The case for a workers' government
By Jill Mountford (National Organiser of the Welfare State Network)
You get sick, you need treatment - you’re cared for. That was the founding principle of the National Health Service. Health care for all, free at the point of need, was an attempt by the labour movement to civilise a system that puts the accumulation of profit and the personal well-being of a privileged few above the basic needs of the majority of people.
The principle that the single parent or the unemployed worker has a right to life equal to that of the wealthy factory owner, the fat-cat corporation executive, or the man who lives a carefree life of luxury off the profits of his grandfather’s investments, is the central plank of the National Health Service set up in 1948. That principle that has been under attack over the last two decades and is now badly eroded.
The confidence and security that the NHS once gave to millions of working people is now dramatically weakened. The life chances of workers and their families have been narrowed. For the majority, health care is now a lottery. You may or may not strike it lucky. There may or may not be enough money in the local health authority or GPs’ budget to pay for your treatment. Workers do not have an equal right to life. This is the state of things in Britain at the end of the Twentieth Century. Britain is now far more wealthy than in 1948 when the NHS was set up. We live in a world where almost unimaginable technological, medical and biological advances have been made. Yet the principle of “can’t pay, don’t get” is fast winning ground, and burying the principle of Nye Bevan’s Health Service.
Ten months after Labour’s landslide election victory, NHS waiting lists soar, and cuts — which not along ago would have been called “Tory cuts” — continue to slash away at the fabric of the welfare state. All that New Labour’s election victory has meant is that a strong and still popular government, with an impregnable majority, now drives through the same old Tory policies — and adds its own Tory innovations. New Labour has abolished student grants and brought in tuition fees where the Tories did not dare.
The increase in NHS waiting lists, the cuts to single parent benefits, the threatened cuts to disability benefits — and the fact that nearly a year after the Labour victory, Britain still has all the old Tory anti-union laws on the statute book, the least liberal trade union laws of any “advanced democracy” — pose the question starkly. Which side is the government on? In whose interests does it rule?
After 18 years of misery and insecurity at the hands of those who openly worship the free market and profit, the people who voted Labour on 1 May 1997 voted and hoped for something better and more civilised. They voted for a government that would act in the interests of the majority, the working people, in place of the Tories who act as the agents and protectors of the privileged few. They voted for Labour, and Tony Blair’s New Labour party has betrayed those hopes.
Class is decisive
Blair and Brown have unfolded plans for the welfare state, workers’ rights, trade-union rights, jobs and the economy that prove unmistakably that this is a bosses’ government. In some important respects it is more of a bosses’ government than Major’s was — and it is certainly a more efficient and credible one. Blair sees himself as the heir of Margaret Thatcher. His list of special advisers to the government is one simple indicator. He has pushed aside representatives of those traditionally at the core of Labour’s support, the trade unions, and replaced them with big-business bosses.
These are men who have all their lives made profit their god, elevating greed above human need, men for whom workers’ lives are mere items in a balance sheet. Now they advise Blair and his “Labour” Government on the welfare state, on workers’ rights, on jobs and wages! These few advisers, unelected and unaccountable, have between them been directly responsible for throwing on the scrapheap many tens of thousands of workers whose jobs they axed in their respective industries. They have unhesitatingly shattered the lives of workers and their families when profitability demanded it. Now their scope is increased. These are the people helping Blair and Brown shape and steer the policy of this “Labour” Government.
Millionaires also help Blair shape the Labour Party. An article by John Lloyd in the New Statesman of 27 February 1998 describes a gathering of “Businessmen for Labour”, “all teasing each other for having turned into ‘socialists’ after years of giving money to Thatcher”. They have funded a large personal staff of “spin-doctors” and advisers for Blair — larger than the central political staff of the Labour Party proper — thus “giving Blair the kind of operational independence enjoyed by none of his predecessors”. Thus, Lloyd concludes, “very rich men are now the key element in the finances — and thus arguably the politics — of both major British political parties”.
Blair and Brown think this is as it should be. This, they tell us, is a new way, a third way to govern the country and manage capitalism — an alternative both to the old Tory way and the old Labour way. The only thing new about it is the unashamedly Tory mask on a Labour face — except that the mask is the face. Blair’s coterie of big business advisers and donors is the candid expression of the openly capitalist nature of his “New Labour” government.
