Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Sanity and Sectarianism

As I suggested last week in my blog on the current wildcat strikes - Oil on Troubled Waters when the various Left organisations did get round to offering the workers involved some kind of solution to their problems, those solutions would probably consist of a series of slogans, which either consisted of call for “more militancy”, or else amounted to calls to denounce the Government. In fact, what passes for Marxism in Britain today has deteriorated so far that such inadequate responses, actually, were the better end of the spectrum. At the other end of the spectrum was the response of the sectarians such as the SWP, Workers Power and the AWL, who focussed their attention not on supporting workers in struggle, but on attacking those workers, effectively siding with their bosses, with the bosses government and state, and even calling for a picket of the offices of the Unite union bureaucracy demanding it call off the strikes!!!!!

See: Trotskyist Snowmen Melt Away

Three groups have stood out in having a correctish response. The Socialist Party, who are the only ones to actually have workers involved in the strike, have managed to intervene in the way I suggested last week to turn their support for the workers into the lever that allows the strike to be moved away from the reactionary demand of “British Jobs for British Workers”, on to more progressive demands, which I will come to later. One of the first groups to come out with a statement online, which approached the strike from the correct angle, was The Commune, a small group of one or two people that formed the small healthy part of the AWL. Finally, Permanent Revolution, the healthier part of the split from Workers Power, came out with a statement that was pretty much in line with the kind of response Marxists should have to such a situation. See: Refinery Strike Divides the Left . To be fair. The Socialist Party has to be recognised as adopting pretty much the right response from the beginning, as they were employing it actually on the ground. The Commune had pretty much the right response early on before the Strike Committee adopted the new demands, which have begun to change the nature of the strike, whilst Permanent Revolution only came out with their statement after that. The fact that their has been success in bringing forward these demands has even caused some significant rowing back of the original sectarian position of the AWL. But, the working class cannot afford groups that only get things right after the event, after things have moved on. This tailism is typical of the AWL’s politics of recent years.

How explain the responses of the different groups. As some have commented at the Commune website - Here - part of the explanation seems to be that various groups like the AWL with very little implantation in the real working class, and with a mostly student and petit-bourgeois membership, simply jumped in with both feet and mouth wide open, without taking the trouble to find out what the strikes were actually all about. But, that is only part of the problem here. The reality is that groups like the AWL, and this applies to the SWP too, although they talk about – “independent working-class action”, forming the basis of their politics, have actually lost faith in the real working class. The imaginary working class that they have in their head is still fine, they just find the real, living working class, to difficult to stomach. Rather like the workers states that didn’t live up their dreams of perfection, these petit-bourgeois turn away in revulsion, cocooning themselves away from the infection. Instead, and intent on building their own sectarian little groups they look instead to some other milieu in which to swim, the student movement, the environmental movement, ant-racist movements, anti-imperialist movements and so on, where they can find like-minded people, and potential recruits. Hence the SWP, destroyed the closest thing to Left Unity in decades that could have, perhaps, though its unlikely, have been able to form the basis of a pole of attraction for workers dissatisfied with New Labour. They broke up the Socialist Alliance in favour of the Communalist “Respect”. Why, because they felt that they had more chance of building their organisation by relating to a milieu of angry Muslims, and assorted petit-bourgeois Leftists who were so frustrated at the working class’s failure to fight Capitalism that they would throw in their lot with anyone, however reactionary, that was engaging in such a fight. Of course, Marxists DO have a duty to relate to the struggles of such oppressed people, but the irony here is that the SWP related to it by abandoning their own sort of socialist politics, and simply accommodating to the reactionary politics of those they sought to recruit.

The AWL, too has engaged in similar activity in recent years. Its petit-bouregois, moralistic politics shines through its front organisations such as “No Sweat”, or Migrants Rights campaigns, and the many other areas of similar activity that appeal to its largely studentist membership and periphery. When your main goal is “building the organisation”, when these types of milieu are the main focus of your activity to achieve that goal then adopting any position, which might piss off your possible recruits in those milieu is to be avoided like the plague. Needing to say something about these strikes that was clearly the guiding principle for these organisations – “Don’t piss off the potential recruits” – even if that meant standing on the wrong side of the class lines. It is the classic attitude of the sectarian.

