The introduction to the document printed below is taken from Workers Hammer No. 247 (Winter 2021-2022), newspaper of the Spartacist League/Britain. It has been adapted for publication in Spartacist.
Reprinted below are the main sections of the document unanimously adopted at the 25th National Conference of the Spartacist League/Britain. This historic conference marked a sharp political turn, putting forward a revolutionary programme in the pandemic for Britain and repudiating the years-long reformist course that our organisation followed under its previous leadership. Its title, “In defence of the revolutionary programme (II)”, is a direct reference to the SL/B’s founding document of the same name (printed in Spartacist Britain no 1, April 1978), embodying our commitment to reclaim the original programme of the section and defend the revolutionary continuity of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist).
The publication in April 2021 of the IEC statement “Down with the lockdowns!” uniquely on the left put forward a class-struggle perspective in the pandemic, in opposition to lockdowns, national unity and the ruling-class assault on the international proletariat. Before the publication of this statement, the ICL had capitulated to national unity by supporting the lockdowns. In the SL/B, this capitulation was prepared by years of opportunism and the rejection of the central tenets of its revolutionary programme. This included (but was not limited to) rejecting the fight for a Leninist vanguard party by capitulating to Jeremy Corbyn throughout his leadership of the Labour Party and embracing the Labourite programme of parliamentary socialism and “little England” imperialism. The conference document is the product of a hard-fought struggle against the previous SL/B Central Committee and constitutes a decisive break with the section’s previous course. It puts forward indispensable elements for the forging of a revolutionary party in Britain against the politics of Labourism, which plague the British far left. The document was the basis to elect a new Central Committee composed of a new layer of cadres who waged this internal struggle and who are committed to forging a Trotskyist nucleus in the British Isles.
The document is dedicated to our comrade George Crawford, who died shortly before the conference and whose lifelong struggle for communism is an example and inspiration (see his obituary).
II. For a Revolutionary Programme in the Pandemic!
The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered a worldwide health, economic and social crisis. In Britain as elsewhere the last year and a half has been disastrous for the working class and oppressed: over 150,000 Covid deaths, brutal lockdowns, repression, massive layoffs, furloughs, speed-ups, school closures. The leadership of the workers movement betrayed the proletariat in this crisis, shackling it to the capitalists and collaborating in their devastating offensive. The Labour Party — from its Corbynite wing to the Starmer leadership — the trade union tops and the reformist left all supported the lockdowns and joined behind Johnson’s Tory government in preaching national unity and class collaboration. The Labour Party administered lockdowns in cities throughout Britain and is directly responsible for bringing devastation and misery upon working people.
The position of the British pseudo-Marxist left — the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party, Communist Party of Britain, Socialist Appeal, Revolutionary Communist Group, etc — has been not only to support lockdowns but to crusade for harder and longer lockdowns on the Australian zero-Covid model. Any pretension by these reformists of struggling for anything which would be in the interest of the working class in the pandemic is an utter sham given their support for lockdowns.
This conference repudiates the SL/B Central Committee’s June 2020 motion, which capitulated to the government’s national unity by supporting lockdowns. That position was based on the argument that “in the absence of more meaningful public health measures, it [the lockdown] has some efficacy towards the extremely minimal goal of slowing the spread of Covid-19.” This means accepting the moral blackmail of the bourgeoisie, which dictates that the only way to defend public health is to support the government’s anti-working-class measures. It also fuelled illusions that the bourgeois state is an instrument to protect the people rather than an apparatus of violence to subjugate the proletariat.
The only way the working class can genuinely protect its health and combat the social causes of the crisis is through class-struggle means against the bosses and the state. Lockdowns are reactionary public health measures which impede this struggle in every way. They not only have devastating social consequences but also leave the working class disarmed and chained to the bourgeoisie.
We oppose the lockdowns on the basis of a revolutionary working-class programme. Any other basis for opposing lockdowns, whether on a scientific, civil libertarian, conspiracy-theory or trade unionist basis, simply promotes alternative bourgeois programmes to manage the pandemic. Revolutionaries do not seek to reconcile class antagonisms but to use the crisis to advance the struggle for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. If the pandemic shows one thing clearly it is that capitalist class rule is utterly bankrupt and cannot even begin to address the needs of the masses. The working class must fight for its interests now, starting with its most minimal and basic needs. But to be successful this struggle must be tied to that for international socialist revolution.
The leadership of the workers movement in Britain have been standard-bearers for the ruling class’s national unity campaign, parroting its cries to “Stay home! Protect the NHS! Save lives!” Everyone knows the Tories don’t want to save the NHS [National Health Service] and are happy to “let the bodies pile high”. Only with the complicity of the labour traitors could the bourgeoisie feed workers the lie that in the pandemic there is a common interest which stands above all classes.
In this crisis, just as at all times, the class interests of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat are irreconcilable. Workers obviously have an interest in protecting themselves and their families from a dangerous disease, but safer working and living conditions can only be achieved by fighting against the bosses and the government, not by working with them. “Protecting the NHS” cannot be achieved by relying on those who have gutted it: the Tories, Labour and the capitalist parasites.
Behind its noble slogans the bourgeoisie pushes its own class interests. It wants to limit the spread of the virus because it is bad for business. It advocates staying home to save the NHS because it is a cheap way to stave off the total collapse of the decrepit healthcare system. The working class has every interest in defending the NHS and fighting to obtain a healthcare system of the highest quality, particularly in a pandemic. But to advance its interests it must cast off the bourgeoisie’s ideological blackmail, which presents any struggle against its rule as a dangerous public health hazard.
The complete subservience of the Labour Party and the trade union bureaucracy during the pandemic has meant that anger against the government, particularly against its brutal lockdowns, has found only non-proletarian, amorphous and heterogeneous expressions. In the spring and summer of 2021, massive anti-lockdown demonstrations took place in London under the slogans of “democracy”, “individual rights” and “medical freedom”. The government, media and Labourite swamp have all united in condemning these demonstrations, presenting anybody who opposes the bourgeoisie’s measures as necessarily reactionary.
While the programme of such movements is entirely bourgeois, they are fuelled by legitimate anger at the government. We must condemn the pro-government propaganda barrage against these demonstrations as well as their repression. Our aim in intervening in such movements is to win the opponents of the devastating government measures to the programme of communism, breaking them away from the civil libertarian, conspiracy-theory and sometimes reactionary politics of these movements.
Given the absence of a polarisation along class lines during the pandemic, the questions of vaccination and vaccine mandates have become major social issues. On one side of the debate are those who will support anything the government does if it is done in the name of increasing the vaccination rate; on the other side are those who oppose any encroachment on civil liberties, any form of mandatory vaccination and sometimes the vaccines themselves. As communists, we reject both sides. We seek to break through this polarisation fostered by the government by posing a class axis. Our guiding principle is the interests of the working class.
It is in the interest of the working class that everyone on earth be vaccinated against Covid-19. We are for mandatory vaccination, ie being forced to get a jab in your arm. It is not a democratic right to refuse to be vaccinated and spread the virus. But we oppose its enforcement through policies which attack the working class in the name of vaccination. We oppose the government firing NHS workers or any other worker because they aren’t vaccinated. Mass layoffs are an attack against the working class and the unions; we oppose them no matter the reason. We also oppose the vaccine passports, which would track every movement of the population and turn every pub employee and shopkeeper into a cop auxiliary.