The “People’s Prime Minister” tells us he will rule in the interests of all the people. This is not possible. We live in a class-divided society — a society where a small class of people own vast sums of wealth and as a result wield colossal power over the lives of the majority. They own factories, offices and big businesses, and enjoy unbelievable luxury. A much larger class of people, the working class, own nothing but our ability to work and some personal possessions. These two classes have distinct sets of interests, not a common interest. On fundamentals, they can not now or ever be represented by the same government. Whatever Blair and Brown may say, they know who they serve.
In basic social and economic policy, a government will represent one or other of the key classes in our society, not both. Bosses and workers have different needs, and different ways of serving them. The boss is a predator in the social jungle. The worker needs a world of human and working-class solidarity.
In order to survive, the worker needs a secure right to work. The worker needs the right to organise for self-protection, the right to free trade unions. Workers’ needs cut directly against the needs of the bosses. For the boss to survive he needs to be competitive. In the pursuit of profit, the boss needs to be able to hire and fire at will. He wants the workers to have little or no defence against his industrial and social dictatorship. He wants trade unions to be shackled and solidarity outlawed. He needs to be able to condemn entire communities, even a generation if necessary — as Thatcher demonstrated — to the scrapheap of unemployment.
The distinct and different needs of these two classes means that they cannot co-exist in harmony. The “social peace” of the last period has been peace erected after the Tory victory over the labour movement in the 1980s. Social peace today still rests on the continued outlawing of working-class solidarity.
Take the question of wages. To the bosses, wages are simply one of the costs of production. No matter whether your boss is personally a good human being or a bad one, he or she must keep wages, like all other costs, to a minimum in order to undercut other capitalists and maximise profits. To the workers, on the other hand, wages are the only means of livelihood for themselves and their dependents. The decency and dignity of workers’ lives, and their children’s prospects, depend on their ability to defend and improve wages and conditions at work. Between wages and profits, bosses and workers, there is an unbridgeable gap, an antagonism that shapes our society. Workers have no choice but to organise and take on the might of the bosses and their government when they are threatened with wage cuts, job losses, longer working hours. Class conflict is inevitable. It is the very pulse-beat of our class-divided capitalist society.
Workers need the right to combine and work together with others in the same situation to push for improvements. Workers need to organise themselves as a class and bargain collectively. If they can not organise freely, that is a massive advantage for their class enemies, who have their own class interests to defend and pursue.
Blair’s government is a bosses’ government
Can a government like Blair’s, which says it will serve all the people, play an independent role in resolving these conflicts and struggles? It can not. In the past there have been reforming governments which, while still serving the boss class in fundamentals, have sided with the workers on important secondary questions. But, as we have already seen, where it really counts and on almost all secondary issues too, Blair comes down on the side of the bosses. The Government have already made many big changes in favour of the boss class, further securing and extending their control over wealth and property, and therefore over the lives of working people. Giving away control of the Bank of England, cutting corporation tax and continuing to deny union rights or a decent minimum wage are clear examples of this government being a bosses’ government.
The “general public” or “the people” is made up of distinct groups with conflicting interests — workers and capitalists. It is impossible to serve all of the people all of the time. The “general public” is an ideological myth which serves those who dominate in our society. Even if, out of the goodness of his heart or as a result of pressure from organised workers, Blair should make a few concessions to the working class, this will not make the real balance of social forces any more equal than it is now, or Blair’s government any less a capitalist government.
Of course, the elected government does not govern the country alone. A capitalist government is an “executive committee” of the capitalist class, sometimes standing at a distance from this faction or that of the class, but always acting to maintain the rules of profit-making. Behind that committee stands not only a network of string-pulling capitalists, but also the state, the army, the police, the judiciary, the prisons and the civil service. These are the permanent defenders of the capitalist system. Look at the role of the police, the courts, the prisons and the army during the 1984-85 miners’ strike! At every twist and turn the state defended the bosses’ interests and upheld the system that was crushing the mining communities and destroying workers’ lives.
The state is in fact, despite democratic theory, run by unelected and unaccountable groups tied to the capitalist class. If necessary, it will organise against a “weak” executive committee that is bending under pressure from the working class or losing control. MI5, the secret service of the capitalist class, spied on the Wilson-led Labour Government of the 1960s. In 1974, in the thick of class war with the miners and other workers, a group of senior army officers (though not the very top brass) discussed a British coup d’état to save capitalism from serious challenge by the workers. The then Chief of the General Staff, Michael Carver, admitted it publicly many years later.
