National Sections of the L5I:

Labour Youth against the bureaucracy: 1960-64

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Julian Scholefield reviews the history of the Healy group in the Labour party in the 1960s

Since Labour’s General Election defeat in June Neil Kinnock and the majority of the National Executive Committee (NEC) have pressed ahead with their attacks on the left. The proposal for ‘one-member-one-vote’ will spearhead the attempt to reduce even further the meagre level of accountability of Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) over their MPs.

Closely connected to this attack are the mooted ‘reforms’ outlined for Labour’s youth section, the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS). The Sawyer proposals for the LPYS will effectively mean a merger between it and the National Organisation of Labour Students (NOLS), with participation for the trade union youth sections, women’s sections and CLPs.

The right aim to create a new youth organisation, minus its present Militant leadership, and controlled by Kinnock’s loyal young student bureaucrats who presently control the much larger NOLS. Sawyer’s further proposal to reduce the age limit for LPYS membership from 26 to 21 will cut out the most experienced activists, leaving a younger, rawer membership; one whichwill be more easily subordinated to the wishes of Labour’s bureaucrats.

Why has Kinnock decided to move against the LPYS? After three election defeats Labour’s parliamentary leadership are determined to be rid of the ‘Trotskyist’ skeletons in the cupboard. The present LPYS remains at best an electoral embarrassment and at worst a potential source of opposition to Kinnock’s stated project over the next years of purging the Party’s programme of any vestiges of positive commitment to the working class.

At the same time, Labour’s leadership do want a youth movement. Not one which leads a visible, campaigning fight against youth unemployment, or champions the cause of black youth fighting back against the thuggery of the police; rather, they want, even need, a straitjacketed and obedient youth organisation. Its only function would be as the youth bureau of the election propaganda machine whose purpose would be to re-capture the lost youth vote.

What kind of Youth Movement?
Conflict between reformist parties and their youth sections has been a constant feature of political life ever since the Belgian Socialist Party spawned Young Guard in 1886. The source of the tension—then as now—arises from more than youthful idealism. The craven parliamentary outlook of right-wing Social Democratic or Labour leaders has invariably failed to defend the interests of young workers.

In the early part of this century, the strident anti-militarism of tens of thousands of youth collided with the chauvinism of the parent organisations as imperialist Europe edged towards war. Today in Britain Labour fails to lead the fight against the forms of exploitation and oppression which most sharply affect young working class people; unemployment, cheap labour schemes, oppression in the family, racism, lesbian and gay oppression and the oppression of young women.

As with other specifically oppressed sections within the working class, youth need special forms of organisation to fight back. The purpose of such organisations in the first instance is to develop forms of propaganda and agitation which are suited to their social and cultural outlook. It is a daily fact of life for working class youth that they are subject to the oppressive discipline of the home and the dictates of adult bosses, supervisors and even union representatives at work.

Youth need their own organisations in which they can be free to fight for their specific interests, make their own mistakes and, in correcting them, develop politically. The Labour Party has never been content to allow young socialists this degree of autonomy. The struggle to establish and defend the Young Socialists (YS—as it was then called) from attack in the early 1960s is one of the themes of this article.

But the history of Labour’s youth sections presents us with another problem. Ever since the first such organisation, they have invariably found themselves under the political leadership of tendencies which have called themselves ‘communist’, ‘Trotskyist’ or ‘Marxist’.

The Labour League of Youth (LLoY), up until its demise in 1955, was dominated by Stalinism. Soon after its formation in 1960 the YS found the Keep Left supporters at its head who were in turn led by the youth members of Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League (SLL). They were supplanted after 1964 by supporters of Militant who have dominated Labour’s youth to this day.

As self-proclaimed revolutionary socialists, these last two groups—leading the youth section of a reformist Labour Party—were faced with two interlinked tasks. First, to build a mass, campaigning, independent youth organisation in alliance with the reformist socialist youth and even the official leadership of the parent party where possible.

