As the Labour government entered its fourth year in office in 1977, it faced growing opposition throughout the working class. A series of crucial mass struggles erupted—most notably that at Grunwick, the Leyland toolroom strike, and the London airport maintenance dispute—which brought the Callaghan regime into a direct confrontation with the trade unions. The so-called “social contract” between the TUC and the Labour government was being shattered by the renewed offensive of the working class. As these struggles were building up, the Labour government entered into an informal parliamentary bloc with the bourgeois Liberal Party to sustain its majority and remain in office. The fact that the Liberals agreed to this arrangement meant that the British ruling class had decided that the time was not yet ripe to bring the Tories into office. Instead, they chose to utilize the Labourites a bit longer to attack and demoralize the working class.
This crucial development in the political situation demonstrated that the WRP, since 1975, had been working without any strategical conception to guide its struggle against Social Democracy within the labor movement. All that Trotsky had written on the interconnection between strategy and tactics, about the necessity of finding the correct orientation to critical changes in the objective situation, of the need for a continuous sharpening and refinement of the party’s political line, based on the most scientific appreciation of the development of the class struggle and the subjective consciousness of the working class, had been ignored.
Had the Party been fighting on a Marxist line—abstracting the dialectic from the class struggle rather than from the movement of Healy’s impressions—it would have under stood, at least by early 1975, that there would be inevitably a period during which the working class bided its time and tested the Labour government. It would have recognized, at the same time, that this period of uncertain duration would inevitably give way to a renewed upsurge of the working class against the Labour government that would have revolutionary implications. The WRP would therefore have worked out its line on the basis of preparing the working class for the coming unavoidable confrontation—advancing those necessary slogans that would have exposed the right-wing Social Democrats, mobilized the working class against the policies of the government, placed demands on those within the Labour Party and trade unions who claimed to disagree with government policy, and collaborated on a critical and independent basis with those within the constituency Labour Parties who were fighting to expel the right wingers—while patiently expanding the work of the Party inside the trade unions, working class neighborhoods and among the youth. At each stage in the development of this work, the Party would have taken an objective reading of the response among the workers to its policies and gauged the level of political development of the class. On this basis, in line with changes in the political situation, the Party could introduce the necessary corrections and concretizations within its propaganda and agitation. Such a practice is called “patiently explaining” and “winning the masses.”
In 1930 Trotsky analyzed the method employed by the Bolsheviks in 1917: “In my short work on the Austrian crisis I deliberately noted in parenthesis that the formula ‘to patiently explain was introduced by Lenin in April 1917. Six months after that we held power. This means that patient explaining by the revolutionary party has nothing in common with delaying tactics, gradualism, or sectarian aloofness. To patiently explain’ does not by any means imply explaining things in a desultory fashion, lazily, one table spoonful a day. By this formula in April 1917 Lenin was saying to his own party: ‘Understand that you are a small minority and acknowledge it openly; don’t set yourself tasks you don’t have the strength for, such as the immediate overthrow of the Provisional Government; don’t be afraid to place yourself in opposition to the defensists, who the overwhelming majority of the masses are following today; try to understand the psychology of the honest defensists—the worker and peasant—and patiently explain to them how to break out of the war.’ Lenin’s advice meant, in other words, ‘Don’t think that there are any fancy recipes or gimmicks by which you can suddenly grow stronger without having won over the consciousness of the masses; devote all your time, all your revolutionary impatience, to “patiently explaining”.’Such is the true meaning of Lenin’s words.
“One must not of course go to the opposite extreme and interpret my words to mean that I basically assume the Austrian communists will come to power in seven months. That is, to say the least, not very likely. But if one assumes that events really will develop at a tempestuous speed in the coming period (which cannot be excluded), this only means that the gains to be made from ‘patient explaining’ will rapidly become greater.
“Therefore the phrase ‘now it is too late’ seems to me a total misunderstanding. What other methods can there be for proletarian revolutionaries? Sheer political impatience which wishes to reap before it has sown, leads either to opportunism or adventurism or to a combination of both. In the past five or six years we have seen, in ?very country, dozens of examples of both opportunist and adventurist attempts to artificially strengthen the proletariat’s position without the conscious participation of the proletariat itself. All these attempts have ended in failure and only weaken the revolutionary wing.
