Ted Grant

The I.L.P. – A Ship Without a Compass

Labour leaders hold workers back

Written: May 1942
Source: Socialist Appeal, vol. 5 no. 1 (October 1942)
Markup/Proofread:: Emil 2007

The “Socialist Britain Now” campaign, which was launched with such a ballyhoo by the leadership of the I.L.P., has fizzled out. No more than passing references to it appear, on rare occasions, in the pages of the New Leader. In place of this has come out attempts at horse deals and manoeuvres with the “left-wing” of the Labour Party and an attempt to gain support on the basis of the so-called Manifesto against Race Hatred, which has been published in the pages of the New Leader.

It is necessary for the serious members of the I.L.P. to draw a balance sheet of the results of the campaign and the policies of the I.L.P. on the principle issues during the last few months. The leadership of the I.L.P. has refused and is indeed incapable of doing so. But we will endeavour to.

Ridley attempts feebly to reply” to the criticism of Loris by pointing out triumphantly that the LP has not decayed into an “open agent of imperialism”. But when Lenin put forward the slogan of “Labour to Power” in 1920 the Labour leaders were just as open agents of imperialism as they are today. Why then did Lenin, in a situation which could have easily become revolutionary - and we are in a “pre-revolutionary” situation today - put forward the slogan “Labour to Power”? Because although the advanced guard may understand the role of the Labour leaders, that is certainly not true of the rank and file in the trade unions and Labour Party. Otherwise, quite obviously, they would have ceased to support the Labour Party and come over to the side of the revolution. But this is precisely the task of the revolution in Britain: to win over the masses that support the Labour Party. How to do it? Mere denunciation of the Labour Party leaders cannot achieve this. It can only be done by demonstrating to the masses, by their own experience, that their leaders are incapable of representing their interests. A proposal to the leaders addressed to the rank and file, demanding a break with capitalism and taking power on a programme such as that set out in the Socialist Appeal, cannot but awaken a response among the Labour workers.

The masses are dissatisfied with the present government, as the bye-elections have clearly shown. But they must be given a practical, concrete alternative. To suggest the I.L.P. or ourselves, at the present stage, is obviously out of the question. Apart from anything else, the masses have not yet realised the necessity for the Socialist Revolution. But they are looking for an alternative “Socialist” Government to the present coalition with the bourgeoisie. The first steps of the awakening of the masses to activity would be in the direction of forcing a break with the present Coalition with the Tories by the Labour and trade union leadership. These are carefully watching the masses and already their “left” wing are preparing, as the workers surge forward, to step out into open “opposition” in Parliament to the present government.

I.L.P. Forced to Modify its Attitude on Labour Leaders

But alas, while contemptuously dismissing the Labour Party, at the critical moment the I.L.P. say exactly the opposite of what they have been advocating.

The New Leader of July 11th, reporting John McGovern’s speech, stated:

“The Government is living in a fool’s paradise…The Government would not last a week but for the fact that Labour and trade union members are in it. They are the people who are protecting the Government from being overthrown. They are the same people who, when British Forces suffered the comparatively small reverse in Norway, overthrew the Chamberlain administration. I am amazed to find the complacent attitude they have adopted and the way in which they are maintaining secrecy in what is regarded the nation’s great peril.”

This is of course true. Lenin pointed out that the British bourgeoisie could not continue to rule for 24 hours without the support of the Labour and trade union bureaucracy. This position has been further accentuated by the development of the war. But there is nothing “amazing” in this. As Trotsky pointed out on a similar statement of Brockway’s, the superiority of the Marxist consists in his foresight and not being “amazed” at obvious things. But for McGovern and the I.L.P. leadership the matter rests there. Tomorrow they could quite easily come to some sort of electoral arrangement with the Labour leaders. Only yesterday they were accusing the Trotskyists of attempting “to revive the fast putrefying corpse”, because we demanded that the Labour leaders take power. Not many months ago, we read in the New Leader:

“In fact everything indicates that this will mark the end of the Labour Party just as the last one did that of its Liberal predecessor, despite the valiant efforts of the Trotskyists to revive the fast putrefying corpse. The spirit in it died long ago. After all, even Christ gave up the dead as hopeless after three days.”

And here today we find that without the aid of the “corpse” the British Government would not rule for a week! Thus the I.L.P. is compelled to repudiate its position.