The role of the state is to defend the capitalist system at all costs. In addition to the state reinforcing and bolstering the capitalist system, individual capitalists, such as Rupert Murdoch and other press barons, exert their influence through the pages of the newspapers, magazines, and television stations they own and, of course, behind the scenes. Murdoch was powerful enough before the election to force a pledge from Blair that the government would not “interfere” with his media monopolies. The beliefs and values of the capitalist system weave their way through every newspaper article and TV report. As well as accumulating profit, the media capitalists make propaganda for the system that robs the majority. They are its ideological high priests and policemen. They will us to believe that the capitalist system is natural, fair and irreplaceable. Together, the state and governments defend capital and private property.
Even a generous Labour Government, with ministers who want to do their best for the working class, is more geared to defending the system that allows a tiny minority of bosses to accumulate massive wealth than it is to defending and guaranteeing full rights for workers. Look at the record.
The 1945 Labour Government set up the modern welfare state. It was the most pro-worker government ever seen in Britain. It made changes that greatly benefited the working class. It redistributed income. It made the bosses pay more in taxes to benefit the majority. But it also kept wartime anti-strike laws and sent the army to break strikes on the docks. Ultimately it kept the harsh system of capitalism safe in place. As long as the capitalist system rules, the gains workers make can be taken back when the bosses feel strong enough to take them back. All other Labour governments have been even less successful than the 1945-51 administration in taming capital. They have not even tried. They have merely administered capitalism, usually without shame. In fundamentals they favoured the bosses’ interests — making cuts and attacking the conditions and rights of the working class. But they were, all of them, even the Wilson-Callaghan government of 1974-79, working-class champions compared to Blair and his cronies!
All past Labour leaders have set out believing that they can manage capitalism less brutally than the Conservatives, the bosses’ first-string party of government. Remember Neil Kinnock? His slogans had appeal neither to the boss class nor to the working class. Labour lost the 1992 election to the Tories. Putting a properly human face that will last on the monstrous system that inflicts needless insecurity, poverty and misery on large sections of the working class is simply not possible. We need something more than even the best of past British Labour governments.
We need a workers’ government
The mass working-class political movement has, with Blair and his gang, reached the end of a long political road. It is time to ask ourselves, where did we go wrong? Where did we take the wrong turning? The short answer is: when the movement began to lose sight of the original working-class goals for the realisation of which the labour movement first turned to independent politics. It is high time the labour movement — and in the first place its left wing — remembered where we have come from and where generations of labour movement activists have been trying to go. That is the only way we will understand how we come to find ourselves in this Blairite blind alley. Only by taking stock can we find a way out of it. To do that we need to rearm the labour movement with the basic socialist ideas and goals, now half forgotten, which inspired and guided the pioneers who built the great labour movement which the Blairites are working to subvert. We need once more to raise up before the eyes of the labour movement and argue for a vision not only of the working-class goal of socialism, but of the sort of labour movement needed to achieve that goal.
We did not create the Labour Party almost a century ago in order that careerist politicians could ride in the swing of the party pendulum at Westminster, but to win a working-class government that would serve our interests as the Tories and Liberals served bourgeois interests. A workers’ government worthy of the name would be a radical socialist government driving to create socialism in the only way it ever can be created — by expropriating the bourgeoisie, by destroying their state power and by abolishing wage slavery. We propose to those in the labour movement who want a government loyal to the interests of the working class, but do not agree with us about the need for a socialist transformation of society as defined here — that is, for a socialist revolution — but who are principled reform socialists, that we can at least agree on the centrality of mounting independent working class and labour movement political action. We propose to them that they fight to stop the Blairites and, if Blair stifles all working-class life in the Labour Party, join with us to prepare a revival of mass, trade union-based, working class politics — a new mass workers’ party. We propose to them that they form with us a common front to fight for a government of a Labour Party reclaimed by its working-class activists and purged of the Blair leadership, or of a new workers’ party based on the trade unions, which would push through such measures as:
• The liberation of the trade unions from the shackles riveted on them by Tory laws which outlaw such essential trade union action as solidarity strikes;
• The restoration of the National Health Service;
• The restoration of the welfare state;
• A decent minimum wage for all;
• Equality in education opportunities and free education for all;
• The return to public ownership of the industries pillaged by the Tories, this time under proper democratic control;
• Taxation of the rich, and expropriation of the big banks and financial institutions which dominate economic life through the “casino economy” of high finance, to acquire the resources to establish jobs and welfare for all.