“You write that the social democratic masses in Austria are in a revolutionary mood but that their readiness for revolution is paralyzed by the powerful apparatus of the Austrian social democracy. The masses, you say, lack only (nur) the appropriate leadership.’ ‘Only!’ But this tiny word ‘only’ encompasses nothing less than the entire activity of the revolutionary party, from the first propaganda efforts to the seizure of power. Without winning the confidence of the masses in the experience of struggle there can be no revolutionary leadership. In some periods it takes decades to win this confidence. In revolutionary periods, months can produce more (with correct policies) than years of peaceful events. But the party can never leap over this basic task. It confronts the proletarian revolutionaries of Austria in its entirety. The phrase ‘to patiently explain refers above all to this task: ‘Win the confidence of the workers!’ And it warns against bureaucratic self-deception, which of necessity leads to adventurism, and against masquerading methods, against behind-the-scenes machinations whose aim is to cheat history and force one’s will upon the class.” (Writings of Leon Trotsky 1930, Pathfinder, pp. 71-73)
We have quoted from this letter at such length because every word reads as if Trotsky had written it as a reproach to the WRP leadership.
The crucial transitional period of 1975-77 had been squandered by Healy and Banda, who, oblivious to questions of stages and tempo, could only shout the same thing again and again—“Bring down the Labour government”—on all occasions. Thus, when the actual confrontation between the trade unions and the Labour government erupted in 1977 the WRP was nowhere near the working class. This offensive exposed the enormous price the WRP had paid for its ultimatist line within the working class. It had been unable to make the necessary gains which would have prepared the party for a significant intervention in the mass struggles. From 1975 on, despite a substantial membership and a daily newspaper, the WRP could not point to a single struggle in which it played a major role through the work of its cadre, other than News Line reporters. There was no record of growth within the trade unions, not to mention the Labour Party for which the WRP had no policy at all.
Politically, the WRP had nothing to add to its line except additional adjectives. Thus, the perspectives document of August 1977 declared: “The Workers Revolutionary Party calls for the most resolute fight to bring down the Liberal-Labour coalition government, just as we called for the bringing down of the Labour government since July 1975.” (p. 7)
Far from dramatizing the political significance of a parliamentary bloc with the Liberals, this statement could only serve to make workers sceptical that any decisive change had taken place. A worker who followed the line of the News Line might have asked: “You say that we should bring down the Labourites because they have entered into a coalition with the Liberals. But you were telling us that two years before the coalition was formed.”
For a Marxist leadership, the turn by Callaghan to the Liberals would have certainly been the occasion for a dramatic sharpening of the class line against the Social Democratic traitors. It would have immediately called upon the trade unions and Labour Party to sack Callaghan and his right-wing cabinet—thus linking itself with the considerable mass movement that was developing rapidly. Of course, it would not be sufficient to raise this demand here and there. Rather, it would have required sustained work at all levels of the labor movement. Although it might appear that the WRP’s continuation of the old line coincided with the new situation, it did only to the extent that a stopped clock is correct twice a day (as long as you do not have to know whether its daytime or evening). An incorrect line which is developed in opposition to the Marxist method cannot become correct, from the standpoint of revolutionary action, because of a fortuitous change in the objective situation. Any similarity between the new political developments within the class struggle and the line of the WRP, past or present, was purely coincidental.
The formation of the Labour-Liberal pact on March 23, 1977 was approached by the Workers Revolutionary Party simply from the standpoint of confirming the duplicity of the Social Democrats and justifying its previous call for the bringing down of the government. It did not analyze the changes within the class struggle which forced Callaghan to seek the support of the Liberals, and on that basis devise new tactics which would enable the WRP to intervene within the rapidly polarizing mass organizations of the working class,
On the eve of the Labour-Liberal pact, the News Linewas headlined “Labour Is Up For Grabs.” This sarcastic headline was a diversion from placing central emphasis on the political crisis within the Labour Party, which reflected the resistance of the working class. The article noted in passing that a Labour MP named John Ryman had raised the question:
“Is there really any good reason why Labour MPs should continue to support the government?
“The government has deliberately embarked on a systematic economic strategy resulting in massive unemployment in my constituency, low wages, higher prices, closure of hospital wards and teacher training colleges and untold deprivation and misery for 3 million widows throughout the country”
Even more significant was the statement made by Arthur Scar gill, who was then the Yorkshire NUM president, in reaction to the pact with the Liberals: “My view is it (the government) should not have reached an agreement with the Liberal Party and should not be prepared to stay in office on a mandate which is now contrary to that submitted in 1974...If in fact we are prepared to become a coalition with the Liberals then the question needs to be posed: Would we go further if the situation dictated and be prepared to accept a coalition with the Tories?” (News Line, March 28, 1977) Significantly, this statement was buried on page two, which expressed the absence of any perspective for deepening the contradictions within the Labour movement, challenging the Lefts to oppose the coalition and offering them critical support in the fight to sack the Callaghan cabinet.