Trotskyists vs. Reformists
The pandemic has shown two central truths: 1) that the bourgeoisie is utterly reactionary, cannot even start to meet the needs of the working class and must be overthrown, replaced by workers rule; 2) that the current leadership of the British working class — in the trade unions and the Labour Party — is totally prostrated before the bourgeoisie and the government. It is the task of revolutionaries to show clearly to class-conscious workers and youth seeking an alternative that all of the British self-proclaimed socialist groups share the same fundamental politics as the labour traitors and continue to betray the working class. To expose this, we offer a point-by-point programmatic counterposition to the reformist left over some of the key questions of the hour:
Healthcare is even more miserable now than before the pandemic, the housing crisis is as bad as ever and the school system is in ruins. The workers movement must be mobilised to fight for a massive public works programme to build new schools, low-cost quality housing and healthcare infrastructure! To get immediate funds, land and buildings for schools, healthcare facilities and housing, seize the estates of the monarchy and the church! To fund the NHS, to reindustrialise Britain and establish a planned economy, expropriate the bankers and industrialists! These demands are utterly counterposed to the reformist left fantasy that workers’ needs will be met by the election of a left Labour government in Parliament which will “tax the rich” and nationalise the “commanding heights of the economy”.
The bosses will not be voted out of power or gradually dispossessed and the monarchy will not be abolished by a law in Her Majesty’s Parliament. Labour administering the capitalist state is a bourgeois government. The working class needs a workers government, ie the dictatorship of the proletariat to expropriate the bourgeoisie and break the resistance of the exploiters, on the model of the 1917 Russian October Revolution.
The bourgeoisie is waging massive attacks on working conditions: NHS workers are getting their pay cut by the Tories, inflation is rampant, wages are miserable and millions work in part-time and precarious jobs. The unions urgently need to organise the unorganised and fight for a major, across-the-board wage increase pegged to inflation! Scrap zero-hours contracts! Against overwork and unemployment, unions must fight for a 30-hour workweek paid like 40 to spread work among all hands. For trade union control of hiring! Against racial divisions fostered by the bosses, the unions must fight for full citizenship rights for all immigrants in order to unify the working class in its struggle against capitalist class rule.
Communists fight to build fractions in the unions based on the full transitional programme, connecting the most immediate economic demands with the need for a workers government. This is contrary to the British fake socialists, whose programme in the trade unions is based on supporting left-talking bureaucrats like Sharon Graham [Unite] against right-wing ones and on pushing a minimum programme of reforms and trade union militancy.
All wings of the trade union bureaucracy are committed to a programme of class collaboration: seeking to renegotiate the terms of exploitation of the working class while upholding capitalist class rule. Against the reformists, whose entire perspective is to pressure the current pro-capitalist labour bureaucracy, we counterpose the need to build a new revolutionary leadership of the working class. We say: Oust the labour bureaucrats, left and right! For a class-struggle leadership of the unions!
Throughout the pandemic, all of the pseudo-revolutionaries — echoing the trade union tops — have preached the lie that the capitalist state is there to protect workers. Their programme to protect health and safety has been to advocate harsher and longer lockdowns, more plant and school closures and stricter safety rules and Covid guidelines enforced by the health agencies of the bosses. This is suicidal and a betrayal of socialist principles!
Unions are the elementary defence organisations of the proletariat. Their purpose is to defend workers on the job, not fight to send them home! Unions must fight now for trade union control of health and safety! The unions, not the capitalist state, should determine what conditions are safe to work under. Fake socialists always talk about “workers control” of safety or production. But if it is not based on class independence of the proletariat, an irreconcilable opposition to the capitalist state and a programme for proletarian power, “workers control” amounts to workers management in partnership with the capitalists and their state, ie institutionalised class collaboration.
The capitalist state is the armed fist of the bosses. It exists to enforce the exploitation of the working class, not to provide safe working conditions! Revolutionaries fight for the complete independence of the unions from the bosses and the capitalist state! Cops, security guards, screws out of the unions!
While the labour movement is on its back — thanks to its treacherous leadership — the British imperialists have increased their depredations abroad. To strengthen their position and deflect anger away from them, they are whipping up working people against China. The enemy of British workers is the British capitalists! Opposition to British imperialism is posed pointblank with the need to defend China against the intensifying imperialist counterrevolutionary drive. China is a bureaucratically deformed workers state and the international proletariat must defend the gains of the 1949 Chinese social revolution! In order to defend and extend these gains, Trotskyists fight for a proletarian political revolution to oust the parasitic Stalinist bureaucracy. But all fake socialists in Britain oppose this perspective.
While some Stalinists support the reactionary Chinese Communist Party bureaucracy, the social democrats and fake Trotskyists beat the drums for the British and US imperialists’ programme of capitalist counterrevolution by ranting about “Chinese imperialism” and campaigning for “democracy” and “human rights”. It was under the same watchwords that the imperialists pushed for the capitalist counterrevolution which destroyed the USSR, a stunning blow to the world proletariat that all pseudo-Trotskyists applauded. Now they are doing the same with China, North Korea and all remaining deformed workers states. Down with British imperialism and all its alliances! Down with NATO! Down with AUKUS! Donate Trident to North Korea!
The Labour Party has shown once more its total subservience to capitalist rule during the pandemic. From Starmer’s right wing to the Corbynites’ left wing, they all betrayed the workers and have been a crucial help to Johnson’s Tory government. Workers need a new, revolutionary party fighting for workers rule, part of a reforged Fourth International. The fake Marxists in Britain are a political obstacle to this. For over a century, their whole strategy has been to pressure Labour’s left wing to adopt a socialist programme. They do this either from inside the Labour Party (like Socialist Appeal, when they are not forced out) or outside the party (like the Socialist Party, whose strategy is to build a new mass reformist obstacle to revolution). This has led only to defeats and betrayals.
From [Nye] Bevan to [Tony] Benn to Corbyn, the Labour lefts’ bourgeois programme of administering the British capitalist state necessarily leads to the betrayal of the working class’s interests — this is the central lesson of Corbyn’s leadership. Against the reformists who fuel illusions in the Labour left, revolutionaries must break the working class from Labour — right and left — on the basis of a revolutionary programme in order to build a Leninist vanguard party.
III. Leninist Vanguard Party vs. Corbynite “Broad Church”
After Corbyn’s catastrophic showing in the 2019 elections, Sir Keir Starmer took over as Labour leader. Amidst Starmer’s campaign to break with his predecessor’s legacy, the left-Labourite swamp is mired in impotent soul-searching about “what went wrong”. By placing their hopes in a more radical version of Corbynism, in building a new mass reformist Labour party or in left-talking bureaucrats and trade union militancy, they are only recycling worn-out Labourite myths. Only Leninism can provide a road forward for workers and youth disappointed and disillusioned by Corbyn. The current social crisis triggered by the pandemic and the utter subservience of the Labour Party, the trade union tops and the reformist left to the capitalists’ attacks make the task of putting forward a revolutionary programme for the British Isles ever more burning. But to do this, the SL/B needs to repudiate its capitulation to the Labour Party.
The SL/B’s Rejection of Its Strategic Task
The 2015 election of Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party marked a sharp turn to the left after decades of Blairite domination of the party and represented a major change in the political landscape in Britain. In the course of his nearly five years at the head of Labour, Corbyn rendered invaluable services to the British ruling class. He betrayed the working class by campaigning against Brexit and successfully channelled the huge social discontent caused by decades of attacks away from class struggle into the dead-end of electoralism. His leadership was characterised by continuous conciliation of the Blairites — despite their never-ending plots to overthrow him — and a repudiation of practically every position which made him popular in the first place.
