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New Left Review I/133, May-June 1982


Geoff Hodgson

On the Political Economy of the Socialist Transformation

There are many questions which refuse a reassuring answer. This is no less true within socialist theory. The issue of whether socialists and Marxists should work within the Labour Party has preoccupied the British Left throughout this century. The Social Democratic Federation decided to disaffiliate in the early 1900s. The question of affiliation to the Labour Party took up half the agenda of the founding conference of the Communist Party in 1920. In 1932 the Independent Labour Party broke away from the mass organization it had fathered. In the late 1960s, with both student and working-class disillusionment with the Labour Government of Harold Wilson, the issue seemed finally to be resolved: Labour was finished as a socialist party. After decades of ‘entryism’, most of the major Far Left groups left the Party. Thousands of other socialists also moved out in disgust. After the May 1968 events in France the hope was for a similar revolutionary upsurge in Britain: which would be bound to bypass the Labour Party. By 1970 a large section, perhaps the majority, of the Left in Britain had dismissed the possibility of ‘entryism’ into the Labour Party; such a strategy had been rejected. Three years later, the second edition of Ralph Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism appeared, suggesting that the attempt to transform Labour into a socialist party should be abandoned. [1] R. Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism, London, 1973. Against this tide of opinion, Ken Coates responded with a brilliant theoretical testament which still remains highly relevant. [2] K. Coates, ‘Socialists and the Labour Party’, Socialist Register 1973; reprinted in K. Coates, Beyond Wage Slavery, Nottingham, 1977. At about this time the ongoing shift to the Left within the Labour Party came to public attention, and the question of working within the Labour Party re-emerged. Thus the debate re-ignited by Ralph Miliband and Ken Coates continues to this day. [3] D. Coates, The Labour Party and the Struggle for Socialism, London, 1975; R. Miliband, ‘Moving On’, Socialist Register 1976; P . Jenkins, ‘The Labour Party and the Politics of Transition’, Socialist Register 1977; L. Panitch, ‘Socialists and the Labour Party: A Reappraisal’, Socialist Register 1979; D. Coates, Labour in Power?, London, 1980; M. Rustin, ‘Different Conceptions of the Party: Labour’s Constitutional Debates’, New Left Review 126, March–April 1981; D. Coates, ‘Labourism and the Transition to Socialism’, New Left Review 129, September–October 1981; E. Hobsbawm et al, The Forward March of Labour Halted?, Verso, London, 1981. A mark of its renewed strength was the fact that the ‘Debate of the Decade’, organized in London in 1980, was almost totally preoccupied with the question which had been summarily dismissed ten years before. [4] See the transcript of this debate: P. Hain (ed.), The Debate of the Decade, London, 1980.

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