We should work in mass organisations

Submitted by Matthew on 25 May, 2011 - 12:04

Stuart Jordan responds to North London Solidarity Federation (SolFed) in our continuing debate on the differences and similarities between Marxist and anarchist traditions.


SolFed’s contribution to our debate on anarchism and class struggle (Solidarity 3-204) makes good use of the “straw man” technique of debate. This is arguably a bigger block on healthy debate in the anti-capitalist movement than the “inhibitions” caused by a “hierarchical structure”... whatever that means. Before we can explore the interesting points of difference, it is necessary to clear away some of the straw.

We are not for “taxation of the rich to fund public services” as an end goal. We are for a classless society based on the principle of “from each according to their ability to each according to their need”. Our disagreement with SolFed is how to achieve that goal. (There is an interesting debate here about the use of transitional demands but it will have to wait for another day.)

No one in Workers’ Liberty “defers to the Labour Party or to trade union leaderships”. We do not believe that the trade unions should stay within the “limitations of the current anti-trade union laws”. We think New Labour was a project of capitalist class war. We are in favour of striking against Labour governments and Labour councils (and we think workers should have the right to strike against any future socialist governments).

Our point of disagreement is about how we relate to mass working-class organisations.

SolFed aims to initiate “anarcho-syndicalist unions”. Its members sometimes hold union cards “to avoid splits in the workplace between union members and non-union members”. But their involvement in the unions is purely tactical and secondary to the main task of creating organisations apart from the actually existing trade union movement with its seven million members.

Workers’ Liberty believes there is a class struggle taking place within the mass organisations of the working-class and it is unrevolutionary to abandon those organisations to their middle-class leaderships. The trade union bureaucrats maintain power through a conscious effort to keep the workers docile, apolitical and hopeless. Our task is to fight for a working-class programme and the fullest possible participative democracy within the unions right now.

The struggle to build union strength against the bosses is also the struggle to organise workers against the bureaucracy. The process of creating revolutionary trade unions will involve many splits and fusions. It is very improbable that Unite, Unison and the Labour Party will be organising mass strikes and political action in the heart of a working-class revolution. But we cannot ignore these mass organisations of our class in 2011. The struggle to change them for the better is an experience our class needs in order to create political equipment for the future.

SolFed equate the bureaucratic structures of the trade union movement with the hierarchy of the “Leninist” party. But this is dishonest.

The mass, participative, democratic organisations that SolFed advocate would involve an organic leadership (elected individuals) linked to a base. That is a form of hierarchy.

The problem is not one of “hierarchy” as such but whether a leadership is accountable and uses its limited power to encourage democratic involvement and empower the rank-and-file.

The history of our class shows many revolutionaries — including syndicalists — who have won the leaderships of mass organisations in order to more effectively argue for their political ideals. They did not stand for election in order to win power for power’s sake.

SolFed look at Stop the War Coalition, the trade union movement and the Labour Party and diagnose a problem of “hierarchy”. We look at these organisations and diagnose a problem of “middle-class politics”. True, politics cannot be divorced from questions of organisation, but SolFed stand the relationship on its head. In their scheme, the hierarchical form of organisation creates the middle-class politics.

In fact, the bureaucratic structures are necessary to graft middle-class political leadership (be it the Blairites, the six-figure salaried trade union leaders, or the Muslim Association of Britain) onto a working-class base. Our task is to make clear these contradictions and build up rank-and-file organisation to challenge the leadership politically and organisationally.

At any given time, some people have a deeper understanding, more resolve, courage, experience or ability than others. If this were not the case, then revolutionary organisations would not need to exist.

Leaders in any context are only there to inspire others and help more effectively build our movement. We believe, like you, that the unions need to be built from the ground up. However, we differ from you in that we believe that a principled revolutionary leadership is necessary, possible and, importantly, can and should renew itself.

Workers’ Liberty’s idea of a revolutionary party is one which aims to group together the most politically class conscious workers to intervene in the movement against the political organisations of bourgeoisie and petit-bourgeoisie.

We do not believe that we are that revolutionary party but we organise in the spirit of the organisation we want to build in the future. Nor do not we think that this organisation is a model for a future society, any more than we think a workers’ militia is a model for a classless society.

We do not equate hierarchy with bureaucratism but with experience tested in struggle. We want the maximum democracy and transparency.

The elected leadership of AWL is subject to constant scrutiny and can be recalled by the membership. We have freedom to form factions, open access to the press, and we are obliged to explain our differences with the majority line in public.

SolFed neglect to engage with the working-class movement as it really exists — with leaders (which are wholly inadequate) and hierarchy which is about bureaucracy. They construct an ideal working-class movement in their heads and try and call that ideal into being.