Immediately, our battle centres round the demands for free trade unions and a rebuilt welfare state; as the revival of the labour movement develops, so the need for more far-reaching demands will be felt. One demand leads to another, in a chain of class-struggle logic that leads from the immediate battles of today to full-blown socialist conclusions.
While continuing the day-to-day fight at every level of the trade unions and the Labour Party, socialists need insistently and repeatedly to spell out the historical and political context of current politics. Why do we want to keep the link between the unions and the Labour Party? Because we want to maintain and develop a working class party! Why? Because we want a government that will serve our side as the Tories serve the bourgeoisie!
Class is the decisive test. To restore the idea of class politics to the centre of the labour movement’s concerns, we have to shake that movement out of its hypnosis with official bourgeois politics, and win it back to an understanding that we need a workers’ party and a workers’ government, because working-class politics is more than the see-saw of the Westminster party game. The question of government is central to working-class politics. If the labour movement does not have a socialist notion of government, then it will have a bourgeois (right now, Blairite) one. That is the lesson of Labour’s 15-year drift to the right in pursuit of government, and its miserable performance now in office.
Today, the ability of the British parliament to control what happens in Britain is weak and inadequate, and getting weaker. Power lies with the boards of giant international corporations, outside of all proper democratic control, with the European banks and with the institutions of the European Union — which are still not effectively democratic. Even a reforming working-class-based government confined to Britain could do a great deal. However, an effective workers’ government, a government with the scope and power to submit European capitalism to its control, will have to be a Europe-wide government. The idea of a workers’ government points directly to the idea of a workers’ united Europe.
The objective of a workers’ government in Britain and in Europe — that is the only thing that gives focus, drive and sense to mass working-class politics. Only the reinstatement at the centre of working-class politics of the objective of a workers’ government, defined and measured by our class interests, can give coherence to the fight we have to wage against the New Labour government.
The road to a workers’ government
If we agree that the interests of the two main classes are diametrically opposed to each other and that in its fundamental nature capitalism, which is rooted in relentless class exploitation, inevitably generates class conflict and class struggle, then we must conclude that the working class needs a party and a government that is prepared to fight for workers’ class interests as hard and as consistently as the bosses’ governments defend the interests of capital. We need a workers’ government!
It is necessary to bring to an end the misery and insecurity that capitalism inflicts on the very people who create its wealth. This can only be achieved by the working class organising in a political party which fights for the liberation of the working class from the exploitation and oppression to which it is doomed under capitalism. That is what the socialist founders of the Labour Party meant it to be. The party was hijacked by the trade-union bureaucrats and self-serving Labour careerists — from whom it has now in turn been hijacked by Blair’s gang of openly bourgeois lawyers, journalists, academics, and practising capitalists. The need for a workers’ government, a government that in a measurable way will serve our class, is as urgent today as it ever was. The openly capitalist character of Blair’s New Labour administration poses the question: how can we get such a government?
The answer is first another question: what force in society can create a workers’ government? Only the organised working class — the labour movement. But for that to be possible, we must first transform the existing labour movement.
Bureaucratic working-class organisations, steeped in capitalist ideas, are content with fighting for limited wage gains. Our organisations are in the grip of bureaucratic dry rot. Trade unions today are mainly led by college-graduate careerists with no experience of shop-floor class struggle. We must democratise to the highest level every structure of our organisations, rebuilding an open and democratic trade-union movement that can develop the demands and interests of the working class and carry them out to their full.
That would mean a radically different kind of party and government. A socialist workers’ government would begin to organise society to meet human need rather than to create wealth for a few. It would organise industry so that everyone who could work has a job and the chance to contribute to the common social wealth and well-being. The technological advances made under capitalism in the recent decades would, if rationally developed and organised for people and not for profit, allow the working week to be cut, probably halved, without loss of pay and, indeed, with a large-scale levelling-up of wages so that many millions would benefit from a minimum wage.
A workers’ government would close the vast gap between the richest in our society and poorest at the bottom of the heap. A radically socialist workers’ government which arose on the basis of a mass working-class self-mobilisation would lay the foundations for the complete transformation of our present capitalist society into a socialist society, a society where all classes and class differences would be abolished once and for all, a society organised at every level for the benefit of the whole population, and based on people’s needs, not profit.
