Wednesday 8 May 2013

Kitcat Won’t Give Workers a Break - Richard Trigg

Hundreds of Brighton bin workers, members of the GMB, are occupying their canteen in protest at a £4,000 pay cut proposed by the city's Green-led Council.

Yesterday, after months of negotiations, Brighton and Hove City Council revealed its plans for how it would make changes to its system of allowances and expenses to staff. This morning, bin men and street sweepers gave their response by occupying their canteen and refusing to work after the details of a pay review were revealed.
Refuse and recycling staff at Hollingdean depot are to lose up to £4,000 a year. So at 7am this morning, no vehicles left the Hollingdean depot. After workers were told how the council's offer would affect them, they said that they wanted to discuss the issue with the council's chief executive Penny Thompson and council leader Jason Kitcat before "even considering working".
The proposal will affect over 260 workers at City Clean and looks to see street sweepers, one of the lowest paid roles in the Council, will have their annual salary cut by 25%. In a statement to the Brighton and Hove Council, GMB, the union representing the affected workers said “Based on the information we have been given verbally today, it still shows that members of ours will still lose between £5 and £95 per week” This is exactly the same offer proposed months ago, before the negotiations even started.
A leaflet being passed around by GMB representatives said it would work so that staff did not give up "one penny". Mark Turner, of GMB, said: "There's not a single member of the workforce who does not support the union on this. At the end of the day they are very angry. I warned the council and the negotiators that this would and yet they just carried on. These are hard working low-paid people who, if this goes ahead, could be faced with making the choice of putting food on the table or paying their rent."
Mr Turner added the union had permission to ballot for strike action "as and when" it felt that there was no other option. Elected politicians handed over control of negotiations to unelected officers at a council meeting in January. Labour voted against the move but the Conservatives, along with four members of the Green minority administration voted for the plan. The Green Party candidates  were elected on a pledge to resist all cuts. One refuse worker, who had worked at the depot for 25 years, speaking to Sussex University paper The Argus this morning said: "The Greens are bottling out. They are getting other people to do their work for them. They have not got the guts to do their job." The council took back the running of the refuse service a few years ago after a strike force private contractor SITA to exit.
The council's final offer was announced yesterday and a 90-day consultation into the proposal will now take place. Ms Thompson said: "These proposals will have little impact on most of the work force and will mean positive changes for the majority of staff affected. For those who will see a loss we have ensured that compensation will be provided. The negotiations have never been about making savings. This is however about making sure that we are a council fit for purpose with a fair, consistent and affordable pay and allowances system alongside a clear agenda to provide efficient, quality services which benefit everyone.”
Unauthorised strike action is an inspiring act, it promotes workers self-organisation and empowers workers to fight for better conditions and oppose cuts. The Brighton bin workers are refusing to accept attacks on their pay and need our full support and solidarity.

Messages of support and solidarity would be very welcome, and can be sent to:

Sunday 14 April 2013

Our first meeting - a brief report

The International Socialist Network, launched on 11 March, held its first national meeting on Saturday 13 April in central London. 90 socialist activists from around Britain were joined by observers from the IS tradition in North America and some groups in Britain.

The meeting discussed the next steps for the IS Network – from organisational structures to relationships with the rest of the left in Britain and internationally and how best to continue and develop the best of the IS tradition, theoretically and practically. It passed a draft constitution and elected an interim steering committee.

Women members reported back from the caucus earlier in the day and news was shared of local IS Network meetings that have been held and others that are planned. Members made clear their commitment to transparency and in this spirit, minutes of the meeting will be published to members and on the website within the week. This practice will be adopted for all future meetings.

For further information on the IS Network email

Friday 12 April 2013

On Cult-like Thinking

by China M.

It's disarming to a socialist when a rote canard of the right, that the far Left - let alone the group to which that socialist until recently belonged - is 'like a cult', is persuasive.

That accusation has been regularly levelled against the SWP during its ongoing crisis. It's easy to see why: the CC's and loyalists' panicked and bullying responses to perceived heresy; the faith in an infallible leadership (in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary); the argument by citation of holy (Cliffite) writ; the almost unbelievable refusal, even now, to admit to any mistakes; the growing sectarianism. But underlying all this, and perhaps the most damning and extraordinary component of such mentality, is a fervent idealism.

This idealism and its dogmas are self-perpetuating. They underpin many of the leadership’s appalling errors and dogged self-defence, and thus demand investigation. As the 'austerity' onslaught continues, there's an urgent need for serious far-left politics. The SWP remains a major player on the Left, its growing isolation notwithstanding. Its regime and fate will continue to have an effect. Getting right the story of what the SWP is getting so wrong is crucial for those of us who have left to ensure that it does not happen again - and for those still inside, to take stock.

Given the CC's lies about a perfidious 'witchhunt', and/or 'hostility to Leninism', it's worth recalling that this catastrophe unfolded when a large section of the SWP was aghast at the initial cover-up of, and subsequent shameful, sexist and indefensible 'investigation' into, allegations of rape and sexual harassment within the party.(1) A scandal in its own right, this episode also illustrated a deep cultural rot,(2) that shocked even those of us in the party who had long argued that there was a democratic and accountability deficit in the organisation. Things were, simply, much worse than we had thought.

But the truly extraordinary shift was from what one might decry as 'everyday' Machiavellianism - reprehensible but hardly unusual behaviour like packing meetings, lying about membership numbers and so on - to this cult-like idealism.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the CC's response to complaints that the members of the Disputes Committee who examined the case were close associates, friends and colleagues of the accused high-ranking member. '[W]e reject', they stress, in the most recent Internal Bulletin (IB, p6) 'the notion that "unconscious bias" in these matters cannot be overcome. We hold that, on the basis of their political commitments, comrades can operate in an unbiased manner. Indeed they took special care at their hearings to consider this factor and to overcome it.'

Such a position has been repeated at all stages. What inoculated members of the Disputes Committee, it is stressed, was their 'political morality'. Of course no one is suggesting that we're all in ineluctable thrall to the muck of ages in which our minds are steeped. Nor that people cannot make perfectly sincere efforts to put aside their preconceptions, with varying success. But unconscious biases are unconscious. The clue is in the name. One cannot know that one has overcome them, nor even that one is aware of them or what they are. One can certainly not be confident one has overcome them by 'special care', or by the sprinkling of some magic fairy dust called 'political morality'. For anyone to claim this is ridiculous. To hear this from those who consider themselves Marxists, with a materialist theory of consciousness, is simply astounding.