The Corbyn experience was a unique opportunity for communists to demonstrate the utter bankruptcy of left Labourism and motivate the need for a Leninist party. Instead of doing this the SL/B spent five years capitulating to Corbyn. This conference repudiates every article about Jeremy Corbyn which appeared in Workers Hammer from issue numbers 232 to 246 (Autumn 2015 to Spring 2020).
Corbyn’s 2015 leadership campaign generated massive illusions by repudiating Blair’s record of austerity and imperialist war. In this context it was entirely appropriate to employ the tactic of critical support. That said, any tactic is necessarily subordinated to the overall strategy. In 1982 the SL/B retrospectively gave critical support to Tony Benn with the slogan “Labour can betray without the CIA connection.” We explained:
Whereas in 1982 our tactical stance flowed from our objective of splitting Labour’s base from the tops on a revolutionary programme, the SL/B’s intervention towards Corbyn was premised on the explicit rejection of this task.
The May 2015 SL/B National Conference held a few months before Corbyn ran for leader stopped short of characterising Labour as a bourgeois party due to the International’s intervention. However, it nonetheless codified a change of programme in regard to Labour. The conference document stated: “From the time this motion [a 2002 motion characterising Blairism] was passed, our propaganda ceased calling to split the base from the top of the Labour Party — which was previously strategic to our perspective of constructing a revolutionary workers party in Britain” (published in WH no 231, Summer 2015; our emphasis).
By stating that splitting the base from the tops was “previously” strategic, the SL/B was openly rejecting the only way to build a revolutionary party in Britain. This conference repudiates this statement and reaffirms that Labour is a bourgeois workers party and that strategic to building a revolutionary party in Britain is to split the working-class base from its pro-capitalist leadership on the basis of a revolutionary programme, as codified in “Revolutionaries and the Labour Party” (Spartacist [English edition] no 33, Spring 1982).
When Corbyn came along in mid-2015, the SL/B’s “tactics” and its call to “drive the Blairite wing out” were not aimed at exacerbating the contradictions in Labour towards splitting it along class lines. The strategic perspective became to “revive” Labour as a bourgeois workers party. This was explicit in our repeated statements that driving the Blairites out would be akin to the formation of the Labour Party in the 20th century. Our mantras became that “a split with the right wing would constitute a step towards the political independence of the working class” and that “the schism within the Labour Party mirrors the two opposing classes in bourgeois society” (see all WH issues in 2015-17 starting with number 232). In other words, driving the Blairites out would mean a step towards the proletariat no longer being subordinated politically to the bourgeoisie.
This presents Corbyn as having an authentic working-class programme, rejecting the Leninist understanding that the programme of both wings of the Labour Party is bourgeois. Far from maintaining at all times “strict programmatic independence from all wings of the Labour bureaucracy” (“Revolutionaries and the Labour Party”), the SL/B politically supported the programme of one wing against the other.
The reason the SL/B gave for supporting Corbyn was basically that the Blairites were qualitatively different from previous right-wing factions in the Labour Party. The SL/B presented the Blairites as if they no longer had the contradiction of having a bourgeois programme and an organic link to the working class but had a purely bourgeois class character despite being inside the Labour Party. This is simply false; Blair was not the first Labour leader wanting to separate himself from the working-class base of the party (which is different from being able to do so). The liberal bourgeois programme of Labour means that the tops are constantly driven into conflict with their working-class base, which constitutes both the source of their power and a shackle to their bourgeois ambitions.
Most importantly, this characterisation of Blairism was a theoretical justification for a permanent bloc with the left of Labour against the right. It is a classic example of the reformist programme of “making the lefts fight” and a break in the SL/B’s programmatic continuity. The 1978 founding document of the SL/B, “In defence of the revolutionary programme”, is a direct polemic against the SL/B’s approach to Corbyn:
That the SL/B had a permanent bloc with Corbyn is most clearly shown by its support to him in the second leadership contest after he campaigned to remain in the EU (see “Let Jeremy Corbyn run the Labour Party”, WH no 236, Autumn 2016). Corbyn betrayed the working class on the decisive political question of the time, but for the SL/B support for Corbyn against the Blairites came before its “principled” opposition to imperialism. This was a total capitulation.
It is inherent in Labour that the left wing conciliates the right, and it is perfectly appropriate to expose the left when it chooses unity over its “principles”. The point of revolutionaries raising calls such as “Drive the Blairites out” and “Drive out the SDP fifth column” (Spartacist Britain no 52, September 1983) is to show concretely how the programme of left Labourism necessarily leads to conciliation and capitulation. Our aim is to expose the left Labourites, not pressure them to have better politics (“make the lefts fight”). In 1982-83 we wanted to “put the Benn/Meacher Labour ‘lefts’ in power where they can best be exposed before the workers!” (Spartacist Britain no 52, our emphasis).
It is also essential to be clear at all times that our aim is a Leninist party with a revolutionary programme, not a Labour Party without the right wing. In the 1980s the SL/B was crystal clear that a split with Denis Healey & Co “would not be our split; a Labour Party denuded of the Denis Healeys would not be our party; but it would be a good thing for the working class if the hard NATO/CIA-loving right wing was hounded from the labour movement” (Spartacist Britain no 52). But towards Corbyn the SL/B, just as the rest of the left, presented a split with the Blairites as the ultimate aim.
The SL/B was thus throwing away the Leninist conception of the vanguard party. This is clearly shown in the way the SL/B counterposed Corbyn’s “broad church” party to the type of party we fight for. The only objection put forward to the “broad church” is that it means conciliating Blairites and backward elements: “In today’s terms, reconstituting the ‘broad church’ means Corbyn’s supporters will co-exist side by side with the Blairites including Tony Blair himself, who many regard as a war criminal over Iraq” (“Corbyn landslide, Blairite backlash”, WH no 232, Autumn 2015). The SL/B in effect transformed the Leninist opposition to the party of the whole class into another version of “make the lefts fight”.
The reason Leninists oppose the “broad church” (or party of the whole class) is that the revolutionary wing is subordinated to the reformist wing, not that the social-democratic left is hampered by the social-democratic right. Hence for Leninists, fighting against the Labourite “broad church” does not mean fighting Corbyn’s conciliation of the Blairites. It means fighting against aspirant revolutionaries (for example, the SL/B) preaching unity with Corbyn.
Lenin’s break with the conception of the “party of the whole class” came from his understanding that the pre-WWI opportunist trend in the Second International, just as the social-chauvinists in the war, had a material basis in “the small group of labour bureaucrats, labour aristocrats and petty-bourgeois fellow-travellers” which received a “few crumbs” from the imperialists. From this Lenin drew the conclusion that “it is absurd to go on regarding opportunism as an inner-party phenomenon” and that:
Corbyn is a traditional parliamentary reformist and is entirely within the tradition of the opportunist wing of the Second International. The fundamental lesson of Leninism on the party question is that the revolutionary wing of the workers movement must split from the opportunist wing as a precondition for a successful revolution. This means fighting to split the Labour Party along the lines of reform v revolution, not right v left, Blair v Corbyn or backwards v progressive as argued in recent Workers Hammer articles.
In the 1980s the purpose of the SL/B’s tactics was to win the base of the Labour Party to the programme of Trotskyism against Bennism. Our tactics served to illustrate that Benn’s programme was utterly incapable of addressing any of the fundamental questions which faced the workers movement and that what was necessary was a revolutionary party with a revolutionary programme. The SL/B’s rejection of the fight for a Leninist party in the Corbyn period necessarily went hand in hand with rejecting a Marxist programme on every other fundamental question for revolution in this country (imperialism, the state, the national question, oppression of minorities, etc).