All that is possible. Its achievement depends on whether or not the workers can build and rebuild and renovate the labour movement into a force that desires to and can defeat the capitalists. When the capitalists feel their property and profits are endangered, there are no lengths to which they will not go to preserve them. The interests and welfare of the working class are their very last concern. They will have no qualms about using the might of the state machine to crush the workers’ efforts to create a higher and more civilised form of society. They have done it often, for example in Chile in September 1973 against the none-too-radical but honestly reforming government of Salvador Allende. They will do all they can to sabotage industries and production. They will attempt to wreck the workers’ government at every level.
When the war between capital and labour rages fiercely, victory for the workers will only be secured if a mass democratic workers’ party has been built, committed to victory for our side, a party that is rooted in the organised working class and has independent working-class politics. Without such a party, mass struggle can make gains for our class but will always stop short of making a real step forward to abolish this system that crushes the minds, bodies and spirits of the working class.
At worst the workers’ movement will be smashed. In the past this has led to the triumph of the vilest of systems, fascism. Today, the bourgeoisie has no need for such risky extremes. Yet those who forget the past are often doomed to repeat it. The bourgeoisie who unleashed Mussolini and Hitler on the Italian and German workers, and some of whom tried to unleash Mosley on us, are not to be trifled with. The labour movement’s inability to take the great trade-union victories of the early 1970s to their logical conclusion — that is, to the creation of a workers’ government prepared to fight to put the needs of the working class first — prepared the way for the savage counter-attack of the right-wing Thatcher government.
A mass, united workers’ movement, armed with an independent working-class programme and led by organised socialists, is necessary if we are to take on the might of the capitalist class and push them back. The Blairites are pushing in exactly the opposite direction. Not only do they govern as agents of the boss class; they want to complete Margaret Thatcher’s work and drive the labour movement out of politics. To some extent they have already done it. The links between the Labour Party and the trade unions have not been severed, but the trade union leaders have let the unions be reduced to dumb extras in Blair’s pageant. The unions still have a lot of reserve power, should they choose to use it. Raising, as we must, within the unions the back-to-basics politics of class against class, of the need for a workers’ government, we can help rouse the bedrock labour movement to fight against its own exclusion from politics and reverse the logic of Blairism.
The Blairites have the commanding heights of the Labour Party, but the fight there is not over yet. Trade unions should take up the old cry for which the Labour Party first differentiated from the Liberals — the demand for working-class people in Parliament, for labour representation. Activists in the trade unions should start by demanding that their unions use their positions in the Labour Party — still substantial, if only they would use them — to fight vigorously and insistently for the unions’ own policies, for the health service, for the welfare state, and for union rights.
Where we are now
How do we get from the situation we are in now, with an under-confident labour movement, to the possibility of a workers’ government? To begin with, we need an honest appraisal of where we are at. We have a labour movement that is weakened still by the defeats of the 1980s and the anti-union laws which make illegal the basic right to take solidarity action. There are no laws to limit what the capitalists and their government can do in industrial conflict; but should workers on strike stand shoulder to shoulder with more than six on a picket line to defend their jobs against scab labour and ruthless bosses, or to defend other workers in a dispute, they can be hauled away and banged up in prison. Should a postal worker, railway worker or docker consider striking in solidarity with nurses and other health workers to defend the NHS, as miners did in the 1980s, the state will swing into action, dealing a heavy, concussing blow to the union by sequestrating its funds. The first and most pressing need is for the labour movement to campaign to restore the right to free trade unionism!
In government, the Labour Party, founded by workers to forward the interests of the working class, has adopted as its own the Tory anti-union laws and is now operating them to shackle and restrain workers who want to take industrial action. It is because they now stand for rabidly Tory policies like this that consecutive Labour leaders have put years of efforts into tightening the stranglehold of the parliamentary party over the party in the country and of the Great Leader himself over the parliamentary party. In the political labour movement, too, they have had to curb workers and stop them acting in their own interests.
Successive rule changes, won through bureaucratic deals with union block votes, were pushed through by the servants of capitalism, Neil Kinnock, John Smith, and Tony Blair, desperate to pull back the democratic gains made in the early 1980s when the left organised and won important battles in the Labour Party. Organising in the party and the unions, we demanded changes to ensure that never again would there be inflicted on us a Labour Government like the Wilson-Callaghan Government of 1974-79, the government which first, if rather timidly, introduced the monetarist policies which later were taken up and expanded by Thatcher.
The labour movement is lacking in confidence as a result of years of defeat and the operation of anti-working-class laws that have fettered the trade unions. Blair wants to keep it that way, and make matters worse by driving the unions out of politics. Yet the election of the Blair government has, whatever Blair intended, opened up new possibilities.
