"Don't wait for thinking!" Socialist Worker, anti-Toryism and Syndicalism(1990)

Submitted by martin on 7 July, 2011 - 11:53 Author: Sean Matgamna

[A discussion of the "anti-Tory" agitation of Socialist Worker in the period when Margaret Thatcher was becoming unpopular (and would, on 28 November 1990, five months after this article, be replaced by the Tories as their leader). Industrial militancy had picked up a little, though only a little, from the slump after the 1985 miners' defeat; the poll tax revolt was in full swing; the SWP was shifting from its dour "downturn" orientation of the 1980s to a higher pitch, emphasising "volatility". Meanwhile Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock was making the first steps for much of what Blair would do to gut the Labour Party after 1997. The Tories, under their new leader John Major, would win the 1992 election and hold on to office until 1997. From Socialist Organiser, 17 May 1990].


Socialist Worker is a good agitational paper, deliberately taking as its journalistic model the respect-worthy 1960s Daily Mirror, and turned out with an enviable professionalism.

It preaches fervent anti-Toryism, advocates direct action and denounces the foot-dragging Labour and trade union leaders, loudly ringing all the militant socialist hate-the-bosses emotional bells.

If that is all we need for working class politics, then Socialist Worker is a great force for socialism.

It isn't, of course. It is a great force for spluttering m... m... militant incoherence and confusion.

You need not only to preach hate for the Tories and their Labour understudies. You must also know how to go about replacing them; you need to go from fervently advocating socialism to the working out of strategy and tactics for the labour movement. Loud militant shouting is common to socialists and anarchists and intermittently to large numbers of workers and other oppressed people during their battles with employers and governments.

"Marxists" who are not the best militant fighters, in even limited working-class struggles, are a misunderstanding, a contradiction in terms. Even so, the irreplaceable contribution of Marxists to the class struggle is not militancy but... Marxism.

In Britain right now to shout against the Tories is, in Marxist political terms, very little. It is the other things strategy and tactics and what you have to say to your readers about how they can achieve what they want, what you want to replace the Tories with, how you propose to deal with the fact that the working-class leaders are shamefully inadequate when not openly treacherous it is those which are decisive.

Those, and not the anti-Toryism which it has in common stock with most of the left, define a newspaper, and tell you what it is, what role it is playing in the class struggle now.

it will also determine what happens to those reached and roused by the fervent anti-Tory and socialist agitation.

Last week's Socialist Worker had a poster front page. The vast headline read: "After the elections, FINISH THATCHER OFF". In the middle of the page was a big red spot with these words printed in black: "Don't wait for Labour".

The accompanying article had 59 (fifty-nine) words. (Devoted but hard-pressed SO reader: "I should be so lucky!" But before you welcome the quantity, wait to examine the political wit!)

I quote: "We don't need to wait for Kinnock to replace her. We can do that right away". "Step up the action, get the Tories out".

If your heart rises at this prospect, you will turn eagerly to page 3, where you will be told, in an editorial, "No holding back", "What we need to do next".

What do we do to "replace Thatcher right away" without waiting for Kinnock? "Action" now, says SW. Don't pay the poll tax; don't collect it. Press for adequate wage demands; don't hold back for fear of losing Labour votes in the next General Election.

Yes, this is good stuff, which SO also says and has said for longer and rather more consistently than SW, which for years has been paralysed by defeatism, but how do we "replace Thatcher right away"? The front page promised to tell me, I paid my 30p, and I want to know, please. But the answer isn't there. SW keeps its secret.

After a long and largely accurate survey of the timid inadequacy of the Labour and trade union leaders, who are in effect helping Thatcher to ride out the storm and blocking the potential of the anti-poll-tax campaign, we come to the real point, the idea that is specific to SW. Since Labour "provides a punch drunk, bewildered and divided Tory government with the only crumbs of comfort remaining to it [t]here could hardly be better proof of the need to build a fighting socialist party as an alternative to Labour". And guess which "fighting socialist party" that is.

Now, both SW's articles might just pass muster as the hard-pressed speech of a fervent but inexperienced newcomer, saved from completely silly irrelevance by the practical proposals: fight back now and don't wait for Kinnock.

