How can we explain what has happened in the Labour Party? We asked eight Counterfire authors to tell us about the books that have helped them to understand what the Labour Party is and how socialists should engage with it
Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism: A study in the politics of Labour (Merlin Press, 1961)
This was the first major post-war critique of the Labour Party and had a big impact on young activists around what was called the new left when it came out in 1961.
It is a superbly written history of Labour’s record up to that time but it is not a pretty read.
The book catalogues the many opportunities Labour has missed to campaign for radical change because of its adherence to the idea of the national interest. These run from its support for the First World War, failure to back the massive strikes in the war’s aftermath, to acceptance of the need for austerity in the great depression of the 1930s, not just by those who split the party to join the national government but even from the rump ‘left’ leadership.
As a result, Miliband explains that as the Labour Party grew in strength in the early twentieth century ‘more enlightened members of the ruling orders came to see the leaders of Labour both as opponents and as allies’.
Milliband’s judgement of the climax of Labourism in the 1945 Attlee government is harsh. While recognising the importance of the surge in state intervention he argues that the bulk of it was undertaken with the agreement of and broadly in the interests of the leaders of private industry and finance. Workers were excluded from any involvement, but Miliband comments wryly, ‘if there was no workers’ participation in those years, there was at least employers’ participation’.
In the course of telling the story, Miliband develops a radical theoretical critique of Labourism. One fascinating thread in the book concerns the fate of the Labour left. Miliband contends that because the Labour Party is so rooted in the capitalist system that despite ‘episodic revolts’ by the left it simply cannot be transformed into a party seriously concerned with socialist change. Both the history he tells and our recent experience tend to bear out this charge.
Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution (1900), available here
Reformism was an emerging current in the socialist movement at the end of the nineteenth century. This is when Rosa Luxemburg, a Marxist who was involved in the socialist parties of both Poland and Germany, wrote her polemical short book carefully refuting this reformist – or ‘revisionist’ – trend, while restating the necessity of revolutionary socialist politics. Aimed at a wide audience of socialists involved in a mass party (Germany’s Social Democratic Party), and more widely in Europe’s socialist movement, it is highly accessible, full of sharp arguments and vivid writing.
Luxemburg belonged to a generation of Marxists – also including Lenin and Trotsky – who had to wrestle with developments that Marx and Engels had only known in embryonic form. This includes reformist socialism, which only became viable in the context of widening suffrage. The polemic was principally responding to Eduard Bernstein, who had just published a series of articles that challenged the revolutionary core of Marxism. It was an intervention in debates in the international labour movement, as well as a crucial development of Marxist theory.
‘Reform or Revolution’ has been the most important piece of Marxist writing on reformism since it was published. Written as reformism was becoming a major political force, it has naturally continued to be acutely relevant throughout the history of reformist political parties. It retains a powerful intellectual clarity, arguing that reformism is not simply the championing of different methods to achieve socialism but, more fundamentally, an alteration in the goal of socialists: from social transformation to merely seeking to modify capitalism.
Caroline Benn, Keir Hardie (Hutchinson, 1992)
The best-known socialist figure in Labour’s history, Keir Hardie’s story is remarkable. Born into poverty in Ayrshire, he worked down the pits, was sacked for his trade union organising, became both a trade union and temperance (against alcohol) organiser. He was first elected to parliament in 1892 for West Ham South, reflecting the East End’s radicalisation after the big new union struggles of 1888-9. He later represented the south Wales mining seat of Merthyr Tydfil and became leader of the early PLP. He was a huge figure on the socialist left – so much so that nearly 50 years after his death Keir Starmer’s parents named their child after him.
Caroline Benn has written a very well researched book about Hardie which is meticulous and honest. She talks of his often unhappy life, his various causes including anti-war campaigning, his close friendship with Sylvia Pankhurst, his extensive relationship with Marxists and socialists including Eleanor Marx and Friedrich Engels (both of whom became increasingly disillusioned with Hardie because of his eclectic left politics).
It is impossible to read the book without drawing comparisons with Caroline’s husband, Tony, who occupied some of the same space as Hardie as leader of Labour’s left, although in very different circumstances. She has a very good understanding of the way in which Labour works and of the curious amalgam of politics which informs even its left historically, including Christianity, temperance and parliamentary socialism. As an American, she came to Labourism from the outside but also saw from the inside, being married to an important Labour government minister.
Tony writes in his diaries that Caroline bought him and their children copies of the Communist Manifesto one Xmas. She certainly was more interested in those ideas than many Labour members, and her book is a serious contribution to our understanding of British politics – much needed in these post Corbynism times.
