Marxists and the British Labour Party
The 'Open Turn' debate
(Alan Woods, Feb 23 - March 9, 1991)
Editor’s note: The following brief report on a visit to Spain is referred to in the Majority document For The Scottish Turn: Against Dogmatic Methods In Thought And Action (in the section on the Lessons of Spain.) It was presented by Alan Woods to the CWI’s International Secretariat just over one month before the start of the Open Turn debate within the CWI. It marshals a sustained, compelling argument for "a bold turn" in Spain "- and perhaps not only in Spain".
Whilst several IS members felt that some of Alan Woods claims about the influence of the Spanish section were somewhat exaggerated, the report did correctly focus on the "orientation and tactics of the section", namely the pressing need for a review of the tactic of entrism:
Woods goes on to declare:
Woods was within weeks to take exactly the opposite position when, for factional reasons, he joined Ted Grant in effectively opposing any "Open Turn" in principle, and later opposed the majority CWI publishing this report. – Editor.
AW. Spanish Report (Feb 23 - March 9)
The purpose of this visit was to take advantage of the CC to review the orientation and tactics of the section in the light of the new situation after the Iraqi defeat.
There is no doubt that the Spanish section’s campaign against the war was a resounding success. The main details are given in a special report circulated separately.
In effect, the comrades had a major impact on the political life of the country. They have built up a colossal authority and prestige. As a result, we now have a periphery of about 400 people (with names and addresses) on whom to work.
The challenge is to recruit them (or a large part of them) into our organisation as soon as possible.
By the CC, 88 had agreed to join, although the section does not count people as actual members until they have started to attend a branch and paid their subs (I feel they may be a bit too rigid on this point. although in general it is correct).
Of the rest, 114 are described as "short-term contacts". A target of 150 new members has been set for May.
In view of the vast numbers of youth involved in struggle under our leadership, this target may seem a modest one.
But, on the other hand we must bear in mind the following:
a) There is, unfortunately, not an automatic relation between leading masses in struggle and getting them to understand the need to join a revolutionary party once the struggle is ended.
b) This is compounded when the party in question is a small party, still fighting against the stream.
c) The treachery of all the mass workers’ organisations has left an extremely bad smell, which creates prejudices among the youth which need to be broken down.
d) (And this is the key issue): in order to get the best of the youth to join the tendency, you must have cadres, capable of explaining Marxist ideas in a simple and attractive way.
The lack of such people in sufficient numbers acts as a bottleneck which limits our capacity to recruit, particularly when leading comrades in the sections are usually under all kinds of pressures from the centre (finance, etc.).
Of course, none of this constitutes an excuse for not achieving a good rate of growth. The Spanish comrades fully accept this. But it is not correct to assume that thousands of youth will automatically travel into our ranks, even where we have given a lead such as this. It will take time.
We must also take into consideration certain objective facts. The way in which the war ended will probably cause an element of disappointment in some sections (I personally would not exaggerate this factor, at least in the Spanish context).
Much more significant is that, now the big demos are over, many students will feel the pressure of lost time, exams, etc. This can have a temporary effect on recruitment.
However, the most important thing is that we have already reversed the trend of a lengthy period of very small growth and loss of members. That fact is psychologically all important.
Some excellent young people have joined, and more importantly, some of the youth that joined before the struggle have now really come into their own.
I was very impressed by the new young full-timers in Madrid, and particularly by the comrades in the University, which we now dominate. Important gains have already been made there, with much more to come. The leading comrade in the Autónoma personally accepted a target of 50 members, which I believe will be achieved.
The Sindicato de Estudiantes [henceforth ‘SE’ – editor] has shown itself to be an extremely important weapon in our hands. It occupies an analogous position to the YS in Britain in the past, with the difference that it is 100% under our control. [See note]
It is wrong to think of the SE as a "student" organisation. It is overwhelmingly made up of working class kids in the school. The work in the Universities is only now beginning to bear fruit, but, is also extremely important from two points of view: We have eradicated the base of the CP and the sects and won a 1ayer of youth who can now be turned towards the factories and unions.
Because of the enormous prestige of the SE, there is no attitude of rejection among the workers. On the contrary, they look to us for a lead. The SE "visiting card" opens many doors.
In effect the SE is now accepted by the workers (and even the TU and CP leaders) as part of the official movement. That is an extremely important conquest.
In practice, we are applying the tactic of the united front in Spain.
The question of entrism does not arise. This is not from any conscious decision, but is a fact, nonetheless.
Only a handful of comrades still work in the PSOE. This is not a drawback, but, if anything, an advantage. The PSOE is an empty shell, dominated by a corrupt bureaucracy which depends on state handouts, which in turn, gives it a large degree of independence from the class.
This is not the traditional situation of reformist parties in the past, and we must take it into account when working our future perspectives.
Because of the openly pro-bourgeois, imperialist policies, the PSOE stinks in the nostrils of the advanced workers and youth.
Whilst not ruled out that it may in the future be the basis of a mass left current (which could only be on the basis of a split), this is by no means the only perspective.
The unceremonious ejection of Guerra from the government may possibly be the basis of a future split, to the degree that he begins to reflect pressure from below (i.e. from the UGT). That is not ruled out.
However, such a perspective will take time to emerge. In the meantime, we have to give the comrades a perspective and a tactic which enables us to connect with the most advanced workers and the youth.
We have a large periphery of older industrial workers. We have led many strikes, for example the battle in Val d’Hebron, the biggest hospital in Catalunya (7,000 workers), where we won against the "official" TUs - UGT and CCOO.
