Wednesday, September 16, 1998

Labour: A Party Fit For Imperialism

“Labour never had to kill one British worker at home to rebuild British imperialism. But it had to kill untold thousands in the rest of the world ... Hence those who seek to show that Labour played a progressive role between 1949 and 1951 can only do so on the racist assumption that the lives of the colonial people are of far less importance than those of British workers.”

Labour: A Party Fit For Imperialism
By Robert Clough
Larkin Publications 1992

British Labour on record

The famous Russian communist V.I. Lenin would have shuddered if he had foreseen how his characterisation of the British Labour Party (BLP) as a “bourgeois workers' party” was to be misinterpreted British socialists. Many conclude from Lenin's remarks that the BLP is fundamentally working class in nature, especially through its link with the trade unions. They therefore conclude that socialists must support it (even if building themselves at the same time).

Probably the most obvious example of this misinterpretation is in the Socialist Workers Party (the International Socialist Organisation in Australia), which calls a vote for Labour (and the ALP) a “class vote”.

With the term “bourgeois workers' party”, Lenin was referring to the fact that a section of the working class -- the opportunists -- had been bought off by the capitalists and become agents of the bourgeoisie within the working class.

In his work Imperialism and the Split in Socialism (1916), Lenin says that the opportunists are “alien to the proletariat as a class ... [are] the agents of the bourgeoisie and the vehicles of its influence, and unless the labour movement rids itself of them, it will remain a bourgeois labour movement”.

The only honest conclusion to draw from this passage is that the labour movement must rid itself of the opportunists' political party (Labour), not support it.

In the early 1920s, Lenin suggested that communists should call for a vote for Labour, when the majority of the working class had illusions in it, in order better to expose it and win a hearing from its supporters. He never elevated this into a permanent principle based on some mystical “proletarian” quality of Labour. Indeed, his comment on the ALP should be more widely remembered: he called it a “liberal bourgeois party”.

British PM Tony Blair's neo-Tory “New” Labour may prompt some welcome changes on the British left in this regard. Many in the left wing of the BLP have left the party, and this is beginning to show in electoral politics.

The Socialist Party (formerly the Militant tendency within Labour) has begun to stand against Labour. More recently, the SWP seems to have begun to check which way the wind is blowing, announcing that it will begin running its own candidates. Some ex-Labour left activists have been trying to organise left electoral alliances, such as the London Socialist Alliance.

Labour: A Party Fit For Imperialism, although written before the advent of “New” Labour, is an important contribution to understanding the BLP, and has become even more relevant in light of these developments on the British left.


In the spirit of Lenin's analysis, the book seeks to put on record the opportunist trend upon which the BLP bases itself, and how this has led to its being a vital supporter of British imperialism and the capitalist order.

Using the analyses of Karl Marx, Frederich Engels and Lenin, the book starts by looking at the privileged section of the British working class that arose in the 1850s -- the section Engels termed the “labour aristocracy”. As Engels noted, the prosperity that conservatised this sector was possible due to Britain's colonial dominance, in which it exploited the rest of the world.

This privileged section of the working class dominated the unions; almost all craft unions, based on particular skilled trades, excluded the large numbers of unskilled workers. This phenomenon spread as imperialism became generalised to a number of (mainly European) countries at the beginning of this century.

The BLP was formed in the 1890s after the Liberals proved themselves to be as loyal to the capitalists as the Tories, and hence unreliable allies for workers.

Nevertheless, the book takes care to show that this organisational break from liberalism was not matched by a political break: the BLP retained a completely liberal approach. The party continued to base itself upon the privileged craft union workers and pursued a parliamentary alliance with the Liberals.

Robert Clough points out that the deliberately vague wording of the party's much-vaunted Clause Four (the “socialist” clause), adopted after the World War I, gave the party undue left credibility.


A great part of the book analyses the relationship between Labour (in government and opposition) and the foreign, imperial policy of the British state.