The 61 MPs’ revolt over the cuts in single parent benefit coincided with and inspired action in many towns and cities around Britain. Lobbies, pickets, petitions and protests are the small beginnings of a class starting to stir into renewed political life. They reflect the beginning of the recomposition of the political labour movement. The protests have been sufficient to force Harriet Harman and Frank Field to offer an additional few quid to the worst-off families on benefits. But nobody should be fooled. The Blair government is still determined to “reform” the welfare state out of all recognition. It will press on.
The silence of the trade union leaders over this attack and others on our class illustrates, yet again, the role these bureaucrats have come to play. If they can not speak out on such matters of elementary working-class concern, it shows that their political decomposition is so far gone that they are doomed to act as nothing more than agents of the bourgeoisie. But, irrespective of the Morrises and Bickerstaffes in our movement, workers are already showing discontent with the Blair way of running things even though they continue to support what they think Labour should stand for — the welfare state, redistribution of income through taxation, the NHS and so on.
Conflict is inevitable here between the labour movement and the government. For the “modernisation” of the welfare state has to go ahead as far as the boss class is concerned. And this will means more cuts, more attacks and further denial of workers’ rights, which in turn will lead to further class conflicts. The labour movement will fight back, learning to demonstrate its strength and building up its confidence by way of action — initially by demonstrations and petitions, and then occupations and strikes. We have done it before and we will do it again!
The labour movement can make a new world...
In 1972 the organised working class successfully mobilised our might against Edward Heath’s Conservative government after five dockers were thrown into prison for secondary picketing. Hundreds of thousands of workers struck in defence of their brothers in Pentonville jail, and within days the Government freed the dockers. A solid Tory law, backed by every state institution, was smashed by the might of mass working-class solidarity. The workers fought, and the workers won. Earlier that year, car workers, engineering workers and others had rallied to the aid of the miners on strike against threatened closures and job losses. The bosses picked the fight, and they struck the first blow, having built up coal stocks in depots around the country. One of the biggest depots was the Saltley Gate Coke plant in Birmingham. Miners nationwide travelled to Saltley to picket the depot. The boss class mobilised its police in huge numbers, determined to smash the workers’ picket. In this serious class battle the workers won, again, because they dared to fight. Two years later another miners’ strike led Edward Heath, leader of the Conservative government, to ask the country a simple question: who rules, us or the unions? In the general election that followed the working class booted the Tories out and elected a Labour government under Harold Wilson.
Wilson started by legislating some reforms and repealing Tory measures, like the law under which the dockers had been jailed in 1972. But Wilson and his successor James Callaghan soon made clear their determination to serve capitalism by further attacking the working class. Wage restraint and cuts were their weapons. The Winter of Discontent in 1978-79 saw tens of thousands of workers taking strike action against government pay policy. The Labour government and militant workers clashed disastrously, and the general election of May 1979 saw Labour lose. Margaret Thatcher and 18 years of Tory rule followed. If the working-class militants who kicked the Tories out in 1974 had been able to put in a government loyal to their goals and needs, then everything would have been different. The new government would have been the beginning of the end for the capitalist class, and not, like the Wilson-Callaghan administration, an interregnum soon to be followed by the savage Thatcherite counter-revolution whose consequences still cripple the labour movement and have cleared the way within it for Blairism.
... If we remake the labour movement
The workers’ movement went from mass solidarity class action that forced the state to release class prisoners, to bringing down a bosses’ government. We elected a Labour government; but it did not serve the working class. Instead it attacked us. What can be done to prevent that happening again?
We need to renovate and rebuild the working-class movement. We need to revive and renew the trade unions, and either to reclaim the Labour Party from Blair or to begin to build a new mass working-class party. We need to mobilise the labour movement to fight for an extension of democracy in society and against the closing-off of democracy embedded in the bureaucratisation of politics which Blairism represents and seeks to consolidate by driving the working class out of politics. We must democratise the labour movement and put an end to the power and privileges enjoyed by the bureaucratic officialdom. Only then can we build a movement that is capable of fighting to defend the workers’ interests against the capitalist class. Such a movement would insist on union officials facing re-election every year or two years. It would end “fat cat” salaries of the kind Alan Johnson of the Communications Workers’ Union (now “graduated” — or should that be “degenerated” — to being a Labour MP) awarded himself, salaries that separate out the bureaucrats from the shop-floor workers. No official should earn more than the average shop-floor rate. All officials, at every level, should be held to account for their actions and be immediately recallable if the majority vote for it. There would be an end to electing officials who try to manage capitalism on behalf of the bosses and as a result commit treacherous crimes against the working class. We fight to develop within our own movement a much higher level of democracy than the sham democracy of the bourgeoisie — workers’ democracy.