Secondly, with drawing the advanced sections of the youth into a revolutionary communist organsation. Through the experience of clashes with the Labour and trade union bureaucracy and its uselessness in fighting youth oppression and exploitation, it was essential to draw the lessons—in front of the mass of youth—about the need to overthrow capitalism through proletarian revolution, about the sham nature of parliamentary democracy and about the inherent inability of the Labour party to confront these tasks.

In short, revolutionary socialists taking their place in the struggles of Labour’s youth organisation were, and remain, obliged to struggle for an independent revolutionary youth movement. Such a movement would not exclude non-party youth from its ranks. On the contrary, precisely because of the difficulties that youth in general have with authority and discipline—due to the nature of their oppression—many youth would want to fight for a revolutionary programme but not be ready to take their place in a democratic centralist organisation.

Neither Keep Left nor Militant suceeded in fulfilling these tasks. Indeed under Militant’s leadership the LPYS has become an extremely moribund organisation. An examination of Militant’s record is beyond the scope of this article. It examines the work of Keep Left in the YS in the early 1960s and assesses how they measured up to their tasks and considers what that experience teaches us today as once more the youth prepare to fight the party apparatus.

The Fight against Transport House
Labour had kept their youth on a short leash after the war. The LLoY was run by a party official. Transport House, the Labour Party Headquarters, effectively picked a National Consultative Commitee to run it. No national conference was held until 1951 and political contact between branches was not allowed.

By then the LLoY was in decline and its official paper, Socialist Advance, was unreadable and unread. Conflict between the Communist Party, who effectively controlled the LLoY, and the Labour Party led to the Margate Labour Party Annual Conference closing down the LLoY in 1955. Socialist Advance folded around the same time.

In early 1956 Transport House set up a successor to the LLoY called the Youth Sections. But they were purely local bodies tied to the CLPs, with no regional or national structures which may have allowed a militant opposition to gain influence.

It was in the next few years that Keep Left was to grow in influence. The paper began life in November 1950 as the duplicated monthly bulletin of the Wembley LLoY. By the end of 1957 it claimed to be selling 1,000 copies. In January 1958 the first four page printed issue appeared. At the time its new format drew fulsome greetings from many MPs, union leaders and even Barbara Castle—the Vice-Chair of the Labour Party. Given Keep Left’s complete commitment to the Labour Party and the strength of the left within it at this time this was understandable.

In the absence of an official national organisation or paper Keep Left was a medium of contact between branches. It fought for democratisation, first within LLoY and later within the youth sections. It leaned heavily toward industrial working class youth and its main propaganda and work in the Labour Party concerned disarmament. The years 1957-60 were the high point for CND’s popularity and for unilateralist fervour in the party. In October 1958 the SLL held an industrial youth conference and in February the following year a Keep Left conference, both of which were well supported.

Faced with the small but growing influence of Keep Left, and having lost its third general election in a row in 1959, the Labour leadership under Hugh Gaitskell decided it needed a national youth organisation to help restore its electoral fortunes. Better, as well, to set up a straitjacketed organisation from the top down than continue to allow the unchecked growth of one from below up under the control of oppositionists. In 1960 the Young Socialists (YS) was born.

It was to have its own national conference. But rather than conference delegates electing a National Committee (NC), the NC was to consist of regional representatives and three members of theLabour Party NEC. A ban on discussion of most political issues was part of the rules. The regional federations were initially forbidden to discuss politics as well but this rule was ignored and scrapped.

Between the decision to set up the YS and its first conference at Easter 1961, the tide turned against the left. The Scarborough Party conference in 1960 passed a unilateralist resolution demanding that the next Labour government get rid of Britain’s H-bomb. Gaitskell was determined that Labour would not lose a fourth general election saddled with this commitment and vowed to ‘fight, fight and fight again’ to overthrow the policy. Indeed, after Scarborough the left either retreated or ‘re-aligned’ themselves to the right in readiness for the 1964 election. The writing was on the wall for those who were prepared to stand their ground.

