Is Labour still a bourgeois workers’ party? What, if anything, does this expression mean? Mike Macnair continues the debate in the Weekly Worker

Part One: Labour Party blues

The report of my opening on the question of the Labour Party at the July 4 CPGB aggregate meeting was inevitably compressed and in a couple of places inaccurate;1 Andy Hannah’s letter (July 16) in part responds to these features of the report. If I had said only what appeared in the report, comrade Hannah’s objection that the argument is circular and rests on bald assertion would be valid. It is not. What follows is a write-up of my opening, partially revised in the light both of the discussion on July 4 and my own afterthoughts; hopefully this fuller version will help us carry the discussion forward.

This will be a two part article, the first part moving from the concrete to the more abstract theoretical question of the basis of ‘bourgeois workers’ parties’ in general; the second will return to the more concrete question of the historical and present character of the Labour Party.

Labour, sects and halfway houses

A couple of preliminary points need to be made at some length. These assume the characterisation of Labour as a bourgeois workers’ party which I will defend later in the article.

The first is that it is not a novelty in the recent politics of CPGB that we insist – against the majority of the far left – that Labour is still a bourgeois workers’ party, and hence that attempts to construct a new Labour Party based on left-Labourist politics are not merely rightist, but also futile. Political space presently exists in British politics for an overtly far-left party, a Communist Party, to begin with on the scale of the Greens and taking a similar share of the vote. The obstacle is the unwillingness of the Marxist left to unite as Marxists.

This, in turn, has three bases. The first is sectism (cults of the ideas of Grant, Cliff, Mandel, etc as being the ‘revolutionary theory’ supposedly necessary to a ‘revolutionary party’). The second is bureaucratic centralism. The third is the illusion that with the right tactics, and as long as the ‘serious left’ (your own group) could avoid being tangled up with the ‘sectarians’ (other, usually smaller, groups) a new mass workers’ party is possible in the short term.

The political space does not presently exist for a new mass workers’ party of the same sort as the early Labour Party (or the Brazilian Workers Party), based solely on the idea of independent political representation of the working class in electoral politics. Such a party already exists: it is the Labour Party. We have been making this point more or less continuously against the various halfway house projects since the days of the Socialist Alliance.

The second point is that this does not in itself imply calling for a general vote for Labour; still less for wholesale entry in the Labour Party. This point, made by comrade Nick Rogers,2 is perfectly valid. We have in the past called for votes across the board for ‘halfway house’ projects from the Socialist Labour Party, through the Socialist Alliance, to Respect – in spite of their ultra-leftist belief that Labour has become a simply-bourgeois party like the US Democrats and their rightist fakery attempting to pose as old Labour.

A vote for Labour is a class vote in a limited sense: a vote for the idea of independent political representation of the working class in electoral politics. It is equally clearly a vote for British nationalism and imperialism, class collaboration and the existing capitalist UK constitution and state. A vote for a far-left group, or for a semi-far-left, semi-party project, can be at least potentially a class vote in a stronger sense than a Labour vote. That is, it can be a vote for the idea that the working class should actually take over running society in its own interests – which are, at the end of the day, the interests of humanity as such.

Elections past and future

We can identify two aspects of the Euro-elections that were specific to it. The first was the offensive of The Daily Telegraph and associated forces promoting right populism as an alternative to political parties as such, which was mainly targeted at Labour and also implied a clear rejection of even the most limited idea of independent political party organisation of the working class. In this specific context, to vote Labour was not a simple vote for the incumbents, but a vote in defence of the idea of a political party of the working class.

The second was the fact that in this context the No2EU project lined itself up with right populism against Labour. It did not present itself as a party, let alone a workers’ party, or as a left alternative even to the extent that Respect did, but purely and simply as a populist-nationalist left flank of the UK Independence Party – a red-brown project. To vote for Labour was in this election to a considerable extent to vote for the shadow of the idea of working class party political organisation expressed by the name of Labour.

The name of No2EU contained no such shadow. That absence, together with the positive Ukip-ism expressed in its name and main slogans, took it to the right of even today’s Labour Party. The Socialist Party in England and Wales was clearly uncomfortable with the shape of No2EU, and if SPEW lead candidates had taken sufficient distance from this shape we could have called for a vote for them as individuals. But, though we got interviews with several No2EU lead candidates, none of them was prepared to take real political distance from the red-brown project.

A guest at the CPGB aggregate, comrade Moshé Machover, made the point that New Labour’s policy of ‘triangulation’ appealing to the centre ground of politics depends on the left having nowhere else to go to. Hence, calling for a generalised Labour vote is a mug’s game: as long as we call for a Labour vote, ‘triangulation’ works to drag politics to the right. Only if the left is prepared to punish ‘triangulation’ by standing against Labour is there any chance of moving politics left. Comrade Machover’s point is a strong one and in a sense supports the arguments the CPGB has made since the early 1990s against the far left’s ‘auto-Labourism’ of that period.

The problem, however, is that the far left’s ‘old Labour’ fakery is also a form of ‘triangulation’. The ex-Labour types (like George Galloway), trade union bureaucrats (like Arthur Scargill and Bob Crow) and apparatchiks of the bigger far left groups believe that the left vote has nowhere to go but to them, so they too can ‘triangulate’. In this context not calling for a vote for No2EU was precisely to punish Crow’s, SPEW’s and the Morning Star-CPB’s attempt to ‘triangulate’ between Labour and Ukip.

It is not clear what the conditions of the 2010 general election will be, either on the front of the right-populist offensive, or on the front of the character of left electoral projects. On the first side, it is probable, though not certain, that the Ukip/BNP/‘anti-corruption independent’ vote will be simply swallowed up by the Tories. It is still possible that as a result of this last year Labour will be driven into third place and/or will lose Scotland and Wales, thereby ceasing to be a credible alternative government party. More likely is simply a very large Tory majority, with the Lib Dems as well as Labour losing out.