The Marxist left has an irreplaceable role here. The transformation of the labour movement will not happen spontaneously as a reflection of economic class struggles. As workers gain confidence to fight for far-reaching political programmes, inevitably they choose and adapt from the programmes available, presented by groups which have built up a stock of ideas, a literature, an influence, and a network of activists over the years. To deny that a militant Marxist organisation — and not just some loose network of well-meaning left-wingers — must be built continuously, in the very process of fighting to transform the labour movement, is to think that someone and something else will bring about and consolidate that transformation. In fact, unless a Marxist organisation is strong enough to shape events, in a new upsurge we will probably get fiascos and muddle and confusion like the Bennite left of the 1980s.
Organise and unite the socialists
Even a fairly small but competent revolutionary Marxist party can be decisive. It can make the difference in the heat of mass struggles between the labour movement being able to reorganise itself and win, and crushing defeat. The 1984-5 miners’ strike, for example, could have been won by solidarity from dockers and other key workers. The TUC leaders sold it out. A network of rank-and-file activists in key positions across industry, even if only a few thousand strong — the existing forces of the revolutionary left could have done it, if adequately directed and organised — could have won solidarity for the miners and made the difference between victory and defeat. And if the miners had won, things would have gone very differently thereafter.
That is why revolutionary politics is not something for the future — “on the barricades”, as the cliché has it — but for here and now. There is an organic relationship, seed to luxuriant growth, between selling magazines on a street corner now and victory or defeat in mass revolutionary struggles. If we do not build now, when the mass labour movement is only just beginning to revive, then we will not be able to seize the big chances when they come.
The transformation of the labour movement simply cannot happen without the continual interaction of a Marxist organisation with the class struggle and the mass movement. And in the interaction the Marxist organisation grows — before the full transformation of the labour movement — by ones and twos, then dozens and hundreds, and then thousands and tens of thousands. Ever watched water boil? All the bubbles don’t cascade at once.
Serious Marxists fight for the hegemony of clear socialist ideas in the labour movement, and to do that we must build, as slowly as necessary and as quickly as possible, a coherent organisation active on all fronts of the class struggle, economic, political, and in the battle of ideas. If we do not build up now by way of the ones and twos and threes that can be won, we will never be big enough to win over the tens, hundreds, thousands and millions.
But today the revolutionary left is depleted in forces and not immune from the demoralisation of the broad workers’ movement. In recent years, much of the hard left has lost itself in self-indulgent sectarianism. Many leftists have fled the Labour Party, declaring Blair to be too right wing. Logically that means, too right wing to bother fighting against! The problem is that the organised working class, in the trade unions, remains tied to the Labour Party. The attitude of the sectarians assumes that in the Labour Party nothing can be won. Blair, Mandelson and their gang do hold the reins tight around the neck of the party, but there is still ground worth defending and fighting for.
Even if we had twenty-twenty advance vision that could tell us that Blair’s full victory, and the conversion of the Labour Party into something like Bill Clinton’s US Democratic Party, are certain, it would still be necessary for us to fight with the rearguard inside the Labour Party in order to rally the trade-union organisations and the individual activists who will make a new mass party based on the working class. Arthur Scargill’s departure in a fit of pique three years ago to form a “Socialist Labour Party” was premature and misjudged in the extreme. Now Labour is in government, retaining trade-union affiliations — though with an altered relationship of forces — it is shown to be even more irresponsible and absurd.
The left already outside the Labour Party, particularly the SWP, have for many years now appeared to inhabit their own private planets, making flying visits to Earth to ask the general public in towns, cities and on campuses, “Is Revolution Possible?” The answer is “no”, or not for a very long time, if all revolutionary socialists behave as the SWP do! The question asked here — is revolution possible? — is one that all socialists must be able to answer. It is a basic topic for all-round socialist education that remains timeless. But, unfortunately, it is not the question on the lips of workers now, nor can it be until we have substantially transformed the labour movement.
