The history of the ILP has important lessons for socialists. It shows the opportunities and pitfalls of organising both inside and outside Labour.
It was founded in 1893 by socialists who wanted a clean break from reliance on the Liberals.
It aimed “to secure the collective and communal ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange” and was a real step forward because it stressed class independence.
Its leaders included Keir Hardie, a new MP, and Ben Tillett who had headed the 1889 dock strike.
In 1900 the ILP became a central part of the broader Labour Representation Committee (LRC), the forerunner of the modern Labour Party.
The ILP’s leaders agreed that the only way to achieve change was through winning MPs.
At the party’s 1909 congress, ILP leader Ramsay MacDonald insisted that “democratic government”—by which he meant parliament—was “essential to the building up of the socialist state”.
The ILP was not a revolutionary organisation. But it refused to back its own rulers when the First World War began.
In 1914 it proclaimed, “Out of the darkness we hail our working class comrades in every country”.
The ILP stayed in the Labour Party but its leaders resigned many of their positions in it. Its opposition was pacifist rather than revolutionary and unlike the Bolsheviks in Russia did not seek to turn the war into an assault on the ruling class.
The ILP stood against the slaughter but was ineffective in stopping it.
The 1917 Russian revolution electrified workers everywhere.
The ILP grew to around 750 branches and had tens of thousands of militant working class members. ILP figures again rose to the head of the Labour Party.
Instead of joining the new Communist Party (CP) the left wing in the ILP argued to remain in Labour and to seek to win it as a whole to the CP.
But the pressure worked the other way.
Revolutionary workers were corralled behind a rightward-moving Labour leadership that, for example, refused to support the 1926 general strike.
Then came the great slump of 1929. ILP member MacDonald, the Labour prime minister, was determined to implement vicious austerity.
When his cabinet colleagues hesitated, MacDonald formed a coalition government with the Tories and Liberals.
Within a year the ILP broke from Labour, taking over 15,000 of the best members and five MPs. The ILP moved sharply leftwards. But despite the organisational break, politically it was “centrist”, veering between revolution and reform.
In 1934 the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote, “The ILP broke away from the Labour Party. That was correct.
“If the ILP wanted to become a revolutionary lever, it was impossible for the handle of this lever to be left in the hands of the thoroughly opportunist and bourgeois careerists.
“Complete and unconditional political and organisational independence of a revolutionary party is the first prerequisite for its success.”
But Trotsky also insisted that “while breaking from the Labour Party, it was necessary immediately to turn towards it” and to seek united front work.
Instead the ILP degenerated. In 1936 its conference voted against the party leadership over what action to take after the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. MPs said they would resign—so the conference immediately reversed its policy.
Politically the ILP was dead.
Revolutionaries need political clarity about the big questions in politics, whatever organisational roads they choose. And they need independent revolutionary organisation whatever structures they work in.