The more significant question for us is what the far left does. The reader who shares a predominant views may respond to this sentence: ‘Typical Weekly Worker – fascinated by left machinations at the expense of mass politics.’ In fact, it is a substantive political point. The evidence of the far left’s interventions in electoral politics over the last 15 years is at the end of the day that it has been ineffective and left us with a weaker left than we started with. What blocks us from addressing the masses effectively is precisely our disunity. Solution: if we address the disunity (‘left machinations’) the left may be able to have a real impact on mass politics. As long as we keep refusing to address these issues the left will continue to decay.

At the moment there is disarray (Peter Manson summarised the state of play in last week’s paper3). SPEW is arguing for a continuation and enlargement of the No2EU bloc (on what politics is unclear). The Socialist Workers Party has issued an appeal for left unity against the far right, which appears to be merely one of the SWP’s usual petitioning campaigns, this one designed to ‘take the initiative’ without any willingness to put up concrete proposals (let alone draw up any balance sheet of the SWP’s own disastrous past conduct in the Socialist Alliance and Respect). The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty has its own petition-style call for a new Socialist Alliance, inevitably a pale shadow of the SWP’s call. The Morning Star’s CPB executive committee has issued an ambiguous statement arguing for left unity on the basis of its People’s Charter and of No2EU’s 10-point platform, but also for “a vote for Labour in the majority of constituencies” in order to keep out the Tories.4

The CPGB PCC’s view is expressed in comrade Manson’s article. We want to see “a concerted, widespread left challenge in the general election”. And “Electoral cooperation must become a springboard for moves towards a united working class party, built in the first instance around the existing left groups. It must be based on the fundamental principles of Marxism – working class independence, working class democracy and working class internationalism.” It should be plain that we will support initiatives which are less than this aim but nonetheless could move towards it.

If, however, we actually get to May 2010 and find that we see either a multitude of competing unity projects faking themselves up as left Labourites (as in the 2008 London assembly elections) or a rerun of No2EU trying to triangulate between Labour and right-populism, then the CPB’s view will be right for the wrong reason.

Right because it will be necessary to vote Labour in a lot of constituencies. Wrong because this is not about keeping the Tories out of government – which is almost certainly impossible – but about fighting for the idea of independent working class political party organisation with a view to creating an opposition in the interests of the working class. And a translation of the sort of project represented by No2EU into general election conditions would positively undermine the idea of independent working class political party organisation.

All this argument so far deliberately assumes that the Labour Party has been in the past, and still is, a bourgeois workers’ party. So what does this expression mean and why should we take it that the Labour Party is one?

Bourgeois workers’ party

The modern left use of the expression ‘bourgeois workers’ party’ probably originates with Lenin’s ‘Imperialism and the split in socialism’ (December 1917), where the form of words used is “bourgeois labour party”.5 Lenin took the expression from a letter of Engels to Sorge in 1891, where Engels referred to the ‘non-political’ right wing of the Trade Union Congress, opponents of the eight-hour day campaign, as the “bourgeois labour party”.6 In fact, in What is to be done? in 1902 Lenin had already referred to this tred-iunionizm (US ‘business unionism’, UK ‘moderates’) as the “bourgeois ‘pure trade-unionists’”.7

The theorisation in the article of this form of words is that developed at more length in Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism. The core of the argument is that monopoly gives rise to ‘superprofits’, profits over and above normal profitability. Before the emergence of imperialism, Britain derived superprofits from monopoly, and Marx and Engels identified this as the basis of the political backwardness of the working class. The emergence of imperialism, as a distinct stage (according to Lenin, around 1898-1900), meant that monopoly superprofits became a general feature of the imperialist powers (in this article Lenin limits these properly so-called to Britain, France, Germany and the US). Superprofits allow the concessions to the top layers of the proletariat: ie, the formation of a labour aristocracy. This in turn supports the formation of ‘bourgeois workers’ parties’:

“The bourgeoisie of an imperialist ‘great’ power can economically bribe the upper strata of ‘its’ workers by spending on this a hundred million or so francs a year, for its superprofits most likely amount to about a thousand million. And how this little sop is divided among the labour ministers, ‘labour representatives’ (remember Engels’s splendid analysis of the term), labour members of war industries committees, labour officials, workers belonging to the narrow craft unions, office employees, etc, etc is a secondary question.”

“Formerly”, writes Lenin, “a ‘bourgeois labour party’, to use Engels’s remarkably profound expression, could arise only in one country, because it alone enjoyed a monopoly, but, on the other hand, it could exist for a long time. Now a ‘bourgeois labour party’ is inevitable and typical in all imperialist countries …” He adds: “The important thing is that, economically, the desertion of a stratum of the labour aristocracy to the bourgeoisie has matured and become an accomplished fact; and this economic fact, this shift in class relations, will find political form, in one shape or another, without any particular ‘difficulty’.”

And: “A first-class bourgeois manipulator, an astute politician, a popular orator who will deliver any speeches you like, even r-r-revolutionary ones, to a labour audience, and a man who is capable of obtaining sizable sops for docile workers in the shape of social reforms (insurance, etc), Lloyd George serves the bourgeoisie splendidly, and serves it precisely among the workers, brings its influence precisely to the proletariat, to where the bourgeoisie needs it most and where it finds it most difficult to subject the masses morally.

“And is there such a great difference between Lloyd George and the Scheidemanns, Legiens, Hendersons and Hyndmans, Plekhanovs, Renaudels and co?8 Of the latter, it may be objected, some will return to the revolutionary socialism of Marx. This is possible, but it is an insignificant difference in degree, if the question is regarded from its political – ie, its mass – aspect. Certain individuals among the present social-chauvinist leaders may return to the proletariat. But the social-chauvinist or (what is the same thing) opportunist trend can neither disappear nor ‘return’ to the revolutionary proletariat.”

