7. AWL and the imaginary "pole"

Submitted by AWL on 9 July, 2009 - 5:41 Author: Sean Matgamna and Martin Thomas

One of the dangers AWL faces - and into which some on the other side of this dispute have fallen - is that we conflate things that should be kept distinct.

(a) We make AWL propaganda, agitation, and education for our policies, proposals, and historical class outlook;

(b) We want to promote the working class and the bedrock broad labour movement, the trade unions, to develop political independence.

By "developing political independence", we mean, ultimately, that the workers adopt our politics - AWL, Trotskyist, Leninist, Marxist politics - the only consistent and comprehensive independent working-class politics in existence.

After the effective disenfranchisement by New Labour of the working class, we have come to see more or less any moves into politics, in the form of independent candidates backed by the unions, as steps in the right direction - moves away from the unions' donkey-to-rider relationship with the New Labour government.

We have already had to make a qualification to that attitude by not backing No2EU.

The attitude brings dangers:

* That we begin to think of any moves towards political, organisational, or electoral independence from New Labour and from the donkey's role by trade union leaders as steps towards AWL politics, as partial moves towards political health;

* That we "forget" the objective conditions that have led to our recent positions - relatively booming capitalism, effective bipartisanship between the New Labour government and the Tories, an indefinite period of New Labour government stretching ahead - or we fail to give proper weight to changes in those conditions;

* That, consequently, we have difficulty taking on basic changes in the situation around us, and their implications.

We have throughout the political existence of our tendency argued against "anti-Tory" fetishism. It ignored, blurred over, and therefore worsened, the problem that the old Labour Party was not politically adequate. It was purely negative, and implied no clear alternative; it could, as New Labour proved, nourish even Blair-Brown-Tory "anti-Toryism".

Our "disaffiliationist" comrades are engaging in a sort of "anti-New-Labour" fetishism analogous to that old "anti-Tory" fetishism. In both cases it is a negativism whose positive implications are many and varied, and in no sense necessarily independent-socialist politics.

The wretched politics of the RMT leadership and of any likely political "pole" formed round the RMT leadership means that comrades, when they rhapsodise about the "project" of a new political "pole" defined by disaffiliation from the Labour Party, can do so only by ignoring the facts about the politics of the now-definable central elements of that "pole".

One of the curiosities in the politics of the "pole" comrades is that in their fantasies they seem to forget this central aspect of trade-union reality and of our politics. For practical purposes they "forget" that a central part of our politics is the creation of trade-union rank-and-file movements to fight the trade-union bureaucrats - including the left-wing ones whose politics are inadequate or reactionary.

It is bedrock to our politics that we advocate rank and file activity and trust trade-union bureaucrats only when a rank and file movement is in a position to get them out should they misbehave.

That does not mean that we refuse to differentiate between bad, and not-so-bad, or good, trade union leaders. We had a lot of good things to say about Arthur Scargill, while we publicly detested and fought against his Stalinist politics and international connections.

We praise Bob Crow's militancy, but we condemn his politics; we do not tell the working class that it can entrust him with the task of building the "pole" of opposition to New Labour politics. Merely to state the idea clearly shows how absurd it is.

To reiterate: to confuse organisational independence from the Labour Party with political independence is to make an a-political fetish of disaffiliation. To put it provocatively; the RMT leadership is on the EU reactionary even compared to Tory Tony Blair.

We should learn the lessons of the relationship of the original Labour Party with the Liberals. Organisational independence, and electoral independence (though they made electoral pacts with the Liberals), did not mean political independence, or, for two decades, even nominal commitment to socialism. The whole history of the non-sectarian Marxist left since then has been one of efforts to rectify that lack of political independence. That is what we were doing in the 1970s and 80s.

To make central to our outlook the projected disaffiliated-union political "pole" - or, in practice, propaganda for the creation of that pole; given our size, we can have no other "project" here - is to attribute to that "pole" something like the role only AWL can fill.

Even aside from the fact that the preconditions for such a "pole" coming into existence with any substance are now rapidly being eroded by the facts and the "emerging facts", this is disorienting and politically self-debilitating.

The champions of the new "pole" attribute the role proper to AWL - "for now" - to their imaginary pole or "project", or more exactly to propaganda for creating a "pole"; and thereby inescapably downgrade AWL. They champion the imaginary, projected, pole with all the emotion properly focused on AWL.

Paradoxically, they do that at the same time as their political "project" - which can only mean propaganda for creating such a "pole" - means needlessly and foolishly counterposing AWL to the broad labour movement. They want AWL to adopt a quintessential sectarianism!

They propose - that is what it comes down to - that AWL, in a period of flux in union/Labour relations, commit its all to a sideline identification with an imaginary "alternative pole", counterposed to the broader labour movement. That would define AWL as a "prefiguring" propagandist appendage to a utopian-sectarian project.

Sectarian - why? How? An authentic revolutionary organisation standing candidates in elections on its programme to rally and educate people is one thing.

We should do it whenever we are not so weak that, in the circumstances, it would be a destructive stunt.

A group of unions segregating themselves from the political processes - however sluggish - of the mainstream union movement, for the sake of electoral outings by a small reformist party, is another. Even if we chose to work for our politics within such a reformist party sponsored by a few dissident unions - and we might - we would do it on the basis of arguing for the whole party to orient to the mainstream, rather than seeing its electoral separateness as the great prize.

Some disaffiliationist comrades attribute AWL's role vis-a-vis the working class and the labour movement to the projected "pole"; and, simultaneously, mistake the projected "pole" for the broader labour movement.

There is also, or so it seems to the writers, among the numerous elements of defeatism in the "pole" comrades, a distinct strand of feeling that smaller unions can be moved politically, but the giant unions can't.

In all this they conflate what Lenin called "narrow trade-unionist politics" with revolutionary socialist politics.

That conflation is an aspect, and also a symptom, of political decline and decrepitude.

Trotsky wrote: "Sectarian attempts to build or preserve small 'revolutionary' unions, as a second edition of the party, signify in actuality the renouncing of the struggle for leadership of the working class". Mutatis mutandis, this argument applies also to attempts to build a small "alternative" reformist political party based on a few selected unions segregated from the main body of the unions.

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