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Submitted by stuartjordan on Mon, 09/05/2011 - 12:06

Firstly, I think daubing "Fight Sexism" on Ann Summers is problematic. Is there anything particularly sexist about buying underwear? Is Ann Summers oppressing women by its hegemonic influence on the nation's sexuality? Should women and men boycott Ann Summers and treat sex toys as obstacles to sexual liberation? No - I don't think so.

I think Bobi is trying to shoehorn some "diversity of tactics" theory into her/his article rather than actually think through the issues. Most feminists I was with on the 26th were appalled by this action. How did it relate to any of the liberation campaigns of the unions? Not at all.

However, that aside, there is little in the main body of the article that I would disagree with. I am generally in favour of direct action and class struggle, and I share the class analysis of the union bureaucracy. Where we differ is that Bobi has a utopian conception of the "working-class", which leads to sectarianism. This is not said as an insult but as an attempt to be politically clear and precise.

It is not clear from the article because Bobi does not spell it out, but Bobi appears to want to build a "red union". With over 7 million workers organised into TUC affiliated trade unions, Bobi has decided that the most effective use of energy is to build up "a labour movement of accessible, transparent, self-organised groupings" that can take "forms of industrial action such as wildcat strikes, go-slows etc [that] workers can engage in without relying on official union approval." This sounds very militant but it does not relate to reality. It is not a strategy that relates to the concrete workers movement as it really exists in the here and now, but it is a theory about a mythical "working-class" that exists in Bobi's head.

Wildcat action is not simply spontaneous movement of the class - it requires very high levels of organisation. We obviously strive to create this level of organisation through rank-and-file initiatives within the existing unions, but we can not wish it into existence. We build this level of organisation and militancy by rooting ourselves in the movement, doing all the slow and sluggish work and then organising through the experience of struggle. WE believe that levels of militancy and organisation can shift very quickly. But even the poorly organised 7 million union members are better organised than the remaining unorganised workers. We cannot write them off as a dead-end.

When the union bosses call a one-day protest strike against pension reforms next month there will be many things that we would criticise about their tactics and strategy. This type of action is far from adequate given the level of the attack. However, that day of strike action will be significant and it will help to give people an experience of class struggle from which we can build the kind of rank-and-file organisation that is necessary. We cannot stand aside from it simply because the bureaucrats will be trying to sell us out.

Workers Liberty is probably one of the most successful groups on the British left at intervening in the trade unions, building rank-and-file organisation and attempting to reform the unions to make them effective organisations of class struggle. Contrary to your suggestion that we are simply interested in winning union elections, most of our activists operate at the shop-floor level of the movement. We fight the bureaucracy for maximum self-organisation and democratic control. We do not do this by standing outside the unions and criticising the bureaucracy, we engage in a direct struggle with the bureaucracy, exploiting the contradictions in the movement. We believe that there is some benefit in taking positions at all levels of the movement provided that our leading activists are held to account by the democratic decisions of the tendency.

You have a problem with "Leninist tactics" by which I suppose you mean, democratic centralist ways of organising. Unfortunately for you, it is a simple fact that workers organise in democratic centralist organisations. Sometimes there is a democratic deficit within these organisations - you could argue that outside of revolutionary epochs, there is always democratic deficit. However, even at their most bureaucratic, the unions are by far the most democratic organisations on the planet. We organise for maximum involvement and democratic participation. We believe that people have the right to form tendencies and intervene in the movement and fight for different political platforms. This is entirely healthy. Your sectarianism lies in the fact that you want the workers to organise in a different way and you don't like democratic centralism. On this basis you are willing to snub 7 million organised workers on the basis they have been duped by evil "Leninists". Moreover, by having such distain for the democratic structures of the unions, you fail to see how the autonomous actions of a small minority could be perceived in a negative light. AWL defends the smashing windows actions on the 26th against witchhunts by the right-wing, but we have to recognise that they were unilateral actions taken with little regard for the traditions of democracy and accountability that we are trying to build in the movement. We believe in taking responsibility for the whole movement with all its inadequacies and that means any autonomous action needs to be considered very seriously. These actions were essentially sectarian.

Lastly, there is the question of direct action. Both the anarchist movement and the official trade union movement seem to have forgotten the true meaning of the words "direct action". In the past, direct action was taking things into our own hands. Direct action against tax dodgers would involve robbing them and handing the money to the treasury. Neither oneday protest strikes, nor painting slogans on shop windows, constitutes direct action in this traditional sense. Both actions will cause some small amount of pain to the bosses, but essentially these actions are symbolic. To use some of the language from the situationists, the left is stuck with producing "spectacles" rather than creating real class conflict. We will be fighting to make the actually existing labour movement fight a war of attrition with the government.

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