The position of the Socialist Party is also not too difficult to explain. Unlike most of the rest of the Left, the exception being the IS/SWP during the 1960’s and 70’s, the Socialist Party and its predecessor The Militant, have always had a higher proportion of working class members, and of members fairly well implanted in the ordinary working class. In part, that stems from its long term tactic of implantation in the Labour Party, and its adoption of a largely Left Reformist programme. Its politics were just as sectarian as the other Left groups, but manifested in different ways. Its main emphasis was on “building the Party”, but did that in that working class milieu of the LP, and the Trade Unions, often ignoring activity in other forums such as anti-racist groups, CND and so on. And, because of its focus on “building the party” on that basis from recruiting ordinary workers in the LP and Trade Unions – which also gave it the advantage of gaining votes for its candidates in LP and TU elections – it had a tendency to workerism, and to tailism. The most classic example, was its attitude to Ireland, where in response to widespread hostility to IRA bombings it toned down its politics in respect of opposition to British Imperialism, and tried to give he impression that the problem could be resolved by little more than normal Trade Union solidarity, thereby avoiding raising the thorny questions about Civil Rights, let alone National Rights. With workers employed in the industry, and most of those workers on strike it is not surprising that the Socialist Party supported a strike by its potential recruits. But, that should not take away from the fact, that having done so they have intervened correctly, and positively in that strike to lead it away from the original reactionary slogans about “British Jobs for British Workers”, and on to more positive territory, even if territory that is still inadequate, and to some extent dangerous. After all, other groups such as the Stalinist CPB have simply tailed the workers giving uncritical support. But what would you expect from a group with such a national socialist tradition.

The fact, that the Commune got this right is encouraging, but again understandable. They have been forged in a faction fight against the petit-bourgeois politics of the AWL, a politics, which has turned inevitably, and increasingly towards a reliance on alien class forces that it sees as having a more progressive outlook than does the working class itself, in which it has lost faith. Here it lines up with the bosses, and the bosses state against reactionary workers. In Iraq it lined up with the bourgeois state against workers and proletarians who in their confusion and desperation had been led into support for various reactionary, clerical groups. And in its answers for workers problems despites its avowed politics it repeatedly turns to the bourgeois state to provide the solution. It is in the faction fight against those reactionary politics of the AWL, that the Commune group has begun to move towards a more adequate, Marxist politics.

I will reserve judgement on Permanent Revolution. It would have been better had we been able to see what position they would have come out with prior to the new demands being adopted by the strikers.

The New Demands

Yesterday a mass meeting of the strikers adopted a position that had been put forward by Socialist Party members involved in the strike. It dropped the “British Jobs for British Workers” demand in favour of:

* No victimisation of workers taking solidarity action.

* All workers in UK to be covered by NAECI Agreement.

* Union controlled registering of unemployed and locally skilled union members, with nominating rights as work becomes available.

* Government and employer investment in proper training / apprenticeships for new generation of construction workers - fight for a future for young people.

* All Immigrant labour to be unionised.

* Trade Union assistance for immigrant workers - including interpreters - and access to Trade Union advice - to promote active integrated Trade Union Members.

* Build links with construction trade unions on the continent.

The mass meeting overwhelmingly voted for the demands put to them by the strike committee

The strike committee accepted the main demands of Keith Gibson and John McKewan put to the mass meeting yesterday. Keith is a Socialist Party member on the strike committee, and John is an SP supporter and victimised worker from the refinery. The strike committee added an extra demand, calling for John to be reinstated into his job.