If you are Good enough, goes the claim, you can effectively shape your own consciousness, by choice. There are, of course, theories of mind according to which certain people can confidently step outside history in this way. A particularly degraded version of the liberal historical theory of Great Men [sic]; fascist models of ubermenschen, stamping their will through 'the act'; and religious conceptions of saintly souls. The last, religiosity, provides the most obvious analogy with the CC position, but there is also a strong strain of the first, 'Great Men' and Women. Who but the Great never make errors? Who but they deserve to so enthusiastically self-valorise, as the CC do, in, for example, their document 'For an Interventionist Party', proudly citing not only their ability to 'shift the situation in a direction more favourable to the revolutionary forces' (how's that going?), but even their bullying - 'our tradition of polemical leadership'.

It is hard to overstate quite how politically impoverished and theoretically vacuous the CC position is. Compared to this deluded sanctimoniousness, even bourgeois legalism is, at least formally, considerably more progressive, calmly acknowledging as it does the fact of conflicts of interest, and that, in certain situations, the least bad option is to recuse oneself.

Not, in this context, that the mere replacement of individuals would have solved the problems. Are all SWP members supposed to be able to perform this 'politically moral' trick? Are none ever sexist? Or does one have to be a member for a certain length of time to bleach away all such legacies? Perhaps to be active a certain number of hours a week? To sell a certain number of papers? Of course, defining the Elect can only be the prerogative of the priesthood.

And this is the rub. Not only does such degenerate Herculean moralism manifest in a range of SWP tics - from guilt culture to voluntarism and substitutionism - but recognizing it also goes some way to unpicking the peculiarly defensive and impoverished attitude to questions of oppression and identity, such as those around race, sexuality, and gender.

Among the many tasks facing us as socialists is to respectfully and open-mindedly engage with current approaches to these complex terrains. Not to dilute, but to strengthen our Marxist theory. The idealism of the CC is a model of how not to do so. A corollary of their idealism with regard to their own internalised biases and methods is an inability to deal theoretically seriously with internalised biases at the level of social structure and psychology.

The CC protest that they are shocked, shocked at allegations of SWP sectarianism towards feminism, but a leadership not lucky enough to be infallible might i) admit that this has been the case, and ii) take some responsibility for it. Such behaviour of course is related to the theoretical impoverishment that sees the same bibliography on such issues replicated year after year, refusing to address important advances in feminist (and indeed other) theory.

A knee-jerk unease and/or dismissal characterises any discussion of, for example, 'privilege', in terms of sexuality, gender, race, etc. There are of course excellent Marxist reasons to be cautious of such theories, but that does not justify traducing them, nor that the substantive content of some such are without insight. This possibility is precluded in the mainstream SWP discussion by a theoretically crass elision of the categories of 'privilege, 'benefit' and 'interest'.

This allows any discussion of such topics to slip rapidly into reassuring banalities. 'Workers’ objective interests are to win the greatest unity of their side' (IB, p10). This is true, but in and of itself not very helpful. When the conclusion drawn is the, sadly, patently false one that 'workers are forced by their objective circumstances to unite across the many divisions in the working class, the division of gender being the oldest and most deeply rooted', it is clear that the complexities of ideology and consciousness are not being explained, but explained away.

Normally one might associate such arrant Marxist determinism with the most mechanical materialism: here, however, it is inextricable from that idealism of a pure-souled priesthood. This Overcoming Of Division is an eschatology, a Rapture.

The crude materialism in fact serves and justifies the moralist idealism. There are two tiers: a few have the magic of Political Morality to efface reactionary detritus in their souls; and by their intercession, the cunning of history will do the job for the rest. There is, therefore, no need to detain oneself too long on these awkward theoretical issues of psychology.

It is one thing to have a respectful and sharp-eyed Marxist caution about identity politics. It is quite another to ossify a body of theory. Tactically it is bankrupt to leave members ill-equipped to engage with advances in radical social theory, particularly now.(3) Theoretically it is arrogant and stultifying not to be open to the idea that we might not only debate with but learn from different theoretical traditions.(4)

Key to any discussion of such issues, and of internalised relations of oppression, is what, in his discussion of race and class, Du Bois called 'a sort of public and psychological wage' paid to white workers (and by careful and cautious extension, in different ways, other groups). It remains the case 'that Workers objective interests are to win the greatest unity of their side', but it is nonetheless quite inadequate to insist that 'this "psychological wage" is not a material benefit for white workers'.

For a start, it is misleading to separate the 'psychological' component of the wage from the 'public', and Du Bois is clear that this latter included 'public deference and titles of courtesy', and access denied black people. Even now, when some of these overt and formalised expressions of racism have been overcome, can it be denied that such differentiation still forms part of the 'public and psychological wage'? And among other things these are material effects - and indeed, relative to the oppressed group in that moment, benefits, or privileges. And a nuanced materialist theory of psychology would acknowledge that even a nebulous and 'unformalised' sense of racist superiority, if in a complex and mediated fashion, is and has material effect itself. Indeed, the overlap of the two components of Du Bois's wage is arguably now stronger than ever: it is precisely when the 'public' element of the wage, including these immediate and local - shall we not hedge? -privileges relative to the oppressed are stripped of official validation, removed from 'formality', while retaining informal but real material power (as in the reality of structural racism in an era of formal legal equality), that their imbrication with the 'psychological' element of the wage becomes ever closer. To consider the material reality of oppression must include considering such social psychological factors.

None of which, it should go without saying, is to give ground on essentialist or inevitabilist theories of racism: to gloss and dismiss the approach to the 'public and psychological wage' tentatively sketched here as a claim that ‘white people benefit from racism’ is ridiculous, a function of an allergic reaction to the very word 'benefit' in these contexts, fostered by the CC's idealism, and their commissars of acceptable theory.(5) Strident citation of workers' objective long-term interests, even to those of us who agree that such are key and indeed exert a pressure for solidarity, are inadequate to tracing the contours of consciousness and ideology, including internalised bias and relations of oppression.