The other side of the argument is that imperialism, and hence preserving the privileges of the labour aristocracy, involves a deepening oppression of the lower layers of the working class, who therefore become increasingly revolutionary. Hence the real socialists will base themselves on these lower layers:

“On the one hand, there is the tendency of the bourgeoisie and the opportunists to convert a handful of very rich and privileged nations into ‘eternal’ parasites on the body of the rest of mankind, to ‘rest on the laurels’ of the exploitation of negroes, Indians, etc, keeping them in subjection with the aid of the excellent weapons of extermination provided by modern militarism. On the other hand, there is the tendency of the masses, who are more oppressed than before and who bear the whole brunt of imperialist wars, to cast off this yoke and to overthrow the bourgeoisie. It is in the struggle between these two tendencies that the history of the labour movement will now inevitably develop.

“… Engels draws a distinction between the ‘bourgeois labour party’ of the old trade unions – the privileged minority – and the ‘lowest mass’, the real majority, and appeals to the latter, who are not infected by ‘bourgeois respectability’. This is the essence of Marxist tactics!

“… And it is therefore our duty, if we wish to remain socialists, to go down lower and deeper, to the real masses; this is the whole meaning and the whole purport of the struggle against opportunism.”9

More than 90 years have passed since Lenin wrote these words; and it should be perfectly plain on the basis of the evidence that has emerged in those years that the theoretical argument is wrong.10

In the first place, winning concessions from capital does not automatically commit skilled workers politically to the side of capital (as was already relevant in the political evolution of the British miners and railworkers in the early 20th century). On the contrary, unorganised – and hence badly paid, etc – workers may well and have in the past formed a mass base for rightwing politics. The linkage to the ‘labour aristocracy’ therefore fails.

Secondly, ‘bourgeois workers’ parties’ in the sense in which Lenin used the term – large-scale nationalist and class-collaborationist workers’ parties linked to mass trade union organisations, etc – are not only found in imperialist countries. They are found more or less everywhere there is a substantial wage-worker class, albeit often in the form of ‘official communist’ parties: the Brazilian Workers Party is a clear example, but there are others elsewhere in Latin America, or in India in the form of the Communist Party of India and Communist Party of India (Marxist). Africa south of the Mashreq and north of South Africa is pretty much the only part of the globe not to be infested with bourgeois workers’ parties, probably because of the absolute weakness of the urban proletariat as a class in that part of the world.

The linkage to imperialism therefore fails. Contrary to Engels as well as to Lenin, nationalist and class-collaborationist politics in the organised workers’ movement is not a simple product of concessions paid for by super-profits. In this as in other aspects of capitalism, “The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future.”11

This does not, however, mean that the concept of a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’ is useless. But to grasp why it is useful it is necessary to take a step backward in the argument in order to move forward on more solid ground.

Party or spontaneous movement?

The essence of Marx’s and Engels’ arguments is that the supersession of capitalism is not a question of moral-ideological choices by ‘society’, but of the working class taking over the running of society. To the extent that working class people choose to organise to defend their common interests, they will be objectively driven to make their struggle with capital more effective – for example, in the form of general laws, like limits on the working day – and, in the end, to take political power away from the capitalist class and into their own hands.

It is for this reason that a constant element of their political arguments from the time of the Communist manifesto on is the need for workers to form an independent class party for political action against the capitalist class. In the Communist manifesto itself the communists appear as a ginger group within broad workers’ parties where these exist (the Chartists and US Land Reformers).12 In their political activity in the First International the idea of a broad workers’ party, based solely on the idea of the working class organising for political action to defend its class interests, is counterposed to the more precise ideological schemas offered by the Proudhonists, Lassalleans and Bakuninists.13 Hence, too, Engels’ 1894 comment on the British Social Democratic Federation: “The Social Democratic Federation, just like your German Socialist Labour Party, has managed to transform our theory into the rigid dogma of an orthodox sect …”14

The basic ideas here are familiar to the left and form part of the basis of ‘non-sectarian sectarianism’ and halfway house projects; and equally of ‘Labourite’ projects like Britain’s road to socialism and various Trotskyist projects of long-term Labour Party entry.

The trouble, of course, is that in fact such general workers’ parties are everywhere dominated by nationalist and class-collaborationist bureaucrats. Wherever they exist, they serve at least as a means of mediating the loyalty of trade union leaders to the capitalist state, and in a good many cases – Britain and Brazil provide clear examples – they serve as electoral vehicles for government carried on in the interests of the capitalist class.

This outcome was, in fact, predicted by one of the major contemporary critics of Marx’s and Engels’ line: Mikhail Bakunin. Both in his ‘Critique of the Eisenach programme’ (1870) and in Marxism, freedom and the state (1870-72) Bakunin argues that working class organising for political action will inevitably result in the ascendancy of the bourgeoisie.15 Indeed, in On the International Workingmens’ Association and Karl Marx (1873) he anticipates Lenin on the ‘labour aristocracy’: “To me the flower of the proletariat is not, as it is to the Marxists, the upper layer, the aristocracy of labour, those who are the most cultured, who earn more and live more comfortably than all the other workers. Precisely this semi-bourgeois layer of workers would, if the Marxists had their way, constitute their fourth governing class.16

Bakunin’s alternative was reliance on spontaneous mass movements, fomented and coordinated by a small international revolutionary group with the aim of the immediate abolition of any form of state – the “invisible dictatorship”.17 This alternative has over the last 130 years – beginning in 1870-71 – proved futile. But this does not disprove the substance of Bakunin’s negative criticism: ie, that workers’ organisation for partial demands under capitalism inevitably implicates the workers’ organisation in the manoeuvrings of capitalist politics and turns it into a ‘bourgeois workers’ organisation’. Contrary to the ideas of the anarcho-syndicalists of the 1890s-1900s,18 trade unions are no more pure in this respect than workers’ political parties: the falsity of this idea was already apparent in Britain and the US and became obvious elsewhere in World War I and in Spain in the revolution and civil war.

