The expulsion of the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers union (RMT) from the Labour Party is a welcome development, removing one particular organisational obstacle to the advance of socialism in the labour movement. At the same time, it imposes new political tasks on those who intend to offer socialist leadership to the working class. Faced with these tasks, the political weakness of even the most militant trades union leadership is starkly revealed.
The RMT was a key founder member of the Labour Party, so its expulsion is of historic significance, and requires historical explanation. By this act, “New” Labour burns yet another bridge with the past, when the Labour Party was able to carry out the bidding of its imperialist masters whilst still keeping the massed ranks of labour in tow, and when left-reformist speechifying could still make social democracy palatable even to “militants” in the trade union movement.
What has changed is the fortunes of monopoly capitalism itself, which has since the seventies seen its prolonged post-war boom petering out, and is now dragging the whole world kicking and screaming back into a global crisis of overproduction. The most striking proofs of this are the plunging US dollar and Washington’s ballooning deficits, the trade war rivalries poisoning the relationship between former “free world allies”, and the escalation of criminal war adventures instigated by Anglo-American imperialism.
The spread of resistance to imperialism around the world, provoked by this intolerable bullying arrogance, is in turn intensifying the crisis, and throwing out a challenge to all those in the metropolitan heartlands of imperialism who claim to be socialists but remain chained to one or other wing of social democracy, the “left” face of bourgeois ideology.
Under these new conditions Labour could no longer serve the interests of its imperialist masters whilst continuing to offer a place by the fireside for left reformist illusions. When it was a case of steering the proletariat away from the healthy proletarian dictatorship influence of Soviet communism, it made capitalist sense to make some partial domestic concessions in the field of social welfare, funded from a tiny fraction of the super-profits sweated from the looted and super-exploited “third world”. It made capitalist sense to accompany these temporary, partial concessions with a lot of egalitarian “left” flannel, the better to sweeten the class-collaboration pill and allow exploitation at home and abroad to continue undisturbed.
More urgent right now for capitalism is the withdrawal of domestic concessions, the suppression of civil liberties, the attempt to impose in the heartlands themselves exploitation levels formerly reserved for the “third world”, and the imposition of criminal war adventures on the world’s peoples in the name of a “war against terror”.
As monopoly capitalism is driven from the high ground of parliamentary democracy, back towards the ditch of fascist warmongering crisis, it is obliged to conduct a political purge of social democracy, to rid it of those left-reformist preachers whose tub-thumping is now surplus to requirements. In Britain this has meant, for example, the tearing up of Clause Four (the “common ownership” fig leaf behind which Labour traditionally hid its class-collaboration), the freezing out of left-reformist chatter from the likes of Galloway, etc. And now on the heels of all this, we have the disaffiliation of the RMT.
The RMT has, especially in recent times, made its mark in the trade union movement by its commendable militancy. There is no doubt that the so-called (by the capitalist press) “awkward squad” of union leaders who have emerged do indeed reflect the growing discontent in the working class at large with the direction in which society is heading, and a growing willingness to translate that discontent into active resistance. The industrial action undertaken by postal workers and firefighters in 2003 were a beacon of hope in that respect.
But the political confusion in which these courageous strikes were waged also cruelly demonstrated the political distance yet to be travelled by even the most militant of trade union leaderships, before the labour movement can find its way out from the wreckage of social democracy. This circumstance lends a particular interest to the political choices with which the RMT is now wrestling.
Curiously, the current “awkward squad” general secretary of the RMT was himself until recently a member of the Socialist Labour Party, and as such helped lead the organizational break with social democracy. Bob Crow’s subsequent attempted political retreat back into the social democratic fold, at the very moment when the central institution of social democracy, Labour Party, is purging itself of anything that even smells like socialism, is instructive.
After all, the failure to complete in theory the organisational break with the Labour Party is not Crow’s personal failure alone. Rather, it proves conclusively that even the finest trade union militancy, combined with the most complete loathing of “Blairism” and “New Labour” will never alone be enough to lead the working class even one step forward politically. Bob Crow is not alone in failing to grasp that what is required is not simply a break with “New Labour”, but a break with the whole rotten political tradition of social democracy, in and out of the Labour Party. What we are witnessing is a labour movement that has spent a half-century of capitalist boom getting stupefied with anti-communism. The post-binge hangover is not pretty in the cold light of day, as capitalist crisis bites home again. And the only cure for this malady lies in the struggle for Marxism-Leninism, the science of proletarian revolution.