The SL/B’s “criticisms” of Corbyn on these fundamental questions were entirely subordinated to the strategic aim of supporting him. Under this umbrella most of the “criticisms” are simply left-Labourite; the few points made which were more or less “orthodox” are totally meaningless given the political line of the articles. To thoroughly break with Corbynism entails reasserting every one of the key tenets of our programme in Britain, which this document begins to do. Also necessary, but beyond our current capacity for this conference, is to reassert the Marxist programme against national oppression as well as our programme against racial and immigrant oppression in Britain.
The 2017 Whitewash
At the time of the 2017 international fight [see Spartacist (English edition) no 65, Summer 2017], the SL/B had gone so far on the course of political and organisational liquidation that it was restricting its activities (sales, polemics, subscription drive) because the leadership deemed that they would be harmful to Corbyn. Our very existence was basically treated as an obstacle to class struggle (which the Corbyn campaign was equated with). While the 2017 fight in the SL/B restrained the liquidationist course and corrected certain particularly egregious capitulations, it was premised on upholding the basic programmatic content of our revisionist orientation towards Corbyn. An International Executive Committee member’s 8 January 2017 letter which oriented the fight started off by stating, “In my opinion, the SL/B had generally been doing a good job in addressing Corbyn and the EU/Brexit.”
The SL/B’s January 2017 CC motion totally whitewashed the section’s opportunist Corbyn campaign, claiming it was “premised on maintaining political independence from Corbyn’s Labour Party and offering a programmatic counterposition to his left-Labourite politics”. It went on to say that the leadership “lost sight of our ultimate purpose which is not a Corbynite Labour Party but to set the base against the top in order to forge a revolutionary vanguard (Leninist) party” [our emphasis]. First, the leadership did not “lose sight” of its purpose but rejected it from the get-go. Second, the above “orthodox” reaffirmation of our programme was a centrist cover-up based on defending the thoroughly opportunist political bloc with Corbyn against the Blairites.
The article “Shame on Corbyn for supporting the EU” (WH no 238, Spring 2017) published after the fight only corrected the claim made in WH no 236 that there was a class difference between Corbyn and Owen Smith on the EU and that WH no 237 (Winter 2016-2017) buried Corbyn’s support for “remain”. However, it explicitly upheld the entire revisionist framework of the previous articles, reasserting that driving the Blairites out “would constitute a step towards the political independence of the working class”.
In autumn 2017, there was another discussion on the Labour Party. The series of motions passed at the December 2017 SL/B CC meeting stated that Labour was a bourgeois workers party, that it was no longer moribund, and reaffirmed that “our strategic perspective is to win Labour’s working-class base away from the party’s leadership to the programme of revolutionary Marxism and to build a Leninist party in counterposition to the Labour Party.” This is a perfectly correct statement, which resulted in the SL/B mentioning at least twice in the last five years that it fights to split the base of Labour from the tops. But to reaffirm these correct positions while defending the SL/B’s political bloc with Corbyn against the right, its unprincipled support to him in the second leadership election, its revisionism on the “broad church”, etc was yet again a centrist cover-up.
The articles which come the closest to an assessment of Corbynism are the two articles in WH no 246 (Spring 2020), “For a multiethnic revolutionary workers party!” and “Election 2019: no choice for workers”. The central argument made in these articles is that Corbyn had an authentic working-class programme which he subsequently betrayed. This is explicit in WH no 246, which asserted that Corbyn’s unionism and his campaign for a “remain” vote “left the nearly 40 per cent of Scottish leave voters without any working-class political representation and was a gift to the SNP” [our emphasis]. According to this statement, the Labour Party would represent the interests of the working class if Corbyn kept his “little England” opposition to the EU and had a less chauvinist position on Scotland. This is once more a rejection of the Leninist understanding that all wings of the Labour Party have a thoroughly bourgeois programme.
To the extent that these articles give an explanation as to why Corbyn “betrayed”, it is the circular argument that “Corbyn’s fealty to the EU stands in the long tradition of Labour’s betrayals.” A thread throughout WH no 246 is that Labour is chauvinist, pro-imperialist and always betrays. While not wrong per se, it is an utterly sterile explanation. It does not explain why Labour always betrays, nor why it sometimes strikes an apparently radical posture.
The main conclusion the reader draws from this issue of the paper is that Corbyn’s programme was initially good but the Labour Party was not the correct vehicle to implement it, or that Corbyn personally bent too much to the Blairites. The other conclusion is that what is needed is trade union militancy. All of these are entirely within the framework of “make the lefts fight” and are compatible with the lessons drawn by the rest of the left on the Corbyn era. They blame Corbyn’s failure on everything except what actually counts: Corbyn’s programme.
It is Corbyn’s reformist programme which paved the way for his capitulations. Instead of exposing this, the articles embrace his reformist opposition to the EU — based on it being “neoliberal” and an obstacle to British imperialism implementing social-democratic policies [see section IV under “The SL/B’s Labourite Opposition to the EU”]. In the same vein, the articles present Corbyn’s unionism as a product of the backward prejudices of the Labour Party as opposed to making clear how the Labour Party’s chauvinism on Scotland stems from the Labour tops’ defence of British capitalism, a central component of which is to maintain national oppression within the reactionary United Kingdom. The whole framework of these articles is not what programme the working class needs for its emancipation but what programme Labour needs to win the elections.
Lessons of the Corbyn Betrayal
From the moment Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership elections to his eventual demise following the 2019 elections, the task of revolutionary Marxists was to show concretely through the course of events how Corbyn’s programme was inherently incapable of addressing the needs of the working class, motivating the need for a Leninist party armed with a Marxist programme. This necessarily required a correct understanding of the dynamics behind Corbyn’s initial astonishing rise as well as the factors which caused his equally spectacular collapse. The initial articles the Spartacist League wrote about Corbyn were jubilant, the later articles were critical. But since the section never broke from its Labourite capitulation, it was never able to give a programmatic explanation as to why Corbyn was initially so successful and why he failed so miserably. The explanations given as to why Corbyn was “defiant” or “capitulated” necessarily fell on personal characteristics and actions instead of programme and class forces.
Corbyn won a landslide victory in Labour’s 2015 leadership race, surprising everyone including himself. How did an MP [Member of Parliament] who had spent his entire career being a marginal backbencher manage to win? There was huge accumulated discontent in the working class and in particular in the base of the Labour Party against the decades of austerity and military interventions. In Where is Britain going? (1925), Trotsky explained the reason behind the success of the Independent Labour Party after World War I:
Given the reactionary nature of the last decades, the leaders available in 2015 to channel this discontent were particularly feeble and incompetent. Neither Corbyn himself nor his programme had anything exceptional; he just happened to be the lightning rod which was available at the time to channel the huge, built-up social pressure.
To paraphrase what the SL/B wrote in “Labour’s Cold War” (Spartacist Britain no 41, April 1982), the 2015 leadership elections became a major showdown on the key issues tearing the Labour Party apart, albeit expressed negatively: against the Blairites, against the architects of military interventions and austerity. While a wave of young people supported Corbyn, crucially he was also able to rally the support of a sizable part of the trade union bureaucrats. This was to evacuate pressure from their base on the one hand and was driven by frustration at not having been given a “seat at the table” under the Blairites on the other.
As long as he was an irrelevant backbencher, Corbyn could afford to denounce the government for its austerity, its nuclear weapons, its wars; he could denounce the EU for being neoliberal and support Palestine against the Zionist state. His liberal-utopian programme of “peace on earth” and “ending poverty” was never a threat and provided in fact a thin cover for the blood-drenched Labour government of Tony Blair. But this changed when he became leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition.