At the first outburst of indignation at repressions of the British Government in India, the National Council of the I.L.P. issued a manifesto. Now, the conduct of the first two Labour Governments should have been a sufficient indication of the policy which the Labour Ministers would pursue, yet this is what the Manifesto says:

“We call on all liberty loving people in Britain and on all sections of the Labour movement to protest immediately and with the greatest strength. It will be the eternal shame of Labour Ministers that they should share the responsibility for this crime, and the I.L.P. hopes that members of the Labour Party will call for the repudiation of what has been done and the withdrawal of the Labour ministers from the government”. New Leader, August 15th 1942.

Thus we see that at a moment of crisis, the I.L.P. leadership is compelled to repudiate the fundamentally incorrect and sectarian policy they themselves have put forward. As to accentuate this we find Walter Padley, a member of the NAC and a delegate to the TUC, writing in the New Leader of September 5th, as the final conclusion of his article “Will TUC Face the Real Issue” the following paragraph:

“At this Congress it is imperative that the demand be raised in the sharpest way for the ending of the coalition, for the establishment of a Workers’ Government. For only along that road can the British workers solve their own problems, help Soviet Russia, and hasten the end of the war be a workers’ peace.”

At first one rubs one’s eye in disbelief. There it is in black and white, an annihilating condemnation of the I.L.P.’s policy in the pages of the New Leader penned by the leaders of the I.L.P. themselves. We hope that Ridley will hasten to the rescue in condemnation of this stealthy flirting with “Trotskyist” ideas. The I.L.P. leadership is hoping that the Labour rank and file will demand the withdrawal of the Labour Ministers from the Government. Padley goes one step further and is urging the delegates to the TUC to end the coalition and move towards the setting of a “Workers’ Government”.

What is meant by this? An I.L.P. Government? Obviously not, or Padley would have said so. In any case it is patently ludicrous, if this is the meaning of the proposal, to demand of the delegates of the mighty mass organisations to place the (by comparison) insignificant I.L.P. in power. What then does it mean? That the TU leaders should take power as representatives of the dictatorship of the proletariat? If so, the idea is fantastic. Not even Padley would suggest, at the present stage, that the workers are ripe for this – or that these leaders were capable of carrying it out. It is as usual that the I.L.P. leaders throw around slogans quite airily without bothering to think out the meaning of these slogans and ideas. It is clear that if the demand to end the coalition is seriously to be addressed to the Labour and the trade union leaders and gain support among the masses, it can only do so if coupled with the slogan “Labour to Power”. Otherwise the demand is either ultra-left or opportunist. If the slogan of ending the coalition and setting up a workers’ government is not meaningless, it can only be meant as a Labour Government. But Padley does not mean this or that would have been the formula used. To be exact, Padley hasn’t the faintest idea of what in the devil he does mean.

His article is perfectly in tune with policy of the I.L.P. leaders. They combine opportunism with ultra-leftism and anything but precise, clear and unambiguous policies and ideas.

Where is the “Socialist Britain Now” Campaign in all this? The disdainful and hopeless attitude to the Labour Party is apparently abandoned. The support of a small section of the “Socialist Britain Now” campaign has led to nothing. And the I.L.P. leaders are compelled in a distorted way to reflect the blind alley in which they find themselves, and to attempt convulsively to find a solution. But as always in a centrist manner. If, instead of the isolated Socialist Britain Now Campaign, the I.L.P. leadership had adopted the correct policy and systematically appealing to the rank and file of the Labour Party and the trade unions, demanding the breaking of the coalition with the Tories and a fight for power on a socialist programme; even one so vague and ambiguous as the programme put forward by the I.L.P., then their position would have been considerably strengthened.

Brockway Looks to Labour Left and Common Wealth

As comrade Trotsky reiterated again and again, sectarianism always ends in opportunism. When his sectarian schemes are dashed to pieces by the class struggle, Fenner Brockway, (who is the theoretical leader of the I.L.P.) makes haste to throw his principles overboard. Says Brockway in the New Leader of August 15th:

“The objective conditions for Socialist revolution are developing. We must prepare for subjective conditions. How?

The first step is to secure a Socialist Alliance. Not one Party, but an alliance leaving liberty to its sections outside the terms of the alliance.