Before the end of 1960, having witnessed a successful Keep Left Manchester conference in addition to Scarborough, Labour’s NEC made its move and voted to order the two YS branches sponsoring Keep Left to desist since it argued that it was not ‘the function of YS branches to publish national newspapers’ .(1)

To their credit the paper went on the offensive in the face of this. Keep Left responded decisively on the front page of their December 1960 issue; ‘Our reply to the disrupters and witch-hunters on the NEC: we shall not shut down this paper.’ (2) Twenty-six more YS branches added their names to the list of sponsors. The January 1961 AGM of the paper confirmed its defiant stance. The same month over 250 delegates to Liverpool Trades and Labour Council defended the right of Keep Left or any other group’s paper to publish and demanded that the NEC rescind its decision.

The first YS Conference took place at Easter 1961. The resolutions passed were generally left (unilateralist, more nationalisation, troops out of the colonies). A motion of no-confidence in Hugh Gaitskell was even carried by 189 votes to 113. The combined forces of Ted Grant and Tony Cliff’s organisations’ youth launched another left paper, Young Guard at this conference. They were to the right of Keep Left who dubbed them the ‘Young Moderates’. Despite, or perhaps because of this, the Gaitskellites won a majority of seats on the National Committee.

During the next twelve months Keep Left was successful in gaining more support for its stand despite the intensification of the right-wing witch-hunt against it. This was in large measure due to the success it had in turning YS branches into large, lively and relevant organisations of struggle made up of working class youth.

The most well-known instance was Wigan where Keep Left recruited 300 members to the YS within a month. This was achieved by trying to attract youth to social as well as political activities. This has since became known as ‘Wiganisation’. Was it a correct policy? It was as far as it attempted to make the YS more accessible to young working class people. To young people who have experienced further or higher education, grappling with political ideas in education forums comes easier. Keep Left’s attempt to use social activities such as dances and discos to encourage young people to organise themselves politically was useful and imaginative as far as it went. The danger lay in totally substituting such social activities for political education and action. But Keep Left seemed conscious of these dangers. Its pages are scattered with candid remarks about preventing socials turning into ‘rough houses’. But the evidence suggests that in the early 1960s they turned many a YS branch from a talking shop of half a dozen into campaigning bodies and which were able to translate the hundreds at the socials into coach loads for CND demonstrations and for pickets and lobbies of Transport House.

The paper itself was serious and did not talk down to its audience. It puts the patronising photomontages that pass for youth papers today, such as Youth Fightback, to shame. In depth, well-argued, popularly written articles on British imperialism in Malaysia, on the role of the United Nations, on the errors of the sit-down tactic on CND mobilisations; all these sat comfortably alongside exposure articles on the condition of youth in the inner-city areas, the fight to implement Labour Party policies and reports of the activities of the branches. In fact, it is quite striking how little coverage there was of popular culture in Keep Left.

No doubt, the activities of the YS branches where Keep Left had some influence were a constant source of irritation to Transport House. Lobbies of the TUC by Scottish unemployed youth, a vigorous intervention into the 1962 apprentices’ strike, support for the ‘mods and rockers’ against police violence, mobilisations to keep the fascists off the streets, conferences for young industrial trade unionists—all these campaigns were either intiated or backed by Keep Left in the years 1961-64 and showed Labour’s leaders, much to their embarrassment what a militant, mass independent socialist youth movement could do. It was to lead to Keep Left’s paid sale reaching over10,000 in 1964.(3)

It was inevitable then that the 1962 Easter YS Conference would be an explosive affair. At it the right wing witch-hunters managed to get a resolution passed which condemned Keep Left. Nevertheless, reflecting the work that the paper’s supporters were doing in the regions, three Keep Left supporters were elected by the regions onto the NC of eleven.

Following this conference and the storming of platforms by YS members on May Day in London and Glasgow, Keep Left was proscribed in June. At the same time Keep Left editor, Roger Protz, was expelled from St Pancras North Labour Party, and the three Keep Left YS NC members were suspended. The remaining eight NC members were told to accept the NEC decision or have the YS disbanded.

The Labour Party Conference in October 1962 backed the suspensions and proscription. Keep Left persisted, however. It called on the rest of the YS National Committee to resign rather than lend legitimacy to the doings of the NEC youth sub-committee. Far from being allies in the fight, however, Young Guard (who also had three NC members) took a conciliatory line.

