CDLM: WSL’s “Short Cut” to Nowhere

The recall conference of the “Campaign for Democracy in the Labour Movement” (CDLM) promises to be pretty much a rerun of the October 24 founding conference — when Workers Socialist League (WSL) members and contacts, as well as a few of the WSL’s political opponents, gathered for a dreary day of apolitical reports on shop floor economism and horror stories about the lack of democracy in the Labour Party (LP). At the previous conference the boredom was broken only by a series of obscure floor fights and procedural wrangles between the WSL (which set up the CDLM in the first place) and their fake-Trotskyist competitors in the International Communist League (I-CL) and the International Marxist Group (IMG) over exactly how many reformist demands the CDLM’s programme should contain. If WSL members imagined last time that simply by renting a hall and calling a meeting on “democracy” they would be able to attract hundreds of “rank and file” workers who would transform their front group into a significant current within the trade union movement, they should have learned otherwise by now.

The WSL’s “Mass Work” Deviation

The WSL today embodies the central political weakness which has traditionally characterised the British left. This weakness is manifested, on the one hand, by glorification of spontaneous “rank and file” trade union militancy and, on the other, by political capitulation to British social democracy. The WSL’s adaptation to shop floor economism is justified theoretically by counterposing the propaganda tasks of a small organisation to “mass” agitations. For a small grouping, like the WSL, to decide to “shake off propagandism” in order to proceed directly to “conquering the masses” is profoundly anti-Leninist. A revolutionary organisation only acquires the ability to lead whole sections of the proletariat as it assembles a cadre trained through hard principled struggle for communist politics.

It is of course necessary at every stage for a Trotskyist vanguard to involve itself in the struggle of the masses and to seek to lead exemplary mass struggles where the opportunities arise; however, for a small propaganda group to posture as a mass current in the working class can only lead to profound political disorientation. The Spartacist League/US put it this way in a basic document: “The SL refuses to give dishonest lip service to ‘conquering the masses now’, recognizing that public hypocrisy becomes internalized in such phony ‘agitational’ organizations and creates a deeply cynical cadre.”

The WSL’s attempts to skip over propaganda tasks in favour of “mass work” leads it inevitably to tailor its programme to the existing bourgeois consciousness of the proletariat. Thus, despite the fact that WSL leader Alan Thornett described the struggle for a “return to the Transitional Programme” as the essence of the faction fight in the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) and despite the WSL’s repeated claims to “stand for” the Transitional Programme, in its actual interventions in the working class the WSL puts forward another programme — a minimal programme.

Taking Reformist Politics to the Workers

The programme advanced by the WSL in the CDLM (which is essentially identical to that contained in Thornett’s TGWU election address) is simply left reformist. What it really boils down to is opposition to wage controls and spending cuts and support for “more” democracy in the unions. In both programmes the call to “open the books”, for “work sharing on full pay” and for “nationalisation” are only applied to employers who declare redundancies or threaten bankruptcy, thus gutting these demands of any anti-capitalist character. There is no mention in either programme of the necessity for the working class to take power nor for the expropriation of the bourgeoisie. In the TGWU address the question of state power is dealt with by a call for “left MPs” to remove Callaghan and Healey and form a government to carry out Thornett’s demands! Conspicuously absent from the TGWU programme is any mention of the question of British imperialism in Ireland, NATO, or the reactionary chauvinist campaign of the Labour “lefts” for import controls.

Thornett’s campaign for office in the TGWU, and the Campaign for Democracy in the Labour Movement both quite explicitly purport to offer the workers “principled leadership” on the basis of their reformist programmes. The WSL is certainly not the first group in the history of the workers movement to think that they are being “smart” and “practical” to advance in their mass work only a small part of the programme which they claim to stand for. Here is how Trotsky in 1935 described

“…the SAPist (centrist) recipe: in seeking the line of least resistance do not say what is. The program of the Fourth International, that’s for ‘us’, for the big-timers of the leadership. And the masses? What are the masses? They can rest content with a quarter or a tenth even of the program. This mentality we call opportunist aristocracy. It is at the same time an adventurist attitude, a very dangerous attitude, comrades. It is not that of the Marxists.”
(“What is a ‘Mass Paper’?“)

Praising the Transitional Programme in Order to Bury It

The Trotskyist Transitional Programme, which is still regularly mentioned in the pages of Socialist Press, is a system of demands which forms a bridge from the present consciousness of the working class to “one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat”. For revolutionists the Transitional Programme is not simply a subject for discussion in the occasional “theoretical supplement”, while the real work in the class is carried out on a different basis — it is the only programme which is capable of mobilising the proletariat for power.