The SWP’s leadership can offer nothing better. Faithful to their idealist method, they pose a sharp division between Thoughts and Things, putting their faith in the latter and effectively dismissing the former (for most people - because their thoughts, we know, are magic, but those of others are not). In their risibly crude formulation, '[t]his is not about the consciousness of male workers; this is about their objective interest' (IB, p10). The obvious Marxist point is that this is about both: and indeed that the two are complexly related. This is how social psychology works.

It's almost tempting to apply a carefully modulated variant of Du Bois's model. Can a public (if on a pitiful scale) and psychological wage perhaps explain the leadership's investment in antidemocratic behaviour, unshakeable certainty in their own infallibility, and such political and theoretical dereliction?

Whatever the reasons, the fact is that under their watch, the dominant SWP culture is now one not only of defensive ignorance of the scholarly discipline of social psychology, but of moralistic and idealist suspicion of the very fact of social psychology itself.


1) It should be relentlessly demanded of all loyalists whether they defend putting the question 'Is it fair to say you like a drink?' to a woman alleging sexual harassment. There have in fact been a very few gutter-Jesuitical efforts to do just this, but for the most part, in what might be evidence of some dying-fish flappings of shame, the fact that this question was put is simply not mentioned, let alone acknowledged as shameful.

2) This rot was evident among other things in the disgraceful behaviour of the leadership and their loyalists; their denial of reality (in particular 'this is having no effect on the party's reputation', and 'this is entirely due to one member blogging and another giving a one-paragraph quote in a soft-left magazine', preposterous claims growing daily more dizzyingly absurd); their smearing and cynical misrepresentation of opposition members; and their wholesale gerrymandering of the 'special conference' in an effort not to engage with but to humiliate the opposition (including at least one largely loyalist district passing a special motion to underrepresent itself at conference, solely to exclude an opposition member).

3) This is particularly lamentable when the internet, even on its Dark Side, has, in its messy, scattershot way, brought such issues into the mainstream, as in the fantastic attacks on racist/sexist/homophobic tropes by bloggers. This should be a delight to the left, and the intemperate online critics should be among those to whom we relate.

4) After all, the IS has quite rightly done this before, over, for example, Gay Liberation. Compare even the rather theoretically wan SWP approach to LGBT issues now to, say, the cringe-making article from the 1957 Socialist Review on 'Equality' by 'C Dallas' (Chanie Rosenberg), explaining that with 'complete equality between the sexes ... homosexuality would disappear naturally'.

5) Breaking from this culture is bracing. It is not mere self-congratulation to point out how many comrades have stressed how much more stimulating, engaged and serious they have found intellectual life in the SWP opposition than for any time in years within the mainstream of the party.

Thursday 11 April 2013

Some thoughts on industry and the unions

by Kevin Crane

The emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class. That's the neat little phrase that summarises the definition of revolutionary socialism. In many ways, the wider aspects of our politics about how society can be transformed, and how the ruling class, its state and institutions can be confronted, all flow from this. The most famous feature of the IS tradition, the state capitalist analysis of Stalinism, had a significant effect on the way IS orientated itself strategically, placing heavy emphasis on 'socialism from below' and 'rank and file' strategies. What these strategies meant, applied concretely, has changed over time. What I think we ought to be discussing is what they mean now.

Between 1968 and the late 1970s, IS applied its rank and file strategies by getting members in workplaces involved in workplace organisation. You can read about some of the most important experiences from this in Birchall's biography of Cliff – the article about rank and fileism on Soviet Goon Boy's blog is also very useful.

The SWP's official position on rank and file tactics have been pretty consistent since the 1970s and the old adage of the “three cogs” was pretty well drummed into us: the militants, the rank-and-file, the union. There is, however, room for debate as to what this really means today.

One of the key goals of the Thatcher government was to prevent trade unions from playing the decisive role in British politics that they had since the 1940s. In 1972, a Tory government collapsed as a direct consequence of failing to break major strikes by powerful groups of workers. A popular joke among Tories at the time was “What three institutions can never be questioned? The church, the judiciary and the National Union of Mineworkers.” What Thatcher did in the 1980s was gradually weaken and isolate the unions, starting with less significant groups then culminating in massive confrontations with sections like the print workers and the miners.

Organising under neoliberalism

Since that time, union strength has never recovered and the anti-union laws have been gradually made more and more restrictive, to the point where some left-wing lawyers question if they breach United Nations declarations on labour rights. Thatcher's legacy is even more keenly felt, though, in the last effect the 1980s had on work and working life as a whole. The large 'Fordist' workplaces in which 1970s trade unionism had flourished declined severely. British capitalism expanded through financialisation, which delivered profitability for the ruling classes, but was not very good at creating jobs and led to increasing proportions of people being employed in the public and service sectors. The Labour party internalised this down-ranking in the importance of the unions that it had originally existed to represent by pledging allegiance to neoliberalism, symbolised by Tony Blair's scrapping of Clause Four, an action that would lead to a fundamental contradiction once they got into office.

It wasn't so noticeable in New Labour's first term, due to goodwill from a grateful public that the Tories were out and a number of genuine reforms like minimum wage and education maintenance allowance, but the relationship between Labour and the unions was destined for constant strain. The unions had come to believe that the fall of the miners meant they had no way to fight, they needed Labour to give them pro-working class legislation. Labour however, under the likes of Blair and Mandelson, were determined to keep Thatcherism going – which meant more privatisation and less public spending, viewing the unions as little more than sources of election campaign funding. A change did come over the unions at this time as, with the exceptions of UNISON and GMB, more or less all of them had profound changes of leadership in which stuffy, mealy-mouthed pro-Blair union general secretaries were suddenly replaced with a new generation of younger, more vocal and more openly socialist officials like Mark Serwotka, Bob Crow and Tony Woodley. It was still to be a while before the first woman gen sec, mind.

From 2000-2001 the unions would occasionally put on actions against New Labour, but they were permanently fighting with one hand tied behind their backs, unwilling to inflict defeats on 'their' government. This was first seen in a really catastrophic way in 2002/3 when the left-wing leader of the Fire Brigades Union allowed a massive fightback over pay to get defeated, essentially because he could not rise to the challenge of defeating the government as the Iraq war loomed.