Before its expulsion, the RMT had cut its subsidy to Labour Party coffers, and declared that it would limit its support to those members of parliament who would sign up to a list of RMT’s good causes (re-nationalisation of the railways etc.). Yet this approach left a huge question unanswered. The RMT, as a “founding father” of the Labour Party, historically staked everything on the pledge that the party would give political representation to organized labour, that the working class would have its own party and would no longer have to rely upon the good will of false friends (in the Liberal Party of that period). If the RMT is now having to revise that historical judgement, then it is not simply a question of finding some other “friends in high places” to speak out against rail privatization from time to time. If organized labour cannot secure political representation via the Labour Party, then how does the political voice of the proletariat make itself heard?
Now that expulsion is no longer a threat but a fact, this question demands answers. It is not much of an answer to say: well, if you live in Scotland you can look to the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) otherwise, tag along to whatever left-reformist wash-up presents itself. If the Socialist Alliance (SA) is already boarded up, then huddle along with George Galloway, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the rest of exiled “left” social democracy under the RESPECT umbrella.
So far from offering organized labour a socialist reorientation, such an approach would be no more than an invitation to sink deeper into the swamp. The SSP are anti-communists dressed up as “left” nationalists, and RESPECT is just another temporary refuge for all the middle class left-reformist politics put out on the street when they closed down “Old Labour”. None of these is a political “alternative” to Labour. All are simply thinner and thinner reheated “left” versions of the same old social democratic broth.
What all such outfits have in common is their active hostility to open partisan leadership. Despite the fact that RESPECT is little more than the latest front organization for the Trotskyite SWP, its repeated message is that unity is to be won by downplaying the question of the need for a socialist political party of the working class. Rather than work boldly for a break with social democracy organisationally and ideologically, the SWP hide behind the skirts of, yesterday, the SA, tomorrow RESPECT, next day who knows – all for the purpose of safeguarding the interests of social democracy and thus giving succour to this deadly agent of imperialism in the working-class movement. Instead of saying to the RMT in an honest way: look, the Labour Party has failed to live up to its promise to provide political representation for organized labour, so we will undertake to lead the struggle for labour emancipation in its stead, – the SWP prefers to put Galloway up in the spotlight, confining its own party activities to what it does best: spreading demoralizing lies about the present and former socialist camp.
This false humility – in reality, an attempt to paint as sectarian any partisan effort to give socialist leadership, regardless of the politics – deserves to get the bum’s rush from the RMT, soonest.
Sadly, this hostility to the whole idea of a socialist party giving strong and clear leadership to the class finds a sympathetic echo in the syndicalist politics of many in the trades union movement. Faced with the class-collaborating bankruptcy of the Labour Party, such people run about crying, “To hell with all your parties! If someone does a good job fighting for the rights of workers, then we’ll back him up. If not, we’ll turf him out. Who needs parties now?” But this ultra-radical sounding, ultra-democratic sounding nostrum is in fact a recipe for more bourgeois political influence in the workers’ movement, not less. Trade unions under capitalism are supported by all socialists worth their salt, but trade unionist politics, insofar as they are limited to the politics that arise spontaneously within the economic struggle of labour against capital, can never unassisted transgress the boundary of bourgeois politics, politics which spring quite naturally from the efforts of organised labour to secure the best available price for the sale of their labour power on the capitalist market.
It is of course the duty of socialists to support workers in such struggles over wages and conditions. But that support will be worth nothing unless it is complemented by a resolute struggle against syndicalism, against those demagogues who would counterpose the virtue of a “democratic grass roots trade union movement” against the vice of “political parties telling us what to do, pretending to educate us” etc.
It is excellent to revolt against the mental chains which social democracy imposes on proletarian consciousness. It is self-defeating nonsense to “improve” this revolt by then declaring war on the whole principle of political parties, of political education etc. Who gains by such a “revolt”? Capitalism, and the influence of bourgeois ideology.
This is true of all syndicalism, whether of the obviously conservative stripe (“Let Labour imperialism speak on behalf of us politically, we’ll just get on with trying to protect our members’ wages and conditions, so far as we can without ceasing our class-collaboration”), or of the more “revolutionary” stripe (“Down with all parties! Long live revolutionary trade unionism!”).
Now that the RMT is happily released from one set of social democratic chains, it should think long and hard before it binds itself to another. Let the question of political representation and party leadership be seriously addressed. Fleeing to “pure” trade unionism, or fleeing to “non-party coalitions”, are not answers but evasions.