Young Guard was not proscribed but had certain conditions put on it by Labour’s NEC. It had to include in its aims unconditional support for the return of a Labour government; improve the paper’s tone(!), be open to all YS opinion and stop being ‘factional’. These predecessors of the present SWP, who now refuse to work in the Labour Party on principle, capitulated totally to the attacks from the leadership. Young Guard intoned ‘We have always rejected the arguments of those who say that we should be building a faction within the YS’. Young Guard did not believe in the need to fight the bureaucracy head on. John Palmer, a leader of Young Guard, said in 1963:

‘The onus is on the YS to find a relationship with our party which will radically reduce and eventually eliminate the source of those frictions and clashes which are leaving such a bitter heritage in the ranks of young people joining the YS. One thing must be made clear above all. There is no future for the YS outside the Labour Party. Our only hope is to find a relationship even more close to it than at present, but one which will allow us essential freedom as a youth movement.’ (4)

At the time this extremely opportunist position ofYoung Guard seriously undermined Keep Left which wanted to resist the attacks. In time, passivity and conciliationism gave way to back-stabbing. At the Easter 1964 YS conference Young Guard supporters voted against the resolutions which proposed a fight against the expulsion of YS NC chair and Keep Left supporter, John Robertson.

Gathering Support
The cowardice of Young Guard was all the more unforgivable given that the fight against Transport House in the context of a growing anti-Tory mood amongst working class youth actually did mobilise support for an end to expulsions and proscriptions. When the three suspended YS NC members were expelled in December 1962 motions in their support flooded in from YS branches for the April 1963 YS Conference. At that conference motions calling for re-instatement were passed, even though the expulsions were upheld at the Labour party conference that autumn.

So successful was the campaign that at the 1963 and 1964 YS Conferences, each one bigger than before, Keep Left gained a majority of the NC places. It was after the 1964 conference that Transport House decided to act decisively. Reg Underhill, a full time officer for the Labour Party who sat on the YS NC for the NEC, reported after the YS conference,

‘If the Trotskyist faction is not to be permitted to further extend its influence in the YS, and thereby within the party itself . . . I would suggest that in the near future serious consideration must be given to the structure and activities of the YS.’ (5)

Underhill proceeded in June to close down the first post-conference NC meeting for protesting the suspension of the Streatham YS branch. Keep Left stood firm and demanded that the NC be reconvened, that the trade union and Labour Party branches around the country act to oppose the attempts to close down the youth movement.

As before they could not rely upon Young Guard. But in addition they had to contend with a new grouping, Militant, which appeared for the first time at the 1964 YS conference, having separated themselves off from Young Guard. Militant was as treacherous. Between them Young Guard and Militant formed the ‘Save the Young Socialists’ campaign which was backed by the witch-hunting left such as Tribune and was even viewed sympathetically by Transport House because it preached loyalty to the consititution.

In Liverpool Trades Council in September 1964 Councillor and Militant supporter Pat Wall (now an MP in Bradford) opposed a resolution condemning the ‘high-handed attitude of the NEC toward YS’ and instead put a resolution, which, while opposing restrictions, emphasised—in the context of a witch-hunt—his opposition to ‘any attempt to form a separate socialist youth organisation outside the Labour Party.’ (6) This resolution was passed.

The election of the Wilson Labour Government in late 1964 was to prove a watershed for Keep Left. They decided that little more could be done to fight the witch-hunt inside the YS or Labour Party and it was time to cut and run. They undoubtedly commanded a majority of the YS branches at this time. The March 1964 YS conference had 347 delegates representing 726 branches. The next, and last, ‘official’ YS conference early in 1965 was much smaller. It was without the participation of Keep Left who decided to organise their own YS conference in February 1965 ‘free from the tight reins of the Transport House bureaucracy’. (7) The Blackpool Labour Party conference in 1965 finally took the decision to close down the YS.