Feudal bourgeois corporations

The existing state’s capture of organisations originally created as fighting formations opposed to it is not unique to the working class. Urban communes originated across Europe in the 12th to 13th centuries, to a considerable extent as revolutionary organisations of the bourgeoisie, were often forcibly suppressed or incorporated by the feudal powers they opposed. In some parts of Italy, communes actually won independent political power, creating what might be called in Trotskyist terminology ‘deformed bourgeois states’. By the late middle ages, however, urban institutions had largely been effectively subordinated to the growing feudal state and thereby integrated in seigneurial politics.

The creation of ‘feudal-bourgeois’ institutions was a means of subordinating the bourgeoisie. But it was also a contradiction for feudalism as a social order. What made subordination possible was a variety of concrete concessions to the bourgeoisie (and in particular the integration of a layer of the bourgeoisie in the state order). But these contradictions in a sense undermined the feudal social order. Stadtluft macht frei (‘City air makes free’) is a proverbial expression of the role of the existence of cities as tending to undermine serfdom. In the Netherlands in the revolutionary period, and in London (and some other towns) in 1639-41, mass mobilisations took back some of the city institutions as instruments of struggle for the revolutionary overthrow of the monarchy. In both cases what was involved was not simple recapture: new, protestant organisations and their ideas formed the basis for the overthrow. In contrast, the Stuart monarchy attempted to impose more direct control over the boroughs through an offensive of forfeiting charters, interfering in borough elections, etc in the 1680s; and the French monarchy actually succeeded in remodelling city constitutions to give control to government-appointed officiers.19

I do not intend this history as a simple analogy. The point is that there is a common underlying structural dynamic at work. The old class order throws up its own class negation. The new class fights for its immediate interests. Its doing so is initially ‘revolutionary’ and met with force. But then the old ruling class responds with concessions to the rising class, organised through an increasingly centralised and bureaucratised state. The concessions, and the growth of the state, together enable the old ruling class/state to bring the institutions of the new class under control and incorporate them in the old order.

In doing so, however, the old ruling class/state ‘denatures’ its own class order, since both the direct concessions and the incorporation undermine the ‘naturalness’ of lordly and clerical (feudal) or capitalist rule. The state is thus driven to extend direct state control over the organisations of the new class to the point at which they become merely empty institutions or quangos detached from their class origin (officier-controlled municipalities in ancien régime France; the Labour Party and trade unions in Britain are moving in this direction). If it is to defend its interests effectively, the new class needs to create new fighting institutions more directly targeted at the replacement of the existing state order: ie, to begin to aspire to taking power.

Where do the concessions which are to support incorporation come from? The problem is more acute in relation to the bourgeoisie’s concessions to the working class than to the feudalists’ concessions to the bourgeoisie, because the working class are primary producers and the laws of motion of capital in some sense logically imply a tendency, other things being equal, for wages to converge on subsistence plus training costs. For Lenin they came from the rewards of imperialism; but though these rewards are real, this can hardly explain the phenomenon of bourgeois workers’ parties in countries which are clearly not imperialist centres.

The answer has three elements. First, in the ‘up’ phase of both the short business cycle and long periods of growth, material social productivity tends to increase. This enables a larger share of social surplus to go to the working class without actually – materially – impoverishing capitalists. Second, concessions need not be only material concessions (higher wages, etc). The vote, political liberty, etc are also concessions the working class has won from capital, not free gifts.

Thirdly, other things are not equal: this was the essence of Marx’s critique of Lassalle’s construction of the “iron law of wages” on the basis of a vulgarisation of Marx’s economic arguments.20 If the working class does not organise and fight, wages will tend towards subsistence plus training costs. But the working class does organise and fight. As long as the result does not prevent capitalists paying interest to their creditors and paying themselves/shareholders enough to keep the business going, the result is that wages are raised above the subsistence plus training level and employment conditions are improved.

All these conditions apply as much to colonised as imperialist countries. Certainly, the concessions can be larger in imperialist countries. But it is not true that there can be no concessions in colonial countries; this idea is an illusion derived ultimately from Lassalle.

The material conditions for the existence of bourgeois workers’ parties therefore exist everywhere that there is a substantial wage-working class under capitalist rule. This is not to say that such parties automatically will exist: it is plain that they do not exist everywhere, except in the sense that Engels originally used the term, to mean pro-capitalist trade union leaders.

For there to be a bourgeois workers’ mass political party, rather than a reformist sect, three additional political conditions are necessary. The first is that a mass section of the working class should decide to create such a party for its independent political representation, rather than simply lobbying within the existing capitalist ‘party of democracy’. This condition was absent, for example, in Britain between 1848 and 1900 and is absent in the US today. The second is that the capitalist state should be willing to pursue the path of incorporation of the workers’ party through concessions (however limited) rather than simply using repression against it; this condition has been absent in many colonial countries, where the strength of the peasantry has been sufficient for the capitalists simply to rely on the ‘party of order’ and the military/police complex. The third condition is, of course, that a sufficient mass of the working class shall not have decided that it is necessary to organise for the overthrow of the capitalist state order and working class power.

What do these theoretical considerations imply when they are applied to the concrete history and present character of the Labour Party? This will be the subject of a second article.


  1. ‘Assessing Iran, debating the nature of the Labour Party’ Weekly Worker July 9.
  2. ‘Against sectarianism’ Weekly Worker June 18.
  3. ‘More than a temporary electoral alliance needed’, July 16).
  4. See also Rob Griffiths, ‘A historic moment for left advance’ (an extraordinary title, given the circumstances!) Morning Star July 8.
  5. CW Vol 23, pp105-20:
  6. March 4 1891. Not on MIA.
  7.; for the translation issue see Lars T Lih Lenin rediscovered Leiden 2006, and my review (Weekly Worker August 31 2006).
  8. That is, the pro-war, social-chauvinist leaders of the parties of the Second International.
  9. VI Lenin Imperialism and the split in socialism:
  10. I leave aside the point that Lenin’s general argument about imperialism is wrong, which I have argued elsewhere (Weekly Worker July 29, August 5 and August 12 2004).
  11. K Marx Capital Vol 1, preface to the first German edition:
  13. H Draper Karl Marx’s theory of revolution Vol 4, Critique of other socialisms New York 1998.
  14. Engels to Sorge, November 10 1894:
  17. Letter to Nechayev (1870):
  18. For example, G Sorel Reflections on violence Cambridge 1999.
  19. PD Halliday Dismembering the body politic Cambridge 1998, chapters 6 and 7; D Parker Class and state in ancien regime France London 1996, pp29-30.
  20. Critique of the Gotha programme, part 2:; and cf WT Baumol, ‘Marx and the iron law of wages’ American Economic Review May 1983, pp303-08.


