Lenin, the Labour Party, and Democrats

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Many socialists in the U.S. are aligning with the Democratic Party, hoping to ride the Bernie Sanders bandwagon. And why not? Didn’t Lenin argue that communists should join the Labour Party in the UK? The cases are completely different, and Lenin was consistently opposed to the idea of supporting bourgeois parties.

Labour Party founder and leader, Keir Hardi speaking at a rally in Trafalgar Square, 1913.

This article is a follow-up to Looking for Loopholes on whether Lenin’s advice that communists can offer critical support for the British Labour Party is applicable in regards to supporting the Democratic Party.

There is a relatively common justification among large sections of the American left who offer various levels of support to the Democratic Party that they are merely creatively applying Lenin’s tactics to the present moment. The argument is familiar: the British Labour Party had the allegiance of the trade unions and millions of workers. And in order not to be isolated from the mass of workers, Lenin argued that British communists should affiliate to the Labour Party and support its candidates in elections. In present day America, it is claimed that the Democrats are an equivalent to the Labour Party since they have the support of organized labor and that their candidates, especially “democratic socialist” ones, deserve the support of socialists in order to advance working-class interests. However, this is a false equivalence. The Labour Party of 1920 and the Democratic Party of 2019 are fundamentally different organizations, with the former owing its origin to trade unions and the latter being a thoroughly bourgeois institution.

A Bourgeois Labor Party

In the early twentieth century, the British Labour Party was a relatively new and unique organization. Unlike the other workers parties of the Second International, which were created by socialists, the Labour Party was established by the unions in 1900 to defend the interests of the trade union leadership in parliament. Initially, the Labour Party was not strong enough to act on its own and supported the Liberals, but it finally replaced them as the main opposition party in the 1920s. Unlike other workers parties, the Labour Party was not even dedicated to a reformist vision of socialism until 1918 when it adopted Clause 4, which deliberately did not use the word “socialism”, but rather to achieving the “common ownership of the means of production.”

However, the Labour Party leadership and trade union bureaucracy were obstacles in the fight for socialism. During World War I, the Labour Party joined with Tories and Liberals to support the war effort. Furthermore, in the aftermath of the war, Britain was afflicted with industrial unrest and mass strikes led by left-wing socialists and shop stewards. In Glasgow, striking crowds carried a red flag in the city center and the government sent in tanks, fearing a repetition of the Bolshevik Revolution. The Labour Party attacked worker militancy as signs of domestic subversion. When the trade union bureaucracy were not selling out strikes, they made every effort to divert the workers’ energy to the safe avenue of the ballot box.

The Labour Party was an unusual and contradictory phenomenon. On the one hand,when workers voted for it they were voting – in a limited sense – for independent working-class political representation and a reformist idea of socialism. On the other hand, they were also voting for British imperialism, class collaboration and a defense of the existing state.

According to Lenin, the rise of imperialism as a new stage of capitalism and new sources of profit meant that the ruling class could afford to make concessions to the top layers of the working class, creating a privileged stratum. This new “labor aristocracy” found political expression in“bourgeois workers parties” such as the Labour Party that supported the ruling class. The question for the small Communist Party of Great Britain was how were they to fight the influence of the Labour Party?

The Rope

At the second congress of the Comintern in 1920, Lenin argued that the CPGB should affiliate to the Labour Party since they did not have to dissolve their organization to do so. By contrast, many British communists such as William Gallacher and Sylvia Pankhurst were opposed to affiliating with the Labour Party or participating in elections.

In making his case for affiliation, Lenin was not conceding in the least that the Labour leadership were hopelessly reactionaries:

Of course, most of the Labour Party’s members are workingmen. However, whether or not a party is really a political party of the workers does not depend solely upon a membership of workers but also upon the men that lead it, and the content of its actions and its political tactics. Only this latter determines whether we really have before us a political party of the proletariat. Regarded from this, the only correct, point of view, the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie. It is an organization of the bourgeoisie, which exists to systematically dupe the workers with the aid of the British Noskes and Scheidemanns.

Affiliation was not an end of itself, but a means to a wider end. It would enable the Communist Party “to exercise their influence on the broadest masses of the workers, to expose their opportunist leaders from a higher tribune, that is in fuller view of the masses.” In order for this tactic to work, Communists could not become mere mouthpieces for the Labour Party, but could only join “on condition that [the CPGB] preserves full freedom of criticism and is able to conduct its own policy.” In other words, the whole point of this tactic was to enable communists to maintain their own organization in order to better fight reformists in Labour who would inevitably betray the workers. Lenin was under no illusions that the Labour Party would lead the fight for socialism.

