The case for revolutionary realism part 2

Submitted by martin on 12 December, 2003 - 8:50

Back to part 1

The RMT and disaffiliation

The RMT rail union leadership proposes a set of rule changes that would open the way to the union supporting SA and SSP candidates, left Labour MPs and elements of Plaid Cymru.
It is not unreasonable to suspect that Bob Crow and friends are attempting to engineer a situation in which the Labour Party will disaffiliate the RMT. This will give them plenty of opportunities to play the brave socialist martyrs, a role normally carried out in real life by their members who have to live with the shoddy deals they stitch up.
Should the RMT be disaffiliated it would go without saying that socialists will campaign for the union to be re-admitted to the Labour Party. We should advocate that the unions do everything in their power to force the re-admission of the RMT. The fear though, is that the RMT leadership may not help the fight for re-affiliation and therefore winning the argument will be difficult especially with Labour voting trade unionists who will want to see the union stop supporting anti-Labour candidates.
In reality the rule changes are a huge diversion. The union should be fighting to secure the selection of rail workers as Labour candidates on a programme of re-nationalisation and union rights and be prepared to stand them independently if they are bureaucratically blocked. Labour NEC reps who oppose union policy shouldn? just be removed from the NEC, they should be removed from union office. The RMT seems set to go from having no democratic control over its representatives in the Labour Party to no representation at all. Taking the debate on the rule changes into the workplaces and having a ballot on them would surely be too good an opportunity for a left wing union leadership to miss.
It would, of course, be contemptible for Marxists to run scared from threats of Labour Party disaffiliation issued to a union that dared to back trade union candidates against New Labour. The problem is that comrades entirely miss the point about how the issue of disaffiliation is used in the unions. It is not that workers fear it as a threat. They want the union to stay in the Labour Party and distrust as manipulative schemers those who deny it is an issue. Many militants would be prepared to face down the threat over a big issue - Livingstone for instance - but they will not do so for the Socialist Alliance.
There is a perfectly simple way of dealing with the question of non-Labour working class candidates. We apply the criterion of workers' democracy. If the workers support the candidate the union should. There is nothing to be gained from trying to get artificial trade union support for limited and selected socialist candidacies.
The example of the FBU 2002 conference discussion is also misunderstood. Andy Gilchrist and the EC majority overturned the 2001 conference decision on non-Labour candidates by touring the branches and securing mandates which pointed out that the rule changes requested were not practical, because a union couldn't be affiliated to the Labour Party and also affiliated to another party that stood candidates against it. The union would have to choose between pursuing policies through the Labour Party or standing candidates against it. It wasn't that the firefighters sunk back in fear at the prospect of being disaffiliated?hey positively wanted to stay in the Labour Party and fight. They accepted the honest argument that you can't do both. In fact, in the trade unions you will find only a limited number of master dialecticians who think that you can do both. The experience of the dispute means that it is now much more likely that the union will respond with some kind of demonstrative gesture like totally withholding funds. This is totally understandable, but risks failing to face up to the task of the FBU leading a movement in the Labour Party to try to hold Blair and Prescott accountable for their actions in the dispute.
Bloxam and O'Mahony fail to focus clearly on the tasks before the class. The entire logic of their argument is that because we cannot control what happens-a mind numbing banality-we should not even aspire to play a role in initiating, organising and preparing the ground for what they describe as the "epochal" battle for trade union control of the Labour Party. No, that is for the future and to be organised "from above" by the official leaderships. We must know our place. We build the new party "from below". In the here and now all we can do is get involved in small scale local electoralism, or travel as reluctant passengers while Bob Crow and his friends derail the RMT as a political force in the workers' movement.
The root of this loss of focus comes from the fact that the comrades start their analysis from the sects, not from the class. They have accepted much of the basic framework with which the sectarians relate to the labour movement. Remember, it was the sectarians who started the whole debate going about the political funds. From the very start their intentions have been clear: not to organise a workers' party, but to use workers' money to fund their own. The sectarians seek to focus all the working class discontent and frustration at Blair, not as it should be focused, on a fight for union control of the Labour Party, but on stunts and gestures of mock defiance. The union leaders then came along and started playing their part in the game. People who had absolutely no intention of fighting Blair started to make vague threats of backing candidates against Labour, or started warning that their union was about to split off. These "threats" to Blair were merely empty postures to strengthen the bureaucrats' hands in negotiations with the government. To read these threats as a sign that the labour movement really is entering an epoch of fragmentation and reconstitution is worthy of the IMG, but not serious Marxists.
We should focus on the fight to reclaim the Labour Party because the struggle to revolutionise the working class, so that it is capable of revolutionising society, starts from the real working class and labour movement, as it actually exists, not as it will be in the future. The starting point of the militant revolutionary outlook is the defence of every gain that the working class has made and an unwillingness to surrender any ground without a fight. Unlike generals and armies who can leave the field of battle after a defeat, or middle class radicals who can run after the next project or stunt, the working class stays put and lives with the consequences of defeat every day. This is as true of the political arena as it is of the workplace. If it were not true, then the workers would have abandoned support for the Labour Party years ago. To say that we are not yet ready to push for a new trade union party and disaffiliations, implies that we are not yet ready to surrender the Labour Party to the Blairites and pronounce that all the unions can do is give up and start again from scratch. To walk away from a political fight is the not the way of Marxists. We stay with the class.