Part Two: Making and unmaking Labour

An alternative to the Labour Party will only ever grip masses of workers if it is an alternative to Labourism, writes Mike Macnair

In the first part of this article I argued that Lenin’s use of the expression ‘bourgeois workers’ party’ was based on a false theoretical argument, but that the phenomenon the tag captures is real enough.1 I attempted to locate it in the larger general historical process of the decline of capitalism as a class order, the rise of the working class and the response of capitalists and the capitalist state to this rise.

This response is initially one of simple repression, but moves to a policy of concessions in order to incorporate under state control the institutions the working class has created. The effect of this policy is, however, to undermine the authority of the ruling social order. Hence, while the organised workers’ movement is incorporated in the capitalist state regime, the idea of a society without capitalist rule (as opposed to simple working class defence of group interests within capitalist society) becomes more ‘thinkable’.

The capitalist class and state are then driven to a ‘counter-reformation’ (to borrow language from the historians of the equivalent period in the decline of feudalism). This means intensified state control and incorporation of the workers’ organisations, together with an artificial and state-dependent economic, social and ideological ‘revival’ of the old social order. This is the phase of capitalist decline in which we are now living, at least in Britain.

The capitalist concessions to the working class which support incorp-oration of the organised movement do not require the proceeds of imperialism, though imperialism allows more extensive concessions. They need not be directly economic, but can also be political concessions – like universal suffrage and the removal of forms of legal repression.

Representing workers’ interests

Capitalist parliamentarism spontan-eously produces two broad political parties, albeit these may be made up of coalitions of smaller fragmentary parties. The capitalist class cannot rule, even through a restricted electoral system, in its own name: who, even among petty bourgeois, would vote for the Bankers Party or Monopolists Party? So capital in electoral politics must make a link between its interests and the interests of – at least – broad sections of the petty bourgeoisie. It does so in two ways. The party of order or, in terms derived from French politics, the ‘right’ – Tories in England – appeals to the authority of the father in the petty bourgeois family, to the unity of the nation and to religious ideas inherited from pre-capitalist society. The party of liberty or ‘left’ – Whigs and later Liberals in England – appeals to the freedom and equality of market exchange to construct an image of capitalist egalitarianism and democracy.

In practice both parties when in government betray their ideologies and their supporters; and their ideas become intermingled, and indeed they may change historical places. Thus in the US the Democrats originated as a party of liberty, but became by the 1840s the party of order; the Republicans also originated in the 1850s as a party of liberty, but by the 1930s – partly due to the need to respond to the workers’ movement – they had changed hats again. However, the underlying themes constantly resurface, in countries with profoundly different histories and cultures.

The numerical growth of the working class relative to the other classes necessarily entails the idea that the interests of the working class should somehow be represented in politics – even if, as was commonplace before the 20th century, electoral systems are designed to prevent workers actually having the vote.2 But both the party of liberty and the party of order can make electoral claims to ‘represent working class interests’. The party of liberty does so directly through its democratic and egalitarian ideology, and as a result tends to have more working class support. But the party of order can also do so, through its ideology of national unity, its religious ideas and its residual attachment to pre-capitalist guild corporate regulation, whereby it sells itself as an opponent of the brutal market capitalism: hence, for example, Tory support for limits on working hours in the 1840s and the ‘Tory Democracy’ of Disraeli and Randolph Churchill in the 1870s. This phenomenon has taken diverse forms since – perhaps the most striking is Peronism in Argentina.


Precisely because of this political flexibility given by the internal political contradictions of parlia-mentarism, capitalism does not spontaneously throw up workers’ parties, even ‘bourgeois workers’ parties’, in the same sense that it spontaneously throws up trade unions, cooperatives, etc, as forms of working class self-defence. Workers’ parties emerge because of the conscious action of working class activists and voters – the ideas in their heads and their willingness to act on them, and the spread of these ideas in localities, within countries and between countries.

Of course, these ideas in a sense reflect, and help people to act upon, the material reality of a class society with which working class people are confronted. But the mere presence of flint in the human environment does not allow the creation of stone tools without someone in our very remote past thinking of making tools from flint and how to do so, and these ideas spreading among the human population. In the same way, the presence of class antagonism in society does not automatically imply the creation of workers’ parties: the idea of an independent workers’ party has to be invented and spread.

The Labour Party is a case in point. After the concessions of 1867 (household franchise) and 1872 (legalisation of trade unions) and the witch-hunt of the First International, the British trade union leaders of the 1870s-90s lived comfortably as ‘non-politicals’ who leant towards the Liberal Party, like their equivalents in the US today with their relations with the Democrats. The new mass unions, at first radical, were after their initial struggles soon absorbed into the dominant trade union politics. ‘Labour representation’ meant, mainly, working within the Liberal Party to promote labour interests and candidates.

Meanwhile, however, the rise of the German Social Democratic Party and the economic concessions made to the workers even during the period of the Anti-Socialist Law began to spread, even into Britain, the ideas of socialism and independent working class repres-entation. In spite of its sect character and Hyndman’s Tory-Socialist leanings, the British Social Democratic Federation from 1884 grew and sank roots in London and Manchester. The Scottish Labour Party was founded in 1888 and the Independent Labour Party in 1893 – the latter with the aim “to secure the collective and communal ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”. By the late 1890s the ILP and SDF were achieving significant results in local elections at the expense of the Liberals, while there also developed a serious socialist minority in the Trade Union Congress.