In Where is Britain going? Trotsky explains the rapid transformation of Ramsay MacDonald from pacifist oppositionist to the war to social-chauvinist in government, building “light cruisers in anticipation of the day when he will have to build heavy ones”:
While Corbyn was never a centrist, his winning of the leadership of the Labour Party had a similar character. The minute he won the leadership contest his function and role changed and he started to be ripped apart by the contradictions of his new position.
Not only did Corbyn have to provide concrete answers to the problems of the day, but people cared about what he said. In the context of the British imperialist strategic dependence on the US and the international austerity offensive following the 2008 crisis, Corbyn’s positions on a series of questions (NATO, Ukraine, the “war on terror”, Trident, nationalisations) were not acceptable to the bourgeoisie. This is what gave him broad popular support and what provoked a major reaction from the bourgeoisie as well as an ongoing insurgency from the Blairite wing of the party. The only options were to frontally confront the ruling class or to capitulate. But given that Corbyn’s bourgeois programme was not based on the material interests of the working class but vague notions of “peace” and “justice”, he had no firm ground to stand on and quickly capitulated on one question after the other.
Moreover, due to the fact that Corbyn was elected only on a negative programme of opposition to Blairism, his supporters were fractured and divided as soon as concrete questions came up: the EU, Russia, “anti-Semitism”, etc. Corbyn’s programme of parliamentary socialism also meant he approached every question in terms of electoral success, making him sway according to changes in public opinion and tying him to the Blairite majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party. As though this wasn’t enough, at the end of the day it is the trade union bureaucracy that calls the shots in the Labour Party. Whatever Corbyn did needed to be acceptable to the conservative, pro-capitalist leaders of the trade unions. All of this taken together gives a clear picture of the utter impotence of left Labourism.
The role of Trotskyists in this situation was to explain that the fundamental problem lies with Corbyn’s programme. In “Opportunism and the collapse of the Second International” (1916) Lenin explained the continuity between the programme of prewar reformism and open support to the ruling class during the war:
Applied to the context of Corbyn, what we needed to explain is that Corbyn’s support to British imperialism, his defence of the EU, his English chauvinism towards Scotland, his support to the lockdowns are the direct continuation and consummation of his left-Labourite programme. When push comes to shove, there is no middle ground between a proletarian and a bourgeois programme. Imperialism cannot be managed “peacefully”, the capitalist state cannot “serve the people” and the ruling class won’t be voted out of power. Only a communist programme fought for by a Leninist party can provide the path to fight capitalist misery.
At the tactical level, taking a side with Corbyn against the Blairites could have been a way of exploiting the contradiction between the aspirations of the masses which were driving Corbyn’s rise and his utter incapacity to fulfil these aspirations. There is no fundamental programmatic difference between the left and the right of the Labour Party. It was not Corbyn’s programme which was driving the class war in the Labour Party but the aspirations of the base which ran against the policies of the leadership. The Blairites were open advocates of anti-working-class policies and the main targets of the anger. This pressure from the base could have led to the Blairites being driven out despite Corbyn’s best efforts. Such an outcome would have made it clearer that the real obstacle to the aspirations of the masses wasn’t the right wing but the bourgeois programme of Labour, including of its left wing. It would have been easier to illustrate concretely the need for a revolutionary party and to polarise Labour along class lines.
In his remarks at a May 1981 SL/B Central Committee meeting, comrade Jim Robertson noted that there is a cyclical quality to British political life in regard to the Labour Party. Since at least 2015, the SL/B has been consistently tailing left Labourism and simply following the rest of the left around this cycle: revulsion for Blair, enthusiasm for Corbyn, back to revulsion with Keir Starmer. In the recent period members of the SL/B CC, just like the rest of the reformist left, have argued that there are no illusions in Starmer’s Labour Party, that Keir Starmer is transforming Labour into a bourgeois party and that Labour is basically reactionary through and through.
Keir Starmer is now attacking the left in the party in order to restore Labour’s “respectability” and has done so relying heavily on the trade union bureaucracy. While the reformists have been whining and complaining about Starmer, on the main question of the hour — the pandemic — the Labour lefts have no major difference with Starmer and utterly support the devastating policies of the bourgeoisie. While the tactical approach currently appropriate is to “throw rocks” at the Labour Party, our fire needs to be aimed at the whole Labour Party, particularly at its left hangers-on who play up the credentials of “left” bureaucrats inside both the party and the trade unions.
IV. For a Revolutionary Opposition to British Imperialism!
At least since the election of Corbyn as Labour leader, the SL/B has consistently embraced Corbyn’s liberal pacifist programme for British imperialism as well as a Labourite framework on the EU, promoting an alternative policy for British imperialism. As part of rearming the SL/B, we need to repudiate these capitulations and put forward a proletarian, revolutionary and internationalist opposition to imperialism in clear counterposition to “little England” Labourism.
Embracing Corbyn’s Labourite Pacifism
Starting with issue no 232, Workers Hammer consistently presented Corbyn’s opposition to NATO, to Trident, to British and US military interventions as if they were principled stances against imperialism instead of what they really were: Labourite pacifism promoting an alternative policy for the management of British imperialism. WH articles uncritically praised Corbyn for his “history of opposing the US-led NATO military alliance” (WH no 232), for being “not convinced that a bombing campaign will actually solve anything” (WH no 233, Winter 2015-2016) and for not wishing “to go to war” (WH no 236). Instead of doing the elementary revolutionary duty of exposing Corbyn’s programme as totally utopian and reactionary — which is central to a critical support campaign — the SL/B gutted Marxism in order to promote Corbynism.
When WH did make criticisms of Corbyn’s foreign policy, it often repeated that Corbyn wants British imperialism to adopt a “more ‘rational’ strategy”. But never did WH explain what is wrong with wanting a “more rational strategy” for British imperialism. In other instances, WH made pacifist criticisms of Corbyn. In “Banana monarchy” (WH no 234, Spring 2016) his plan to scrap Trident but to maintain the submarines without the nuclear warheads was criticised by saying that “the working class has no interest in maintaining capitalist Britain’s military capacity or its army”, ie, Corbyn’s disarmament policy simply does not go far enough and should extend to the whole armed forces.
Such capitulations stand in sharp contrast with the SL/B’s powerful exposure during the 1970s and 1980s of the Labour lefts’ foreign policies. We wrote at the time:
During this period, the SL/B exposed the foreign policies of the Labour lefts as being pro-imperialist, anti-Communist and thoroughly counterposed to the interests of the working class. The elementary point that Corbyn’s “non-nuclear” policy was a pro-imperialist policy was never even made in the pages of WH. Instead, WH’s superficial and often buried “criticisms” of Corbyn’s foreign policy served as a left cover to the central illusions he and his Labourite supporters fuelled: that British imperialism can act as a peaceful force in the world and that economic pillage and wars are Blairite and Tory policies which could be changed if Corbyn were in No 10.
Imperialism is not a policy. It is the highest stage of capitalism defined by the domination of monopolies and finance capital, by the centrality of the export of capital, and in which the division of the world among monopolies and a handful of capitalist powers has been completed. In search of new investments, new markets and new sources of raw materials, as well as to secure and defend its existing ones, British finance capital — the City of London, British banks, trusts and monopolies — enters into struggle against other national state groups of financiers for the redivision of the world. This struggle alternates between “peaceful” and non-peaceful forms. Under imperialism, the government is the executive committee of finance capital and the state is its armed fist. Therefore, British imperialism cannot be administered in a progressive or peaceful manner and cannot be anything but a force for reaction, pillage, economic asphyxia and imperialist wars.