As the considered view of a supposedly Marxist paper and of the leadership of a self-proclaimed Marxist party they are a disgrace. And those articles are typical, not accidental. You come face to face with the heart and brain of the SWP, the man with the wild pole-axed stare and talk which comes straight from the guts without filtering through a political mind.

In fact, the only way for the anti-poll-tax campaign and strikes to finish Thatcher off "without waiting for Kinnock" that 'is, without a general election would be if they grew into a vast general strike, and that in turn grew into a successful insurrection which pushed aside the existing state institutions and procedures and overrode them.

Even in a full-scale general strike, no serious class-struggle government - and Thatcher's is a serious class-struggle government, and a Heseltine or Kinnock government would be too - would resign if it could not ride out the strike. It would call an election "to decide", calling in the credit which Parliament has with even most working class militants, and rallying the forces of "law and order", which would no doubt include the leaders of Her Majesty's Opposition. That is how the 1968 general strike in France was derailed.

Yet if SW is serious, it would logically have to call for an all-out general strike now and start to make preparations for insurrection, at the very least start making propaganda for it (!). But all this is a thousand miles from the SWP's real politics: for a decade they have played the wet blanket in the labour movement. It took them six months after the start of the 19845 miners' strike to register what was going on, and get stuck in to serious solidarity work, so disoriented had they been by a long depressive political pessimism.

Have they now flipped over to the sort of wild-eyed ultra-leftism journalistic ultra-leftism, anyway characteristic of the old SLL/WRP? No, because they don't mean it!

This is advertising agency politics. The "come on" on the front page is meant to catch the current mood generated by the anti-poll-tax movement: once you get in to the booth you find not the promised wonders, not that syndicalist miracle people have talked about for over a hundred years, but no-one has ever seen, and not even the call for a general strike, but just our old familiar and mundane friend, "Build the Revolutionary Party", posted up above the rear exit.

SW has always been very adept at adjusting its sails to catch the winds and moods. More than once in the early '70s it appeared with front page headline calls for a general strike without any explanation at all in any part of the paper. Yet it somehow managed not to call for a general strike at the point in July 1972 when quarter of a million workers struck at the jailing of five dockers by the Heath government and forced the TUC to call a one-day general strike, the threat of which got the dockers out of jail.

SW recognises no obligation to think things through honestly. Indeed, the leaders of the SWP have been doing this sort of thing for so long that by now they simply wouldn't know how to start. They have excised a whole dimension from the working-class struggle they try to serve - the political dimension!

They pretend and it is nothing but wilful pretence by now that the political dimension, that is, actually existing politics, bourgeois and reformist, can be ignored. Or, no, they don't ignore it, because come the general election they will advocate a docile vote for Neil Kinnock, as they did for James Callaghan. They don't ignore it, they pretend that "real" socialist working-class politics develops apart from it, by way of pure direct action, socialist propaganda, and "building the party".

But that is to pretend that the working class can develop unilinearly, so to speak, outside of the social-political processes, or by running away from them. It is to pretend that the working class exists outside of, parallel to, bourgeois society, and not within it, organically immersed in it until by way of political self-awareness it can become a class for itself and remake society.

In practice, the SWP argues that the whole "official" political dimension is not the business of socialists, and that only direct action is even though it is in disputable that Thatcher's government, using the governmental power in almost a Jacobin, or even Stalinist, social-engineering way, has massively affected the prospects for the sort of direct action that SW recognises as real working-class politics.

It is no less indisputable that even a rightwing Labour government now would change the social and political climate, and thus the prospects for industrial action. SW leaves it to the soft left and the right wing to deal with all that. For all its scornful denunciation of Neil Kinnock, the SWP has to relate to elections passively, like the most backward and least class-conscious people in the labour movement, through and by way of Neil Kinnock and his friends, entirely on their terms, having made not even an attempt to influence the Labour Party, the mass political party of the trade unions.

Resolutely ignoring electoral politics until Thatcher or her successor imposes it on them the SWP cannot make its agitation about toppling Thatcher concrete in the here and now, when talk of an all-out general strike and insurrection would be ridiculous, in the only remaining logical way: by campaigning and calling on the Labour Party to campaign for an immediate general election. They are left with a paper that talks attractive 1968 vintage gibberish, rightly encourages militancy, and has nothing to say about politics or how to kick the Tories out.