The alliance should not be exclusively anti-war. Before the end of the war, pro-war and anti-war views in the past will not be the dividing line, but pro-socialist action and anti-socialist action. The alliance should be based on four points:

1. Anti-Vansittartism.

2. Challenging the political truce with the object of securing the Socialist Government.

3. A Socialist and anti-imperialist example by the Government.

4. An offer of a Socialist Peace and aid to the Socialist Revolution in Europe.

Where are the allies for this programme to be found? There is little to hope from the present Government, but there is a small group of socialists and a few pacifists accepting the class struggle, who are reliable. There is also a nucleus of Labour MPs of sound working class instincts who will increasingly come out.

There is the “Commonwealth Group”. They are idle class, reject the class struggle, and eschew the word socialism, but, nevertheless, they are significant and from them there will come the necessary elements in the middle class.”

So, the differences between anti-war and pro-war are revealed - apparently as a mere difference of opinion! The remarks on the Common Wealth Group are even more revealing. Elsewhere, the New Leader in warmly welcoming the work of this group, had occasion to remark in a leading article:

“It wants to see the war prosecuted more efficiently and, temporarily at least, accepts the national leadership of Mr Churchill… It is sympathetic to the Labour Party, wants it to remain in the Government, but at the same time is against the political truce.”

And with this hotchpotch of confusion, Fenner Brockway attempts to palm off an alliance with these avowed supporters of Churchill as an alliance with the middle class! To that “nucleus of Labour MPs” why not immediately demand a campaign for Labour to Power even on the four-point programme outlined?

On August 8th, the editorial in the New Leader laments:

“The disturbing feature of the British political situation is that so far there is no real alternative to the Churchill Government”.

So here is an admission that the I.L.P. is incapable of giving any alternative lead. It is this incapacity, which makes the I.L.P. leaders clutch eagerly at the tail of all “left” movement in the parliamentary wing of the L.P. It responds uncritically and is incapable of giving the movement an impetus from below, preferring secret negotiations with the opportunist elements at the head of the movement in the top. On July 18th, the New Leader hopefully comments on developments within the LP.

“We hope that before long a united front may be achieved of all those who make this their first loyalty”. (“Socialist Britain”)

On August 8th, in a front page article headlined: “Labour Revolt Stuns Leader continues:

“Last week’s revolt of 49 Labour MPs stunned the leadership. The Labour Ministers are demanding loyalty to the National Government and the leaders of the Parliamentary wing are insisting on discipline. A number of Labour Members have made it clear, however, that their first loyalty is to the workers (!?) and that they will not hesitate to vote against the Government on social issues when the workers are betrayed (!)… Strong speeches against the Government were delivered by Labour MPs…”

I.L.P. Flirtations — A Manifesto Without Principles

On August 22nd, as a climax to this process comes a new attempt at a fake “unity” with the Manifesto against Race Hatred. In the editorial of this date we read:

“Thus it comes about that members of the Labour Party, trade unionists, co-operators, shop stewards, intellectuals and artists, members of the I.L.P. and of the Common Wealth, second-fronters and pacifists, are all associated in a common declaration.

The broad scope of those supporting the Manifesto has led to criticism. We certainly differ. We differ on the war. But, even so, it is desirable immediately that all who reject Vansittartism and stand by socialism, should say so together, whilst in the long run we believe that the unity now indicated may prove more important than past or present differences on the war. The issue between capitalism, imperialism, and socialism may yet prove to be more crucial than the military issue.

“ If, as we believe will be the case, the support is wide, the Manifesto may become the beginning of a unifying movement which will be of great significance for the future.”

So the bankruptcy of the Socialist Britain Now Campaign has not led the I.L.P. leadership to a Marxian policy, but to a caricature of the parades which the Stalinists conducted at the time of their ultra-left line, i.e. the so-called Amsterdam Congress Against War. The fate of this new set-up cannot be any different from that of these fake organisations.

The signature to this Manifesto commits the Signatories to nothing. So vague is it that people who support the war, together with people who oppose it, can all join in signing it. Where then are the principles of the I.L.P.? Their opposition towards the war is seen as a mere radical gesture, and not as principles.

“The issue between capitalism, imperialism and socialism may yet prove to be more crucial than the military issue.” So apparently the I.L.P. merely regard it as a question of a friendly political difference. As if the military could be separated from the political issues! As if war had ceased to be the “continuation of politics by forcible means”! Here we see how the I.L.P. passes swiftly from sectarianism to opportunism and vice versa.

This Manifesto, while condemning Vansittartism, has not a word to say on the role of the present British Government. And do not the I.L.P. leaders know that Vansittart is merely an open spokesman for the policy of Churchill and the ruling class? Why then do they not demand that those who are opposed to an imperialist peace should prove this in deeds and not in empty words? No! To support the military adventure of the ruling class is to support, and to prop up, Vansittartism.