How should we assess the campaign against Transport House and the final split? An article written by Workers Action (the predecessor of the present day Socialist Organiser/Youth Fightback) argues that defiance by Keep Left would ultimately necessitate a sectarian split with the Labour Party:

‘In retrospect it can be seen that the decision to defy the ban and continue Keep Left was a decisive turning point for Keep Left and the YS. It succeeded spectacularly in maintaining the forces of Keep Left and even in building up the YS in defiance of the witch-hunters and bureaucrats. But it implied a YS separated from the Labour Party, and in the next two years, step by step the logic spelled itself out.’ (8)

However, had Keep Left not defied the ban and resisted the attacks then the only alternative would have been capitulation and submission to the NEC’s wishes. That is the road to the sort of passive, subdued youth section which Militant now control on behalf of the NEC.

For revolutionaries, defiance and resistance to the bureaucrats’ attacks are vital to prevent the right-wing from winning victories over the left which pave the way for a right wing anti-working class Labour government. Socialist Organiser’s view is in complete sympathy with the Young Guard and Militant of over twenty years ago, and it flows from exactly the same premise; namely, that staying within the Labour Party is essential at all costs. This will inevitably lead to opportunism.

It is necesary to judge the Keep Left experience from a different vantage point. Did they, as subjective revolutionaries or Trotskyists, politically prepare themselves and their young followers for the consequences of their defiance? The whole logic of this spirited resistance and campaigning attitude was that they would have to break with Labour and reformism and form a revolutionary youth movement.

Yet when Keep Left is studied from this angle it is impossible not to conclude that their perspectives and politics were centrist; in particular their attitude to the Labour Party was profoundly flawed.

The Socialist Labour League and Keep Left
In Underhill’s report of the 1964 YS conference he noted in sympathetic tones that anti-Keep Left youth had angrily surrounded a car outside the conference hall. The threatened passenger was none other than Gerry Healy, leader of the SLL.

The SLL had been formed in 1959 and was the controlling force behind Keep Left. When Keep Left first appeared in 1950 Healy’s group were publishing a paper called Socialist Outlook. Between 1948 and 1954, when it was proscribed by Transport House, it built up an appalling record of opportunism toward the Labour ‘lefts’ around Aneurin Bevan. (9)

Underpinning this opportunism was a completely false attitude to the Labour Party in general and the role of the left-wing within it in particular. Lenin and Trotsky’s attitude to these questions was imbued with revolutionary realism. They recognised that Labour was a bourgeois workers’ party, that is to say, a party based on the organisations of the working class (most importantly the trade unions), financed by them and deriving electoral support from their members; but a party whose programme and leadership was thoroughly pro-capitalist.

Politically, then, the Labour Party was not simply the political wing of the labour movement in some general sense, but rather the political expression of the trade union bureaucracy which had given birth to it. The Labour Party is not capable of bringing about socialism. Despite the illusions of the party’s supporters that it can and however essential is the fight to make the Labour Party carry out definite reforms that benefit workers, revolutionaries must never intimate in their propaganda that ‘socialism’, still less, ‘revolution’ can come through the Labour Party.

The organisational framework of the party reflects this fact. The Labour Party was not, and is not, some neutral battleground in which the forces of reform and revolution fight it out for possession of the leadership and apparatus. It is not simply the case that because it is based on the labour movement it can be forced to reflect anti-capitalist pressures from below. At the top the Labour Party machine, its parliamentary fraction and trade union bureaucrats lean, for support against the rank and file, upon the capitalist state itself.

Revolutionaries who fight alongside workers inside the Labour Party must therefore always work with the perspective that while a revolutionary party can and must be constructed by winning workers away from Labour it will never be the case that Labour can be ‘captured’ by the left-wing or Marxists. The right will split the party with the aid of the bosses or, more likely, expel the left long before this can happen.

The question then arises whether the propaganda and agitation of the SLL or Keep Left constantly hammered away at these lessons of history in the context of its fight for democracy against bureaucracy; whether in the battle for a mass, campaigning, class struggle and independent Labour Party youth movement, it was made clear to thousands of young workers that the inability of Labour to tolerate such a thing pointed to the need for a revolutionary communist youth movement?