The backdrop of imperialist warmongering against which all this political pushing and shoving is taking place helps puts matters into perspective. In particular, the limitations of trade unionist politics suddenly become very obvious when the question under examination is our own British ruling class assisting in the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq.
At the conclusion of a very useful report-back from a trade union delegation to occupied Iraq, given by a member of the RMT’s national executive, detailing the courageous efforts of workers to rebuild their trade unions under the shadow of British and American guns, two questions were posed by an RMT comrade. Firstly, he asked, is it really enough for socialists, trade unionists and peace activists just to be cheering on these brave efforts to organize trade unions? Should we not also be calling for the defeat of our own ruling class, and declaring our solidarity with the hugely inspiring resistance being waged against the occupying forces? Secondly, asked the RMT comrade, what was the attitude of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions to that resistance struggle? The questioner acknowledged in advance that the answer to the second question might be difficult to give in detail, given the hugely repressive conditions in which the battle for unionization was being conducted. In any case, he added, the first question was the most urgent one for people in Britain to address, as it concerned our own responsibility.
As it turned out, the platform speaker chose to ignore the first question entirely, but answered the second question in such a vein as to make very clear his own political attitude. “I’m not sure what the questioner intends by the word resistance. If he means the people who are blowing up civilians, setting off bombs and so forth, then this so-called Iraqi resistance is in fact the work of Wahabis sent in to wage Jihad, and other foreign elements. The attitude of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions is that these attacks serve as a distraction from the efforts of such as the trade unions, the women’s movement and so forth. It is from such quarters, and not from some shadowy armed group funded from outside the country, that genuine resistance arises.”
The RMT comrade then called out, “Do you mean like the French Resistance? Wasn’t that a shadowy armed group funded from outside?” To which the speaker protested that he was only reporting what the Iraqi trade unionists had told him. It was abundantly clear, however, both from the tone of his remarks in the public meeting, and confirmed later in conversation, that this purported IFTU view in fact coincided neatly with his own.
The achievements of organized labour in occupied Iraq, as reported by the speaker, are indeed striking, with 11 trades councils already up and running, despite a great deal of intimidation from occupation forces, including an attack on trade union offices by US troops and the detention of union officials at the US airbase in Baghdad. It is up to hard-pressed Iraqi workers to determine what possible headway, under such conditions, organized labour could conceivably hope to make in the defence of workers’ rights were their struggle to be wholly divorced from the overall struggle to rid the country of imperialist occupation.
Let us rather consider here what is OUR responsibility. The resistance to the criminal invasion and occupation of Iraq expresses itself in a thousand and one ways, as the violation of a whole nation’s sovereignty draws ever-wider circles into anti-imperialist activity. By what monstrous sleight of hand is this many-sided resistance to occupation presented to a British anti-war audience in two halves, as it were; one half to be supported as the legitimate democratic expression of civil society, the other half to be denounced as a violent and irrelevant distraction? By what self-serving rationale is “solidarity” to be extended to trade unionists but withheld from the armed resistance? What is the effect of endorsing trade union links between Basra trades council and Birmingham trades council, if this excellent gesture of solidarity is then to be coupled with a denunciation of those forces in Iraqi society which are taking upon themselves the responsibility of defending national sovereignty under criminal attack, the same responsibility which is shirked by the United Nations, in conflict with its own founding charter?
Even if it could be proved (which it cannot) that there is not a shred of progressive politics in the leadership of the armed resistance, this struggle would still be progressive, still function as a great reserve of the world proletarian revolution. Why? Here is what J.V. Stalin wrote in 1924, in his Foundations of Leninism.
“The revolutionary character of a national movement under the conditions of imperialist oppression does not necessarily presuppose the existence of proletarian elements in the movement, the existence of a revolutionary or a republican programme of the movement, the existence of a democratic basis of the movement. The struggle that the Emir of Afghanistan is waging for the independence of Afghanistan is objectively a revolutionary struggle, despite the monarchist views of the Emir and his associates, for it weakens, disintegrates and undermines imperialism; whereas the struggle waged by such ‘desperate’ democrats and ‘socialists’, ‘revolutionaries’ and republicans as, for example, Kerensky and Tsereteli, Renaudel and Scheidemann, Chernov and Dan, Henderson and Clynes, during the imperialist war was a reactionary struggle, for its result was the embellishment, the strengthening, the victory, of imperialism. For the same reasons, the struggle that the Egyptian merchants and bourgeois intellectuals are waging for the independence of Egypt is objectively a revolutionary struggle, despite the bourgeois origin and bourgeois title of the leaders of the Egyptian national movement, despite the fact that they are opposed to socialism; whereas the struggle that the British ‘Labour’ government is waging to preserve Egypt’s dependent position is for the same reasons a reactionary struggle, despite the proletarian origin and the proletarian title of the members of that government, despite the fact that they are ‘for’ socialism”.
