Workers Hammer No. 199

Summer 2007


Reformists crawl to Labour under Gordon Brown

Britain/US out of Iraq, Afghanistan now! Hands off Iran!

For a multiethnic revolutionary workers party!

Taking over the premiership from Tony Blair, Gordon Brown leads a Labour government that is soaked in the blood of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. This is the bitter fruit of the imperialist occupation and the communal warfare between Sunnis and Shi’ites that it unleashed. The United Nations estimates that some eight per cent of the population has been forced to flee the country and untold thousands remaining in Iraq have been driven from their neighbourhoods and towns.

The war and occupation have devastated Iraq and its peoples, while the military adventure is increasingly becoming a debacle for US imperialism and its British ally, leading to deep unease within the British establishment. The head of the British armed forces, Sir Richard Dannatt, has said that the British military presence in Iraq “exacerbates the security problems”, (BBC News Online, 13 October 2006). Blair has reduced the number of British troops in Iraq, where they increasingly lost control of Basra to Shia militias. But there is no reduction of forces in Afghanistan. Indeed senior military officers and Labour ministers admitted to the Guardian that they think “British forces in Iraq are on a hiding to nothing” but in Afghanistan they obscenely describe British troops as fighting for a “noble cause” (Guardian, 21 June).

The latest atrocities in Afghanistan include at least seven children killed by US air strikes on a school near the Pakistan border on 17 June while at least 24 people were killed by a bomb in the centre of Kabul. The level of attacks by imperialist armies on civilians is so high that the Agency Co-ordinating Body for Afghan Relief, representing nearly 100 aid organisations, has condemned foreign, particularly US, troops for the “disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force” (Guardian, 21 June).

It is to ruling-class sentiment that Iraq is a lost cause that the reformist left are appealing as they clamour to pressure Gordon Brown to pull out. For the Stop the War Coalition (StWC), the transition to Brown simply means the grovelling petitions to “Dear Tony” are now directed to “Dear Gordon”. To the man who fully backed Blair over Iraq and as chancellor bankrolled the invasion and occupation, they plead: “withdraw British troops from Iraq no later than October 2007; declare that this country will not participate in any attack against Iran; and pursue a foreign policy independent of the administration of the United States of America”. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) built the StWC to unite the maximum forces possible from all classes on a programme of bourgeois pacifism, duping anti-war protesters with the myth that British imperialism can be persuaded to adopt a “peaceful” foreign policy. The StWC is an obstacle to the necessary class-struggle fight for the revolutionary overthrow of imperialism, a system under which neo-colonial adventures and wars are an inevitable and permanent condition.

Iran needs nuclear weapons to defend itself!

Washington and Downing Street have also engaged in a series of military provocations against Iran. The US has bolstered its naval presence in the Persian Gulf/Arabian Sea region and continues to push for stricter UN sanctions against Tehran over its nuclear energy programme. The Labour government and its servile capitalist press drummed up hysteria by creating an enormous hoopla over Iran’s seizure in late March (and subsequent release) of some 20 British military personnel in the Shatt Al-Arab waterway. In a 7 April statement issued by the Spartacist League/Britain (published in Workers Vanguard no 890, 13 April) we said: “We do not know what the British forces were up to at the time of their capture, but we do know that the imperialists are the aggressors and this semi-colonial country is in their crosshairs. The monstrous hue and cry over the captured British crew members can only serve to heighten the danger of an imperialist attack on Iran” and called for “British, US and all imperialist troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan! Down with imperialist war provocations against Iran!”