Yet through our approach — through engaging with the messy, compromised and often corrupted labour movement — we have been able to help organise the illegal direct action and rank-and-file organisation that you advocate. It was our initiative that has built one of the most successful rank-and-file organisations in the country on the London Underground. Our initiative was responsible for sparking the Vestas occupation of 2009.

If we were bigger, and more united with serious class-struggle organisations such as SolFed — even to a limited extent — then we would all be able to achieve much more.

Through joint work we would seek to convince you, through the process of struggle, to our revolutionary praxis of testing theory in the real arena of class struggle, the mass organisations of our class.

Comments

Submitted by Cautiously Pes… on Thu, 26/05/2011 - 16:15

"SolFed’s contribution to our debate on anarchism and class struggle (Solidarity 3-204) makes good use of the “straw man” technique of debate." The AWL complaining about the use of straw men? Oh, my aching sides.
"we cannot ignore these mass organisations of our class in 2011." Right. We just need to ignore the vast majority of the class that's outside these mass organisations.
"SolFed equate the bureaucratic structures of the trade union movement with the hierarchy of the “Leninist” party. But this is dishonest." Quite right. According to Comrade Stuart Jordan, the bureaucratic structures of the trade union movement are "by far the most democratic organisations on the planet", much more democratic than any Leninist group.
"True, politics cannot be divorced from questions of organisation, but SolFed stand the relationship on its head. In their scheme, the hierarchical form of organisation creates the middle-class politics." Oh, I see. The nature of the unions and the Labour Party doesn't come from the structural role they play within capitalism, it comes from the fact that they're currently run by the baddies, so we need to get rid of the baddies and put goodies in their place, and then everything will be fine. That's a pretty impressive analysis.
"Nor do not we think that this organisation is a model for a future society" Right. The future society will just spring fully-formed out of nowhere, and the means used to create it will be totally irrelevant to what it looks like.
"The elected leadership of AWL is subject to constant scrutiny and can be recalled by the membership." What, like when Matgamna wrote that embarrassingly mental article about Israel and Iran that no actual AWLer I've ever met defends, and is continually used as a slur against your group by groups like the SWP and CPGB, and so then he was held accountable for it?
"SolFed neglect to engage with the working-class movement as it really exists — with leaders (which are wholly inadequate) and hierarchy which is about bureaucracy. They construct an ideal working-class movement in their heads and try and call that ideal into being." You neglect to engage with the working-class as it really exists - mostly un-unionised. Not to mention the fact that SolFeders working in unionised workplaces are expected to join the union. And as for constructing an ideal working-class movement in their heads - do you think the current working-class movement is perfect, or do you have ideas about how it could be better? If the latter, then I hate to break it to you, but you have an ideal in your head which you want to call into being.

Submitted by AWL on Sun, 29/05/2011 - 10:21

Even if it were true that the AWL ignores uninonised workers or sections of the class not currently engaged in mass organisation, it's hardly a killer argument to respond to the accusation that SolFed has no focus on or programme for working-class organisations by accusing the AWL of being overly-focused on them. It doesn't really address the point, does it? But whatever; it's not true. I think that of all the groups on the formally-Trotskyist left we have the best record of engaging with the struggles of undocumented, casual and other precarious workers. We were the only Trotskyist group involved in the foundation of the Campaign Against Immigration Controls (which has since merged with No-One Is Illegal) and we were the only Trotskyist group to pay any real attention to the historically-significant Supersize My Pay campaign in New Zealand (we brought one of the campaign's leading activists to Britain for a speaker tour). We're a small organisation, however, and we're not capable of creating mass campaigns to organise precarious workers at will. We do have a focus on the existing mass organisations but the accusation that it's an exclusive one is false. The point, though, is that SolFed’s argument doesn’t stop at “the working class isn’t limited to the existing labour movement” (which is of course true), but extends to various versions of the idea that, because the existing labour movement is relatively weak and marginal, it should basically be given up on (or indeed that its position of weakness and marginality is somehow inevitable or even positive because it is evil and “hierarchical”).

I don’t know if you’ve read the article “Can we build a revolutionary workers’ movement?”, but it touches on a lot of these questions. The save you from spending any more time than necessary on the website of a dastardly bunch of Leninist hierarchy-mongers, let me copy the salient point:

Argument: trade unions are a spent force. They’re half the size they were in the 1970s; most workers know little about trade unions, if they’ve even heard of them at all. By focusing your activism on the labour movement and rooting it in trade unions, you’re cutting yourself off from the majority of working-class people.