Sure enough, eighty years after that very first Labour government, apologists for social democracy are still making excuses for Labour imperialism, still employing their “socialist” credentials to deny the progressive character of anti-imperialist movements which threaten to dent the prestige of “their own” ruling class! These dogs cannot learn new tricks, but the rest of the world can and will.
To return to the RMT comrade’s comments. How is the possible contribution of non-Iraqi forces to the resistance any excuse for withholding our support? If the imperialist assault upon the national existence of Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Colombia and Haiti is international in scope, how can it be that any pan-arab or pan-islamic resistance to that assault is to be written off as “foreign interference”? And what is to be made of such “analysis” when it comes from those whose own ruling class is in the van of the aggression, by those who decline to call for the defeat of that ruling class, as the best possible expression of internationalist solidarity?
And if it is the religious colouration of the ideology which is used as a pretext to justify this essentially labour-aristocratic contempt for the armed resistance, then the question arises: who is to blame for the fact that so much of the combative spirit of anti-imperialism is expressed in forms that are more religious than scientific?
Of course it is imperialism that benefits from such fratricidal strife, as witness the enthusiasm with which departing British imperialism stoked up the hatred between Muslim and Hindu, which left such a poisonous post-colonial legacy for the Indian and Pakistani people. It is the historical failure of all those who call themselves “socialists”, but practise social democracy, which leaves the anti-imperialist fight to such a degree ideologically ill-prepared now. It is the failure to equip the masses with the revolutionary science so desperately needed that buys a little more time for imperialism, that drags out the agony of the masses struggling towards emancipation, that leaves them open to divisive provocations from the common enemy.
The truth is that neither Khrushchev revisionism, nor Trotskyism, nor left-reformism, nor any other variety of social democratic politics (no, not even “rrr-revolutionary trade unionism”) could ever serve as a substitute for the essential Marxist-Leninist science which alone can equip modern humanity to free itself from the fetters on its progress forged by imperialism. It is the dog-in-the-manger failure of those who corrupt and obscure this essential science, and snarl at all honest attempts to restore it to its rightful place in the labour movement, who are most of all to blame for the poverty of philosophy behind which so much courageous anti-imperialist struggle remains for the moment stranded. But these struggles can look for inspiration to Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, North Korea and China, where socialism refuses to cede to monopoly capitalist rule. They can look to other anti-imperialist struggles where Marxism-Leninism is not a closed book, like the people’s wars being waged in Colombia, Nepal and the Philippines. And sooner or later, however hard imperialism strives to sow confusion amongst its enemies, the movement will produce new Lenins, new Stalins and new Maos, in an unstoppable communist renaissance born out of world imperialist crisis.
Meanwhile, in the absence of better ideological resources, popular resistance to imperialism in crisis can and will seize on whatever comes nearest to hand, in the same way that stones must do when guns are wanting. Our responsibility in all this is not to sift through all the different forms of resistance, awarding marks out of ten for this degree of political analysis or that degree of tactical cleverness. Our job is not to emulate the falsely-titled Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), whose (failed) motion to a Stop the War Coalition conference wanted to commit StWC “to campaign in solidarity with the democratic, secular and socialist forces of resistance in Iraq”! Our responsibility is to recognize the enormous debt that the British workers’ movement in particular owes to the Iraqi resistance, for the humiliation and setbacks it is forcing upon our own crisis-stricken ruling class.
Let all socialists recognise what a great opportunity this affords for pressing on with the vital work of breaking with Labour imperialism and rebuilding the mass socialist movement on internationalist, anti-imperialist lines. Bourgeois propaganda will soon enough be tarring all trade union militants, anti-war activists and socialists as “the enemy within”, “terrorist sympathisers” or worse. Socialism will prosper to the degree that it learns to face this slander down, and not run away from it. It is imperialism and its hangers-on which threaten to drown the world in blood sooner than relinquish its power and privileges, its right to exploit and oppress. And it is in calling, and in practice working, for the defeat of “our own” Anglo-American imperialism, and in particular of “our own” British imperialism, that the best and only road to peace and socialism lies.