As revolutionary opponents of imperialism, we say that working people in Britain, the US and internationally have a side against the US/British occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. This does not entail the slightest degree of political support to either the Islamic fundamentalists, the nationalist remnants of the Ba’athists in Iraq, or to the Taliban and similar reactionary forces—former assets of the CIA’s war against the Soviet Union—in Afghanistan. Our statement also noted that “in the context of threats by the nuclear-armed imperialists, Iran desperately needs nuclear weapons and adequate delivery systems to defend itself ”, while calling for military defence of Iran in the event of an attack by imperialism, or by Israel or any other force acting as proxy for the imperialists. We condemned the StWC’s support for “our boys” as expressed in a statement (undated, titled “Don’t attack Iran”) which opened with: “We urge the speedy release and return to this country of the detained sailors and marines.” Amid a wave of nauseating chauvinism against Iran, this is a pledge of loyalty to their “own” ruling class.

Today we also warn that sentiment among the imperialists—reflected in the Democratic Party in the US—to cut back on losses in Iraq is often motivated by a felt need to reinforce American military capabilities directed against China, the largest and most powerful of the remaining countries where capitalist rule was overthrown. We stand for unconditional military defence of the Chinese, North Korean, Vietnamese and Cuban workers states against imperialism and domestic counterrevolution, despite the fact they are deformed by the rule of parasitic Stalinist bureaucracies.

Labour’s racist reign

Brown stands foursquare on the record of Blair-led Labour governments that relentlessly attacked jobs, pensions, health and education services for the working people at home. He is notorious among public sector unions for his pay freeze below inflation and for slashing tens of thousands of civil service jobs. If anything, Brown intends to outdo Blair in the racist “war on terror” and is likely to re-present the proposal to detain “terrorism” suspects without charge for up to 90 days which failed under Blair. Brown’s “Britishness” crusade will mean more of the same anti-Muslim racism that was blatantly expressed last year in Jack Straw’s diatribe against the veil (see “Racism and the Islamic veil”, Workers Hammer no 197, Winter 2006-2007). And there will be no let-up in the xenophobia against immigrants that is commonplace among Labour ministers: Margaret Hodge recently called for social housing (such as it exists) to be given to British people first while at the GMB union conference Brown called for “British workers for British jobs”.

Yet Britain’s “flexible” economy is in fact heavily reliant on immigrant workers. It is in the vital interests of the whole working class to counter racist divide-and-rule ploys and to defend immigrants, including by campaigning for equal pay for equal work, opposing the work ban on workers from European Union countries such as Bulgaria and Romania, and fighting for full citizenship rights for all immigrants!

In sharp contrast to the reformist left, whose main aim is to pressure a Labour government to administer the murderous capitalist state in the interests of the oppressed—the Spartacist League seeks to build a multiethnic revolutionary workers party that fights for the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist order through socialist revolution. Such a party can only be forged through breaking workers from Labourism, in all its forms, including from illusions in “old” Labour and parliament. This is counterposed to the strategy of the rest of the left in Britain for whom voting Labour in every election has historically been an article of faith. In 1997, when Blair’s New Labour was first elected bringing an end to 18 years of Tory rule, we issued a statement titled: “For a revolutionary workers party! For a federation of workers republics in the British Isles!” which declared:

“The Spartacist League/Britain says unequivocally: No Vote to New Labour in the general election! New Labour is pledged to maintaining the sickening reality of life under capitalism—keeping the unions in shackles, slashing welfare programmes, waging war on workers, racial minorities and immigrants, women and youth—everybody who is consigned to the bottom of the heap by rotting British capitalism. Blair’s ‘contract with Britain’ is a pact with the bloated City of London, where vast wealth is generated from profits extracted through exploitation of workers around the world.”

— reprinted in Workers Hammer no 156, May/June 1997

Everything we said has been borne out, down to the lavish fortunes being extracted by the private equity moguls in the City, and then some.