The formation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 was both an initiative of the socialists and a response of the Lib-Labs. This second aspect was reflected in the 1903 secret non-aggression agreement with the Liberals which allowed the election of 29 MPs and formal establishment of the Labour Party in 1906, and in the fact that – beyond directly economic issues – the Labour MPs down to World War I routinely voted with the Liberals. The point, however, is that it would not have happened without the more general spread of socialist ideas, and the minority activity of the socialist groups campaigning in their own names over a period of several years.

Before 1914 we cannot accurately speak of Labour as a mass workers’ party. The organised membership was that of the affiliated groups, mainly the ILP, and to vote Labour was in substance to vote Lib-Lab. The moment at which the idea of an independent Labour Party becomes a mass idea is 1918. The dialectic is the same as in 1900, but in a different form and on a larger scale. The war involved an attack not only on the lower sections of the working class, as Lenin argued, but on the whole of the class. The working class, including the ‘labour aristocracy’, responded with the formation of the illegal shop stewards’ movement and similar initiatives (eg, Glasgow rent strikes).

The Russian Revolution triggered a very wide-scale radicalisation. To hold its ground, the Labour leadership was forced to move at least ostensibly to the left. The result was the creation of the Labour Party as a membership party – and the carefully Lassallean clause four: “To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”3

The significance of these develop-ments is not that the Labour Party had become a revolutionary party, or even a socialist party in the pre-war continental sense. On the contrary, the formation of the mass Labour Party was precisely as a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’ and on the basis of Arthur Henderson’s participation in the wartime government and the trade unions’ involvement in the management of war production. The Communist Party was to be wrong-footed by the formation of the first (minority) Labour government in 1924 and its openly pro-capitalist and pro-imperialist policy.4 The significance of 1918 was, rather, that the idea of an independent workers’ party became a mass idea.

Idea of a workers’ party

The idea of a workers’ party goes beyond the idea that the interests of the working class should somehow be represented in politics, which – as I have just said – can be effectively appropriated by the ordinary discourse of the bourgeois parties of order and of liberty. It is the idea that the working class should organise itself to determine its own common interests and fight for them, as opposed to simply giving support to whichever of the party of order or party of liberty seems to offer the best deal for the working class. It is also the idea that the working class should represent itself: that is, that worker-militants can become elected representatives, etc. Put another way, it is the idea of working class political independence.

Now the logic of the working class organising to take political decisions for itself is that the workers’ party needs radical democracy not subordinated to particular capitals (including media capitals), the state or the bureaucracy. The logic of identifying and pursuing the common interests of the working class is the recognition that these interests are common between workers in London, Paris, Tehran, Beijing … And the logic of working class political independence is that the working class majority should take over the running of the society and reshape it in its own interests.

In this sense the idea of a workers’ party is in itself in contradiction with capitalist rule – just as the idea of bourgeois city government was logically in contradiction with feudal seigneurial and clerical rule. It is so considerably more strongly than the idea of trade unionism, which is capable of being reduced to bargaining between the bureaucrat and the employer over immediate wages and working conditions: ie, the trade union as a form of ‘labour cartel’. ‘Trade unions’ can even be run as profit-making labour suppliers under the control of criminal gangs, as has happened episodically in the US.


The incorporation of a workers’ party in the governing capitalist regime as a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’ is therefore a contradiction within a contradiction. This nest of contra-dictions expresses itself in several different ways. In the first place, there is a permanent contradiction within bourgeois politics about whether the advantages of a bourgeois workers’ party outweigh the disadvantages, giving rise to episodic attempts to get rid of or marginalise bourgeois workers’ parties.

The bourgeois character of the party is expressed in its instit-utional and political commitments to nationalism, legalism and class collaboration. Its workers’ character is expressed in its basis in the mass idea of an independent workers’ party.

This in turn is expressed in its name and constitution and in its core mass electoral support: ie, in working class districts masses of working class voters think that they should vote for a workers’ party. It is expressed in the character of the local activists: ie, predominantly drawn from the skilled upper sections of the working class (including white-collar workers), many are prepared to give up money and time to construct an independent workers’ party. And it is expressed in its core financial dependence on the working class in the form of members’ subscriptions and trade union support: ie, sufficient numbers of trade union militants understand that they need to fund an independent workers’ party.

The trade union link and the block vote are not essential; there are many bourgeois workers’ parties globally which have much looser links with the trade unions. If anything, the block vote – controlled by the trade union bureaucracy – serves the bourgeois side of the contradiction. This reflects two facts. The first is that pure trade unionism is a more bourgeois form of politics than a bourgeois workers’ party, as I point out above. The second is that a bourgeois workers’ party, because it is a contradiction, requires tighter bureaucratic control than a simple bourgeois party.

This was already evident in the pre-1914 Labour Party in the form of executive control of parliamentary candidacies; central control has been steadily ratcheted up since, reaching extreme levels under Blair and Brown. The Tories and Liberals have to some extent copied the centralism char-acteristic of the Labour Party since 1924, but retain much higher levels of local autonomy; the Democrats and Republicans are far more loosely organised than any British party, and in many countries the parties of order and of liberty are no more than loose coalitions between smaller organised parties.

The bourgeois-workers’ contradict-ion can take the form of left-right battles in the party. It does not always do so. Historically the Labour left is as much implicated in ‘bourgeois workers’ politics’ as the right: Ramsay MacDonald and Harold Wilson, as well as Neil Kinnock, originated as leftists (Tony Blair’s sycophantic ‘leftist’ letter to Michael Foot from 1982 is not an example, since it represents no more than careerism at work5).

