Marxists and the British
The Militant and the tactic of ‘Entrism’
In 1964 the forebears of the Socialist Party began publishing a four page monthly newspaper called the Militant, with a carefully crafted appeal to both Labour Party members and the working class and youth in general, with a uniquely formulated programme, which was consequently highly recognisable – in particular the formulation of its call for the nationalisation of the 750 monopolies which dominated the economy at that time. This was no more than an expression in quantitative terms of the aims of the Labour Party as stated on every member’s party card.
The sellers of this paper and its policies became collectively known as the Militant Tendency, or simply the Militant. However it was widely recognised within the Militant that in the 1950’s and a large part of the 1960’s it was not tactically significant whether the Militant was in the Labour Party or outside. This was re-emphasised with the publication of a document called ‘Entrism’ in 1973, which incorporated the ‘Problems of Entrism’ of 1959 quoted from above, and appended a collection of articles written by Trotsky addressed to the British and French Trotskyists, some of which we have included on this site.
Entrism, as applied by the forebears of the Socialist Party since 1932, was not a policy applied uniformly and without exception in all circumstances, nor was it applied without considerable skill, discussion of tactics, and an account or estimation of the results at every juncture. In particular, it was a matter of extreme importance that members of the Militant clearly identified themselves as a separate trend or ‘tendency’ by selling the Militant newspaper, which in a fraternal way exposed the failings of the current reformist leadership, and also all other trends within and without the party.
At the same time Militant comrades did not confine their activities to Labour Party meetings or members. We were involved in the everyday class struggle and sought to approach workers and youth who were only starting to become active in their trade unions or politically.
This was not ‘deep entrism’, a tactic in which a group hides its separate political identity, and in particular hides its Marxist criticism of the methods of reformism. Such a tactic is called "opportunist" and breaks the first rule of engagement: ‘always tell the working class the truth.’
Membership of the Militant was an open secret. The Militant was organised, and so was the right wing of the Labour Party, the latter with impunity.
The Militant drew a distinction between an uncompromising position on its programme and policies, which it would never relinquish the right to promulgate, and on the other hand flexibility in organisational forms or methods, so as to offer no grounds for expulsion.
The Labour Party leadership acted, in the words of the US Marxist Daniel De Leon, as the "Labour Lieutenants of Capital", seeking to keep the Labour Party safe for capitalism, both in the sense of posing no threat to the capitalist system, but also in the sense of being directly usable by the capitalists, as and when required, to protect their system. That is why they started to restrict Party democracy from the 1920’s onwards. At the same time it is not accidental the Labour Party leadership never even threatened to expel the organised right wing groups that existed within the Party.
It is not an exaggeration to say that in a period of profound crisis, a reformist leadership can, on behalf of its masters, pass beyond the use of weapons such as resolutions at executive meetings to the use of the hangman and the assassin. This was, after all, the experience of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, who were murdered at the behest of the leadership of the German Social Democracy.
Yet the dual character of the Labour Party in the decades after the Second World War could hardly be demonstrated more clearly than by the Labour Party's own magazine in 1982. The ‘New Socialist’ (September-October 1982) carried an editorial which clearly outlined the situation as it pertained in the 1960’s and 1970’s, but was being reversed in the 1980’s. It denounced the witch-hunt that was then being carried out against the Militant:
Indeed, organisations which had the blessing of the Labour Party bureaucracy, were quite open about building their group’s membership within the Labour Party.
The Labour Party was a ‘bourgeois workers party’ – a workers’ party with a bourgeois leadership. So while the Labour Party bureaucracy enacted a ban on the Communist Party in 1924, and subsequently banned other groups, the Labour Party right wing MPs met no objection from the Labour Party head office (then in ‘Transport House’) when they formed semi-secret groupings, some financed by various shadowy anti-working class organisations, such as the "Bilderberg Group, the International Institute of Strategic Studies and other bodies backed directly or indirectly by the CIA or the US government." (See ‘The Rise of Militant’ p206).
Until the early 1980’s, the Labour Party bureaucracy was forced to tolerate the Militant partly because of the sympathy which it built amongst many ordinary members, who opposed witch hunts and expulsions, but also because particularly in a period when the Party was moving leftwards ‘bans and proscriptions’ were seen for what they were by the majority of the Labour Party rank and file – an attempt to crush discussion and debate of a ‘dangerous’ left wing character, help the right wing leaders and extinguish the influence of genuine Marxism in the Labour Party.
Various groups existed in the reformist parties, and for the most part members of the Committee for a Workers’ International were able to openly argue for a Marxist perspective, and raise ‘transitional’ demands – demands which attempted to act as a bridge between the day to day demands of the working class, such as for higher wages and a shorter working week, and the demand for a socialist society.
The Militant, for example, championing the call for the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy at every Labour Party annual conference, (which would indeed act as a bridge to a socialist society, but is not in itself the establishment of a socialist society) actually won the vote one year.