At the time we gave critical support to Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party (SLP) which was formed in a split from New Labour in 1995 and was distinguished from the rest of the reformist left by its refusal to vote Labour. The above statement explained that “in standing against New Labour the SLP are in breach of the ‘eleventh commandment’ of the British left, that ‘thou shalt vote Labour’, come hell or high water.” While we canvassed for votes to the SLP, our statement said that “there is a clear counterposition between what the Spartacist League stands for and what the SLP represents.” At SLP meetings we had sharp exchanges with Scargill over his nationalist protectionism—support for British coal and British industry generally—as against proletarian internationalism. Frequently also when Spartacist speakers would argue the need for a party based on the communism of Lenin and Trotsky, Scargill would dismiss the 1917 Russian October Revolution, offering instead the Labour tradition of Keir Hardie and Nye Bevan, Labour Party “left” leaders from the periods following World Wars I and II. This old Labour tradition has always defended the interests of British imperialism at home and abroad. Labour governments presided over imperialist butchery such as the bloody partition of India in 1947, leading to mass communalist slaughter, while attacking workers at home. The British Labour Party has been an anti-communist bulwark in Europe and Labour’s Ernest Bevin was instrumental in the founding of NATO, the imperialists’ anti-Soviet military alliance in 1949.

Reformists still grovelling to Labour

In 1997, the SWP and Workers Power were emphatically for a Labour government; when Labour won by a landslide, then SWP leader Tony Cliff declared that his party was “over the moon”. The Socialist Party ran its own candidates in some areas but their overwhelming aim was to “Get the Tories Out”. Labour-loyalism was still alive and well in 2001 despite Labour’s role in the bombing of Serbia in 1999. The slogan of the SWP—then a component of the Socialist Alliance, which stood candidates—was “vote socialist where you can, vote Labour where you must”.

With Labour today widely reviled the reformists are more covert in their support to it. But the umbilical cord is far from broken, as shown in their posturing over the leadership and deputy leadership of the Labour Party. The SWP, Socialist Party, Workers Power plus its erstwhile comrades now in “Permanent Revolution”, and the “Communist Party of Great Britain” all backed John McDonnell. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth was occasioned by his failure to even get the nominations of 44 MPs required to get on the ballot. But for all their bellyaching against Blair and Brown, a number of Labour “left” MPs and union bureacrats would have nothing to do with McDonnell. When McDonnell was defeated, he and his supporters bent over backwards to ingratiate themselves with Brown.

In the contest for deputy leader, not a single contender opposed the Iraq invasion in 2003. Yet predictably most of the fake left supported Jon Cruddas, a thoroughly New Labour MP who voted for the Iraq invasion in 2003 (but lately discovered this was a “mistake”) and voted for ID cards and 90 days detention without trial for “terrorism” suspects! Cruddas makes “Honest John” McDonnell look almost like a socialist. At least McDonnell voted against the Iraq invasion and the introduction of ID cards. But calling for a vote to McDonnell is no kind of opposition to Gordon Brown. Despite a concerted effort by the Brownites to keep him off the ballot, McDonnell endorsed Brown for leader. So much for his supposed opposition to the Iraq occupation—which is based on calling in the UN, that imposed sanctions on Iraq leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths prior to the invasion.

Many rank and file trade union members had illusions in McDonnell, not least due to an all-out campaign by the reformists to support him. This was the purpose of a letter published in the Guardian on 12 May, signed by many Labour councillors, ostensible sociali-sts and trade unionists, which asked “Labour MPs to nominate John McDonnell in order to allow a genuine debate about the future direction of our party”, and stated that a coronation of Gordon Brown “will be inconsistent with the proud democratic traditions of our party”. Such illusions in the Labour Party’s “traditions” have tied the working class to the British capitalist rulers for almost a century.

Today the SWP describes Labour as “hollowed-out”, while Peter Taaffe’s Socialist Party, which originated in “Militant”—an organic part of the old Labour Party for decades—proclaims that Labour has become a capitalist party. If this were the case, for revolutionaries it would be unprincipled to advocate any form of tactics towards a bourgeois party; but for the Socialist Party, no such principles apply. Thus their paper said workers should support McDonnell for leader, even while asserting that: “New Labour today is a capitalist party devoid of rank-and-file membership”, because “the majority of trade union leaders are still mistakenly arguing that New Labour can be changed. If they are sincere in this [!], those in affiliated trade unions should support John McDonnell’s campaign for the leadership, as the only candidate who stands on a programme that is in the interests of trade union members, in that it is against cuts, low pay and privatisation” (Socialist, 14-20 September 2006).

