It was Healy’s practice to send such political letters as this to clarify important questions and keep members informed. They show his method of party building and are vital material necessary for training leading Marxist cadres today. (Ed)
Political Letter No.5, 15 August 1962
This year’s Conference posed a number of urgent problems before our organisation. The requirements of the witch-hunt necessitated a strict security procedure which emphasised in a practical way the character of the situation now opening up before the British Labour Movement. Since the Conference additional evidence has come to light which indicates that the activities of certain members of our organisation are under close scrutiny by the police and the right wing. There is, in fact, some evidence that the conference itself, despite the security measures, was taped, either by the police or private enquiry agents. We had of course anticipated that this would happen and certain decisions were taken to minimise the effect.
Perhaps the most striking feature of everyday political life in Britain today is the tenseness of relations within the Labour and trade union movement. The right wing are becoming more aggressive. Members of the Young Socialists suspected of being members of the League are being constantly shadowed by Labour Agents. There is now considerable evidence of the provocative attitude which is being adopted in order to force people to make statements which would mean their expulsion from the Labour Party. These measures are not so much a sign of the strength of the right wing as a measure of its crisis and weakness. There is an air of desperation about the actions of Gaitskell and Brown, but our comrades must appreciate that this right wing with its apparatus can do irreparable damage to our weak movement unless we are constantly on guard and treat security precautions seriously.
In its own way the right wing leadership reflects the political struggle inside the Tory Party. The loss of Liberal voters has forced the Conservative leadership to take desperate steps in an effort to win the next election. Proposals are being discussed to change the Tory Party personnel from top to bottom. These drastic measures emphasise the crisis nature of the political situation ahead which will provide us with many opportunities to strengthen our organisation, provided we seriously implement the decisions of Conference.
Our Conference decisions began from the growing conflict between the great monopolies of world capitalism, fighting to arrest their falling rate of profit by the preparation of an onslaught on the wages and conditions of the working class. This is a trend which is more and more dominating the political life of the major capitalist countries. From being an inherent trend in capitalism, the tendency of the rate of profit to decline is now becoming a predominant one. The organisation of the Common Market is a reflection of the requirements of monopoly interests in their struggle to drive their weaker rivals out of business.
Conference concluded that we are on the eve of a new wave of class struggle which may well surpass anything which the Labour movement has experienced in its history.
When we say this, we are not talking about the days immediately ahead which will in any case see a growing tension between the classes, but of a whole period which is now opening up before us.
Gaitskell and the right wing are drawing closer to the reactionary politics of the monopolies. This is the main reason behind the present witch-hunt.
The conditions under which our Conference was held were, in fact, intimately connected with the present situation. The task of the hour before the Socialist Labour League is to prepare itself to meet and provide leadership in these coming struggles. As the monopolists and their governments prepare for action against the working class, the era of minor reforms such as wage increases comes to an end. The only way open to the working class to meet the capitalist offensive is to prepare a counter-offensive for power. But this cannot be done unless we win the leadership of the working class for such a policy.
When we talk of power, we do not mean that the struggle for more wages will no longer be important. What we mean is that it will be entirely inadequate. Power is not something which is remote from the British working class. They have striven for it since the end of the war by electing two Labour governments. They are groping their way towards it once again via the parliamentary road. But these experiences not only ended in disillusionment but will in the next period be disastrous unless our organisation extends its influence more deeply into the working class by counter-posing policies and an alternative leadership which will win the support of those who are becoming disillusioned with reformism.
There are several trends in the Labour movement today which at first sight seem contradictory. There is an undoubted hesitation on the part of sections of the working class to engage in large scale strike action against the employers, which arises from a lack of preparation by a leadership which they do not trust. They fear that if they become engaged in a major class action, this leadership will betray them either outright or by reaching agreements with the employers which will be so inadequate that the struggle will not be worthwhile. The vote of the engineers against strike action was undoubtedly influence by the sell-out of Carron and the right wing during the engineers’ strike of 1957.
This leads to hesitation and inertia which is not the same as lack of militancy. On the contrary, wherever workers such as at Presses Steel and the Steel Company of Wales and on the docks enter into strikes or preparation for strike action, they have demonstrated courage and ability to make sacrifices which compare most favourably with similar actions in the past.
The reluctance to fight does not mean that the class will not fight. It is in our opinion derived from the crisis of leadership. The working class instinctively feels that when it is forced to take strike action then it may well be an all-out confrontation with the forces of the state. This feeling is not a conscious one, but one which runs through the class in a thousand different ways as a result of its past history. The hesitations of today reveal a political content if we take them in conjunction with a determination of working class voters to elect a Labour Government. Despite the voting swings of the middle class the working class remains solidly behind Labour and is determined to elect it to power when given the opportunity. We must, therefore, relate this growing feeling for a Labour government and the hesitation in relation to the strike struggle. Their hesitation, in fact, reflects and instinctive desire for power.