Political trade unionism

The SWP at this time actually had quite a contemporary take on the situation. It argued that the “dead hand of Labourism” was going to carry on holding the unions back while Labour could claim to be the only possible political expression of working class interests. The party also pointed to the fact that the unions had some considerable work to do in presenting themselves as relevant to the working class as it was by the early 21st century: it borrowed a phrase, “they are too male, pale and stale” - the profile of the unions was lagging behind a younger, more female and more multicultural workforce. The party repeatedly state at the time that there was no point in waiting for the 1970s working class, represented by white men in boiler suits – as if that were ever fully accurate - to come running over the hills to the rescue.

The SWP's strategy in industry shifted toward 'political trade unionism', which was a phrase coined to try and bring to some of the radicalism and excitement from the mass protest movements that had built up in those early years of the decade. Trade union participation in Stop the War was maximised, as it was in the new Unite Against Fascism as well as in anti-capitalist events like Mayday and the G8 and in Make Poverty History. This had some real effects and its easy to forget with everything else that on the day the war broke out, March 20th 2003, small strikes and workplace shutdowns occurred in protest up and down the country. There was also a genuine engagement by the union movement itself: the CWU leadership said that members who attended anti-war demos were 'the future reps'. Tony Woodley seemed to take to Stop the War a great deal and seemed to have a theory of political trade unionism of his own, which has certainly influenced his successor Len McCluskey.

The need to break the “dead hand” was the theoretical underpinning for the SWP pushing for an electoral project that ultimately became Respect. This is important to remember: the objective in Respect had never been simply to get a few councillors elected, it was open up a space to the left of Labour in politics. Incidentally, Respect did attract some enthusiasm from sections of the smaller unions, at least at first, and received affiliation and funding from RMT and PCS branches. The Socialist Alliance never did this: it is not true that dissolving the SA was simply a turn away from labour movement politics – the SA had been a failed attempt at turning toward it.

Networks of resistance?

The conditions in which the 'political trade unionism' strategy developed are now long gone. By the end of the decade, the unity around Stop the War dissipated, Respect split acrimoniously, the economic crisis hit and the Labour government finally failed to stand up in an election. So what became the industrial strategy?

The SWP, like numerous groups on the left, responded to the economic crisis and the looming threat of Tory austerity by launching a series of initiatives: People Before Profit Charter, Open Letter to the Left, Right to Work and finally (?) Unite the Resistance. Many of these seem to overlap with each other and the other campaigns launched by other left groups: the norm with all of them is mainly propagandising – call a rally with some trade unionists and 'other activists' about the threat posed by cuts, end that by calling a demonstration, then call a rally. These activities are no bad thing in themselves, but I believe the evidence that they were reaching out beyond a fairly typical SWP periphery is scant and their impact on stopping austerity is even more so. Also, it's not actually an industrial strategy – it's a protest strategy.

Protests are hugely important to our overall vision of organising of course: in 2010, after witnessing the successive big struggles without corresponding victories of the postal workers, BA cabin crew, London Underground workers and firefighters again, it was mass protests by the students that finally made resistance to austerity a reality. Those student protests helped give a kick-start to the process that led to the TUC calling the excellent 500,000 strong demo on March 26th 2011 and further onto the co-ordinated strikes of June 30th and the mass strikes of November 30th. SWP members were fully involved in all these things, and in the small unions, the SWP had large-ish memberships and some influence on the NECs that called J30 which had paved the way for N30! So a new strategy was born, right?

Fighting and not fighting

Martin Smith declared in autumn 2011 that Unite the Resistance, which had previously been merely the name of a pre-strike rally to J30, was now an organisation 'like the Minority Movement'. He theorised that because the left in the small, militant public sector unions had acted, they had seized initiative from the right in the large public sector unions and forced action to occur. He re-emphasised that rank-and-file organisations, in the classic sense, do not exist and cannot be established on a national scale. That point is not deniable – the public sector doesn't have strong rank-and-file organisation even in the most densely unionised areas.

N30 happened and was a massive day, a celebration even of public sector strength, but as has become the routine, very soon after the strike the union leaders were back round the table with the Tories, more or less conceding historic cuts in public sector jobs and terms and conditions. Throughout much of 2012, the SWP attempted to act out Martin Smith's theory of the left in the unions seizing the initiative – the results were not the desired effect. It proved possible to win some strike ballots in NUT and PCS, but not nationwide. In UCU, where the SWP has both a large membership and NEC representation, strike ballots returned a no. NUT eventually got talked out of striking by an agreement with its rival NASUWT. The big unions, Unison, GMB and Unite, were not for turning at all. The SWP had predicted a 'hot autumn' over attacks on the public sector, instead a deep chill set in.

In my view, the SWP simply theorised the chain from M26-J30-N30 incorrectly. The picture of the SWP-led Broad Lefts in UCU, PCS and NUT passing resolutions that ultimately bounced the sleeping giant of Unison into getting up and fighting was not right – if it were, it would be reproduceable. Rather, I think N30 fits the pattern of having been a bureaucratic mass strike – that is a response by the union leaderships to pressure from below (of which the SWP will have been really quite a small part) calling big action to harness but also dissipate the energy of workers, firmly under their control. One SWP loyalist claimed to me that this was dismissive and that N30 was 'half a rank-and-file strike', which I think is silly. Half a million workers were involved – if their rank-and-file pressure were such a force, how did Dave Prentis switch it off like a tap?

What's the vanguard?

The odd thing about the SWP's response to the rise and slump in the public sector struggle, aside from it being used as a psychiatric explanation for why such a large chunk of the membership suddenly became infected with creeping feminism-autonomism, is that all the while the SWP threw all resources at Unite the Resistance's 'solidarity' with the public sector struggle, there was a successful alternative strategic orientation. The electricians ('sparks'), under Unite, fought a nail-biting battle and got a hard won victory against some of the most brutal employers in Britain and the world, led by Balfour Beatty.

To be fair, the SWP did promote and support the electricians' strikes (producing a quite a good pamphlet on it), but made no major attempts to generalise the victory, even as the public sector workers went ever further on the trajectory toward defeat and Unite the Resistance was running out of things to unite with.

