want to build (as can be evidenced from Corbyn’s vocal role in defence of the Junior Doctors), can only be a boost to them and to the sort of politics we want to grow.


  1. John is right about the National Labour Party and the SDP ultimately disappearing because they had no base in the trade unions. The Blairite New Labour faction was though just as right-wing if not more so but did have a trade union base. The mirror of New Labour within the trade unions was the so-called ‘New Unionism’ of the 1990s whose advocates supported greater class collaborationism with employers under the euphemism of ‘social partnership.’ Though self-evidently both New Labour and New Unionism only triumphed at the time on the back of the accumulated defeats of the working class since 1979 and especially the defeat of the 1984-5 miners strike. Assuming as is 99.9% certain that Corbyn wins the Labour right may go for a split if they can take the right wing unions (eg GMB, USDAW) with them. This is a realistic scenario in my opinion.

  2. This is a very interesting analysis, which manages to avoid the usual fetishisms. But there is, nonetheless, one point where I disagree. A split in the Labour Party of the kind described here is unlikely because both sides know their history. Twice during the twentieth century there were major splits in the Labour Party – in the 1930s with MacDonald’s National Labour Party and in the 1980s with the SDP. In both cases the organisation that kept the trade union backing survived and the other organisation disappeared without trace.

    As the SDP discovered, it”s easy enough to form a grouping that calls itself a political party, but to survive as one it has to have a social base. I don’t see the Labour Right making the same mistake again. I think they will keep fighting until they regain control of the Labour Party. Because of this, how revolutionaries work with the Left in the Labour Party may assume major importance in the outcome of the fight.


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