Indeed, left-right battles in the party usually require some external ideological impetus: the direct or indirect interventions of the CPGB in the Labour Party in the 1920s, in the popular front period in the 1930s and in anti-war campaigning in the 1950s are all examples, while the guerrilla warfare over reselection and ‘Bennism’ in the 1970s owed as much to the general rise of the far left post-1968 as to internal Labour Party dynamics. The collapse of the Labour left since the 1980s is primarily the result of the collapse of the ‘official’ Communist Party, whose ideas animated the bulk of the ‘official left’ and continue to this day to animate many of the ideas of the much smaller surviving Labour left.

Equally if not more important is the ability which bourgeois workers’ parties as a whole have shown – in the case of Labour, at least up till the late 1980s – to shift to the left in opposition.6 Just as the Labour or social democratic left is also implicated in ‘bourgeois workers’ politics’, so the political content of the left shift in opposition is usually little more than a rhetorical shift. More important is the fact that opposition frees the local Labour (in other countries, socialist or ‘official’ communist) activists, and Labourite trade union leaders as well as activists, to represent their party as a workers’ organisation and as one which proposes an alternative to capitalist rule. It lets them engage themselves much more fully and explicitly in the sort of strike support, local activity, single-issue campaigns and so on which when Labour is in office is primarily carried on by the organised and unorganised far left.

As a result of failing to grasp this dynamic, the far left both within and outside Labour is often wrong-footed three times in the electoral cycle: once when Labour is about to lose an election and the mass consciousness of the need for an independent workers’ party leads to a return of working class votes to Labour; once when Labour shifts left in opposition; and yet a third time when Labour wins office and a rightwing Labour government is able, for a while, to turn off the extra-parliamentary struggle like a tap.

Still a bourgeois workers’ party

We have now approached the concrete sufficiently to be able to form a judgment about whether the Labour Party is still a bourgeois workers’ party, or whether it has become simply a bourgeois ‘party of liberty’ like the US Democrats. The answer is, in fact, clear. The name of the party still expresses the idea of an independent party of the working class. Even the watered-down Blairite clause four still characterises Labour as “a democratic socialist party”.7

The core voting base of the party remains the urban working class districts. The 1997 landslide made matters look different (as the 1945 landslide probably did, too). But suburban, small-town and rural areas remain very predominantly Conservative, in spite of the rise of the Lib Dems in the later period of the Thatcher and Major governments and down to 2005. This is very different from the much more complicated electoral picture in the US: though the Democrats have since the 1930s been the party of the poor and the Republicans the party of the rich, some of the wealthiest areas of the US show low party differentiation by wealth and overall vote Democrat.8 Such areas in Britain would be Tory or at most Lib Dem.

The core activist base of the party seems unlikely to have changed much. A great deal has been made of the decline in party individual memb-ership figures from around 410,000 in 1997 to around 180,000 today. But the paper membership was 295,000 in 1983 and 265,000 in 1993. It was 408,000 in 1939, 218,000 in 1942 and 487,000 in 1945. The high point was 1 million in 1952, with a slow decline over the 1950s-70s.9

Labour Party membership figures before the introduction of central payment notoriously overstated real numbers, because constituencies bought a block of party cards each year to sell on a non-return basis, and a constituency had to affiliate with a minimum of 240 members (from 1956 this was increased to 800 and from 1963 to 1,000).10 Nonetheless the evidence rather strongly suggests that apart from a ‘post-war boom’, Labour’s paid-for paper individual membership has fluctuated between around 200,000 and 500,000; neither the gradual decline from the 1950s nor the dramatic decline since 1997 (after a rise in 1993-97) is the same thing as a collapse.

The activists have almost certainly always made up a much smaller number. They are also characteristically drawn from the more educated upper strata of the working class, which in the early 20th century meant mainly skilled manual workers and in the late 20th-early 21st white-collar workers of one sort or another. Nonetheless, it is certainly the case that the Labour Party mobilises for elections a great many more activists than the far left. The far left, of course, divides its potential output by sectarianism; but even the broad united campaigns of the Socialist Alliance and Scottish Socialist Party at their height were not in a position to mobilise numbers at all comparable to those turned out by the Labour Party.

If we suppose an average of 50 Labour Party activists per constituency, which is not a very large number, this would still produce around 31,000 across the UK – rather more than John McDonnell’s 2006 estimate of 20,000.11 Electoral success is correlated with ability to mobilise activists.12 It follows that Labour Party activists will be thicker on the ground in the working class areas Labour regularly wins – if not immediately in the ‘rotten borough’ constituencies and wards where Labour has won large majorities on small total votes for donkeys’ years, at least in the surrounding areas from which they can be mobilised to get out the vote.

This picture is, again, a marked contrast with the US Democrats, whose core activist base extends far more strongly into the traditional small-business petty bourgeoisie, into the legal profession (which in Britain is very dominated by Toryism) and so on.

The Blairites certainly hoped to transform the Labour Party’s membership and the methods of campaigning so as to make the party more of a ‘party for all classes’. This idea continues to be reflected in Blairite MPs’ grumbles about Brown’s leadership. But the fact is that they failed to do so. The continuing downgrading of party democracy in favour of ‘consultation’ and such-like – still ongoing with the decisions of the 2007 Bournemouth conference – indicates precisely that the party leadership cannot trust the activists to stay on-message: that the bourgeois-workers contradiction, requir-ing bureaucratic control, is still in place.

The finances show the same picture. Shortly before and for a while after 1997, the Labour Party was winning substantial donations from major capitals and capitalists. As the Labour government has gone on, these have increasingly dried up. The party has become as a result more financially dependent on the trade unions for its core funding. The Blairites and Brownites have stayed in control courtesy of the union leaders, who could at any time have cut off the funds until they went. This is an absolute contrast with the US Democratic Party, which certainly takes money from the trade unions, but receives and always has received far larger levels of funds from business. Here, as with the membership and the activists, the Blairite project of turning Labour into a ‘broad democratic front’ has failed.