Problems and Weaknesses

To be honest I’m not that ready yet to be jubilant. Its good that the strikers have officially dropped the reactionary demands. Its really good that the BNP were driven away from the strike in no uncertain terms. But, I’ve been a Trade Union militant for a long time, I’m long in the tooth to know that often a mass crowd can be won over to vote for what the platform puts to them if that platform has their confidence, which the leaders of these strikes clearly have. That doesn’t mean that in the dark recesses of the mind of that mass those reactionary demands don’t still exist. Indeed, I would be amazed if they didn’t.

Showing the extent to which the petit-bourgeois Left is divorced from the real working class, this comment by a contributor to the AWL website amazed me.

“On local radio (BBC Radio Northampton) this morning, unemployed workers from Corby were asked 'who is to blame for the economic crisis?'. Without exception the answer given was 'foreign workers'. Just a couple of weeks ago, surely that response would have been unthinkable, and the response would have included 'fat cats', 'bank bosses' and such like.”

See: Pat Markey .

I have to ask what planet are you living on??? I could have taken you to innumerable working class communities around here, where if you had asked that question not only would you have got that response, but a lot worse besides. Why on Earth do you think the BNP have been making such rapid progress in recent years??? Every day I speak to ordinary working class people, not the petit-bourgeois, the former students who’ve got jobs as workers because of their revolutionary responsibilities, or even the politicos that stuff the various forums of the Labour Movement – talk to those people and you are bound to get a warped idea of where the real working class is at – I talk to ex-Miners, potters, production line workers at the nearby munitions factory, workers from Bentley and other manufacturing companies. Some of them are or have been active Trade Unionists. Almost without exception you would over the last few years, and probably long before that, have got the same response. Last week, the overwhelming response was support for the strikers, and the sentiment “we have to look after our own country first”. Even when I was able, to explain the logic of the demands, and that logic was accepted for a while, particularly when one worker from Bentley explained what it would mean for him, after a while that rationality was still overtaken by that much easier solution deep seated in the psyche of workers brought up in the atmosphere of a colonialist power, “we should look after ourselves first.”

That is what worries me about the limits of the current demands.

* No victimisation of workers taking solidarity action.

* All workers in UK to be covered by NAECI Agreement.

* Union controlled registering of unemployed and locally skilled union members, with nominating rights as work becomes available.

* All Immigrant labour to be unionised.

* Trade Union assistance for immigrant workers - including interpreters - and access to Trade Union advice - to promote active integrated Trade Union Members.

* Build links with construction trade unions on the continent.

Are all perfectly commendable demands that should be supported. But, they do not address the immediate problem here of workers without a job, especially those particular workers who think they should have had THESE jobs. Unless, some demands are raised that can address THAT problem, those deep seated ideas about, “British Jobs For British Workers”, will be bound soon to resurface, and when they do, and if the current leadership fail to provide a solution to those immediate problems then that mass will lose confidence in that leadership. It will look to some alternative leadership that will at least appear to offer it a solution to those problems here and now. Remember that in 1917, the Russian workers and Peasants gave their overwhelming support to the Mensheviks and SR’s, not the Bolsheviks. They only gave their support to the Bolsheviks when the former parties failed to provide the immediate answers to their need for Peace, Bread and land. Unfortunately, we all know who will chime into the need for a quick easy solution here. It’s the BNP.

Although, supportable some of the above demands are inadequate in themselves. Its okay, registering unemployed union members, but if no work comes available then those members are likely to ask what was the point. The Trade Unions need to be producing workers plans for useful employment – God knows if you go round most working class communities there is plenty that needs doing – and we need proper plans for how that work could be done, with committees of workers and tenants and so on. But, it is no good demanding that the bosses government establish programmes for this work. That only fools workers into believing that Brown’s government and the bosses state are in some way neutral between classes, that they can be persuaded to act in workers interests. By all means strike to demand that Brown’s Government hands over money to workers, better still strike to demand that the oil companies and other big companies making billions hand over money to workers. But, the last thing we need is yet another Government initiative, another state capitalist enterprise that will exploit and oppress workers. Having been a County Councillor for 8 years, and having worked for a local Council for 14 years I know what these state capitalist initiatives mean. They mean lucrative jobs for the big bureaucrats, lavish expenditure on offices and facilities, and very little going to employ workers to do something useful, and even less benefit for the communities they are supposed to be designed for.