Vladimir Lenin, ‘Left Wing’ Communism: An infantile disorder (1920), available here
Lenin’s pamphlet was written at a crucial moment for Bolshevik Russia where a working-class revolution had seized power three years earlier. Lenin understood that economically-backwards Russia would need to be supported by an international revolution, without which communism would be unable to survive. He wrote this pamphlet as a guide to help communist activists elsewhere become more effective.
At the time, many of those activists were arguing that communists should have nothing to do with political parties that limited themselves to winning reforms under capitalism. In Britain, leading communists Sylvia Pankhurst and Willie Gallacher took this approach to the Labour Party that had betrayed working people during the war: Labour’s Arthur Henderson joined the war Cabinet overseeing the ban on strikes while the slaughter continued in the trenches. Pankhurst and Gallacher felt to co-operate with Labour would compromise their principles and spread illusions about how change can be achieved.
Lenin sharply disagreed. Yes, from the point of view of communists, the idea that socialism could be achieved through parliament was obsolete, but that wasn’t how most people saw it. Like Marx, Lenin believed that the emancipation of the working-class had to be the act of the working-class itself. Therefore, the way people think has to be engaged with, not ignored. And people are best persuaded by political experience, not abstract propaganda. If communists wanted to change people’s minds, they had to show they were on their side and support Labour against the Tories. But this wasn’t about opportunistically abandoning principles either: Lenin insisted that communists should at the same time ensure ‘complete freedom to expose the Hendersons’. People are more likely to listen to people they are fighting alongside with that those who regard themselves as ‘too pure’ to get involved. Anything less is to give up on the idea that it’s millions of people that effect revolutionary change. It remains a useful guide about how to be a principled socialist and avoid the traps of sectarianism and opportunism.
Leon Trotsky, Trotsky’s Writings on Britain, 3 vols. (1974) available here
Trotsky’s analysis of British imperialism, Labourism, and the general strike repay reading and re-reading.
Trotsky was one of the first generation of Marxists to see British capitalism as it passed its zenith and face challenges, in the world market and on the battlefield, from other emerging capitalist powers. His framework, the theory of combined and uneven development, paid special attention to the differential rates of capitalist advance across the globe, and is therefore especially well-tuned to this task.
His account of British Labourism sits in this framework, describing how the leaders of the Labour Party adapt to the British imperial state, right down to the moralising platitudes which serve as politics. Sir Keir would have been no surprise to Trotsky.
All this came together in the outstanding centrepiece of these writings, his reading of the General Strike of 1926. This titanic struggle, with more workers out on strike on the last of its 9 days than on any previous day, was driven to defeat by the trade union and Labour Party leaderships. Neither does Trotsky spare the by then Stalinised Communist Party.
But perhaps the key lesson for these coronavirus times is this,
‘In Britain, more than anywhere else, the state rests upon the back of the working class…The mechanism is such that the [trade union] bureaucracy is based directly on the workers, and the state indirectly, through the intermediary of the trade union bureaucracy’.
Look at whether the interests of workers or those of the state are served by the trade union role in the lockdown and you will see this very conflict in living colour.
Paul Foot, The Vote: How it was won and how it was undermined (Penguin, 2005)
Paul Foot’s ‘The Vote’ is rightly regarded as the summation of its author’s life and work. Foot was a campaigning journalist, writer and revolutionary socialist who wrote about the book’s key themes – democracy, the Labour Party, socialism, capitalist power – recurrently throughout his adult life. This, his final book, was published posthumously in 2005 (he had died the previous year).
‘The Vote’ is divided into two parts. The first half is an inspiring account of the mass struggles to win democratic rights, from the Levellers in the English Revolution to the suffragettes. The second half is the less glorious history of the Labour Party in the 20th century and how it has failed in office to deliver on socialist aspirations. The party, as the vehicle for the working class to make use of suffrage, has repeatedly failed to challenge the power of capital.
The struggle between democracy and the power of those with money and property is the great theme of Foot’s book. It provides a thread running through the numerous disparate tales of resistance and, later, the series of Labour’s disappointments and betrayals. The book’s second half is full of illustrations of Labour politicians in office but not in power, impotent against ‘market forces’ and capitalism’s subordination of everything to the pursuit of profit.
Foot carefully traces the ups and downs, the debates, and the genuinely meaningful reforms – notably in 1945-51 – with critical sympathy. It is the accumulation of evidence that makes it clear that it is an inadequate enterprise for socialists. But, along the way, there are many Labour figures who Foot praises, many moments which illustrate why some socialists might keep faith with Labour, and a solid grasp of Labour’s role in creating the post-war settlement which has been systematically under attack since the 1970s.
Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein, The Labour Party: A Marxist History (Bookmarks, 1988/1996) available here
The Labour Party: A Marxist History, was written at the height of the Thatcher offensive against the working class, their trade unions and the post-war consensus of so-called ‘welfare capitalism’.
The book was written in circumstances that are quite similar to today. Neil Kinnock had replaced the left wing Michael Foot as leader in 1983. After the defeat of the miners in 1984-5 and a subsequent Thatcher triumph in 1987, Kinnock abandoned longstanding Labour commitments and the party embarked on an electoral strategy of ‘out-Torying the Tories’.
The Labour Party: A Marxist History is a must-read for any socialist. The Labour Party is the dominant force in working class politics. Yet it claims to represent all classes. Certainly, many members of the Labour Party are internationalists, but Labour in office has never drifted far from the foreign policy objectives of the Conservative Party.
Cliff’s and Gluckstein’s argument that Labour is not a force for socialist change, but instead acts to contain working class demands for change, is very well-evidenced. It is also non-sectarian.
The founding of the Labour Party may have been “from the bowels of the trade union bureaucracy” and thus compromise and caution built in, but nevertheless it broke the working class away from the Liberal Party. Workers who vote Labour, despite numerous disappointments are voting against the Tories, their lords and masters, and this too has to be cherished.
The authors’ judgements are based at every turn on the socialist potential of the situation, what was possible, and how the Labour Party responded. And every time, without exception, when the anger of the working class threatened the status quo Labour acted to douse the fires of indignation and preserve capitalism.
This was the case after the Russian Revolution in 1917 when Labour adopted its socialist sounding Clause IV, not as a declaration of intent, but to assure the working class that the road to socialism was through Westminster, not Petrograd.
The General Strike of 1926 was another test – but Labour did not even discuss the strike until it had been called off. Meanwhile Churchill and the Tory press poured vitriol on millions of workers taking strike action.
Labour at its climax in 1945-51 is demythologised too. Labour delivered reforms when the state of the economy allowed, and in this case, demanded it. But the opportunity to go for public ownership was studiously avoided. Profitability triumphed over democracy in ‘reformism at its peak’.
The Labour Party recycles socialists who want change and turn to the nearest available option – Labour – and then face the choice of adapting their demands so as not to make Labour unelectable, or leave. The conclusion has to be that the Labour Party is not a vehicle headed to socialism – we need another vehicle.
Noreen Branson, Poplarism, 1919-1925: George Lansbury and the Councillors’ Revolt (Lawrence and Wishart, 1979)
For all its importance, the struggle of the Poplar councillors for ‘rate equalisation’, remains an under-celebrated event in British working class history.
Between 1919 and 1923 councillors in Poplar fought a long battle to defend their communities. Confronted by the power of government and courts over 30 of them went to prison declaring ‘better to break the law than break the poor’.
Noreen Branson’s book Poplarism is the best history of the councillors’ campaign. It shows what is possible if determined local councillors, working in conjunction with social and labour movements, work together to confront central government authority.
The Poplar councillors were made up of both Labour and Communist members (at the time Communist Party members were allowed to be Labour members). Many of them had long histories in various campaigns across the East End. They all lived locally and were well-known and centrally involved in their communities.
They were led by future Labour leader George Lansbury.
By 1921, in the face of growing unemployment and poverty, the councillors voted to ‘refuse to pay the precept’. Perhaps not the most obvious organising slogan, it represented a huge challenge to London City Council and the government.
Essentially the councillors declared they would use their resources to support people in Poplar and would refuse to contribute to cross London services (like the police, the asylum boards and the water boards). Instead, they argued, the wealthy boroughs in London (with far fewer unemployed and poor to support) should pay more into the pot for these cross London services.
Branson tells this great, inspiring story in detail. She emphasises that the strength of the movement was the way it brought councillors, communities, unions and local campaigns together in a militant, democratic movement for change.
George Padmore, Imperialism: The Basis of Labour Party Crisis (1944) available here
Socialist and Pan-Africanist George Padmore wrote this a year before Labour’s 1945 election victory, often seen as marking the ‘golden age’ of the Party. Hugely significant gains for working people were achieved after that election, including the foundation of the NHS, but it also secured Britain’s entry to NATO, assisted in the creation of the state of Israel, joined the Korean War and used the army to break a dockers’ strike in 1947.
Padmore presciently deconstructs Labour’s foreign policy before any of this took place. He showed that there were significant divisions within the Labour Party, including committed socialists alongside the trade union leadership who, at that time, represented the right-wing and complicity with British imperialism.
In particular, Padmore highlighted the role of Ernest Bevin, the general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union. In 1945, Bevin was chosen as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs where he vociferously supported Britain obtaining nuclear weapons: ‘We've got to have this thing over here whatever it costs . . . We've got to have the bloody Union Jack flying on top of it.’ Padmore was right to have worried.