Considering the small size of the CPGB, who could not always run their own candidates, they should consider an electoral united front with Labour candidates. This was seen as a temporary tactic by the Communists, provided they maintained “complete liberty of agitation, propaganda and political activity.” If the Labour Party rejected this united front, then this would discredit the leadership and win sympathy from the masses. On the other hand, if the communists were allowed to participate as Labour candidates, they could put forward their own revolutionary propaganda and build their own organization.

Once a Labour government is in office, Lenin expected them to reveal their true nature as class traitors and and that communists “must help the majority of the working class to be convinced by their own experience that we are right, i.e., that the Hendersons and Snowdens are absolutely good for nothing, that they are petty-bourgeois and treacherous by nature, and that their bankruptcy is inevitable; third, we must bring nearer the moment when, on the basis of the disappointment of most of the workers in the Hendersons, it will be possible, with serious chances of success, to overthrow the government of the Hendersons at once.” The exposure of Labour’s reformism and the existence of a communist alternative would shatter illusions and bring the revolution closer. For Lenin, communists support for Labour Party candidates was equivalent to how a “rope supports a hanged man.”

In other words, Lenin argued for affiliating to the Labour Party and support for its candidates under very specific conditions: 1) communists maintain their own independent and revolutionary organization; 2) communists have the freedom to criticize Labour leaders and can clearly contrast its politics to Labour before the masses; 3) they could use this tactic to advance the consciousness and organization of the workers; 4) this tactic was conceived in the context that revolution was on the agenda and affiliation was a short-term maneuver to win workers away from the reformists, not a long-term strategy to become another passive constituency in the Labour Party.

The Democrats

While the Labour Party was a “bourgeois workers party,” the Democrats are purely a bourgeois party. The Democrats are not on our side and they never have been. The Democrats were originally founded as a party of southern slave-owners and today they represent the liberal wing of the ruling capitalist class.

While both Democrats and Republicans represent the bourgeoisie, the former play a slightly different role than the latter. They don’t represent social movements or working-class people. Rather, their effectiveness has been in their ability to co-opt movements by delivering small reforms from above which serve to blunt their radical edges and channel those movements back into electoral campaigns and the fold of the Democratic Party. This was something that happened during the 1930s when FDR and his wing of the capitalist class offered reforms in the shape of the New Deal to stave off a radical challenge and insurgency from below. In return for these reforms, unions renounced any effort to build an independent political movement. Instead they hitched their star to the Democratic Party and collaboration with big business, and purged their movement of radicals. The fate of organized labor has been followed by other social movements since capitalist hegemony in the Democratic Party allows them to thwart any internal challenge or to co-opt them as the need arises. The Democrats are rightfully called the “graveyard of social movements.”

Some might grant that this history is true of “corporate Democrats,” but not the case with “democratic socialists” such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders who champion working-class demands and therefore should be supported in the same way Lenin argued that communists should back the Labour Party. Quite the contrary. For one, neither AOC nor Bernie advance socialism at all, but support, at best, a revitalization of the New Deal. Secondly: both have a record as supporters of imperialism. Thirdly: they are members of a bourgeois party, accountable to its institutions and not to those of the working class. Fourthly: neither seek to organize and mobilize American workers as a class, but foster the illusion that change comes from electing a better class of Democrats. Therefore, socialists who support either Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders are crossing the class line to the camp of the bourgeoisie.

An Electoral Front?

While there is no Labour Party in America and the Democrats are not its equivalent, the application of an electoral front retains some validity for the American socialists. An example of an electoral front can be found in the Workers’ Left Front (Frente de Izquierda y de los Trabajadores, FIT) composed of three Argentine Trotskyist parties. The FIT’s electoral front presents a limited program of political independence of the working class and getting revolutionaries into parliament. A possible application of this tactic in the United States would be premised on complete independence from the Democrats and other bourgeois parties, whereby socialists would put forward their own vision and program. This electoral front would be organized around an agreed set of demands such as abolishing ICE, ending Trump’s travel ban, socialized medicine, etc. Its campaigns would involve putting forth not only these demands, but around a socialist program for the purpose of enlightening workers and spreading a revolutionary message.

In the end though, an electoral alliance would at best be a purely secondary tactic for revolutionaries. We recognize, as Lenin did, that socialism will not come at the ballot box. Rather, it will come primarily from the struggles of the working class in the workplaces and the streets. And that struggle means challenging the bourgeoisie for power. In order to be ready for that confrontation, workers cannot rely upon elections, the Labour Party or the Democrats, but need to construct a revolutionary combat party that will prepare minds and organize forces for the coming battles. And that is the real work that communists and socialists must focus on – otherwise we will never win.

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About author

Doug Enaa Greene

Doug Enaa Greene

Doug is an independent communist historian, who is the author of Communist Insurgent: Blanqui's Politics of Revolution and a forthcoming biography of DSA founder Michael Harrington.