Statement of the International Committee of the Fourth International
How the WRP Betrayed Trotskyism

1981: The WRP Embraces the Popular Front

The cynical betrayal of the steel workers was bound up with the WRP leadership’s previous retreat from the working class and was just the curtain raiser for the wholesale abandonment of principles that was carried through in 1981. Having impatiently abandoned the difficult political and theoretical struggle in the working class against social democracy, Healy was now in the process of developing an utterly opportunist modus operandi within the labor movement. All the work of the WRP became concentrated not on penetrating the mass movement from “below”—that is, through the recruitment of youth and factory workers one by one and their transformation into cadre—but from “above”—that is, by cultivating friendships among strategically-placed Labourites and trade union officials.

As Trotsky had warned, based on a review of the experiences of the British Communist Party: “One of the psychological sources of opportunism is superficial impatience, the lack of confidence in the gradual growth of the party’s influence, the desire to win the masses with the aid of an organizational maneuver or personal diplomacy. Out of this springs the policy of combinations behind the scenes, the policy of silence, of hushing up, of self-renunciation, of adaptation to the ideas and slogans of others; and finally, the complete passage to the positions of opportunism.” (Marxism and the Trade Unions, New Park, p. 74)

Of all the forms of opportunism, none is more dangerous and politically-fatal than the conception that the capitalist state apparatus can be captured by stealth and placed at the service of the working class. Lassalle was the first to go astray on this question and each subsequent experiment produced not only bigger blunders but actual crimes and betrayals. Healy was now ready to try his hand at this folly.

In the aftermath of the steel strike, Healy re-established ties with a Labourite operator in Lambeth by the name of Ted Knight. This man had been associated with Healy back in the early 1960’s, but when forced to choose between Trotskyism and a career in the Labour Party, followed the dictates of his conscience and broke decisively with the Socialist Labour League (predecessor of the WRP). Now, after a long hiatus, their paths crossed again. They discovered that each man had something the other wanted. Knight had important connections inside the Labour Party and was on good terms with an up-and-coming middle-class “left” by the name of Ken Livingstone. Healy, on the other hand, controlled a few printing presses and could place the resources of a large apparatus at Knight’s disposal. A bargain was struck. Healy would provide Knight with an opportunity to broaden his base while fending off criticism on the left. Knight would provide Healy, or so “Red Ted” claimed, with a passable substitute for working-class power through Lambeth and the Greater London Council.

Having given up on the dictatorship of the proletariat, Healy was prepared to settle, as he approached his 70th year, for some influence on the titans of reformism in London. Having set out on the revolutionary road in 1928, Healy—like so many he had fought and scorned in the past—had finally been persuaded of the futility of the Long March. A short cut had to be found, and so he hit upon a novel idea: if he could not convince the working class to replace Parliament with Soviets, why not try to convert Parliamentarians into commissars?

Making a deal with Knight was one thing. Selling it to the Party was something else. This political take-off on the Three Penny Opera had to be dressed up with the required “left-sounding” phrases and in this way the concept of the Workers Revolutionary Government, based on Community Councils, burst upon the scene.

Despite the assurances given to rank-and-file WRP members that the Workers Revolutionary Government based on Community Councils was merely an up-dated, made-in-Britain version of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat based on Soviets, the real content of this previously unknown species of state power was quite different.

As defined in the programmatic statements of the WRP, the Community Councils were envisaged as the political offspring of capitalist local government, and not as independent organs of proletarian power. The specific function assigned to these Councils by the WRP was to serve as the adjunct of Labourite councillors caught between the Tory financial squeeze and the working class.

It was especially significant that the WRP assigned the mass trade union organizations only a negligible role in the formation and leadership of these councils, despite the overwhelming weight of the trade unions in the political and social life of the working class. According to Manifesto ‘81, passed at the Fifth Congress of the WRP in February 1981:

“At the very heart of the Community Councils will be the trade unions. But the Community Councils will make the struggle for jobs, living standards and basic democratic rights the responsibility of the whole community and not only local bodies like the trades councils.” (p. 8, Emphasis added.)

The WRP would soon be demanding, in practice, the complete subordination of the trade union struggles to the interests of the Labour-dominated local government institutions which have evolved over the last 400 years in Britain as organs of the capitalist state. Though it had been insisting less than two years earlier that the Labourites rely upon the Tories, the WRP was now ignoring the crucial role played by Labour-controlled “Local government” in upholding the authority of the capitalist state over the working class. Implicit in the policy developed by the WRP was the utterly reformist conception that Local government, once a majority of its seats are controlled by Labour councillors, becomes an organ of workers’ rule. This amounted to nothing more than reviving the old and discredited conceptions of “municipal” socialism that flourished during the epoch of the Second International and which today forms the centerpiece of Stalinist strategy in Italy.

The WRP had come a long way from the days when it opposed subordinating the working class to the bourgeoisie and even to such radical petty-bourgeois leaders like Castro. But now they glorified the possibility of democratizing organs of the capitalist state and using them in the interest of the working class.

Especially crucial in understanding the non-proletarian axis of the Community Councils projected by the WRP was its demand that:

“The Community Councils must incorporate existing local community bodies which have sprung up almost overnight in some area—for example, community groups against police violence, against racism, against hospital and school closures, against cutbacks in local facilities such as playgrounds and libraries, against the cuts in medical facilities and university education, and also tenants and ratepayers’ organizations.” (Ibid., Emphasis added.)

It all sounded very popular and democratic, but in actual fact it amounted to an attempt to shift the axis of revolutionary struggle away from the proletariat and its independent class organizations to various socially-amorphous “local bodies,” which have come into existence as offspring of the capitalist state. Inevitably, this shift away from a proletarian axis led directly to open advocation of Popular Front class collaboration. The Community Councils, insisted the WRP, “must open their doors to all those fighting the Tories—local Labour groups, other political organizations in the labour movement and other people regardless of their religion, color, nationality and even if they mistakenly [!] voted Tory at the last General Election. (Ibid., Emphasis added)

Whether these “other people” might include Tory “wets” who had “mistakenly” served in previous Tory governments, and, like Ted Heath, had perhaps “mistakenly” attempted to destroy the trade unions, was not explained. That was left by Healy in the area of “the Open Question.”