Particularly insightful are Padmore’s comments on Labour’s proposal that Arabs be “encouraged” to leave Palestine:
‘Surely it would be more in keeping with the principles which the Labour Party professes to “encourage” the British Imperialists to get out of Palestine and leave the Arabs and Jews to settle their affairs between themselves. For as long as the British remain in Palestine both Jews and Arabs will be used in their traditional game of divide and rule.’
Padmore understood that foreign and domestic policy were not separate, that defending imperialism to strengthen the British state weakened workers’ capacity to defend their own interests. His solution: ‘to rally the genuine Socialist forces inside and outside the Party round a programme of action that will inspire the masses and imbue them with confidence in themselves.’
Duncan Hallas, The Labour Party: Myth and Reality (1981/1985) available here
Mark Dee Smith
Duncan Hallas (1925 – 2002) was a central figure in the formation and development of the international socialist tradition. Born into a Manchester working-class family, Hallas was an organic intellectual in the purest sense whose early years of organising inside the British armed forces - for which he was briefly imprisoned - and the post-war trade union movement cemented him as an unflappable Marxist and an enduring socialist advocate.
The Labour Party: Myth and Reality (1981) bears the imprint of the era in which it was written. The defeat of the miners’ strike was one of the deepest traumas the labour movement had ever experienced. Deep disillusionment vied with a comprehensive reassessment and realignment of old certainties and commitments. The labour movement was now facing an emboldened capitalist class presenting a confidence and assertion unseen in a generation.
Hallas’ hallmark no-nonsense honest accounting would be at a premium. The pamphlet’s exemplary clarity firmly addresses the Labour Party’s constant Janus-faced predicament. On the one hand, romanticising its previous formations and over-estimating its accomplishments, and on the other, projecting into a fantastic, soon-to-be-realised and often utopian future. The net result being an organisation that is over-tentative and under-confident in the here-and-now, an organisation incapable of providing leadership for the class it seeks to represent.
Hallas is particularly sharp on Labour’s risible foreign policy record as well as identifying the highlights of Labour leftism are mostly expressions of a wider combativity and buoyance within the class.
“Generations of left-wingers would appeal to Clause Four as a sort of magic charm which helped them to swallow the reality of right-wing dominance and yet still believe that the party was ‘really’ socialist.”
This could have been written yesterday.
There’s much talk of forensics these days. It’s the Duncan Hallas sort that can serve the movement today as it has before.
Tony Benn, The Benn Diaries, 9 vols. 1940 – 2013 (Cornerstone, 2013); single volume collection (Cornerstone, 2017)
Tony Benn was the longest-serving Labour MP ever and the leading figure of the Labour left from the early 1970s through to 2001 when he dramatically resigned from parliament to ‘devote more time to politics’. Bucking the tiresome tendency of so many left wing politicians of moderating with age, Benn just kept getting more militant right up to his death in 2014. His last years were spent tirelessly campaigning to build popular opposition to war and austerity.
His growing radicalism, his compulsive commitment to his diary and his wit and good humour make the diaries required reading if you want to understand British politics and the Labour movement of the time.
There are far too many fascinating passages to list, but they include entries about the great rallies around Suez in 1956, a record of a meeting between Labour leaders and Richard Nixon in 1968 revealing Labour’s close ties with US elites and wonderful descriptions of this century’s anti-war movement.
Perhaps the most illuminating volume covers 1973-76, when Labour took office on its most left wing manifesto ever. Benn was industry minister but these were years of deep frustration for him and his close colleagues. The civil service, the security services, big finance and the media all conspired against them, aided and abetted by the right wing of the Labour Party. His chief civil servant actually warned him that the government was heading for ‘as big a confrontation with industrial management as the last Government had with the trade unions.’
Benn’s diaries provide an unmatched insiders’ account of how that government was destroyed by the establishment, but also a wonderful testament to a great socialist leader.
Books chosen by Alex Snowdon, Katherine Connelly, John Westmoreland, Don Davies, Mark Dee Smith, Lindsey German, John Rees and Chris Nineham.
Before you go...we need your help
More articles from this author
- Lessons need to be learned from the British Gas defeat - News from the Frontline
- British Gas: a body blow the whole movement has to learn from
- Stop the Tory attack: Kill the bill
- We will not be silenced: list of #KillTheBill protests around the country this weekend
- Every issue in school is a union issue - Staffroom Voice Bulletin April 2021
- Stop the Tory attack: Kill the bill - Counterfire freesheet April 2021
- The RCN is getting ready to fight – are you? - News from the Frontline