After all, Keep Left was not the official paper of YS; that was the role of Socialist Advance. The former’s role was meant to be that of a revolutionary tendency within the YS. Moreover, during 1963 and 1964 it was in the leadership of the YS and in a favourable position to politically prepare the YS membership for a decisive conflict with Transport House.

Perspectives and Programme
The Healy group published a periodical entitled Labour Review during the 1950s. In the first issues that hit the streets in 1952 the attitude to Labour was wilfully short-sighted. Rather than draw the lessons of the 1945-51 Labour government as to the dead end nature of reformism Labour Review preferred to repair the battered illusions. Months after the Tories came to power it stated:

‘. . . a reinvigorated Labour Party can rescue England from capitalist reaction and war, and under the banner of socialism open a new road for the people of Britain and the entire world.’ (10)

For most of the 1950s Healy’s group believed that reinvigoration would come via the Labour left and Socialist Outlook positively promoted this view. They changed tack somewhat after the demise of Socialist Outlook and the Labour defeat of 1955. This defeat produced a growing timidity within the Labour left. By 1957 Bevan had more or less made his peace with Gaitskell. Meanwhile the crisis within Stalinism after 1956 produced a substantial number of cadre coming over to the ‘Trotskyism’ of Gerry Healy. In turn, this resulted in the weekly Newsletter, the renaissance of Labour Review and finally the formation of the SLL itself.

Nevertheless, there was more continuity than not in the politics of the SLL. It was itself a group which rejected the idea that a revolutionary party was needed operating in the open in opposition to the Labour Party. This was so despite the proscription of the SLL soon after it was formed. This attitude also informed Keep Left. At its second conference in the summer of 1960 they ‘rejected the sectarian conception that this was the period to launch an independent revolutionary party of the working class.’ (11)

While it would have been correct to reject the fantasy of declaring that one is the revolutionary party what was entailed here was the rejection of fighting for the construction of such a party as a product and outcome of one’s activity in the Labour Party.

The propaganda and programme of the SLL and Keep Left was informed by a mixture of ultra-left premises and opportunist conclusions. After the third defeat for Labour in 1959 Labour Review argued that:

‘The results of the election, therefore, resemble a gigantic damburst which will release new forces from all the forms of struggle surpressed since the end of the war . . . The game of ’“ins and outs” between the two political parties has been wound up . . . In the days that lie ahead the role of Parliament will steadily diminish in the minds of the working class and new forms of action will emerge.’ (12)

To justify such a scenario they had to deny the substance of the post-war economic boom which had in fact underwritten the protracted period of relative social peace and class collaboration which the SLL were certain was about to end. In 1963 they argued that reformism and Stalinism were weakened because ‘the depth of the present crisis, which is not temporary but a deep historical one . . . drags them into crisis along with the social system.’ (13)

The Healy view of how this crisis would develop politically remained much the same as before the SLL was formed. The crisis would radicalise the rank and file in the unions and the youth; their anger would be channelled into the Labour Party. But whereas the traditional Bevanite left was weak and incapable of beating the right because it feared to link up with the class struggle outside Parliament, the Marxist left in the Labour Party would succeed in beating Gaitskell because it was rooted in, and drew its power from, the radicalised rank and file in the factories.

A revolutionary Trotskyist transitional programme in confrontation with reformism was unnecessary because the objective situation was pregnant with revolutionary possibilities which would infuse the working class and some of its leaders. In a classic piece of economistic journalism Labour Review stated in 1958:

‘We have entered a period when industrial struggle cannot but lead to political action, by its own inner logic; more and more workers, in challenging their employers, challenge thereby also the political leadership of those employers, the Tory government and the state apparatus.’ (14)

In early 1962 this ‘logic’ meant that:

‘Important sections of the rank and file, the bulk of the youth and even some trade union leaders swung behind policies involving a sharp break with the bourgeoisie and consequently their agents in the Labour movement.’ (15)

This opportunist conception, that the crisis would prove stronger than the Labour Party and its right-wing, so strong that it could not resist bending to its will, was rife in the pages of Keep Left. Even after the 1962 Labour Party conference endorsed the proscription of the paper they argued that the YS ‘. . . could be the force to maintain Labour in power and begin to renew society in the interests of the whole community.’ (16)

Keep Left consistently failed to present a revolutionary programme on each issue. At best it advanced a left reformist or centrist one. To see this it is worth while looking at two questions which were raging in the Labour Party in the newly constituted YS in 1960.