Anyone who works for Local or Central Government knows this to be true. Anyone who remembers the experience of nationalised industries knows that its true, and the last people workers should be looking to for a solution is the Capitalist State. We need the Unions, and the Labour movement in general, instead to be mobilising resources both from within the movement, by obtaining credit from the Co-op Bank and Unity Trust, by demanding money from the government and the bosses to establish Co-operative enterprises under real democratic workers control that can begin to address workers needs both as workers and as consumers.

The Demand

* Government and employer investment in proper training / apprenticeships for new generation of construction workers - fight for a future for young people.

Is inadequate from that perspective. The Labour Movement should be providing such training for young workers, including the training for being a part of that Labour Movement, training to stand up for workers rights, to stand up to the bosses, training to demonstrate that workers don’t need bosses, training of how to create and run a workers enterprise. The bosses state if it provides anything will be yet another quango simply providing a good living for state bureaucrats. We should not fool workers into believing anything different.

The demand:

“All Immigrant labour to be unionised”, could be deemed discriminatory. After all, we do not demand that all native workers be unionised. We seek to unionise them, to convince them of the need to join a trade union, but there is no closed shop.

The demand, “Build links with construction trade unions on the continent.” Is supportable, but inadequate. We need to start from such links at a rank and file level, but we need to build up to them to the establishment of European wide Trade Unions, better still a single European Trade Union, and those Trade Unions need to form the basis of a European Workers Party. But, there is no point in having European Trades Unions and Workers Parties if Europe itself remains divided in outdated nation states. The necessary demands for common Trade Union rates of pay across Europe, for common working hours, benefits, pensions, and other conditions are only meaningful if there is some single European State that can legislate them across the whole of Europe with no opt outs for individual states. In reality such things would only ever be meaningfully implemented by a European Workers Government. Ultimately, our goal is a United Socialist States of Europe, but that is not currently on the agenda. As Trotsky said in the 1920’s and early thirties, even a United States of Europe would be a step forward.

But, those are the demands which in the words of the Communist manifesto represent the interests of the movement tomorrow in the movement today. Unless we can begin to address workers immediate concerns all that is pie in the sky utopian scheme mongering. Here and now, we need solutions that can be accomplished with our own resources without recourse to the bourgeois state, or to the bosses. We need to mobilise our own resources to establish workers co-operative to provide useful work. By all means as argued above use class struggle methods to demand money from the bosses and the bosses state to help capitalise them – provided that its understood that such money gives no right to have a say in these co-ops – but the Labour Movement does have resources to set this going – huge union bureaucracies with expensive building for one thing – there is money in the Co-op Bank and CIS, in Unity Trust, in the various Mutual Societies tied in some ways to the Labour movement such as Britannia, ultimately, though it would take longer to obtain control over it, there are huge sums in workers pension funds, under the control of and being used for those same fat cat bankers that caused the current financial crisis.

Workers have begun to rise from their knees after a long period of depression. That arousal of self-confidence needs to be developed in a programme of workers self-activity, not diverted on to the old statist solutions of blaming the Government, and then demanding it act in workers interests.


Anonymous said...

Long but good post comrade. You may also want to add the CPGB to your 'correctish' positions this Thursday =D

You may have noticed that the AWL have changed their line over night?

Boffy said...

The AWL seem to have been rowing back significantly. That is good. As the saying goes something about, "There is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth..."

But, the working class can't afford organisaitons that only get things right after the event. Anyone can make a mistake, but its a matter of whether as in the case of the AWL and others those mistakes flow necessarily from an incorrect political method. They do. That is why its not a matter of just one mistake, but a whole series of mistakes.

Anonymous said...

Europe's nation states and economies have come closer together but workers across the continent seem as divided as ever. Why has the trade union movement not followed this general trend. Why is there no significant Eurpoean Trade Union council?
The left seem very antagonistic to an integrated Europe, could this be a tactical mistake?