For the Taaffeites, and indeed for the SWP, if Labour were still the traditional social-democratic party it has been for decades, it would be obligatory to vote for it in all circumstances. Meanwhile the Socialist Party calls for a “new mass workers party” which amounts to a version of the old Labour Party with its record of betrayals. Endorsers of their call for a new party include Socialist Party members of the trade union bureaucracy, including those who form a majority in the national executive of the civil service union, the PCS. These reformists agreed to a rotten sell-out deal on pensions in 2005 which means new entrants will have to work five more years (to age 65) to qualify for their pension. This is of a piece with the Socialist Party’s blatantly reformist position on the state—that the police are “workers in uniform”—which means they do not object to the presence of immigration police in the union. This is a scandal—we say: Immigration police out of the PCS!

The SWP’s “alternative” to Labour is the “Respect” coalition, a cross-class alliance which makes no pretence whatsoever to being “socialist” or to oppose the capitalist system in the name of the working class. Under cover of fighting against Islamophobia, Respect renounces secularism and any meaningful fight for rights for women and gays in pursuit of unity with the mosques. Capitulation to Islam is not new for the SWP: these reformists backed the Islamic-fundamentalist mujahedin and howled along with the imperialists against the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in December 1979. We proudly proclaimed “Hail Red Army!” and “Extend the gains of the October Revolution to the Afghan peoples!” But the Kremlin Stalinists treacherously withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, a surrender to imperialism which paved the way for counterrevolution in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in 1991-92. This was a catastrophic defeat for the working class of the whole world which the SWP welcomed, indeed they worked hard for this throughout the anti-Soviet Cold War.

Leninists and the Labour Party

Labour was founded a hundred years ago in opposition to the capitalist Liberal Party, a separation which both Blair and Brown wish to reverse. Originating as what Lenin termed a “bourgeois workers party”, Labour was defined by a mass working-class base but a pro-capitalist leadership and programme. Lenin also insisted that this party was not the political organisation of the trade union movement, but of the union bureaucracy. At the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920 he said that “the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie.” Labour’s role in tying the working class to British imperialism was particularly evident in periods of upsurge by the working class, such as in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. In 1918 Labour adopted “Clause IV” which promised “common ownership” of the means of production, which for decades served to stave off the threat of what the capitalist rulers saw and dreaded as the “threat of Bolshevism”. The massive wave of struggles of the working class was diverted into the pursuit of reforms of capitalism through the “Mother of Parliaments”.

A strategic task of revolutionaries in Britain has been to split the Labour Party and win its working-class base to communism. Advocating tactics—including extending critical support in elections when appropriate—the goal was to exacerbate the contradiction between the working-class base and the pro-capitalist leadership. Historically there was a symbiotic relationship between “left” and right in the party, in which figures like Tony Benn played the role of keeping more militant workers tied to Labour. They were aided and abetted by reformists like the SWP who always supported the “lefts” against the right, furthering the illusion that the way to advance the interests of the workers is through class collaboration and electing “socialists” to parliament, while leaving the capitalist state machinery intact. But the working class cannot simply take over the existing apparatus of the state; it must be shattered and replaced by a genuinely socialist regime based not on parliament but on organs of working-class rule, and must be extended internationally.

The split taking place today between the unions and the Labour Party is not happening as it was previously envisaged by Leninists—through leftward motion away from Labourism at the base of the unions—but as part of the all-sided attacks on the working people by the Labour government. Blair has gone some way towards transforming the Labour Party into an outright bourgeois party, and Brown intends to reduce the role of the unions in the party even further. Blair sought to replace union funding with donations from millionaires (leading to the “cash for honours” scandal) but the party accounts are still in the red.