In 1960 the Labour Party conference at Scarborough voted for unilateral nuclear disarmament. This was partly due to massive pressure built up by the huge demonstrations organised by CND at Aldermaston and Trafalgar Square. During this campaign Keep Left, took a straightforward unilateralist position within the YS, organising 200 members to lobby the Scarborough conference with slogans like: ‘Quit Nato’, ‘Close Rocket bases’, ‘Stop making H-bombs’, and ‘Bring down the Tory H-bomb government.’

For Marxists, these positions, fully acceptable to left reformists—such as Tony Benn today—are fine as far as they go and certainly provide the framework for common action. But they stop short of a revolutionary alternative to the pacifism of the CND. Here it is essential to confront the followers of CND with proletarian anti-militarist propaganda which educates the youth in the spirit, not of pacifism, but of the need to use violence to disarm the bosses and their government in order to guarantee lasting peace. The furthest Keep Left would go was to counterpose class struggle methods to achieve the demands outlined above, in contradistinction to the non-violent sit-down tactics of the CND.

In essence then Keep Left made an unprincipled concession to the mass, pacifist, anti-bomb movement of the early sixties. At the same time they were able to excuse this opportunism by investing the disarmament movement with an anti-capitalist ‘logic’. Thus, Labour Review was able to claim in 1962:

‘The gathering of mass forces behind the campaign for unilateral nuclear disarmament is of a different character to the centrist and Stalinist peace movements of the past. The struggle against the H-bomb and American bases means a break with bi-partisan foreign policy and thus with class collaboration.’ (17)

In the battle over the attempt by Gaitskell and the Labour bureaucrats, to ditch ‘Clause IV’ Keep Left rightly came out in favour of resistance. However in resisting such a move as an attempt by Gaitskell to shift the party further to the right, Keep Left never pointed out the shortcomings of ‘Clause IV’. Prided by all Labour lefts as the clause which makes the Labour Party socialist, Keep Left should clearly have pointed out that not only was Clause IV reformist (no mention of the need to smash the state or revolution through working class self emancipation) but its vagueness lets the right-wing off the hook. Keep Left summarised its own programme thus:

‘The policies of Keep Left are quite simply these: the return of a Labour government on socialist policies; unilateral disarmament by this country; the recall of British troops from overseas colonies and immediate self-determination for the peoples of these countries; freedom of discussion at all levels of the Youth Socialist movement and control of the official YS newspaper.’ (18)

In this way Keep Left and its ‘Trotskyist’ mentors abdicated their responsibility to address revolutionary propaganda to the YS youth they led. In place of a transitional programme that started out from the needs of young workers in the factory (wages, overtime etc) and the home, and addressed the questions of a revolutionary tendency in the Labour Party and YS as instruments for the creation of a revolutionary party, they ducked these issues. They never mentioned the need for a different kind of workers’ government that was not simply based on a Labour majority in Parliament, nor for the need to smash the capitalist state.

Keep Left operated with a minimum programme of militantly pursued reforms and a maximum programme of ‘nationalisation of the basic industries by a Labour government’. Unlike Militant today, however, they did not encourage the YS to passively wait for a socialist Labour government. Rather, they attempted to mobilise working-class youth to take action, around specific demands. This is why Keep Left came into decisive conflict with Transport House within a few years and why Militant have co-existed with the same people for seventeen years.

The Beginning of the End
The fight against Labour’s attempt to ban Keep Left and close down the YS was completely justified. At stake was whether young socialists could run their own campaigning movement that had the right to come into conflict with the right-wing Parliamentary careerists and Transport House time-servers.

Nor was it sectarian to prepare to draw together the bulk of the YS members for a split with the Labour Party if the price for staying attached was to renounce militant policies in the name of preparing for an election. Keep Left’s failure was that by the time Transport House had decided to close down the YS Keep Left had failed to lay the basis for a revolutionary youth movement to succeed it.