We base our perspective on the fact that a Labour Government under Gaitskell’s leadership must inevitably be a government of crisis, because the monopolies will continue their offensive against the working class. They will try to use a right wing Labour government to demoralise the class but they cannot in this way defeat the class. We are no longer in 1931. A discredited Gaitskell government would undoubtedly sow great confusion amongst the working class, but a defeat at the hands of the monopolies would need an onslaught against the trade unions and factory organisations.
The character of future strike struggle must, therefore, become more and more political. Here is the reason why we cannot confine our agitation solely around minor reforms in the unions. Whilst we begin from these, we must understand the political nature of industrial struggles which necessitates our organisation conducting a constant political struggle within the trade unions and in the industries they represent.
Our Conference revealed that the crisis of inertia in the labour movement exerted a certain influence even in our own ranks. Lack of discussion simply means that the problems are either not understood or are inadequately thought out. Of course there are some comrades who without knowing it created the impression that they were discussing for the sake of discussion. Several contributions to the conference were of a routine nature indicating that those who made them had not given sufficient attention to the political problem of today, but felt obliged to say something in order to overcome what one comrade incorrectly describe as “the shameful silence.” The silence, in fact, represented the silence of indecision which in turn reflected the hesitation of the class. To understand the source of this problem is to commence serious preparation to overcome it.
The members of the Socialist Labour League are extremely devoted, sincere and hard working in their desire to build the revolutionary movement. They reflect in its most political and best sense the mood of the working class as a whole. But this is a long way from the conscious forms of activity which are now so desperately required to speed the development of the revolutionary party. We are faced with the task of bridging the gulf between instinctive revolutionary feeling and conscious revolutionary intervention.
This problem cannot be resolved by the theoretical and propaganda work of a section of the leadership. Our leadership itself reflects the inertia of the rank and file of the labour movement. When we talk of preparatory work in the Socialist Labour League we mean those forms of activity most suitable for extending our influence inside the working class and at the same time relating the experiences of comrades in such interventions in a manner that will assist them in appreciating the role of theory, thus introducing a more conscious appreciation of the political requirements of our movement.
This was the background to our hesitation on the composition of the National Committee. A number of comrades who have fallen back over past years in their activity, but who still remain loyal and devoted members of the League, have without knowing it created a serious problem for the leadership. They, in turn, represent a section of the rank and file, particularly some of our industrial workers, who in a number of areas have tended to withdraw from League activity over the past year. These are warning signs which cannot be answered by administrative measures. Any tendency on the part of the League which will lead to weakening its connection in the working class, no matter how slender that might be at the present period, would be a major disaster. We must assist all comrades active in the trade unions and in industry to do whatever they can in transmitting our policies deeper into the working class.
Conference accordingly decided to maintain relatively the same composition as previous National Committees, but instructed the incoming National Committee to work out more precise forms of work which would help to overcome inertia and revitalise those members who are at the moment unable to improve their standards of activity. At the same time, Conference emphasised that this decision was not of a routine nature. Lest it be misconstrued as an evasion of responsibility we would like to stress now, as was stressed then, that if after a certain period comrades resist changes in their work, then it may be necessary to call a special conference of the League to take further decisions.
Before discussing more concretely the practical details of our work, it is necessary to re-check once more the role of Marxist theory. Arising from the international discussion it is now recognised that we face a serious discussion on the Marxist method which must take into account the fundamental philosophical differences between revisionism and Marxism. This struggle is not some abstract diversion but probing into the depth of the division between the class forces and preparing for a real revolutionary offensive. Thus, this development of Marxist Theory is an essential forerunner to the development of the Socialist Labour League as a mass revolutionary organisation.
The tempering and strengthening of such an organisation will depend precisely upon the sharpness with which we separate ourselves from the revisionists. The revisionists are nothing more than shock troops of capitalism which are being employed at this stage to weaken the revolutionary movement. By defeating these forces we strengthen the working class as a whole and draw into our ranks the more serious elements who will be strengthened by our determination both theoretical and practical to provide leadership.
We must recognize however, that only a small number of League members will at first undertake this task in a conscious way. This does not signalize the development of an elite of intellectuals but the recognition of a major problem. Those members of the League who today fight for the development of Marxist theory must at this stage resolve the present crisis in the League itself by finding ways towards an all-round development of the organisation.
Whilst various comrades undertake different tasks we must scrupulously avoid a sectional or isolated approach to problems. The more inclined a comrade is towards the development of Marxist theory, the more responsibility falls on his or her shoulders to relate this to the practical work, especially to the development of the members of the League. This means an all-round appreciation of the problems of the League.
We must fight against all tendencies which try to confine their thinking to a positive acceptance of the theoretical work of others. No progress will be made if such an outlook gains a hold. It is precisely at this stage, when we are beginning to develop Marxist theory, that the high point of such a development is the Socialist Labour League itself, that is, every comrade who is a member and the leadership who have been elected to lead them.
The Labour Review must not be considered as a sort of custodian of Marxism which obliges people to buy it but not to read it. There must be a constant encouragement of all comrade to read it and discuss it as part as part of their responsibility to the League.
