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EYES LEFT The Labour Party and Rajani Palme Dutt

In a 1950 paper by one of the Communist Party’s leading Marxist lights, ANDREW MURRAY discovers a resonance between the class questions beleaguering Labour 70 years ago and the situation today

POLITICAL life throws up plenty of new problems. It also regularly resurrects some perennial ones.

Reader, let us return to 1950. Labour had just been returned to office, but with a majority dramatically diminished from its 1945 landslide after abandoning domestic radicalism in favour of waging the cold war. 

The 1950 election had also seen the Communist Party lose what has so far proved to be its last two MPs. The 100 candidates the party presented at the polls secured, in an atmosphere of cold war vituperation, fewer votes than 21 communists had won five years earlier.

Under those challenging circumstances, the communist leader Rajani Palme Dutt, the most eminent Marxist theoretician of his time, prepared a private paper titled “Notes on the Situation in Britain” for the party leadership.

A copy is preserved in the British Library, where I came across it last week. Seventy years on, it reverberates.

Dutt reviews the history of the Communist Party’s attitude to Labour, which had in the preceding 30 years gone through several zigs and zags.  

He notes that after heavy rebuffs the issue of communist affiliation to Labour was “closed and finished” — and so it has proved through the succeeding generations.

“The Communist Party,” he wrote, “remains a small group isolated from the main body of the organised working class in the political field” — this when the Communist Party had roughly 30 times today’s membership.

“This is a serious and peculiar problem … the Labour Party, while a fully developed right-wing Social Democratic Party, still bears a two-fold character because of its basis in the trade unions.”

It was “an established governing party of British imperialism, repudiating class politics…”. 

However, “on the other hand, the Labour Party is still based in its organisation and structure on the trade unions … and is in consequence regarded by the majority of organised workers, as well as by a large proportion of the unorganised workers, as the mass party of the working class.”

The same considerations hover over the debates of the left today. Reviewing the experience of the Corbyn years, who can doubt that the Parliamentary Labour Party in its majority and the bureaucratic party apparatus constitute decisive social props of British imperialism and a signal obstruction on any road to socialism.

Yet at the same time, they scarcely represent a party membership for the most part cherishing higher aspirations, even as it is innocent of Marxism and instead prefers a somewhat empirical reformism.

And the trade unions are still there — rather mute and passive on Labour Party matters at present, hoping that Prime Minister Starmer will lift the legal burdens imposed on them, which Sunak is presently adding to. No breath should be held, I fear.

The unions’ status is diminished within Labour as compared to 1950, but it is the fact that no affiliated union has ever left to support another party. “Two-fold” still fits, and there is — and was — the conundrum.

Dutt: “For thirty years, the Communist Party has not yet been able to solve the problem of the Labour Party, which constitutes the main obstacle to the development of the Communist Party as a mass party of the working class.”

Today, it might make more sense to speak of the socialist left rather than the Communist Party exclusively, although the latter is far from immaterial, but the same issue sits squarely athwart any perspective of socialist advance as Starmer reconsolidates the grip of the right wing over Labour’s counsels and conduct.

Dutt offered three possibilities for a change. The first was a shift over time to the left within Labour itself. This he dismissed as “utopian.” Let us allow that he would have been surprised by Corbyn’s ascension, if not by the subsequent counter-revolution.

However, Dutt’s substantive rationale for scorning this perspective remains relevant: “It assumes a degree of democracy within the Labour Party which does not exist.” 

With left-wing candidates being all but totally excluded from parliamentary selection, a proscribed list of organisations resurrected in the fashion of the Vatican’s index of prohibited books, wave after wave of arbitrary exclusions hitting the membership, leadership election rules fixed to ensure PLP supremacy, and the whip withheld from Jeremy Corbyn, Labour democracy has not looked so tattered and torn for years.

Dutt’s second possible avenue for change was a significant split in the PLP leading to a viable electoral force able over time to perhaps attract trade union support. That has never happened — all PLP splits have been by the right wing — and is scarcely on the cards now.

The new parties which have been established to the left of Labour, with the temporary and local exception of George Galloway’s Respect, have never secured the slightest electoral traction. 

The only foreseeable way in which Dutt’s second option could transition from fantasy to political reality would be if the Starmer gang were unwise enough to exclude a significant number of Labour MPs from the whip on some pretext, forcing them into a new alignment.

One cannot discount the possibility of the malice and venom of the Labour right overwhelming its prudence to that degree, but it is not very probable. Most likely Starmer will tolerate the browbeaten left MPs he has, other than Corbyn, and will settle for denying them any reinforcements.

The third option Dutt canvassed was of the disintegration of the Labour Party altogether. By this he envisaged major trade unions disaffiliating and “advancing to a left-wing united front in the political field in association with the Communist Party.” 

This, he wrote, “would represent the most advanced and favourable form of break-up of the existing reactionary Labour Party structure to go forward to a new and progressive stage of working-class political development.”

Would Dutt advocate that today? Of course it is impossible to know. Since then Bevanism, Bennism and Corbynism have blossomed and withered, trade unions have waxed, waned, shifted to the left and sometimes back again. New Labour has set a new bar for right-wing atrocity.  Today’s working class is not that of 1950.

Such a split would not necessarily be either desirable or workable. However, the orientation has merit because it is plausible — unions are still democratic organisations and their members have agency. It is there that initiatives can most easily be taken to challenge Starmerism.
 
And should be. A Labour Party pledged to the imperialist state and repudiating class politics — witness Starmer fawning on an assembly of bosses last week — is still very much with us.

We also have trade unions more militant and confrontational than for 30-plus years. The issue raised by the great Dutt 70 years ago is essentially the same as the one invoked by Marx and Engels a century earlier — how to effect the fusion of class militancy with socialism.

That is the question which needs to be posed in every trade union in struggle today, without prior prescription as to the answer. Enough is indeed enough, but more is needed yet.

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