What seems to have decided Keep Left on switching from a defensive struggle, to stick to their guns and prevent themselves from being thrown out, to an offensive one to sever their ties was the imminent election of the Wilson government in 1964. Keep Left stated on the eve of the election: ‘In short, there will be no socialist Britain under a Labour government but a capitalist Britain presided over by Labour leaders.’ (19)

They counterposed to this prospect a Labour government based on ‘socialist’ policies which they said were codified in Brighton 1964 YS conference policies. But these policies were, as we have already described, a mixture of left reforms and nationalisation made synonomous with the maximum programme of socialism. None of them really represented a break with ‘a capitalist Britain’.

Far from renouncing the method that underpinned their politics they merely applied it to the situation of a Labour government. Now, it was believed, not only were the right and left in the Labour Party exposed for what they were, but Labour governments were deemed to be exposed. It was only a small step for Keep Left and the SLL to declare themselves the revolutionary alternative with history on their side. In October 1965 Keep Left, now separated off from the Labour Party and in control of its own YS, called on Labour’s youth to abandon Labour and help them build a ‘mass revolutionary youth movement’ (20), something never mentioned before. Moreover, the whole activity and propaganda of the paper in the period 1960-64 had not been a natural preparation for this move.

The sectarian element in the split is to be found in the fact that the vast number of Keep Left’s supporters, although hounded by the witch-hunters, in the end broke away voluntarily without seeing the fight through to the finish. This resulted in leaving behind over 2,000 YS members in the rump, unconvinced and at the mercy of the Labour Party bureaucrats.

The Tame ‘Marxists’
Compared to Militant’s YS of today, there is much to admire in the work of Keep Left. We can say that the YS under Keep Left was a livelier, more active and fighting YS than the LPYS has ever been under Militant. While the latter shares the former’s failure to build a revolutionary youth movement, at least Keep Left did not bend the knee to the bureaucracy as the price for exploiting the YS as a recruiting ground. To enjoy this franchise Militant has been prepared to keep the LPYS’s activities within boundaries largely acceptable to Labour’s leaders.

Where are the defiant headlines on the front page of Socialist Youth now, in the face of Kinnock’s attempt to close it down? Faced by witch-hunts and attacks today, Militant look pathetic in comparison. When Sharon Atkin was suspended as parliamentary candidate for Nottingham just before the 1987 election for attacking Labour’s racist record, Militant did not lift a finger to resist the attack inside the LPYS.

Further, Militant’s present day practice of making LPYS meetings mirror the worst routinism of official labour movement meetings is not only yet another example of their craven adaptation to labourism but makes YS membership lifeless, dull and boring. Under Militant’s leadership cocession after concession will probably very soon mean a youth movement totally controlled by Kinnock and his NEC cronies. Acting on the basis of the positive and negative lessons we can learn from Keep Left it is more urgent than ever that young workers help build a revolutionary tendency in the LPYS, committed to the fight for an independent revolutionary youth movement.

1 Quoted in Keep Left, January 1961,
2 Keep Left, December 1960
3 See Keep Left, October 1964
4 Quoted in ‘Labour’s Misspent Youth’, Workers Action supplement, Workers Action No 148, 28 July 1979
5 R Underhill, ‘Report on 1964 YS Conference’, Keep Left, May 1964
6 Keep Left, October 1964
7 Keep Left, November 1964
8 ‘Labour’s Misspent Youth’, op cit
9 For a full account of Socialist Outlook see Workers Power No 40, March 1983
10 Labour Review, January/March 1952
11 Keep Left, June/July 1960
12 ‘After the General Election’, Labour Review, October/November 1959, p69
13 ‘The Class Struggle in Britain’, Labour Review, Summer 1963, p199
14 Editorial, Labour Review, January/February 1958,
15 Labour Review, Winter 1961/62, p98
16 Keep Left, November 1962
17 Labour Review, Winter 1961/62, p98
18 Keep Left, September 1961
19 Keep Left, July/August 1964
20 Keep Left, October 1965