Our Conference decisions, therefore, were essentially theoretical. By facing up to the problem of inactivity, looseness of work and inertia, we are in fact preparing the ground for the extension of Marxist theory.
The problem of a number of members of the Socialist Labour League, both in the leadership and in the ranks, arises from formal thinking. This reflects itself in a ridging adherence to Marxist theory in the abstract which is quite divorced from their day-to-day work. It is carried out empirically on the basis of improvisation which leaves the comrade concerned open to moods and fits of depression. This is an old complaint in the international Trotskyist movement and has its source in the failure of those responsible for the leadership of the Fourth International to contribute anything significant to the development of Marxist theory since the death of Trotsky. In Britain it is closely related to the traditional lack of appreciation of Marxist theory which prevails in the labour movement.
Comrades fail to relate the crisis of international imperialism to the class struggle in Britain and to the political reflection of this struggle inside the labour movement. Those of our members who work in the Labour Party tend to become bogged down by the routine nature of that work and to engage in forms of activity divorced from the class struggle. Comrade who work in the trade unions tend, whilst paying lip-service to the political side of this work, to fall prey to syndicalist methods.
Comrades who are the biggest offenders on these matters will hotly deny this allegation because they fail to appreciate how their adherence to Trotskyism is not connected with their practical work. Their politics and their practice are separated into two compartments; consequently their thinking is stultified and they are gradually swamped by inertia.
Our plan for the next period must take into account all sides of the work of the organisation and those who carry out the plan must constantly keep the work of the organisation as a whole in front of them, understanding that this is carried out as part of the essential preparation in a period of growing capitalist crisis.
We ask you, therefore, to give consideration to the following points which we are submitting as a basis for our activity in the next period.
Beginning with the National Committee, the trade union, youth and Labour Party factions, and the branches, we want to introduce a system where every comrade has a definite job which is checked regularly by the appropriate faction or branch. Those who work in the Labour Party, who should be the youth and all members who are not open members of the League, should have the work constantly examined in order to ascertain how our policy is being applied under the prevailing conditions, and that any tendency towards routinism is checked. All youth are required to work in the adult party.
All those members ineligible, because of proscription, for membership of the Labour Party, must be organised in such a way that they combine open propaganda work for the League and regular sales activity for the press in addition, of course, to their trade union work.
Our entire membership must, where possible, work in CND in order to encourage its turn towards work inside the Labour Party and the trade unions. Such work is now of great importance in view of the serious defeat suffered by the right wing in their attempt to expel CND leaders.
We must continue with the policy of education branch officers without involving full-time organisers in this work. Cadre schools for the education of these officers, politically and administratively, should be held during the autumn in all areas.
Our summer school should devote itself towards the more concrete relationship of Marxist theory to the practical work being carried out by our membership. A successful school will be a very good send off for our work in the autumn.
Between now and 1 September we should prepare a three month campaign designed to recruit more industrial workers into the League by special concentration in large industrial areas. This should be done by a systematic organisation of open air meetings during September and October and a series of public meetings which will be properly prepared by several weeks of activity. Our objective should be to establish discussion classes for trade unionists with a view to their immediate recruitment into the League. We should not at this stage concentrate on any rank and file activity which would become a substitute for the recruitment of industrial workers directly into the League. The organisation of industrial forums, such as that in Glasgow, should be carefully related to recruitment to the League.
The National Committee should allocate specific regions of work to its organisers who would, in turn, be assisted by the branch officers in the area with regular reports as to what is being done. These should be provided through meetings and not sent in by the post.
This three month campaign for membership should also include a sales drive for The Newsletter and Labour Review. We should try to raise the weekly circulation of The Newsletter by at least 500 copies during this period.
A full time organiser should be appointed for work in the midlands for at least four or five days a week. One more new organiser should be employed.
The National Committee should try to provide motor vehicles for all organisers and should include the cost of these in its half-yearly budget.
5. Industrial Factions
Our industrial factions should meet at least each month. Their main work would be to organise recruitment into the League by the popularisation of our programme in their particular union. This programme should concentrate such demands as nationalisation, the breaking of trade unions from the capitalist state, a fight against the witch-hunt, for more democracy in the trade unions, linking such demands to the current demands inside the trade unions for more wages etc.
The National Committee should consider the holding of national gatherings at least every six months for unions where we have some possibilities for development.
Pamphlets on engineering, the ETU, docks and railways should be prepared by 1 September, so that they can be used in the national campaign for membership. The National Committee should appoint comrades to draft these pamphlets.
6. Political Work
A pamphlet outlining the policy of the Socialist Labour League towards the election of a majority Labour Government should be produced as early as possible in September.
We should aim to publish Labour Review four times a year. A regular functioning editorial board should be appointed. The Organising Committee should encourage the development of various study groups on history, philosophy and economics, in order to encourage the preparation of material which would eventually be published in book form.
Our student comrades should be encourages to participate as much as possible in this work.