How to relate to members of the Labour Party has always been one of the most important questions for revolutionaries in Britain. In 1920, when the Communist Party of Great Britain was founded, it was a central debate.
New parties were being formed, old ones transformed, and hundreds of millions of workers across the globe were looking to socialist ideas.
The Russian Revolution had showed the importance of independent revolutionary organisation, but such an organisation had to connect with the mass of workers outside its ranks.
This was the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin’s starting point when he argued that Communists in Britain should apply to affiliate to Labour.
He argued that the “British Labour Party is in a very special position—it is a highly original type of party, or rather, it is not at all a party in the ordinary sense of the word.”
Labour was then made up of various affiliated unions and socialist societies.
Lenin argued to affiliate on the basis of being an openly revolutionary organisation.
The Communists wouldn’t try to hide their programme—and they didn’t believe Labour could be transformed into a revolutionary party.
In the era of tumult it seemed possible that affiliation might be possible, at least temporarily.
This could help the Communists win over large numbers of Labour members to revolutionary ideas.
After a sharp internal debate, the Communists followed Lenin’s plan and applied to affiliate with a letter that made clear they rejected “the ordinary methods of parliamentary democracy”. They were turned down.
This wasn’t a shock, and Lenin had argued that it would be “a great victory for the communist and revolutionary working class movement in Britain,” if Labour expelled the Communist Party for “acting in a revolutionary manner”.
It would show that Labour and its politics of working within the system were both non-revolutionary and a barrier to workers’ unity.
At the same time Communist activists worked alongside Labour members to build the class struggle. They grew from around 2,000 members in 1921 to 6,000 in 1926.
In two places Communists even got elected to parliament with local Labour support. Walton Newbold was elected in Motherwell while Shapurji Saklatvala was elected in Battersea North on a Labour ticket—despite being an open Communist.
Within a few years the Communist Party fell into relying on trade union officials and Labour politicians to change society.
They had forgotten Lenin’s original argument. He argued that while Labour was “made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit” of capitalism.
Today Labour doesn’t allow affiliation by independent organisations in the way that it used to.
Revolutionaries entering the Labour Party have almost always become fixated on trying to transform Labour, focusing on internal battles inside the party rather than building class struggle.
They can end up encouraging the idea that Labour is a vehicle for real change.
But the principle of trying to relate to Labour members while building an independent revolutionary organisation is as relevant now as it was in 1920.
Revolutionaries have to find ways to defend Jeremy Corbyn against the right while pointing to an alternative to parliament based on struggle in the workplaces and on the streets.