Corbyn and the Labour lefts’ “peaceful” and unilateral policy is rooted in the tradition of “little England” socialism, whose concern for capitalist Britain is that it should play more of an independent role internationally and that some of its spending on nuclear warheads should instead go to social services, ie an alternative programme for managing British capitalism and its defence budget. It deceives workers with the idea that wars can be eliminated through different policies and that Britain can play a peaceful role through UN missions or “aid” to poorer countries. This only seeks to give a “humanitarian” cover to the plunder by British finance capital. The Labour lefts’ foreign policies are simply the continuation abroad of their domestic programme of “parliamentary socialism”, based on the illusion that the capitalist state can be taken over and made to serve workers and the oppressed. Lenin explained in Socialism and war (1915):
The pious wishes of Corbyn and left-Labour pacifists for a foreign policy of non-aggression serve as a cover for the rape and economic pillage of billions of people, which is the daily reality of imperialism in times of “peace”. The imperialist bourgeoisies need the armies of their national capitalist states to secure their interests at home and abroad. Talk of lasting peace and disarmament without a series of victorious socialist revolutions in the imperialist centres is nothing but a lie to deceive workers and the oppressed. The Labourite pacifists’ promotion of disarmament and their condemnations of militarism, violence and nuclear weapons necessarily amount to a defence of the imperialist status quo. Against such bourgeois deception, Trotsky wrote in the Transitional Programme (1938):
Pacifism directs its fire not so much towards the armed apparatus of the capitalist state as towards the working masses; it is the violence of the oppressed against their oppressors that the pacifists revile. They will never take a side for the defeat of their “own” imperialist government in armed conflicts. Preaching the harmfulness of arms and of violence to those who are disarmed and victims of the bourgeoisie’s violence is thoroughly reactionary from the standpoint of the working class. Thanks to the pacifism of [George] Lansbury, Bevan, [Michael] Foot, Benn, Corbyn & Co, Britain has both one of the most powerful armies on earth and some of the strictest gun control laws in the world.
Getting rid of Trident or opting out of NATO are avenues that the British imperialist bourgeoisie refuses to even discuss. As a declining imperialist power, British imperialism has had no choice since the end of the Second World War but to rely on its alliance with the US to maintain its status, thus supporting most of the US military interventions abroad. Any prime minister who implemented policies that would endanger Britain’s foreign investments, its nuclear deterrent or its alignment with the US and NATO would in all likelihood be overthrown through parliamentary or extra-parliamentary means. Even Corbyn’s timid programme to get rid of Trident and to question Britain’s commitment to NATO was met by the open threat of removal by top generals of the British armed forces. While it was necessary to defend Corbyn against such threats, WH did so by essentially endorsing Corbyn’s politics.
The SL/B’s Labourite Opposition to the EU
Up until the pandemic, the issue of Brexit had dominated British politics for years. The SL/B’s position to vote “leave” in the 2016 Brexit referendum was absolutely correct as a concrete expression of our opposition to the EU and the only principled position for revolutionaries. That said, the arguments used by the SL/B to support “leave” and to oppose the EU were not based on a Marxist opposition to imperialism and all imperialist alliances. Instead, the SL/B opposed the EU on a “little England” Labourite basis, ie an opposition to the EU based on its particular anti-worker policies and promoting an alternative strategy for British imperialism.
Over 100 years ago, Lenin defined the Marxist basis upon which we must oppose the EU:
Lenin’s basic principle here is the one that WH disappeared and rejected: we oppose the EU because we are opposed to imperialism. While it is certainly correct to point to the EU’s pillage of the European proletariat, the defining principle for communists — why we say that we oppose the EU “on principle” — is based not on the particular policies of the EU but on the fact that the EU is an alliance of imperialists and their victims, and for communists opposition to all imperialist alliances is a question of principle. Coalitions of imperialist powers are nothing but truces in between wars. “Peaceful” imperialist alliances grow out of wars and prepare new ones. The elementary statement that we oppose the EU because we oppose British imperialism and all its alliances never appeared in recent issues of WH.
The SL/B often stated that it opposes the EU “on principle”, but the “principle” invoked was basically that the EU’s “founding commitments” and its policies since its inception have been anti-worker. WH explained that the EU is an “enemy of workers and immigrants”, that it “strangles Greece” and that its “free movement” is a lie (WH no 243, Autumn 2018); that it “attack[s] the jobs, wages and conditions of workers throughout Europe” (WH no 244, Winter 2018-2019); that it was “founded on the commitments to privatise nationalised industries and to reduce government spending on social services” (WH no 246). While all this is true, it is not a principled revolutionary opposition to imperialism. It does not distinguish ourselves from the Labour lefts, who might oppose the EU based on its anti-worker policies but are not opposed on principle to imperialist alliances.
The SL/B’s treatment of the EU stands in sharp contrast to the founding articles of our movement like “Labor and the Common Market” (Workers Vanguard no 15, January 1973) and “Britain and the Common Market” (Workers Vanguard no 71, 20 June 1975). Both of these articles were written to counterpose a Leninist opposition to the EEC [European Economic Community, the EU’s predecessor] and all imperialist powers and alliances to the bankrupt reformist opposition to the EEC. “Britain and the Common Market” opens with what reads like a polemic against the recent issues of WH:
Our recent articles condemned the chauvinist opposition to the EU and opposed the EU because of its immediate economic disadvantages for British workers. But going beyond these and presenting a principled opposition to all imperialist alliances is precisely what WH hasn’t been doing.
A clear example of this is seen in the fact that throughout the Brexit years, WH never connected opposition to the EU with opposition to NATO. A key axis of our polemics against the Labour lefts and the trade union bureaucracy in the 1970s was precisely their refusal to do this. Then and now, the Labour left campaign against Britain’s membership in the Common Market was premised on accepting the framework of US-designed imperialist cartels, shown either in their refusal to oppose NATO or their promoting alternative “progressive” imperialist alliances like a “social Europe”. In “Britain and the Common Market” we noted:
Instead, recent WH issues focused their fire uniquely on the EU and its reactionary policies while disappearing the question of opposition to all imperialist alliances and opposition to British imperialism.
A non-Leninist basis to oppose the EU is not merely a problem of “incorrect formulations”. It means adapting to Labourism and burying the class line between revolutionary opposition to imperialism and promoting an alternative policy for British imperialism. This adaptation is clearly seen in the SL/B’s giving “critical” support to Corbyn in the second leadership election of the Labour Party right after he had campaigned in favour of the EU imperialist cartel. At the time, WH went as far as to claim that fighting imperialism required supporting Corbyn in order to defeat the “warmongering Blairite hawks in the upcoming leadership election” (WH no 236).
Adaptation to Labourism is also clearly seen in WH’s treatment of the Labour lefts’ long-standing opposition to the EU. While WH criticised Corbyn for campaigning for “remain”, it frequently and uncritically referred to “his lifelong opposition to the EU project” (WH no 244). Never once did recent issues explain that the Labour lefts’ opposition to the EU has always been reformist, ie based on nationalism and opposition to the Common Market limiting state interventions and social policies. WH never exposed that at the heart of “little England” hostility to the EU has always been the class-collaborationist idea that if British imperialism pursues a path outside of the Common Market, British workers would be better off.