‘The Rise of Militant’ explains:
The Growth of Militant
The ‘History of the CWI’ comments that while Trotsky did anticipate the revolutionary wave which followed the Second World War, he could not have anticipated that Stalinism and Social Democracy would emerge strengthened (as discussed above). This disorientated the leadership of Trotsky’s Fourth International. A GPU agent of Stalin had assassinated Trotsky in 1940, and these leaders could not understand the character and dynamics of the new post-war period. Without a clear analysis of the new period, disagreement, manoeuvring and splits characterised the remnants of the Fourth International.
At their 1965 international congress the leadership of the largest remnant of Fourth International (the USFI) demonstrated that they were not interested in discussing the analysis offered by the leaders of what was to become known as the Militant Tendency. At the end of that congress the Militant had effectively been expelled. As a result, the ‘History of the CWI’ explains: "We tried to follow the advice of Marx and Engels" and face up to the task of
In Britain no other group from a Trotskyist background has demonstrated Militant’s ability to explain the ideas of Marxism to the working class, and to win the leadership and lead the working class, not just in demonstrations, but also in battles such as those in Liverpool in the mid 1980’s and against the Poll Tax, which we will discuss later. The Militant, like the Committee for a Workers International today, was a thoroughly working class organisation. Undoubtedly an element in this unique ability to act as the voice and highest expression of the working class in struggle was the tactic of entrism.
Entrism in this post-war period clearly exposed Trotskyists to the dangers of opportunistically adopting to the Labour Party bureaucracy. There is no doubt that the minority which opposed the ‘Open Turn’ and which now goes by the name of the International Marxist or Ted Grant tendency, had become opportunistically adapted to the Labour Party, describing work in the Labour Party as an "umbilical cord" and refusing to see the changes that were occurring.
But on the other hand, entrism set an invaluable practical task to the Militant supporters: to express their ideas in ways which were capable of winning support from the ordinary rank and file of the Labour Party in debate with other, usually reformist, ideas.
Militant won the leadership of the Labour Party Young Socialists, the youth section of the Labour Party, in 1970 / 1971. Capitalism’s post-war upswing came to a grinding halt in the mid 1970’s, and reforms won from capitalism began to be outweighed by counter-reforms, attacks on the working class. It was during this period, particularly with the wave of militancy during the 1970’s and early 1980’s, that the Militant made considerable gains.
The Liverpool District Labour Party adopted the programme proposed by the Militant to fight the Tory government’s cuts to the Rate Support Grant – to set an illegal ‘deficit budget’ – and as a result Liverpool City Council joined a momentous battle with Thatcher’s Tory government in 1984 -1987. Militant gained three members of Parliament, in two cases winning seats that were not considered winnable to Labour, standing recognised Militant supporters albeit Labour Party members, one of them in Liverpool Broadgreen. During this period working within the Labour Party was indeed justified.
The first document presented in this section of Marxist.net, ‘Scotland: Perspectives and Tasks’, written in 1991, attempts to make an accurate account of what was gained by the Militant Tendency during its period of ‘entrism’. It begins:
However, in a reference to the Anti-Poll Tax Unions, which we will comment on later, it continues:
How did the Militant ‘build a base’ in the mass labour movement, working under conditions of entrism? The example of the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS) is instructive. Both before and after the Militant won a majority in the Labour Party youth organisation, the branches led by the Militant were campaigning amongst ordinary youth and workers, who were at first overwhelmingly not members of any party.
In the late 1960’s the Labour Party Young Socialists was largely an inactive shell of an organisation. The Militant, and the LPYS nationally as it came under the influence of the Militant, initiated many campaigns on all the issues affecting young people, and recruited these non-party youth and workers from these campaigns directly to both Marxism and, in joining the Labour Party, to the struggle within the Labour Party for socialist policies.
In this process the LPYS expanded rapidly and the narrow majority the Militant won in the LPYS in 1971 in time became an overwhelming majority. The biggest annual LPYS conferences in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s had very nearly 2,000 young people in attendance. The LPYS’s last big period of growth was during the 1984/5 miners’ strike and the mass school students’ strikes of March 1985 when the number of local branches grew from 495 in 1983 to 581 in 1985.
The Militant became the majority in the youth section of the traditional mass party of Britain, and then built it as a vibrant campaigning organisation, because we orientated ourselves to the youth and working class as a whole, not just to those we found within the party. Militant supporters were always open about their support for the Militant: any new young people were immediately approached to buy a copy of the Militant and asked whether they would like to discuss our ideas – there was never any doubt in the LPYS about an individual’s political affiliation.
Most of the growth of the Militant tendency came about because of its flexible orientation towards the Labour Party, yet at the same time to the wider working class, who may have regarded the Labour Party as their party, but perhaps were not inspired to join the Labour Party because of its reformist, bourgeois orientated leadership.