It is true that the Manifesto speaks of the necessity to make Britain Socialist. But this remains a pious phrase and a gesture to lull that section of the workers who are becoming more critical of the position of the ruling class today. They can prate of the vested interests… and then to continue blithely to support the government of Big Business par excellence. And Brockway and the I.L.P. leadership can cover up this repulsive hypocrisy and go into ecstasies over a document which “deplores” Vansittartism and talks of the necessities of a “socialist peace” without indicating how this most desirable result will be achieved. Perhaps by appealing to the better nature of Churchill and the Government, or to the cannibals of Big Business who are busily showing what their idea of the New World should be in India? Remember, the signatories, while all for a Socialist Peace, are supporting an imperialist war with Churchill, who stands for a super Versailles, at its head.

But Brockway and the I.L.P. leaders only ask for the signature of a platonic declaration, which commits these Lefts to nothing. The Labour leaders would have no objection to this. Morris has occasionally given an anti-Vansittart speech.

This does not mean to say that a united front could not be made on certain issues with elements in the Labour Party which support the war, or even with such an organisation as the Common Wealth Group. But such a united front could only be on specific, limited issues, such as defence of workers' press or democratic rights which these organisations claim to uphold. But to adopt a common programmewith elements such as these, indicates the complete lack of a Marxian principled position even on the question of the war by the leaders of the I.L.P.

To palm off the agreement with parsons, artists, even the four Labour MPs and the Common Wealth Group, as a step towards winning the masses, is futile and stupid. These signatories represent nobody and nothing but themselves. The only serious movement which could be represented, as step in the direction of a "Socialist Peace" and against Vansittartism, could come as a movement to overthrow the present Government. All else is a base deception and a sowing of illusions among the advanced strata of the working class. Any party which claims to represent the workers must demand deeds and not pretty words from its collaborators. If these elements are sincere in their desire to fight against the imperialist plans of British capitalism, their first step must obviously be to break with the British capitalists and their Government. This is the acid test of their sincerity.

Here is where we get the difference between the policy and tactics of the I.L.P. leaders and of a genuine Leninist Party. To take advantage of the disagreements between the Let wing and the official Labour leaders, which is now opening out under the pressure of the masses, is a correct thing to do. But a Bolshevik organisation would use this to achieve two things. The first to get the discontented masses mobilised and on the move against capitalism. The second, as a means of demonstrating to the masses the fact that the Labour leaders are not interested in the struggle for Socialism but have betrayed the workers by going over to the side of the Bourgeoisie. The test of the sincerity of these signatories would be to demand that they immediately begin with the I.L.P., a campaign for the ending of the coalition, and for Labour to take Power. The present campaign cannot have any more fortunate consequences than that of the Socialist Britain Now. If it did gain any large following, the consequences would be even more pernicious. The combination of contradictory slogans and idea of pacifists, second-fronters, exploiters of the middle class discontent such as the Priestley-Acland group, would all move in different directions under the impact of events.

The way to win the middle class is leadership of the Common Wealth which reject the class struggle and eschew the word socialism" and will inevitably end in the camp of reaction, even very possibly Fascism.

The way to win the middle class is precisely by waging the class struggle, putting forward a programme which will include the interests of the middle class and showing them that their interests can be served only by linking their fate with that of the worker.

Shameful Statements of Parliamentary Wing

The failure of the I.L.P. to do this, their failure even to maintain a principled stand against those supporting Churchill and the imperialist war, such as the Common Wealth Group, does not arise accidentally. Its sharpest expressions are seen in the antics of the parliamentary wing of the I.L.P., which dominates its leadership. The last few months have provided dozens and dozens of examples of the hollowness of their claim that they represent the forces of the Socialist Revolution in Britain. Their position on India and the colonial peoples, which will be dealt with in subsequent issues of the Socialist Appeal, provides another acid test. On July 4th, Maxton had this to say on the position of the colonial peoples:

“I associate myself with Mr Creech Jones in the view that this House can either do the right thing, or be compelled later to surrender to an uprising of force, which will create a situation which intelligent people do not wish to see… I hope the Government will not assume that when peace comes there will be a whole lot of rearrangements in the world and that every nation’s possessions will not come under review…”