Another aspect of the Labour left’s opposition to the EU which was never exposed in the pages of WH is its conjunctural nature. For back-bench MPs or when Labour is in opposition, it has always been quite cheap to oppose the EU. However, it is something else to do so as head of the Labour Party seeking to administer British imperialism, ie when it concretely involves responsibility. Corbyn repudiated his “lifelong opposition” to the EU as soon as he became head of Labour because that represented a “red line” for the Blairites that he could not cross without provoking a split. This is nothing new for the Labour tops: Harold Wilson, Labour leader in the 1960s and 1970s, literally changed position “for” and “against” the EEC three times, depending on whether he was in power or in opposition.
While capitulating to Labourite opposition to the EU, WH also adapted to liberal pro-EU pressure by its repeated use of the slogan “For a workers Europe!” This is a slogan used by all sorts of reformists who are both anti- and pro-EU, like the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty or No2EU. In popular understanding, there is no difference between being for a “social Europe” and for a “workers Europe”, which fuels illusions that the EU could somehow be reformed into a more “progressive” alliance or that it should be replaced by a new, “pro-worker” imperialist alliance. This conference rejects the slogan “For a workers Europe” as an opportunist capitulation to these illusions.
This conference adopts the revolutionary Comintern’s historic slogan for the “Soviet United States of Europe”, to which we should add “united on a voluntary basis”. This slogan, which should be coupled with a clear opposition to the EU, explicitly underlines that a progressive unification of Europe can only be based on a succession of victorious socialist revolutions. By explicitly referencing soviets, this slogan also draws a line against pro-EU liberals as well as against anti-communist Labourites who might oppose the EU. This slogan does not replace our historic call “For a Socialist United States of Europe, united on a voluntary basis!” The two slogans can be used interchangeably.
Brexit: Wanting a Better Deal for British Imperialism
The fervent debate that raged for years over Brexit reflected a disagreement in the British bourgeoisie over which path is best for the future of British imperialism. One wing of the imperialists wanted to maintain membership in the EU, another wanted to leave it. Because the SL/B did not draw a clear line against British imperialism, against all its alliances and all wings of the British imperialists, it ended up simply taking a side with the pro-Brexit wing of the bourgeoisie.
This is most explicit in the article “Brexit now!” in WH no 245 (Summer 2019), where WH equated opposing the Tories’ Brexit deal with opposing Brexit. The polemic of this article against the Socialist Party is quite explicit:
This is a polemic from the right. The implicit position defended here by WH is that Marxists must support whatever Brexit deal the Tories will cut in the name of “Brexit today”, which amounts to political support to the Tories.
This support to a “hard” Tory Brexit against Labour and its hangers-on who were committed to “remain” mirrored a shift happening in society, particularly in the electoral base of the Labour Party. In the absence of an independent working-class pole against the EU, the 2019 elections saw over a million ex-Labour voters (particularly in the “red wall”) voting for the Tories because they saw this as the only way to get out of the EU.
The Socialist Party was not wrong to say that workers must maintain an “independent class opposition to a Tory Brexit, ‘soft’, ‘hard’ or ‘no deal’”. But they advocated a “left exit” negotiated by Corbyn, which is also a total betrayal of the proletariat. Any Brexit deal, “soft” or “hard”, Tory or Labour, can only be a deal reflecting the balance of power between the imperialists, setting the terms of their competition and spheres of influence and dividing their shares of the spoils from the exploitation of the proletariat in Europe and Britain.
From the standpoint of the working class, supporting any Brexit deal is utterly reactionary and pro-imperialist. Equally reactionary is to put conditions on Britain immediately getting out of the EU, which amounts to a rejection of unconditional opposition to imperialist alliances. Against the Tories’ anti-worker agenda, against Labour’s betrayal and against the fake socialists promoting an alternative policy in support of British imperialism, the obvious counterposition revolutionaries should have made was to put forward a programme for working-class struggle to force Britain to get out of the EU now and utilise the government crisis over Brexit to advance proletarian revolution.
The SL/B’s capitulation to the Tory Brexit also shows the logic of abandoning a revolutionary opposition to imperialism. The article “Brexit now!” notes: “The prolonged crisis of the Tory government has created an advantageous situation for working-class struggle, which could also drive Britain out of the EU” [our emphasis]. Mobilising workers in struggle against the British bourgeoisie and all its imperialist alliances is presented in WH as an abstract hypothesis. But this was the burning task posed for revolutionaries!
We should have fought to cancel the debts of oppressed countries, reverse privatisations, scrap all anti-union laws, for good and sufficient pensions at a decent age to counter destruction of pension plans across Europe, etc. On all these questions, the British bourgeoisie has worked hand in hand with the EU. Such a perspective, linked with the demands for a workers government and a Soviet United States of Europe united on a voluntary basis, would have connected the immediate economic needs of workers — in Britain and in all of Europe — with the burning need for a struggle against imperialism. While Britain is now formally out of the EU, such a revolutionary perspective is still urgently needed.
V. A Very British Reformism
A central aspect of the SL/B’s capitulation to Corbyn was the conciliation of his reformist programme of parliamentary socialism. The main criticism made of Corbyn was that “while the demands posed by the Corbyn campaign are supportable, they cannot be achieved through old Labour parliamentarism” (WH no 232). This presents the difference between reform and revolution as a simple difference over the means to achieve the same goal. Workers Hammer never made clear that Corbyn’s programme wasn’t just ill-advised or mistaken but was a pro-capitalist programme which serves to deceive the working class and maintain bourgeois class rule. As Rosa Luxemburg explained:
The main illusion in Jeremy Corbyn was that if elected prime minister he would enact major reforms in the interest of the working class. The pseudo-Marxist left pushed that while Corbyn’s election would probably not lead immediately to socialism, he could be pressured to transform Labour into a “genuine socialist party” and to enact “socialist policies”. Against this, the task of revolutionaries was to expose that no matter the pressure applied, Corbyn’s pro-capitalist programme would necessarily lead him to do the bidding of the capitalists and betray the interests of the working class. WH never made this elementary point. The aim of the critical support tactic is precisely to prove the correctness of the Bolshevik programme by warning at all times “of the inevitable betrayals and counterposing our programme for proletarian power” (“Revolutionaries and the Labour Party”). But while WH wrote about the crimes of “all previous Labour governments”, it always kept the door open for the illusion that under Jeremy it could be different.
The capitalist state consists of special bodies of armed men whose purpose is to defend through violence the domination of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat. The British capitalist state — its cops, army, prisons and courts — can only be wielded to defend the interests of British finance capital: increasing its profits, defending its borders, securing its foreign interests, repressing strikes and pitting the oppressed against each other. The necessary Leninist point to make against Corbyn and his left cheerleaders is that no matter how “left” the election platform of a workers party elected to govern the capitalist state happens to be, it is not a workers government. It is a workers party administering the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, which will necessarily attack the working class and defend the bourgeoisie. WH capitulated to Labour Party lesser evilism by never making this elementary argument, instead criticising Labour because it does not give enough reforms and “contains” the struggle for such reforms. Thus, its assertions that running the capitalist state in the interest of the working class is “impossible” and a “losing strategy” are window-dressing for promoting the illusion that the Labour Party running the capitalist state can be pressured to advance the interests of the working class.
WH’s references to Marx that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery, and wield it for its own purposes” (The civil war in France, 1871) are rendered moot given that the whole framework of the SL/B’s propaganda was based on fostering lesser-evil illusions in Corbyn. For Marxists, the only reason it would be preferable that the capitalist state be run by a left-Labourite government is that it would be an opportunity to expose the bankruptcy of parliamentary reformism.