Clough explains: “The Labour party ... was established to defend the privileged interests of an upper stratum of the working class in alliance with a section of the middle class. These privileges depended on the relative strength of British imperialism; defending them therefore meant defending British imperialism.”

Whether in government or in opposition, the BLP has been a staunch supporter of the most reactionary imperialist policies, from the gassing of Kurds in the '20s to using head-hunters to combat leftist Malay guerillas in the '60s.

An analysis is made of the turning point in Britain's international role following World War II.

A Labour government undertook the delicate task of salvaging as much as possible of Britain's empire from the forces of national liberation and communism. “If [Britain] lost its colonial empire ... reconstruction would have to be undertaken at the direct expense of the British working class, with all the attendant risks of social upheaval ... it had to offer the semblance of democratic concession to the colonial and semi-colonial peoples, if only to buy time.”

Churchill and the Tories were too openly reactionary for this task. All over Asia and Africa, British military forces put down the wave of liberation struggles that swept these continents. Then Britain “handed over the baton to US imperialism, and concentrated on building up the British economy at the expense of the Empire ...

“Labour never had to kill one British worker at home to rebuild British imperialism. But it had to kill untold thousands in the rest of the world ... Hence those who seek to show that Labour played a progressive role between 1949 and 1951 can only do so on the racist assumption that the lives of the colonial people are of far less importance than those of British workers.”

Working class

As interesting and incisive as the examination of Labour imperialism is Clough's analysis of the relationship between Labour and the British working class.

Labour's undermining and attacking of the unemployed workers' movement in the 1920s and '30s sets the scene: Labour has always opposed the struggle of the most oppressed sections of the working class.

After the war, Clough shows, the solid Labour majorities of 1945 and 1966 were based on a large section of the middle class joining the more solidly Labour-voting working class. In return, Labour maintained their privileges and those of the labour aristocracy.

By the end of the 1960s, the parasitic imperialism of the British economy was beginning to head downhill. Labour was in government and its response “was to attack its electoral base in the working class”. It began to oppose strikes and restrict immigration.

Although its measures did not satisfy the ruling class, the subsequent Tory government did not either, and Labour was elected again in 1974. During this period of government, it continued with its previous measures and introduced a wages policy in cooperation with the trade unions (like Australia's Accord) to keep wages down.

In analysing the long period of Tory rule that began in 1979, Clough points to a change in the nature of the labour aristocracy.

During the postwar years there had been a gradual shift in the composition of the work force away from manufacturing and manual labour to white-collar sectors.

Clough argues that a corresponding shift occurred in the location of the privileged section of the working class. “In 1979, the largest swing against Labour was from within this stratum ... to survive as a party, Labour would now have to appeal to this new labour aristocracy.”

Clough recounts how under the Tories, despite radical sounds from the Labour left in the early 1980s (which seduced many socialists to enter the party), Labour pursued a policy of “municipal socialism” in local government, “an avenue through which Labour sought to appeal to the new labour aristocracy of the public sector, and a particularly corrupt one at that”.

In conjunction with Labour, the Trade Union Council adopted a policy of avoiding conflict, leading to the sell-out of the 1984-85 miners' struggle and abandoning the sections of the working class most under attack by the Tories.

The book provides a valuable insight into the process which resulted in the election of Blair's “New” Labour, and raises the question of just how new this BLP really is. In the current economic crisis, Labour is continuing to side with the oppressors and the privileged against the poorest of the working class.

Labour: A Party Fit For Imperialism provides an analysis of the processes -- often neglected by the left -- by which the working class in imperialist countries is divided by capitalism, a process which is as real in Australia as it is in Britain.

[Robert Clough is a member of the UK's Revolutionary Communist Group]

Originally published in Green Left Weekly issue 333, 16 September 1998.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Type your comment here and choose an ID to "Comment as" - choose "name/URL" or "Anonymous" if you don't want to sign in.