Meanwhile, loathing of the government has led the membership of many unions to seek to disaffiliate from Labour, by refusing to pay the political levy. The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has disaffiliated and the RMT was expelled in 2004, while moves towards disaffiliation in other unions have been stymied by the union bureaucrats who wish to return to the days of class collaboration when they were treated to “beer and sandwiches” at Downing Street. The new union Unite, a merger of the TGWU and Amicus, has Labour Party affiliation written into its draft rules; the CWU, GMB and Unison remain affiliated, despite hatred of the Labour government among their members.

However the process of transforming Labour into a version of the Democratic Party in the US is not finished and a hypothesis that Labour has now become simply a capitalist party needs to be tested in the course of social and political struggle. This may well take the form of a sharp confrontation between the Labour government and a striking union, for example. Even before Blair, Labour was a mass social-democratic party that defended the interests of British imperialism at home and abroad when in power. Labour used troops to break the firefighters strike in 1977, sent the troops to Northern Ireland in 1969 and introduced grotesquely racist immigration controls, including “virginity” tests for Asian women entering Britain in the 1970s. “Old” Labour governments however could not easily resort to actually smashing the unions, to which the party was organically linked. Key to the link was the trade union bureaucracy on whom Labour and the capitalist state relied heavily to defend the capitalist order through class-collaboration and betrayal of their members, especially through appeals to the “national interest”.

Defending the “national interest” and the capitalist order is the political basis for the union bureaucracy’s support to Labour historically and today. This shared political perspective is why the “lefts” (the so-called “awkward squad”) have been crawling on their knees before Blair for a decade. The FBU leadership of Andy Gilchrist scandalously called off the firefighters strike of late 2002, when Blair threatened to use troops to break their strike. The leadership buckled under to national chauvinism, when the union was baited as “Saddamites”, because the strike—for decent wages—had the potential to disrupt the military’s preparation for the invasion of Iraq.

The CWU leadership under Billy Hayes scandalously disowned a hugely effective “unofficial” strike in late 2003 because it defied the anti-union laws. Today the postal workers, who are among the lowest paid workers in the country, are embarking on a series of one-day strikes against massive redundancies. Their leadership not only insists they play by Labour’s anti-union laws, but endorsed Alan Johnson for Labour deputy leader—an arch-Blairite, former general secretary of the union who supports privatisation schemes in the postal service. Enraged members resolutely overturned Johnson’s endorsement at the recent CWU conference.

Only through the mobilisation of workers in struggle can the workers fight for their interests and in defence of all the oppressed. The union bureaucracy is a proven obstacle to unleashing the potential power of the working class. This poses the need for a political break with the union bureaucracy and forging a revolutionary leadership in the course of struggle. The key question is what kind of party the working class needs to really represent its interests, independently of the capitalists. As distinct from Labourite reformism, which bases itself on the chauvinism and prejudices of the dominant ethnic group and of the British ruling class, a revolutionary party must champion the rights of all the oppressed. A genuine workers party must win the working class to the understanding that the cause of all exploitation and oppression is the capitalist system and therefore fundamental change in the interests of the working class, racial minorities and all the oppressed, including women, can not come through parliamentary elections but only through revolutionary internationalist class struggle which, pursued to the end, must shatter the capitalist order.

The only solution to imperialist depredation, such as the carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan today, and to the increasing immiseration of the working class and poor, is the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist order by the proletariat and its replacement with a rationally planned economy under the rule of the workers on an international scale. This task requires the construction of a Leninist-Trotskyist party, forged in the struggle to break the working class from all illusions in Labour and parliamentarism. The multiethnic revolutionary workers party we seek to build will be dedicated to the fight for a federation of workers republics in the British Isles, part of a Socialist United States of Europe.