Marxists and the British
The Limits of Entrism
But this period came to an end. Both the beginning of a right turn within the Labour Party and Militant’s own rapid growth meant that the old methods could not simply continue without change.
By the first half of the 1980s the Militant tendency in Britain had become a significant factor in British society. The Militant was rarely out of the news, and by the mid 1980s one would occasionally find three separate articles in a single day in a national daily newspaper such as ‘The Guardian’ relating to the activities of the Militant, for instance in relation to Liverpool City Council, expulsions in the Labour Party, and some trade union activity, particularly in the civil servants union the CPSA in which members of the Militant had a leading role. (In 2003-4 Socialist Party members regained this position in this sector, now organised in the PCS, which was formed from a merger of the CPSA and other civil servants’ unions.)
The tactic of entrism, in the form of a long term orientation to the traditional mass workers’ party from within, no longer applied. The document ‘For the Scottish Turn’ explains:
Let us examine these points in detail. In paragraph 76 there are some comparisons to the period of the Second World War when the Workers International League left the Labour Party to do independent, open work. By the late 1980’s the Labour Party was changing; for example the Labour Party Young Socialists had been severely restricted and finally completely closed down in 1988. It was no longer possible to simply continue working in the same way that Militant had done in the 1970’s and early 1980’s.
But just as important, as explained in paragraph 77, in the 1980’s the Militant had become an ‘objective factor’ in society, a recognised independent, albeit small, factor in the working class movement – a factor for instance in the considerations of the ruling class. The right turn in the Labour Party meant that it had become very difficult to operate as a clearly identified ‘Militant supporter’ in the Labour Party without being expelled. The Labour Party bureaucracy could no longer be fobbed off. The left pressure on the Party leadership from the Labour Party membership – what was left of it – had lessened to a considerable degree: Labour Party members were either inactive or had changed in character. Sympathetic workers, who predominated before, were now replaced with antagonistic careerists. At the same time the pressure from the ruling class on the Labour Party bureaucracy had increased enormously.
The Labour Party bureaucracy had implemented a ‘register of non-affiliated groups’ in 1982, i.e. unofficial groups ‘allowed’ to be active inside the Party, and Militant was not on it, meaning that the door was opened to action being taken against Militant supporters. The leadership of Militant – Ted Grant, Peter Taaffe, Clare Doyle, Lynn Walsh and Keith Dickinson – was expelled early in 1983, eight years before the ‘Open Turn’!
By the end of the 1980’s it was generally only possible to remain in the Labour Party if one did not seriously clash with the pro-capitalist Labour Party bureaucracy, in other words, if one did not come to the effective defence of the interests of the working class. Militant supporters did not do this, and so were continually being expelled. In this sense, at no time did the Militant misunderstand the principles involved irrespective of the tactic of entrism – to tell the working class the truth. As Marx put it in the Communist Manifesto: "The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims."
The Labour Party was moving to an historic break with the past, in which, alongside the other parties of the Second International, by the mid-1990’s it was to change its character and sever its link to the working class, a process now complete, and almost certainly irreversible. (See the CWI Seventh World Congress ‘Thesis on the former workers’ parties and our tactics’ on this website) As a result it is no longer the case that the Socialist Party has a "long-term tactic of entry work" in the Labour Party as stated in the paragraph 78 above.
Nevertheless, although ‘Problems of Entrism’ gives a very dynamic and useful guide to the correct Marxist approach to entrism, it was incorrect to argue that, should the Trotskyists leave the Labour Party,
In fact ‘Problems of Entrism’ was originally written in response to the ‘Club’ group of Trotskyists led by the late Gerry Healy leaving the Labour Party in 1959 to form the Socialist Labour League (the ‘SLL’, which later became the Workers’ Revolutionary Party until it disintegrated and collapsed in 1985). However leaving the Labour Party in 1959 did not prevent the SLL winning a majority in the Labour Party’s then newly formed Young Socialists in the early 1960s, a position they held until they again decided to leave in 1964.
The idea that it would not be possible to easily re-enter the Labour Party is carried further in the documents of the ‘Minority’, the minority faction within the Militant that opposed the ‘Open Turn’ in 1991:
Like many other points made by the minority opposed to the ‘Open Turn’ this prognosis has not stood the test of time. Subsequent developments have shown that Militant (now the Socialist Party) is far from being isolated from trade unionists. At the time of writing this introduction (July 2004) there are 19 members of the Socialist Party who have been elected to membership of the National Executives of different British trade unions.
In regard to this "umbilical cord" argument the Majority document ‘For the Scottish Turn’ comments:
Furthermore, the document ‘For the Scottish Turn’ replies to the arguments of the Minority quoted above by citing a report by Alan Woods (‘Spanish report’, of 28 February-9 March, 1991, p4). Alan Woods became a prominent opponent of the ‘Open Turn’ later the same year. However, prior to this, in his February 1991 report he wrote
The years since the ‘Open Turn’ have seen a qualitative change in the Labour Party. There are few expectations amongst workers that the Labour Party can be ‘reclaimed’ by the working class and increasing demands within the trade unions for breaking the link with Labour.
But if in the future there were circumstances in which the masses turn back into the Labour Party and it was to some considerable degree ‘reclaimed’ by the working class, then the Trotskyists would be seen as some of the most principled fighters against the ‘New Labour’ takeover. A successful battle to reclaim the Labour Party would require ‘conditions of ferment’ – to say the least – and would re-open debate on all questions, including that of the implementation of prescriptions and bans on Trotskyists. Then "We will be applauded," says ‘For the Scottish turn’
In a period of ferment the usual checks by the bureaucracy would become increasingly difficult to implement, due to objections from the rank and file.
But there are other considerations here. Whilst large, semi-mass or even mass left or centrist groupings may well arise in Britain in the future – even later in this decade – the Socialist Party would be unlikely to return to entrism as practiced in the post-war period.
After the experiences of Stalinism and the collapse of the old parties right from the beginning there will be huge demands for openness and democracy inside new parties. A large Trotskyist organisation is not the same as the group of forty that Trotsky was discussing with in Britain in 1933. Open affiliation or united front joint activities on concrete issues would be far more preferable – and that is if the Socialist Party is not an organic part of a future mass broad left wing grouping from the start.
This is indeed the case recently in Brazil, where Socialismo Revolucionario, the Brazilian section of the CWI, played a significant role in helping to establish the "Party of Socialism and Liberty" (P-SOL) in Brasília on 5-6 June 2004, and is free to act as an open grouping within it.