In the hands of the WSL the Transitional Programme becomes what the maximal programme was for the pre-1914 leaders of the Second International — that is, a programme which, while unfortunately not suitable for today’s struggles, nonetheless remains something in which they personally place a great deal of faith and for which, they are convinced, the appropriate occasion will eventually arise. It would be far preferable if the WSL would come out openly and state that the Transitional Programme, while it may have been all very well for the Trotskyists of the 1930’s, is no longer “relevant” in the 1970’s. Instead the WSL maintains the pretence of being “orthodox” Trotskyists and “defending” (even reprinting!) the Transitional Programme, while substituting for it a more palatable left social democratic programme in all its practical activities in the working class.

The WSL and the Labour Party

The CDLM, with its wretched economist programme is really only the organisational expression of the WSL’s all-sided adaptation to the present level of consciousness of British trade union militants. Instead of recognising in the Labour Party a political opponent, an obstacle to the growth of a revolutionary organisation in Britain, the WSL implicitly accepts the basic premise of Labourites of all stripes — the view that the Labour Party is the permanent institutional framework for working class politics in Britain. Of course revolutionaries cannot simply ignore the Labour Party, or declare that it is “irrelevant” or “exposed” as do the WRP and Socialist Workers Party (SWP). However, the WSL’s attempt to pass off its call on the Labour “lefts” to form a government as a “development” of the call in the Transitional Programme for a workers government (Trotskyism Today No. 11) provides an index of the extent to which the WSL is willing to capitulate to the workers’ pervasive illusions in the Labour Party (and the parliamentary road). For Trotskyists the call for a workers government is not a demand for the social democrats to reorganise the cabinet, but a call for the mobilisation of independent organs of class rule: factory committees, workers militias, soviets, for the conquest of state power.

The WSL’s consistent adaptation to the deeply ingrained illusion in the Labour Party is also evidenced by its demand that the Labour government, the administrators of British imperialism, arm the black guerrillas in Southern Africa. Why does the WSL stop at a demand for British imperialism to arm the insurgents — why not demand that the Labour government dispatch troops to aid the struggle as well? Or again, why doesn’t the WSL raise the call for the British government to arm the IRA (which the WSL also considers to be engaged in an anti-imperialist struggle)? It is the WSL’s accommodation to the present backwardness of the working class which leads it to put forward such Kautskyan calls for British imperialism (at least while administered by the Labour Party) to abandon its “reactionary” foreign policy and adopt instead a more “progressive” one. If the British government (under Callaghan, Benn or Thatcher) were to materially aid one or another of the black guerrilla movements in Southern Africa (and this is by no means inconceivable) it would do so for the same reason that the US government equipped the FNLA and UNITA in Angola — in order to maintain imperialist hegemony in that area of the world.

After today’s conference it should be clear (if it was not before) that the Campaign for Democracy in the Labour Movement is not really going anywhere — it is simply another irrelevant sideshow (a smaller version of the SWP’s “Right to Work Campaign”) within which WSL members can play at doing “mass work”. The political basis of the CDLM guarantees that it will never be anything more than a reformist vehicle to mobilise support for the politics of left-Labourism. To the various fake mass reformist organisations, such as the CDLM, the international Spartacist tendency counterposes the necessity for the construction of groupings in the unions which base themselves on the Transitional Programme.

The continuing decline of British imperialism, and the manifest political bankruptcy of all wings of the Labour Party pose very real possibilities for the growth of a Bolshevik organisation in Britain in the coming period. The parochial economism and adaptation to left-Labourism which characterise the politics of the WSL ensure that it is no more capable of building such an organisation than its centrist competitors in the IMG and I-CL. Only the revolutionary programme of the international Spartacist tendency can provide the basis for the construction of a Trotskyist party which will be capable of breaking the masses of British workers from the treacherous Labour Party leaders — both “left” and right.

27 March 1977, published by the London Spartacist Group