Much of the argument between SW and SO supporters centres around whether socialists should be in the Labour Party or not. We say yes, they say no. But that's not the basic dividing line.

It might be that it became impossible or hopelessly unprofitable for socialists to be in the Labour Party, even though it remained the mass workers' party. (Neither is true of the Labour Party now, despite the setbacks the left has had).

But suppose it is agreed that socialists shouldn't or can't be in the mass workingclms party. Then one of two things. They ignore the existing organisations built over many decades by the working class, and go their own party-building way, in effect committing themselves to building a whole alternative labour movement and hoping that one day their "fighting socialist party" will supersede the old movement (absorbing or hegemonising parts of it, I suppose).

Or else they continue to interact with the mass movement, advocating policies and strategies for it as a means of "exposing" the existing leaders. They recognise that the way forward cannot, on the experience of history so far, be by way of building up a largely independent new labour movement, but by way of shaking up and renovating sections of the old movement and reuniting the excluded socialists with them.

The latter way was the Comintern's strategy, leading to tactics like the United Front. The former was the policy of the so-called Council Communist faction of the early'20s Communist International - Herman Gorter, Anton Pannekock, Sylvia Pankhurst.

Embellished though it is with such contradictory opportunism as SW's calling for a vote for Labour and advocating membership in trade unions (while refusing, not so long ago, even to take shop steward positions), the Council-Communist idea is the only logical core of the SWP's political enterprise. And at its heart is not so much an attitude to the Labour Party as an attitude to parliament which - except for at general elections! - rejects the existing political institutions. Essentially what the SWP says about Labour derives from a neo-syndicalist attitude to parliament.

The Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci is today the unconsulted champion of the ex-Stalinist liberals, like Marxism Today. Jesus Christ, born according to the myth in a stable and a carpenter by trade, was yet the god of the super-rich for centuries; Lenin, who led the liberating workers' revolution of 1917, was yet the official icon of Stalin's despotic state; and Gramsci, the unbreakable revolutionary who spent the last ten years of his life in a fascist jail, is now the champion of neo-reformist faint-hearts and defeatists!

Gramsd is ours, not theirs. He wrote this about the politics of the SWP, with Italian syndicalists in mind.

Within the state, the propertied class forges its own discipline and unity, over and above the disputes and clashes of competition, in order to keep intact its privileged position in the supreme phase of competition itself: the class struggle for power, for pre-eminence in the leadership and ordering of society...

Some of the currents in the socialist and proletarian movement had emphasised trade-union organisation as the essential feature of the revolution, and directed their propaganda and activity accordingly. At one stage, the syndicalist movement appeared in the light of the true interpreter of Marxism, the true interpreter of reality...

Syndicalism, while presenting itself as the initiator of a "spontaneist", libertarian tradition, was in fact one of the many disguises of the Jacobin and abstract spirit...

The workers and peasants felt that, so long as the propertied class and the democratic-parliamentary state are dictating the laws of history. any attempt to remove oneself from the sphere of operation of these laws is inane and ridiculous.

Them is no denying the fact that within the general configuration of an industrial society, each man can actively participate in affairs and modify his surroundings only to the extent that he operates as an individual and citizen, as a member of the democratic parliamentary State. The liberal experience is not worthless and can only be transcended after it has been experienced.

The apoliticism of the apoliticals was merely a degeneration of politics: to reject the State and fight against it is just as much a political act as to take part in the general historical activity that is channelled into Parliament and the municipal councils, the popular institutions of the State.

The quality of the political act varies. The syndicalists worked outside of reality, and hence their politics were fundamentally mistaken. On the other hand, the parliamentary socialists worked in close contact with events, and while they could make mistakes (and indeed they committed many mistakes, and grievous ones too), they made no mistake in the direction their activity took and so they triumphed in the "competition"; the broad masses, the people who objectively modify social relations through their intervention, favoured the Socialist Party.

Notwithstanding all its mistakes and shortcomings, the Party did succeed, in the final analysis, in accomplishing its mission: namely, to transform the proletariat into something whereas before it had been nothing, to give it an awareness, to point the liberation movement firmly and enthusiastically in the direction corresponding in its general lines to the process of historical development of human society.