Why was this? I think the party had made an 'ideological turn' over the shape of the working class and the sparks, despite actually having delivered a victory, couldn't be shoehorned into the vision. Many SWP members have, over the decades, ended up in public sector jobs, particularly teaching, and this has lead to a significant numbers being members of the respective unions. At the same time, a space has opened up in many of those unions, I suspect due to the decline of ordinary Labour Party membership that has allowed increasing numbers of far-leftists, including SWP members, to get senior positions previously unavailable to them (sometimes against their will in the case of UCU). This has had a significant influence over the prevailing thinking of the SWP toward these sectors and unions, as the party has become influential in them in a way it previously hadn't been.

These public sector workers were always going to conflict with the Tories over austerity with their high union densities (and generous union facilities) and their decent pay scales. They resemble, well sort of, the kind of firm unionisation that was common before Thatcher.

The sparks simply do not fit this bill. They are part of the now more common form of workers, on temporary contracts with a real risk that fighting over anything means losing your job the very next day. They are, in a word the SWP is oddly hostile to, precarious. It is true that a significant amount of writing on precarious workers is at times unhelpful – but it is also true that precarity is fast becoming a norm throughout the job market and affecting younger workers disproportionately. What the sparks have proved to us is that this doesn't have to make those younger workers a lost cause – they can and have fought, albeit in ways that don't resemble the orderly one-day strikes of teachers and lecturers, instead holding rowdy protests and storming workplaces.

The fact that public sector workers were a target for the Tories, even coupled with a reasonably large presence of socialists, does not automatically mean that they are a vanguard, like the 1970s NUM, ready to bring down a government. The public sector workers may have had relatively good terms and conditions up to now, but there is not necessarily the confidence to fight for those and much less the belief that they can fight for another generation, getting recruited onto much worse contracts (not least thanks to older workers taking voluntary redundancies). N30 was a reminder of just how massive the trade union movement, still the largest voluntary movement both here and worldwide, actually is. But our knowledge of how unions operate, their half-way position between capital and labour and their leaderships that represent but also control workers, tells that that alone is not what makes historic struggles.

I don't think anyone would have been able to predict that the electricians would have been the big industrial victory of 2012, and the next major fight may not be predictable either. I would, however, propose that there are some useful lessons.

Firstly, the small public sector unions can't just run to the front of the class and pull everybody else behind them – they were able to be ahead of the curve and during a period of mounting pressure in 2011, but that simply wasn't repeatable in 2012.

Secondly, getting workers, and for that matter others in the movement like students, to simply hail the bravery of public sector strikes has not forced those strikes to keep going – Unite the Resistance was not inappropriate when it was organising pre-strike rallies to try and link the wider movements to a genuinely exciting industrial action, but became somewhat bizarre when people from far beyond the public sector were being asked to come to meetings to discuss the importance of strikes that had already been called off!

Thirdly, there isn't a substitute for rank-and-file struggle – the sparks forced the bureaucracy of the massive Unite union to support militant industrial action it was desperate not to call, a world away from the process of the left banging its head against the walls of the bureaucracies in the small public sector unions, and having people on NECs passing motions does not resolve this on its own.

But finally, on a more positive note, we should view organising in precarious workplaces as our new challenge and one with real prospects. There are actually a number of initiatives in the labour movement trying to engage with this question, but they are still in their early stages. Unite's own Community section could start to play this sort of role. On London Underground, the RMT recently launched a 'contractors charter' to try and grow an active membership among the large numbers of workers on short-term contracts. Socialists should support and try to build processes like these.

Saturday 6 April 2013

Sussex staff and students fight back against privatisation.

Hannah Elsisi and Rich Trigg report from Sussex University:

Since May 2012 there has been a fight raging through Sussex University after the announcement that managers planned to 235 jobs, including porters, residential services, catering, security and many more. This is over 10% of all campus jobs and nearly 100% of all jobs in campus services. Since this Sussex Against Privatisation announcement, Sussex workers have been coming together to resist privatization, with open meetings and regular demonstrations.

On 3 February 2013, following a demonstration of over 300 staff and students in opposition to the privatisation of services at Sussex University; a large group of students occupied the conference centre on the top floor of Bramber House. The campaign soon picked up widespread national press coverage and messages of support from Students’ Unions, organisations and influential individuals including Noam Chomsky, Ken Loach and Owen Jones. Seven weeks later, after a host of guest lectures, further support and an Early Day Motion being tabled at parliament by Brighton MP and former leader of the Green Party Caroline Lucas, the Sussex occupation were ready for their first national demonstration.

From the earliest moments of the day the feeling on campus was electric and, using the hashtag #Mar25, it seemed that was same was felt across the twittersphere. As the sun rose upon the hills of Sussex university the day's first action, 'Paint the night yellow', was clear to all who passed as the colour now decorated the campus in the form of ribbons, swings and chalk slogans. By midday all cafés on campus had been occupied and shut down for the day, much to the delight of the workers who asked for the campaigns signature yellow squares (inspired by the red squares of the Quebec student movement) to wear in support. Shutting down the campus cafés also gave the staff the opportunity to join the demonstration as well as sending a clear message to Sodexo, the company Sussex wish to outsource services to, that they are not welcome on campus. Come the opening rally at 1pm coaches had arrived from London, and the University's Library Square was now filled with around 2,000 students, workers and supporters. They heard speeches from ULU President Michael Chessum, anti-cuts campaigner Alfie Meadows and University of Sussex staff member Greg Patterson, who announced the launch of a 'pop-up union'. This is an innovative, horizontally organised trade union, run by staff on campus in a bid to halt the outsourcing of 235 jobs on campus in a collaboration between the rank and file members of three unions on campus along with students.