It’s true that trade unions have suffered historic defeats over the past generation which have diminished their size and power. The decisive defeat suffered in the mid-1980s, when Thatcher succeeded in defeating the miners’ strike, broke the back of the labour movement. It has yet to recover. But why assume that defeat is permanent, and then abandon the political terrain of the labour movement to the sell-out bureaucrats who currently lead it?

For us, rooting our activism in the trade union movement is not about whether the movement in a given period is stronger or weaker, or whether it has more or less members. Trade unions represent something unique and “special” as social and political forms under capitalism. They’re not alien organisations implanted in society by some outside force; they are the basic self-defence organisations that workers have always created throughout the history of capitalism. They are an inevitable, organic product of class struggle. In some ways they are a concrete, organisational manifestation of that struggle. They organise workers, as workers, at the point of exploitation in workplaces.

That’s not to say that class struggle only takes place at work, or that only currently-employed workers can participate in class struggle, or that capitalist society does not breed other oppressions (such as gender and racial oppression). But the nucleus of capitalism is the exploitation of wage-labour by bosses. Workplaces — and the self-created organisations which organically emerge in workplaces — are a key site for building and shaping anti-capitalist struggles.

The class-struggle experiences that we experience at work are different from our class-struggle experiences elsewhere. We can form tenants’ associations or claimants’ groups to fight class battles around issues like housing and welfare, but it’s only at work that we’re in a position to organise collectively with our fellow workers to not only disrupt but actually take control of production. Workplaces are capitalism’s engine room, and that means the relationships which exist there and the organisations which emerge are particularly important.

We do not think that existing trade-union organisations are adequate in terms of revolutionary class struggle. We don’t even think they’re adequate for fighting for basic reforms within the framework of capitalism. Within our focus on the labour movement, we fight for very different forms of trade-union organisation — more democratic, more militant, more expansive. We also believe in the need for political organisations for revolutionary workers. But none of that can be built by “going around” the only movement in which workers are currently organised as workers and which still has between six and seven million members. As such it is the only real mass movement in British society.

Some comrades, including some anarchist comrades — those who believe in class politics and want to see a militant workers’ movement — seem to want to build a revolutionary workers’ movement from scratch. Perhaps they think that our approach of revolutionising the existing movement will take too long and is too hard. It will certainly take time, and it will certainly not be easy. But, compared to the goal of building a revolutionary workers’ movement from scratch that “short-cuts” around the organisations, experiences, history and consciousness of the existing mass labour movement, it is infinitely more possible as well as more necessary.”

As for the question of union democracy, I really cannot get my head around what you’re arguing here. You seem to be saying that because of the “structural role they place within capitalism” (although you don’t actually spell out what you think this is), trade unions will inevitably be hierarchical and undemocratic. But it’s not as if mass revolutionary-syndicalist unions (e.g. the French CGT at its height) was organised on a completely horizontal basis; it had elections and leaders and committees and…y’know…a “hierarchy”. I’d also be interested to know what your attitude is towards rank-and-file struggles for union democracy (e.g. Teamsters for a Democratic Union, the New South Wales Builders Laborers’ Federation in the 1970s, the struggles in the United Mine Workers union in the late 60s and early 70s) which, in many cases, have succeeded in opening up significantly more democratic space within unions. My guess would be that your attitude would be passive sympathy but a lofty understanding that the whole endeavour is ultimately pointless/a dead-end, but I’d be delighted to be proved wrong.

On prefiguration, you’re being incredible facetious. Nowhere does Stuart argue that “the future society will just spring fully-formed out of nowhere, and the means used to create it will be totally irrelevant to what it looks like.” He’s arguing that the AWL doesn’t have the arrogance and self-centredness to believe that, under the pressures of capitalism, a group of 100 people can consistently prefigure the organisational forms necessary to build socialism. How far do you take your belief in prefiguration, comrade? Is SolFed a prefiguration of a soviet? Of a mass revolutionary trade union? Or what? These are arrogant delusions entirely equivalent to the SP’s and SWP’s ludicrous beliefs that they are “the” revolutionary party that simply needs to grow and grow until they will eventually assume hegemony and “lead” the working class to victory.

On Sean’s article on Israel/Iran, this is just weird. The article wasn’t a policy proposal or a “line”; it was a discussion piece giving Sean’s opinion. There was a very sharp debate within the AWL on the issue, which was reflected in our public press and on our website – not something you will find with any other left group. Unlike, say, the SWP, we don’t have a culture of kicking people out of our group for having views that’re out of step with the majority on particular issues. What exactly is your point here?

Finally, do we “have an ideal in [our] head which [we] want to call into being”? Yes, on a certain level we do. But the fundamental difference between us on this question is that the means from getting to our “ideal” workers’ movement involves us going “through” the current one. Yours involves going around it.

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Daniel Randall

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