It may yet be that the Blairites will succeed in destroying the Labour Party as a bourgeois workers’ party. But if they do it will not be by turning it into a US-style Democratic Party: that project has failed and had failed by 2005. It will be by liquidating it as a party. There are signs which point in this direction: in particular the loss of Wales to the Tories and Scotland to the Scottish National Party in the Euro elections, and the fact that Labour has been hardest hit by the MPs’ expenses scandal, could result in Labour achieving such poor results in 2010 as to reduce it to third-party status. If that happens, a return to pure capitalist two-party politics might follow.


The Labour Party is still a bourgeois workers’ party. The way its destruction as a bourgeois workers’ party is presently posed is as its destruction as a party and with it the marginalisation in the British working class of the idea of a workers’ party. I discussed the main immediate implications of this diagnosis in last week’s article. There are, however, some more things which can be said about the longer term.

In the first place, in both Lenin’s account of bourgeois workers’ parties and the one given last week and here, the existence of bourgeois workers’ parties depends on the ability and willingness of the bourgeoisie to make concessions to the working class (or at least to sections of it). But this willingness is not unlimited. Intensified capitalist competition and recession reduce the willingness of capital to make concessions. And – as I said last week and above – in the long term the concessions and incorporation of bourgeois workers’ parties are symptoms of capitalist decline, as the capitalist class and state are driven, to preserve their rule, to turn to an artificial statist reconstruction of capitalism, a counter-reformation.

It is commonly inferred by leftists that the result of these trends will be to undermine the basis of the existence of bourgeois workers’ parties and more or less automatically force a turn to the left and/or a left-right split. This idea forms the basis of entry projects and of the Britain’s road to socialism approach. The same dynamic underlies the analysis current on the British far left outside Labour: as the space for reforms is exhausted, the bourgeois workers’ party turns into a bourgeois party and this creates political space for a new independent workers’ party of those still willing to fight for reforms.

Three things are wrong with these arguments. In the first place, as long as all existing concessions have not been taken away, the bourgeois workers’ party still appears to very many workers as an instrument of defence against the bourgeoisie’s attacks, even if only to slow them down. It is, quite genuinely, such an instrument. New Labour in government has increased employment in the public sector, and has increased benefits to some of the poorest, even as it has continued Tory ‘reforms’ and the widening gap between rich and poor. For all Cameron’s touchy-feely talk, it is certain that a Tory government from 2010 would launch much harsher attacks on public sector workers and the unemployed. These circumstances cause Labour members and the more politically conscious trade unionists to hang onto Labour unity and the hope of Labour governments.

Second, the tendency of the bourgeoisie to take back existing concessions does in the long run undermine the bourgeois workers’ party phenomenon. But it does so because it objectively poses the need for the working class to overthrow the existing capitalist state system and take power internationally in order to defend existing gains. This objective need is one limb of a contradiction. The decline of a ruling class can end in revolution; but it can also end in “the mutual ruin of the contending classes” or in a paralysed, immobile state which can only be overthrown from outside (Byzantium, pre-revolutionary China). The expression of this contradiction at the level of the bourgeois workers’ party is that if the need to fight to overthrow the existing state system is not grasped, the result will not be a new leftwing party, but the liquidation of the mass idea of an independent workers’ party.

Third and most fundamental. The bourgeois workers’ party is an idea which has gripped broad masses (the point Marx makes in the Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of right’: “The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism of the weapon, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses.”13). The idea of a workers’ party did not originate spontaneously. It was fought for by small groups for years before it began to grip masses, and without this activity it never would have begun to grip masses.

An alternative to Labour (inside or outside the party) will only ever grip masses if it is an alternative to the basic ideas of the bourgeois workers’ party – an alternative to Labourism. That was, in reality, already true of the Labour left: this trend was (and largely still is) animated by the ideas of ‘official communism’, which gave it a partial alternative to the classic Labourism of the right. It has to be fought for – now – by relatively small forces. If these forces were unified on the basis of the elementary ideas of Marxism, they could have some effect.

It is this which makes the efforts of the far left to construct new, and each time more rightwing, alternative versions of the Labour Party not only futile, but positively destructive. The basic alternative to Labourism is a workers’ party which is not only independent of the capitalists and bourgeois parties, but also independent of and opposed to the existing capitalist state; which stands for the working class to take over and for the international unity of the working class. But this, of course, is what the far-left groups refuse to fight for, instead trying to create left-Labourite fronts.

In doing so they make it all the more likely that the contradiction that is Labour will end in a defeat for working class politics: the loss of the mass idea of an independent working class party.


  1. ‘Labour Party blues’, July 23.
  2. Wikipedia has a convenient, though under-referenced, summary of the chronology of the arrival of universal suffrage.
  3. Carefully Lassallean, because the author, Sidney Webb, was familiar with the SPD and must have known that he was using Lassalle as an antidote to Marx.
  4. See J Leckie, ‘Draft programme of the CPGB to the Comintern criticised’ Communist Review August 1924.
  6. Lifelong Labour rightwinger Ernest Bevin’s campaign of revolutionary-defencist speeches in 1940, which helped lead to the fall of the Chamberlain government, is a striking example (Corfield, ‘Why Chamberlain really fell’ (1996) History Today No12, pp22-26).
  8. A Gelman et al ‘Rich state, poor state, red state, blue state’ (2007):
  9. J Marshall, Membership of UK political parties (2009), p8:
  10. A Thorpe, ‘Reconstructing Conservative Party membership in World War II Britain’ (2009) 62 Parliamentary Affairs No227, pp227-38. Note 2 cites D Tanner, ‘Labour and its membership’ in D Tanner etc Labour’s first century Cambridge 2000, p250.
  12. P Whiteley, P Seyd, ‘How to win a landslide by really trying’ (2003) 22 Electoral studies 301; J Fisher, D Denver, ‘Evaluating the electoral effects of traditional and modern modes of constituency campaigning in Britain 1992-2005’ (2009) 62 Parliamentary Affairs 196 (grudgingly admitting that ‘traditional modes’ continue to have more effect).

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