The march began after a series of speeches, which were well received with the exception of Labour MP Katie Clarke who was criticised for being a member of the party that paved the way for such attacks to be made. Ironically Katie herself has an impressive record of voting against privatisation and cuts to education. Vibrant and vocal the demonstrators made their way around the campus armed with banners and chanting
'Management get out! We know what you're all about. Cuts, job losses, money for the bosses.' The route took them to Sussex House, the administrative building and home of the management offices, which had been given the addition of wooden barricades on the windows the night before. Here protesters were met by scores of riot police who attempted to disrupt the growing numbers. Their presence was not wanted, which was made clear by chants of 'cops off campus'. The militarisation of our campuses is already seen as an issue with students at the University of the West of England's attempt to pass a motion at their SU AGM for no guns on campus in response to the heavy presence of armed military personnel at their Freshers fair this year. As the police were forced to retreat anger returned to Sussex House and with the front doors being the only glass that hadn't been protected they didn't last long. Banners dropped, flares were lit and the building was theirs. But with police reported to have gained access via a back door the now barricaded and occupied management building was left and activists headed to reinforce Bramber House, the site of the original occupation.

Occupation spread throughout the Bramber House conference centre as police surrounded the management building to stop it being re-occupied. As things began to calm down it was time to discuss what had been achieved that day, 650 people packed out a large conference room on the top floor of Bramber House and representatives from other universities told of their own struggles against privatisation. During this discussion it was put forward that as privatisation is a real threat across the education sector students should take the fight back to their campuses in the way they had that day at Sussex. The success of Monday's demonstration was clear, shown even more by the reaction from university management who have been granted an injunction banning all forms of protest on campus not consented to by management. This injunction is meant to provide the university with a right to evict the occupiers in Bramber House. The court hearing for this was held on Wednesday 27 March, the hearing lasted two and a half hours and resulted in Mr Justice Sales granting the University of Sussex a possession order over the whole of campus, operative with immediate effect. This extended an order granted by a different judge previously which allowed the University to evict protesters from anywhere other than Bramber House.

Support for the occupiers remains strong. Following the court's decision messages of solidarity have been passed on by hundreds of faculty and several schools/departments. The Sussex occupiers where evicted on Tuesday, a brutal and violent day with four arrests, 80 policemen and 15 riot vans arrived to evict them from what had been their home for two months. But though this may be the end of the occupation, it is not the end of the fight. Campus trade unions have called a coordinated indicative ballot on strike action and the anti-privatisation has made a call-out for a national week of action in defence of the public university from 15-19 April.

Independent on industrial action

Week of Action - Facebook event

Friday 5 April 2013

Party democracy in Lenin’s Comintern – and now

by John Riddell, 4 April 2013

How did Communist parties handle issues of internal discipline and democracy in Lenin’s time? The recent intense discussion within the British Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) and beyond has heard claims that the SWP rests on the traditions of democratic centralism inherited from the Bolsheviks.[1] It is thus useful to review the nature of internal democracy in the Communist International (Comintern) during 1919–23, the period of its first four congresses.

Like most Marxist groups today, the British SWP looks to the Bolshevik Party under Lenin as a guiding example of revolutionary party-building, and much discussion rests on this comparison. However, in seeking a model for a revolutionary party, it is also worth looking at the Communist parties in Lenin’s time outside Russia, which functioned in circumstances much closer to what we face today than those of tsarist Russia.

Four comparisons

In the course of editing and translating into English several books of documents on Communist history in Lenin’s time, I have studied debates among Communist party delegates at many international events. Here is my reading of what this record tells us regarding Comintern organisational norms on four issues that have arisen in the SWP discussion.

  • Factions and tendencies: There was no ban on factions in the Comintern. During its early years, its major parties were factionally divided most of the time.
  • Discussions: Disagreements within Communist parties were routinely argued out before the working class as a whole in the parties’ publications.
  • Executive Unity: Members of the Comintern Executive and its Small Bureau in Moscow frequently carried their disagreements to world congresses, as did members of national leaderships.
  • Leadership: Leaderships in the Comintern and its parties were elected, and where slates were presented, these were subject to amendment.

A comment is in order on each of these points.

Factions: In the Bolshevik-Comintern tradition, factions were temporary formations, constituted around immediate issues. When an issue was resolved, factions that had been formed around it normally dispersed. For example, during the third Comintern congress in 1921, two factions in the German party, which seemed on the point of split, came together around a common political statement. Part of their agreement was that the factions would dissolve. They did so, but new factions quickly formed – around new issues and with new alignments.

Discussion: The Comintern took for granted that internal discussion should be shared with workers outside the party by conducting it in party newspapers. Sometimes, Communist publications presented a minority point of view; a prominent example was Kommunismus, the ultra-left organ published 1920-21.[2] Especially following the expulsion of German Marxist Paul Levi in 1921, the Comintern frowned on factional publications outside party control. However, each party had a great many publications, each with its own editorial structure, and this encouraged a diversity of opinions.

Executive Unity: In the Third World Congress (1921), the conflict between ultra-leftist and united front-oriented currents in Germany and other Central European countries divided the Bolshevik leaders and the Comintern Executive’s Small Bureau. In the end, the congress managed to adopt resolutions by general agreement, but conflict continued, in muted form, to the end of the congress and after.

Leadership: Initially, members of the Comintern Executive were delegated by its national parties. In 1922, for the first time, members of the Executive were elected by the congress as a whole. A nomination commission, made up of delegates chosen by the various parties, recommended a slate of candidates. When it was presented to the congress, amendments to change the slate’s composition were made and voted on.[3] Election procedures in the parties varied, and candidates were often proposed collectively in slates. As far as I can see, such slates were always subject to amendment and approval by vote by convention delegates.

Party, movement, and working class

I have seen little mention of these four issues in my reading of the early Comintern debates. Attention to organizational norms had a different focus, which flowed from the origin and character of the Comintern’s national sections.

Parties in the imperialist countries had tens or hundreds of thousands of members. They also had a broad periphery of sympathizers, many of whom worked with party members on specific issues, such as aid to Soviet Russia, the emancipation of women, or opposition to colonialism. The party functioned in close contact with a broad layer of revolutionary-minded workers. The party and its periphery exerted influence throughout the working class.

The Communist parties of Lenin’s time included a wide spectrum of revolutionary socialist traditions. Party members were diverse in background, coming from Social Democratic, syndicalist, or revolutionary-nationalist origins.