“I would like to see a United States of Africa, for instance, run and controlled by Africans, the natives of the soil; but if the white races are to have a say as to how the wealth of that great continent is to be developed, I would like to see the United States of America have a part in it. I believe that America could teach up (!?) some things about the handling of colonial people, and I am more certain still that the Soviet Union and China could teach both of us things…”

What degrading and servile statements for one claiming to be a revolutionary. As if the American imperialist gangsters are one whit better than their British “allies”. The masses in Cuba, Philippines, etc. can testify to the “civilising” mission of Yankee imperialism. America can teach even Hitler something about racial discrimination against subject peoples. The treatment of Negroes in the Southern States of America can testify to this. Already we see in Britain an importation by the American army of the Jim Crow policy against American Negro troops. It does not matter to the colonial slaves whether their masters fly the Union Jack or the Stars and Stripes as a symbol of their enslavement. And to piously hope that the slave masters, who are drenching all the continent in blood, precisely for the right to exploit the colonial slaves and to defend their colonial loot, will consent to a re-arrangement at home, is the measure of the “revolutionism” of Maxton and Company.

Instead of boldly appealing to the workers and standing on the side of the colonial peoples in their just struggle against imperialism, Maxton attempts to frighten the imperialists, and himself, with the consequences of their failure to see reason, ”which will create a situation which intelligent people do not wish to see!” Perhaps the present bloody chaos which imperialism has created in the colonial areas and in Europe is a position acceptable to “intelligent people!” Yet his shameless appeal to the imperialists at home and his painting up of the American imperialists abroad, his appeals of “we” (and by this he associates himself with the imperialist gangsters) have a lot to learn from American capitalism - appear in the central organ of the I.L.P.! To Maxton it is a question of “teaching” the imperialists the “evil” of their abominations or even learning from them, and not at all one of overthrowing them.

McGovern has capped this with a speech for which any party deeming itself Leninist would have demanded instant repudiation on pain of expulsion from its ranks. Yet it too naturally finds it way into the pages of the New Leader of July 11th, 1942. He was attempting to justify the shameful role of parliamentary clique had played at the Munich crisis when they had supported Chamberlain…

“We (!) are suffering from a considerable number of reverses and we do not want to see more reverses in which our men are decimated. To me the dangers seem tremendous.

I believe, and said it at the time, that Members went too lightly into the war, believing it would be an easy task. I have been accused time and time again, especially by my Communist friends, of backing the then Prime Minister at the time of Munich. Apart from the fact that I have opposed war at every stage, I say it was a godsend to this country that the Prime Minister did not put us into war then. Bad as things are today, then there would have been sudden and swift disaster for the country. We had a year’s breathing space in which to prepare if we wished to do so.”

Here we see his so-called opposition towards war, as that of a “loyal oppositionist”, concerned about the preparations of the bourgeoisie. Not on a class basis but on a basis of the military needs of the bourgeoisie. This is further reflected in the attitude adopted towards the Second Front:

“The demand of the Second Front may compel the Government; it may be blackmailed and driven into a Second Front before adequate preparations have been made… in Libya… I have been prepared to see military defeats because a large number of commandos and men were not trained in the art of this special type of warfare…”

And so on, he argues his case not from the political point of view, but from the military aspect, as any social-patriot would do. McGovern goes on:

“At the time the late Prime Minister (Chamberlain) was unseated, my blood boiled at the foul things that were hurled at him”. As if it is the job of revolutionaries to sympathise with one side or another, when the capitalist snakes falls out with the capitalist crocodiles. Rather it would have been his duty to take advantage of the situation to show the masses the real aims of both.

Within the I.L.P., opposition to the parliamentary clique and their policy is usually smoothed over by arguments that after all they do not constitute the whole of the I.L.P. As though they were naughty children and not in one of the most important and authoritative positions as spokesmen for the party, quite apart from the fact that they are in the leadership of the I.L.P.

Lenin, in demanding a meticulous and uncompromising adherence to the principles of Marxism, once remarked that a spoonful of tar would spoil a barrel of honey. With the I.L.P. it is not a case of a spoonful of opportunism but of a party leadership organically infected with the disease of Centrism.

Those members of the I.L.P. in the Left wing seriously desirous of transforming the I.L.P. into a genuine revolutionary party, can only do so by a struggle against the sectarian and opportunist course of the leadership, especially of the parliamentary wing. In fighting for a correct policy, they will find that this is provided only by the method and policy of the Fourth International.