Anonymous said...

Muslims can be socialts too.

The repsect party did indeed rely on muslim support but it still stood on a progressive platform. It also reflects a changing demographic makeup of this country. It is still a long way from gaining wider working class support but that could be said of the entire left.
These petty snipes from the "purists" do no good whatsoever.

Boffy said...


Of course Muslims can be socialists no one said they couldn't. The point is that Respect was not and is not a socialist organisation that sought to organise Muslims or anyone else.

It was a lash up between the SWP and assorted Stalinists around the demagogue Galloway, which subordinated - indeed subordinated without trace - an vestige of socialist politics which any of these elements might have retained, for the sake of the potential of recruiting amongst a large group of radicalised Muslim youth in particular. But radicalised does not necessarily mean progressively radicalised. On the contrary they were radicalised on what was a fundamentally reactionary basis of support for various "anti-imperialist" organisations with anti-working-class reactionaryt politics such as Hamas, Hezbollah etc.

Now it is one thing for socialists to recognise the need to relate to such radicalised youth, especially in so far as they are radicalised working class youth, but as in the case of the refinery strikes, relating to does not mean acquiescing in those reactionary politics, on the contrary it means being harshly critical of them in order to win those workers away from those politics and to socialist politics. The same is true in fact of relating to workers in the LP.

But, the leading elements within Respect in so far as the Muslim Community was cocnerned were not workers. The leading elements have in fact been Muslim businessmen that is not workers, but their class enemies. This didn't matter for Respect, because it was not a class Party, but a Communalist organisation. To say it has not won much support amongst the working class is a joke. It has won NO support amongst the working class. Its eelctoral success has been won on almost a total communalist basis of winning Muslim votes.

That is why realising that instead of using Respect to recruit, Galloway and the Respect hierarchy were using the SWP as their foot-soldiers the SWP decided to cut their losses and ditch.

It is not a matter of "purism" here but of describing things for what they are, and Respect is a reactionary, communalist organisation.

Boffy said...


The situation I think is worse in Britain than in most other European countries. Thre is a long tradiiton of nationalism within the British Labour Movement going back to the old aristocracy of labour. But, the main force on the "Left", thoughout Europe for a long time was the Communist Party. Stalinism was essentially National Socialism rather than the International Socialism of Marx and Lenin.

A clear example was the Alternative Economic Strategy in Britain during the 1970's, and the Little Englander opposition to Britain's entry into the Common Market. There have been some attempts to build European wide Trade Union organisation at a rank and file level, but as in so many things we have gone back to a point even lower than that achieved by Marx and Engels when they established the First International. That is the mountain that has to be climbed.

Such organisation will not be built by the TU leaders because they are tied to their natoinal refomist parties which remain tied to their respective nation states. Moreover, there is an incentive for the bourgeoisie to want to keep things divided on one level, whilst they forge increasing unity of European Capital. As UKIP's Faraj said on Newsnight last night with a straight face, they want free movement of Capital and goods, but not of labour. In other words Capital should be free to move to where it can make the most profit, but workers should not be free to move to where they can make the highest wages.

But, there is a weakness at the rank and file level too - not just the obvious weakness of the tiny forces of the left now. That is that where Rank and File and Broad left organisations have been built, they have largely been organisations to get this revolutionary or slate elected, to get this or that motion carreid at union Conference and so on. It is the politics of fantasy. There is no point in having a revolutionary leadership, or the most revolutionary motions passed, if the vast majority of the union's membership really has no intention of backing them up. And that requires actual organisation, radicalistion and education of the majority of union members in the workplace, not simply getting a few of your mates to agree with you at the Branch Meeting. A true rank and file organisation would palce less cocnern in getting people elected to high office, or getting motions passed, and more emphasis on building workplace organisations - including factory committees across unions to overcome the tendency of inter union rivalries soemtimes fostered by the union bureaucrats. It means building the confidecne of ordinary workers in the factories to take the kind of action that the refinery workers have taken without waiting for some union bureaucrat to tell you you can.