Translation at a Comintern congress (see note, below)
Translation at a Comintern congress (see note, below)

The International’s internal debates focused on issues of tactics and strategy and the significance of its policies for the broader mass of workers, on whom their actions had a major impact. Debates in its parties typically reflected social differentiation and contrasting opinions within the working class as a whole. Two axes of dissension within the working class dominated the Comintern’s internal life in the 1919–23 period.

First, workers steeped in the pre-war traditions of Social Democracy were challenged by a young, revolutionary generation thrown forward by the war. Later, as the post-war revolutionary wave began to decline, workers impatient to strike a decisive blow against capitalist power came into disagreement with those who had grown cautious and were concerned with the need for unity in action. Such disharmony in the working class made it harder to grapple with the obstacle posed by reformist Social Democratic parties and to achieve unity against the capitalist foe.

Disagreements along these axes dominated the Comintern’s inner life during its first years. Factions sprang up in member parties reflecting the moods of more impatient or more cautious layers of the working class. On the whole, the Comintern had reasonable success in coping with such disputes, but they would arise again, driven by events in the struggle and pressure from the working class. As a result, internal debates were marked by shifting alliances and frequent changes of leadership. The German Communist Party, for example, reorganized its leadership four times in 1921 and 1922.

The debates on tactics and strategy also served to define the breadth of the Comintern – that is, the line dividing the range of currents included in its ranks from reformists on one side and incurable ultra-leftists on the other. Where to draw that line was the main organizational issue in Comintern life.

In 1920–21, as the postwar revolutionary wave began to flag, a surge of impatience among revolutionary-minded workers led to forces attracted to ultra-leftism gaining dominance in some central European parties and even – during a crucial period – in the Comintern Executive. But this urge for a showdown was out of step with the class relationship of forces. As a result, in 1921, the Comintern suffered a grievous setback in Germany, which led to damaging splits. During that year, however, the Comintern moved to rectify its course through adoption of the united front policy, which engaged parties in a campaign for working class unity in action.[4]

Discipline in action

The Comintern and its parties sought to function according to the norms of “democratic centralism.” This term was understood to mean proletarian democracy in taking decisions and choosing leaders, combined with unity in carrying out a decided course of action. Marxists have much the same concept today. But in the early Comintern, the focus was different: its chief concern was grappling with bureaucratism and electoralism.

The main constituent units of Comintern parties outside Russia came out of the old Social Democratic movement. These component parties had shed their reformist wings but still preserved much of the old parties’ structures and habits. The parties from which they came had devoted their energy mainly to electoral campaigning and associated educational work. They were led by a bureaucratic layer of functionaries rooted above all in the parliamentary fraction, the journalistic apparatus, and allied trade union leaderships. The Comintern’s democratic centralism sought to break the grip of bureaucratism. It aimed to bring parliamentary, journalistic, and trade union work under party control; to unify leadership and ranks into a homogenous movement; and to equip the party to intervene in mass struggles.

The need to make this transition is the overriding theme of the Comintern’s 1921 resolution on organisation. The resolution’s section on democratic centralism denounces parties where “functionaries became estranged from members, a vibrant collaboration was replaced by the mere forms of democracy, and the organisations became split between active functionaries and passive masses.” The resolution stresses members’ obligation to be active and to organize along lines that would enable them to carry out party policy in mass workers’ organisations. It called for “living ties and interrelationships both within the party, between its leading bodies and the rest of the membership, and also between the party and the masses of proletarians outside its ranks.”[5]

The careful balance evident in this passage was not always present in Comintern congress discussions. Calls for iron discipline and centralization were frequent, and they were not always balanced by acknowledgement of the strength that flows from diversity and delegation of authority. Different approaches were evident. In the Fourth Congress, for example, the respected Bulgarian delegate Vasil Kolarov called for “a common conception regarding all great questions,” insisting that “deviating viewpoints will necessarily lead to indiscipline.” However, in another context, Leon Trotsky told the congress that the formation of factions in France had been a “necessary and healthy response” under the circumstances, while Gregory Zinoviev, in his closing summary, noted that “minorities exist on this or that question (that is always the case).”[6]

Meanwhile, the need for discipline was posed above all – just as it is today – in clashes between the working class and its capitalist opponents. When workers’ in Italy occupied their factories in September 1920, the Italian section of the Comintern did not carry its recommendations for the struggle into the unions, leaving the top union officials – members of the Comintern – unchallenged in their betrayal of the struggle. Meanwhile, in Germany, advanced revolutionary contingents repeatedly launched armed resistance to capitalist oppression in isolation from broader working-class forces. Such episodes led to defeats in January 1919, March 1920, and March 1921, and – each time – the Communist forces were divided.

The Third Comintern Congress, in 1921, took up these dangers, both of which had been expressed in France. The French Communist Youth were chastised for having advocated that French workers individually refuse to report for duty during a crisis in French-German government relations. At the same time, a Communist Party leader, Marcel Cachin, was rebuked for having suggested in parliament that there was something positive in France’s imperialist alliance with Britain.[7]

Appeals to discipline were not a sufficient response to these strains. Lenin’s Comintern sought to counter such divisive tendencies by development of strategy and of united front policy, one aspect of which was the need for diverse working class forces to maintain discipline in united actions.

Such problems are not all that different from those we face today when, for example, a mass anti-cutbacks demonstration comes under threat from Black Bloc disruption on one side and the hesitations of trade-union officials on the other. The need for discipline in action is imposed not by party statutes but by the universally understood requirements of working-class struggle in every sphere.

Contemporary relevance

In the imperialist countries, today’s Marxist groups are orders of magnitude smaller than those of Lenin’s time. They function in a context where bourgeois democracy is more deeply rooted, revolution appears more distant, and the working class is more heterogeneous and diversified in its concerns. For all these reasons, one might expect Marxist groups today to be more open, flexible, and inclusive than in the years following the Russian revolution. In fact, the opposite is the case.

It is important here to avoid caricature and abusive generalization. Some Marxist groups show promise and have played significant roles in building mass movements and in innovative party building experiments – as the SWP has done in its best moments. Yet there is a model around which the majority of these groups, including the SWP, cluster, a pattern that we will call “small-group Marxism.” It contrasts sharply with that of the Lenin-era Comintern.