The central illusion of the British reformist left is that it is possible to bring about socialism peacefully through Parliament. In the early days of Corbyn’s leadership WH responded to these illusions by making a purely liberal critique of bourgeois democracy:
More recently, SL/B propaganda has covered up this liberalism with statements about “breaking the power of the bourgeoisie” and the need to “sweep away the repressive apparatus of the capitalist state and establish a workers state” (WH no 246). However, at no point did WH make the most basic Marxist point that the bourgeoisie will not let itself be peacefully voted out of power. As Trotsky explained, “The workers’ majority in parliament can be destroyed if armed force is in the hands of the bourgeoisie. Whoever does not understand this is not a socialist but a numbskull” (25 December 1925). Against the reformist programme for a Labour majority in Parliament, communists fight for a workers government based on soviets, ie the armed proletariat organised as the ruling class.
From its most liberal expressions to its most centrist ones, a constant thread throughout all recent WH propaganda is to disappear that the bourgeoisie will use violence to defend its class rule and that the working class must use force to defend itself and establish its own rule. In The proletarian revolution and the renegade Kautsky (1918), Lenin explained that:
WH explained repeatedly that the parliamentary system is a democratic facade for the dictatorship of the capitalist class and that a workers state based on soviet democracy is necessary. However, only one article — which isn’t about Corbyn (“Britain’s prison hell”, WH no 244) — explains the fundamental reason revolution requires the establishment of a workers state: to suppress the resistance of the bourgeoisie. To omit the key programmatic points that the bourgeoisie will not let itself be peacefully voted out of power and that the purpose of a workers state is to break the resistance of the bourgeoisie means not exposing but in fact capitulating to illusions that socialism can be achieved peacefully through Parliament.
Trade Union Reformism
The SL/B’s capitulation to parliamentary socialism and left-Labour lesser evilism necessarily went hand in hand with capitulation to the classic British reformist programme of pressuring the Labour Party through trade union militancy. WH criticised the current leadership of the unions for having “spent decades isolating and containing strikes while diverting workers’ anger into illusions in the EU and the losing strategy of electing a Labour government” (WH no 246), for keeping struggles “limited to demonstrations and local, time-limited strikes” (WH no 242, Summer 2018) and for pushing the illusion of “class peace with the bosses” (WH no 238). However, on each of these questions WH did not counterpose a programme based on Marxist principles on the state, imperialism and class independence, but simply advocated more militant trade unionism.
Put simply, WH abandoned the construction of a revolutionary opposition within the trade unions, a necessary task to split the Labour Party. As “Revolutionaries and the Labour Party” argued: “Given its organic base in the trade unions, ultimately Labour cannot be split without a successful political struggle against the pro-capitalist trade union bureaucracy.”
Deindustrialisation, capitalist attacks and decades of backstabbing by the trade union leadership have left the British working class weakened and demoralised. In this context the SL/B reduced its perspective towards the unions to simply fighting for more trade union struggle. In What is to be done? (1902) Lenin pointed out that one does not need to be a communist to advocate more militant economic struggles — to lend “the economic struggle itself a political character”. The crucial point is to link the struggle for the most immediate economic needs of the working class to the necessity of overthrowing capitalist class rule. As he explained:
The post-Soviet reaction and the low level of class struggle in Britain do not change the fundamental tasks of communists in regard to the trade unions.
Only leaderships in the unions built on a revolutionary programme can transcend the narrow sectoral interests of a particular industry, union or country and lead fights which will advance the interests of the working class as a whole. This requires exposing the class-collaborationist programme of the current leadership of the unions and the more militant version of this same programme pushed by the reformist left. A programme limited to trade union demands, however “militant”, is based on upholding capitalist class rule and is thus necessarily reformist, seeking solely to negotiate “better terms for the sale of labour-power”. Furthermore, as Trotsky explained, in the epoch of imperialist decay:
Opposition to the trade union bureaucracy based solely on its lack of militancy obliterates the fundamental dividing line between revolutionary and reformist politics and thus inevitably leads to a political bloc with one wing or another of the union bureaucracy. Such an opposition immediately collapses when the union tops lead militant actions — which they will be compelled to do, as seen in the 1984-85 British miners strike. The trade union bureaucracy can be pressured to struggle, but no amount of pressure can change its pro-capitalist programme and reactionary role as agents of the bourgeoisie in the working class. Against the reformist programme of pressuring the existing leadership of the unions, Trotskyists fight to replace it with a revolutionary leadership. Our perspective to do so is through the building of fractions based on the full transitional programme, including the call for a workers government.
Minimum/Maximum Programme: Burning the Bridge
Revolutionaries must show concretely that fulfilling the needs of working people is possible only with the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and expose reformist deceptions which suggest the contrary. The SL/B has done neither of these and at times explicitly promoted the notion that decaying capitalism can provide decent healthcare and fulfil the needs of workers if enough pressure is applied. The article “Capitalism: danger to your health” (WH no 242) is a particularly explicit example of the SL/B’s reformism:
Workers can obtain partial and reversible gains under capitalism. However, “fulfilling the basic needs of the population” is not a matter of pressuring the decaying British capitalist class to pump more money into the healthcare system but requires proletarian revolution.
Sharp class struggle could convince the bourgeoisie to invest more in public services. Like any ruling class faced with a workers upsurge, they might resort to concessions under pressure as a “lesser evil” to social revolution. In The lessons of October (1924), Trotsky explained the attitude of revolutionaries towards pressuring the bourgeoisie:
The problem with the SL/B’s recent propaganda, just like the British reformist left, is that it advocated only and exclusively pressuring the bourgeoisie in order to secure such concessions. This is a rejection of the Transitional Programme and an embrace of the minimum programme of the Second International.
When WH does mention socialism (the maximum programme), it is either to present it as an abstract and distant prospect or to openly capitulate to the “parliamentary socialist” programme of the British left. For example, in “Capitalism: danger to your health”:
This presents the expropriation of the bourgeoisie as a gradual process. It mirrors the programme of British reformism: socialism through step-by-step nationalisations of the “commanding heights of the economy” by Her Majesty’s Parliament. Revolutionaries are not opposed to calling for the expropriation of specific industries. However, in doing so, as Trotsky explained in the Transitional Programme, 1) we reject indemnification; 2) we do so while exposing reformists and Labourites who claim to be for the nationalisation of the economy, but are in fact defenders of capitalist rule; 3) we do not rely on achieving a majority in the bourgeois talk-shop of Westminster but on the revolutionary mobilisation of the proletariat; 4) we link the question of expropriations with that of seizure of power by the workers.
Against the minimum programme restricting the aims and activities of the working class to the winning of reforms, the founding of the Third International (Comintern) decisively broke with the division of the minimum and maximum programme, establishing the task of the Communist vanguard as being to fight for the overthrow of the capitalist class through the mobilisation of the proletariat for its most basic interests. Transitional demands need to be used as tools to mobilise the working class in revolutionary struggle, expose the bankruptcy of social democracy and motivate the need for a workers revolution. The Transitional Programme of the Fourth International represented this continuity against the Stalinised Comintern.
The substitution of the minimum/maximum programme for the transitional programme, as the SL/B did, is the essence of reformism. In the period of imperialist decay, where there can be no discussion of systematic social reforms and the raising of the masses’ living standards, putting forward a programme to fulfil the burning needs of the masses divorced from the fight for the dictatorship of the proletariat is not only impossible, it is reactionary. The SL/B was founded in defence of the Transitional Programme against its opportunist deformation by the WSL and the rest of the pseudo-Trotskyists in Britain. It is vital to defend and reclaim this programmatic continuity.