Many of these contacts are ex-CPers - activists in CCOO who say to us: "We think the paper is good, you are good people with good ideas, BUT... Isn’t this an organisation for young people?" or, "Isn’t this something to do with the PSOE?" The latter problem is magnified 100x in the Basque Country where our support for PSOE in elections has been used very effectively by HB to besmirch our image with the radical youth we need to win.
It is clear that we cannot find "instant" solutions of an organisational character to what are essentially political problems, but I believe that we are in some ways creating unnecessary obstacles between ourselves and the people we seek to win.
This is not an argument against entrism in the future. But as the Spanish proverb goes: "You cannot feed yourself today with the bread of tomorrow".
I believe that in Spain - and perhaps not only in Spain - a bold turn is necessary if we are not to lose a series of opportunities.
At the moment, what we are offering our contacts is far too difficult: neither fish nor fowl. The argument. about "entrism" is not readily understood by many advanced workers (I’m not talking about the mass), who loathe the PSOE.
We allow ourselves to be too intimidated by arguments about "security". In Britain, where we have a number of comrades in key public positions, there is a case to be made. In Spain, where 97% of us are expelled, there is none at all.
When the masses turn back to the PSOE, it will not be possible for the bureaucracy to exclude us. The leading comrades may be kept out, but that is not an insurmountable obstacle.
An historical point. In 1960, Healy, who was on an ultra-left binge and understood nothing about the LP, nevertheless put all his forces inside the YS and got the majority, which he later wrecked.
There is no question of our Spanish comrades launching on an ultra-left adventure like Healy. But I believe the time is over-due for a bold initiative in launching "Isquierda Marxista" (Marxist Left) as an open organisation which could appeal to young people and workers (especially disaffected CPers and CCOO activists) who are looking for an alternative, in a situation which also has some analogies with 1941 in Britain.
The Spanish comrades, conscious of the need for a strong external projection, are organising a public campaign to launch "Youth for Socialism". I confess to having doubts about this. The main part of our youth work is done very effectively though the SE (which also caters for apprentices, technical and night-school students). It cannot reach the older industrial workers we have to win.
I believe it is urgent for the IS to re-discuss the question of tactics in relation to the mass organisations. Even in Britain, the time may come when we have to re-adjust, for example if Kinnock comes to power and then is a large-scale ("Spanish") witch-hunt, including the expulsion of the MPs.
That is not immediately posed here. In Spain, it very definitely is, and needs to be discussed.
A few more points of information. The election of school delegates confirmed the fact that the SE is the only seriously organised force in the schools, despite the Ministry's attempt to falsify the results. The Ministry published "official figures" for the election in Madrid as: 140 for the UDE (YS); 29 for the SE and 16 for the "Progressive Students" (CP).
The comrades went to the Ministry, armed with legal affidavits and forced them to retract and publish the real figures which were as follows: (to date) 51 for SE, 11 for ODE and 16 for the "Progressives".
Naturally, all this means that they will attempt to cut our (already small) state subsidies still further. But the SE comrades , who now function with considerable autonomy, have launched a fund-raising campaign which has already raised millions of pesetas.
The SE congress will be held in Madrid next weekend (16-19 March) and should be a great success.
There was some controversy over whether Juan Ignacio should step down as the SE president. His own wish is to dedicate his time to the youth fraction of the organisation. He and other comrades had doubts about this, because of his public position, but a compromise will have to be struck, allowing him to take charge of our youth work and take a step back from the SE work (there is a good replacement) while retaining a seat on the SE EC, for use in the future.
Finally, we are coming under heavy attack in the CCOO of Navarra, where a section of the ex-CP bureaucrats wants to go over to the PSOE (as Carrillo's bunch has already done) and do as much damage as possible before it does so.
It is interesting to note that when we had our own independent union in Navarra (CST), we had about 300 workers around us – about 10% in the negotiations - quite a serious force.
The general idea was that you couldn't / shouldn't maintain an independent union for any length of time (though this has been done quite successfully, in fact, by nationalist and sectarians) and that fusion with the CCOO would enable us to overcome our isolation and grow.
The opposite was the case. None of us realised how empty CCOO really was. The bureaucracy is, if possible, even worse than in UGT. Despite heroic efforts by a number of key workers, we gained next to nothing, and lost quite a lot. A large part of our periphery of 300 workers dropped away, either returning to their homes or going back to UGT.
On the positive side, through our work we have established a new periphery of 200-250 shop stewards which we are trying to work on (these are new, raw people mainly elected last Autumn).
The bureaucracy is trying to stop us from building a base of support.
I went to Pamplona to discuss with the leading worker comrades (marvellous local leaders) and their unanimous decision was to launch an all-out counter-offensive, with full publicity.
We may succeed in defeating the attack, in which case it could be the making of our group in CCOO. However, the stakes are high. It may lead to our expulsion from CCOO altogether. So what then?
There are a number of alternatives, all with some drawbacks. But our union activists must find some way of continuing to function in the factories.
The fact that we have laid stress (correctly) on the youth work and the SE should not hide the fact that our base in industry has never been stronger.
However, our trade union work is extremely complicated. We are working in at least five different unions. The Alava comrades are currently discussing the future of the UST. The leading comrades favour fusion with CCOO at some point in the future. I am uneasy about this, and, in any event, should wait and see what happens in Navarra.
The general mood is excellent, and all the comrades are optimistic about the prospects of growth in the next 12 months.
Editors note. Alan Woods forgets to mention that the Militant Tendency, while always defending its ideas and striving to maintain its political majority, attempted to ensure that there was some representation of other groups' ideas within the LPYS.
The Labour Party Young Socialists had been progressively closed down by the Labour Party leadership during the 1980s (the age limit was reduced to 21 years in 1983, and the democratic conference closed down in 1987). This provided another reason why, just as in Spain, an open turn was necessary. (See A history of our youth work, in this section)