It must be stated that such a campaign would have been immeasurably strengthened and would have opened up broad possibilities had the WRP cadre been strategically positioned among the rank and file in the factories and even within the Labour Party. It could have mounted a political campaign against the position of TUC secretary Len Murray who stated: “The TUC wants this present government to stay in office to do the job that it has begun.” (News Line, March 22, 1977)
But the refusal to do anything beyond shouting against the Lib-Lab pact was covered up with bombastic rhetoric which claimed that the WRP was no longer “preparing for power.” Instead, Healy proclaimed that the WRP was now engaged directly in “the struggle for power.” In terms of the actual practice of the WRP, this verbal change meant nothing at all. Rather, it served as a formula which, for all its dramatic impact, justified the political abstentionism of the WRP and its sectarian isolation from the working class. In the language of Bolshevism, the preparation for power is the struggle to win the masses. As the 1921 Third Congress of the Comintern declared, to conquer the power the party must first conquer the masses. Only on that basis can it undertake the struggle for power. Though this precept was based mainly on the experience of the German Communist Party, which then had only about one-half million members, we tend to believe that Lenin would have approved its use in relation to the Workers Revolutionary Party which did not have quite so many in 1977.
However, having gone beyond Lenin, Healy set out to prove that the winning of the masses (“preparing for power”) was an unnecessary detour from the highroad of the struggle for power. According to the 1977 August Congress of the WRP, “The role of the Party cannot be reduced to arithmetical factors.” That is quite true—such factors as political tempering of cadre, the moral authority of the party and its leaders, and the historical traditions which it represents can assume immense revolutionary significance that extends the power of the party far beyond what might be indicated by its membership figures. Still, it is highly unlikely that the British ruling class will be overthrown by a party with 600 members. No, arithmetic figures alone will not decide the revolution. But woe to the revolutionary party which attempts to conquer power without placing proper emphasis on the importance of numbers.
The political disarray within the WRP in the summer of 1977—at the height of the Grunwick struggle—was uniquely expressed in the central conclusion of its August conference:
“Previously, the Party had called for a policy of ‘Labour to Power and of ‘Forcing the Labour government to carry out socialist policies’ in order to expose to the working class the cowardice and treachery of the Labour leaders before the capitalist state.
“It now became necessary to abandon this formula just as in 1917 Lenin had abandoned the slogan ‘Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Peasantry’ and called for an independent struggle by the working class, in alliance with the poor peasantry led by the Bolshevik Party.” (“Five Years of the Workers Revolutionary Party,” p. 6)
This was an incredibly dangerous muddle—which revealed that Healy understood neither the “democratic dictatorship” nor the Labour Party. To make an equation between Lenin’s repudiation of this formula and the WRP’s change of line on Labour to Power would have staggering implications. The world-historic significance of Lenin’s correction was that he recognized the historic inability of the peasantry to construct an independent party through which it could exercise power. The concept of a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry as an intermediate and independent stage of development, prior to the dictatorship of the proletariat, was effaced from the program of the Bolshevik Party and the future Communist International (until being revived by Stalin and Bukharin in the 1920s). To somehow connect this correction to the question of the Labour Party could only mean that the WRP had concluded that there could not be, for reasons of the most fundamental historical and sociological nature (which it did not bother to explain), another Labour government prior to the dictatorship of the proletariat. Such a perspective meant the complete disarming of the WRP cadre and the abandonment of the working class. Moreover, it exposed the fact that in place of serious work on the political line, Healy was making it up as he went along.
During the following year, the Lib-Lab pact was ended—the signal that the Tories were now prepared to organize the overthrow of the Labour government. In the meantime, opposition to the Callaghan regime reached such levels within the working class that its pay policies were repudiated at the Labour Party conference in October 1978 by a two-to-one margin. Once again, the developments underscored the paralysis of the WRP in relation to the Labour Party and broad masses of workers. Despite the immense upsurge throughout the working class and the uproar within the Labour Party, the WRP was completely isolated. Even worse, the never-changing demand for the bringing down of the Labour government placed the WRP is an uncomfortable proximity to the Tory Party. No matter, now more than ever, Bring down the Labour government!
Had the WRP been working as a Marxist party should, it would have developed a tactical line that took into account the new situation, and stressed that the Labour government was in its death throes and that the imminent threat of a return to Tory rule could only be halted by sacking the Callaghan cabinet and implementing socialist policies. Instead, the WRP made no attempt to identify its political line with the anti-Tory feelings of the masses.
So great had been the political change in the WRP between 1973 and 1978 that the party whose greatest growth had come through the upsurge of anti-Tory feeling was now completely indifferent to this basic class sentiment and made no attempt to utilize it for revolutionary purposes.