The greatest error of the socialist movement was akin to that of the syndicalists. Participating in the general activity of human society within the State, the socialists forgot that their role had to be essentially one of criticism, of an antithesis. Instead of mastering reality, they allowed themselves to be absorbed by it.

("The conquest of the state", Political Writings 1910-20, p. 74-75).

I'm not sneering at syndicalists, and neither was Gramsci. Nor, I hope, does SO have much in common with those like Socialist Action and some in Briefing who have always dismissed the SWP's proper concern with the industrial struggle as "syndicalism" while they devoted themselves to pernicious fantasies about some imaginary overseas workers' paradise and usually puerile get-rich-quick scenarios for Britain. Those people call us syndicalists, too.

The syndicalists before and during World War One were amongst the best people in the labour movement. They contributed a great deal to the early Communist International, which many of them joined, rising above their one-sidedness.

When a German Marxist, Paul Levi, dismissively lectured some syndicalists at the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920, sneering that they were wrong on things the Marxists had known for decades, Trotsky jumped to their defence.

The syndicalists were a one-sided reaction against the political one-sidedness of the broader labour movement, and against its leadership of bureaucrats and careerists. Today people are attracted to the neo-syndicalism of the SWP because they are repelled by the supine politics of the Labour Party leaders.

The onesidedness of syndicalism has always helped the Kinnocks and the Ramsey Macdonalds even when, as in the case of the SWP, it makes socialist propaganda, invokes Lenin and Trotsky, and "builds the party" while standing aloof from the real working-class political movement.

And the leaders of the SWP are not revolutionary working-class militants lacking political tempering and experience; they are people who take refuge in a semi-syndicalism from the problems of the working-class movement; people who know enough to say Vote Labour in elections to avoid the organisational consequences of their day by day and year by year denial that the working class should engage in politics, but unfortunately don't know enough to behave responsibly towards the class and avoid irresponsible gibberish like the SW front page I have quoted.

They are people who think that the history of the British labour movement ended when they formulated their present politics in response to the vile Wilson governments of the '60s. As late as 1966 an editorial in their paper could describe as a scab someone who stood against Labour in a by election in Hull in protest against the Labour Government's support for the US war in Vietnam. Then they decided that Labour was finished.

Thereafter it has been a matter only of the enlightened ones explaining the all-saving idea to workers in struggle.

They are stuck in onesided and incomplete and inadequate conclusions from the period around 1968, and have managed to learn nothing since then, despite the '70s, when industrial militancy of great scope and intensity returned a Labour government, and the '80s, when we did not advance from that because workers had learned from it, but got Thatcher and regression. The SWP leaders have learned nothing in 20 or 25 years!

The American socialist James P Cannon used to tell the story of the once vastly popular pre-World-War-One socialist paper Appeal to Reason, whose circulation at its height reached an astonishing quarter of a million. Because it confined itself to tremendously powerful agitation around elementary socialism, it failed to keep readers or to develop those it kept into "cadres". Its effect was needlessly limited.

SW is "better", of course: it is "better" because of a classically "British" inconsistency. It "builds the party", and pulls people to the SWP, which educates them and gives them a general socialist culture, and sets them to work... selling SW.

But it is "worse", too: it counterposes itself to the existing labour movement. And its "build the party" element does not for long (for most of the labour movement, ever) contradict the Appeal to Reason effect: lots of people pass through the SWP and often those who stay in politics wind up on the soggy left of the Labour Party or further right. Having been taught that revolutionary politics is sectarian party-building and denunciation of Labour from outside, when they begin to see the inescapable need to relate to the political labour movement they drop revolutionary politics. That's what they were taught: either/or, either revolutionary politics or involvement in the political labour movement.

In fact, in neither phase do such people function as adequate Marxists.

When SO was launched in 1978 it was the organ of a very broad coalition, the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory. At one of the early open Editorial Board meetings I asked someone to go and talk politics to a very wet-seeming reformist.

I remember feeling pleased at that man's "contributions", or rather at his presence, because it showed how broad the reach of our campaign was... Yes, it turned out that he had been in the SWP. For seven years!

"Don't wait for thinking!" Socialist Worker and anti-Toryism (1990)