The burning question is what to do next. How do we get from here to there? Timeless talk about revolution is one way of disguising bankruptcy in the here and now. The NHS, education, jobs and workers’ rights are the pressing issues for the working class at present. Out of struggles on these questions, and not out of abstract debates, will come the organisation, experience, tempering, confidence and — if Marxists do our job — education that will prepare large numbers of workers to pose the need for socialist revolution. The real revolutionaries must have the stomach to face up to where the working class are at now, and not take childish refuge in idle talk about where we would like them, and us, to be. Serious revolutionaries, as distinct from fun-loving anarchists, refrain from shouting ”One Solution, Revolution!”; we build campaigns and initiatives that relate to the working class now. This is the best way, the only way, to raise amongst the broadest layers of working-class activists the bigger demands that lead to understanding of the need for a workers’ government and for remaking the labour movement.
Revolutionaries and reforms
In reality, people who shout about “revolution” but have no way of getting from where we are now to that revolution are no revolutionaries. Trotsky put it brilliantly, “The significance of the party is the significance of the programme; the significance of the programme is the significance of the party”. A party without an understanding of the concrete links in the chain to move the working class forward is no party at all; a programme of broad demands to mobilise the movement means nothing without a party to fight for it. Unlike the super r-r-revolutionaries of the SWP, who talk of revolution but in the meantime leave Blair safely in control of the political labour movement, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty is building an open, democratic association of Marxists which works consistently within the working class for a programme based on the logic of the class struggle. We argue for a workers’ government because the idea focuses the political struggles that will turn the existing working-class movement into a force for socialism. There are two perspectives available to us when we set out to be revolutionary activists rather than waiting for the labour movement to advance “spontaneously”. Either we work to transform and renew the existing multi-million-strong labour movement into a revolutionary force, while retaining our own autonomy and initiative as an activist minority; or we try to build our “own” “revolutionary” labour movement alongside the existing one and maybe overlapping with it.
Workers’Liberty argues for the first approach, the struggle to remake the labour movement so that it can fight for a workers’ government; sterile sects like the Socialist Workers’ Party and the Socialist Labour Party embody the second attitude. But in our view the fight for a workers’ government should become the axis for regroupment and unity on the revolutionary left — unity on the basis of the logic of the class struggle, not on the impossible basis of accepting one or another sect as the only “socialist alternative”.
Working with other socialists in campaigns like the Welfare State Network and the Free Trade Unions Campaign, organising around crucial demands that correspond to the real needs of the working class today, and doing the everyday agitation, education and organisation of a revolutionary socialist grouping geared to the working class and the labour movement, we can mobilise and educate layers of the workers who voted for a complete change on May 1 1997. There can be no predicting how or when the revival of class struggle will start. The stirrings around the Government’s attack on lone parent families is, we hope, the beginning. Whether or not this proves to be so, all the ingredients for class struggle revival are there, some in small doses, others in much bigger quantities. The task now is to raise the demands, develop the politics and organise where we can for the self-renewal and transformation of the workers movement.
The struggle for a workers’ government starts from today’s battles — from the need for mass action to defeat Blair’s bosses’ government on welfare, health and education cuts, tuition fees, the public sector pay freeze, union rights, and other issues. In the course of these battles, revolutionary socialists should seek to build up a movement of the rank and file in the unions — and across the unions — to oust those who presently mislead the movement. We will seek to organise with what remains of the left in the Labour Party — and with decent working-class right-wingers who retain a loyalty to their class — to resist its transformation into an out-and-out bosses’ party modelled on the US Democrats. We will seek to link the battles within the existing labour movement structures to the dynamism and energy of welfare campaigns, student protests, and struggles against racism, women’s oppression and homophobia.
The broad movement of resistance to Blair which can and must be built will need a political perspective, an idea of a different kind of government. Without that idea, we may be able to defeat particular attacks, but we will never really defeat the politics and interests that Blair represents. We can help rally the movement by spelling out in concrete and immediate terms the steps that a real labour government, a government genuinely based on and committed to the working class, should take.
We have to put up a real “third way”, an alternative to Blair and Brown’s “third way” — independent working-class politics. The only way forward is the orientation towards the fight for a workers’ government. The other way, the way of those activists who bury themselves in labour movement routine, and also of the sectarian revolution-shouters and onanists of socialism, is to condemn the working class, now and for generations to come, to spend our time engaged in battles — some of which we win, and some of which we lose — to defend our basic right to survive, rather than helping the labour movement rise to the aspiration to create a society where the majority in the world can begin to enjoy the fruits of our labour.
We need a workers’ government!