Typically, the membership of each group is limited to a single strand of Marxist political continuity. Groups tend to splinter over time. The competing groups increase in number, while engaging in a war of each against all. The links of such groups with the working class are not strong. Divisions in these groups typically flow from their inner dynamic rather than from class-struggle challenges. Internal democracy is typically less developed than in the early Comintern.

Programmatic differences between the groups are not great. Each rival current is defined chiefly by its political culture and traditions. This allegiance gives such groups a conservative cast, making it hard for them to learn from the changing struggle, correct their course, and unite with other currents.

Groups show little capacity to resolve differences harmoniously through experience. Leaderships are often isolated from effective membership control and tend to be self-perpetuating, unless the key players have a falling out. Discipline aims less at unity against the class enemy and more at keeping members in line and regulating what they say and do. Success is defined not so much by victories of the class as by the group’s ability to grow, accumulate resources, and get the better of its Marxist competitors.

These characteristics can best be explained as an evolutionary adaptation to conditions of small-group existence in difficult political conditions. Many groups resist this model with some success, but its pressure bears down on them all.

Certainly, conditions have changed vastly since Lenin’s time, and the early Comintern’s record in building revolutionary parties was uneven and flawed. Yet although Lenin’s Comintern does not provide a textbook, it should serve to stimulate our imagination. The SWP and other contemporary Marxist organisations need to surmount the limits of small-group existence and begin to acquire virtues of Communist parties of Lenin’s time. Otherwise, they cannot contribute significantly to building an effective revolutionary movement.

Explanation of photo: Translation was the lifeblood of discussion in the Communist International. Here, Angelica Balabanoff is translating for a group of English-speaking delegates at the Second Congress (1920). Behind her with arms folded is Louis Fraina (U.S.); behind her, writing, is John Murphy (UK); to his left is Abani Mukherji (India); left of Mukherji is John Quelch (UK); underneath them, writing, is William McLaine (UK).

John Riddell is the author of seven documentary volumes on revolutionary history in Lenin’s time. For information on these books and his other writings, go to Riddell resigned from the International Socialists (Canada) on March 20, 2013.


[1] For the position of the SWP leadership majority, see “Is Leninism Finished,” by Alex Callinicos. For the SWP opposition’s response, see “Is Zinovievism finished? A reply to Alex Callinicos” and other documents at International Socialism.

See also, among the many comments from outside the SWP, “The Crisis in the SWP-Britain,” Paul Le Blanc’s “Leninism Is Unfinished,” and Louis Proyect’s “Leninism is finished: a reply to Alex Callinicos.” For a response from Canada, see Paul Kellogg, “Reflections on the Crisis in the SWP,”

Pham Binh compares SWP organizational norms unfavourably to those of the Bolsheviks in “Slates, Factions, and the British SWP.”

[2] Lenin expressed his appraisal of Kommunismus tactfully but firmly: “This excellent journal, which is published in Vienna under the above title, contains a great deal of highly interesting material on the growth of the communist movement in Austria, Poland and other countries, together with a chronicle of the international movement, and articles on Hungary and Germany, on general tasks and tactics, etc. A shortcoming that strikes the eye even at a cursory examination cannot, however, be disregarded—the indubitable symptoms of the ‘infantile disorder of Left-wing Communism’ that has affected the journal, a subject on which I have written a short pamphlet that has just appeared in Petrograd.” See V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1960–71, vol. 31, pp. 165–7.

[3] John Riddell, Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012, pp. 1104–9.

[4] In dealing with these issues, most historians of the Comintern stress the effect of shifts in Soviet Russian foreign policy, intervention by the Bolshevik leadership, and the personal role of Zinoviev, the Comintern’s president. These factors – especially Soviet foreign policy – were also cited at the time by the Comintern’s opponents, both left and right. In my opinion, their influence has been exaggerated.

[5] The translation is from the manuscript of my forthcoming edition of the Third Congress. The resolution’s full text is available at For Lenin’s subsequent reservations on this resolution, see Toward the United Front, pp. 303–5.

[6] Toward the United Front, p. 44.

[7] The Comintern Executive’s discussion of these issues, available in the Russian archive RGASPI under reference number 495/1/37, will be included in the forthcoming edition of the Third Congress proceedings.

All the hegemony you can eat

by Roobin

The way things have been if I don’t see another buttressing quote from either Lenin, Luxemburg or Tony Cliff for a long while I will be happy. So, in that spirit, let’s talk about Lenin!

One thing I have been adamant about for some time is that the revolutionary party was not Lenin’s key innovation. Firstly, even if he intended to found “The Bolsheviks” he did not intend his party to be a new party. He was trying to found a Russian SPD. Later, when the International was trying to found new parties many Communist Parties were not made brand new but founded out of Socialist Party majorities. Despite instants of political hardship (not least of which was Hitler’s invasion of Europe) from the mid-twenties onward the CP was a realistic means for a political career. Lenin intended for the Third International to consist of revolutionary parties, but being in this case is only the same as doing.

Lenin’s real innovation was his discussion of nationalities. The 20th century was in many ways the story of revolutionary nationalism. Lenin was so perceptive he was couple of decades ahead of everybody else, including the actual movements. This is important though, what we are talking about here is Lenin the ‘autonomist’, the man who pointed to an expanded revolutionary subject. His particular concern was linking the workers movement in the Russian heartland with the national movements in the outlying countries of the Tsar’s empire. But there are broader applications.

Firstly we are discussing the matter of hegemony. How do movements against aspects of capitalism become movements against capitalism itself? We’re talking not just movements against occupation or imperialism but for civil rights, women’s liberation, LGBT liberation and so on.

But, more importantly, we’re talking about how we build a working class movement in the first place. Wage labour and subsequent exploitation is based on the separation of workers from the means of production. This is an excellent founding fact but too abstract as a basis for day to day politics. People’s living and working conditions are defined by much more than this, by gender, nationality, sexuality, race and so on. We look both for weaknesses in the current capitalist set up but also potential strengths on the part of the working class. An example, in Lenin’s time whole villages would send their sons off to work in particular factories. There was often a pre-existing sense of solidarity, imported from the countryside. This, added to the concentrating effect of Russia’s huge factories, made the turn of the century Russian working class a force to be reckoned with.

It’s this kind of confluence that we should be looking for today.