Category Archives: the Left

Funding cuts in Oxford next year: The Breakdown

This post is written by Sean Ambler of Workers Power and is taken from the Anti-Cuts Oxford blog, which can be found here: http://oxford.anticuts.com/

Oxford and Oxford Brookes universities face devastating funding cuts to their budgets for the next academic year. Teaching at Oxford will face a 12.16% cut in real terms (9.1% in cash terms), while Brookes will face 3.74% cut in real terms (0.37% in cash terms). This means that there is a shortfall of £8,333,000 for Oxford University teaching funding in real terms which to maintain current standards will have to be found by the university from elsewhere. Brookes’s equivalent figure is £1,141,000. If the universities are unable to find funding for cover this gap the student experience will decrease massively, meaning large class and tutorial sizes, less lectures, and less academic staff time for assisting students individually. For staff this will mean redundancies, pay cuts or freezes (real terms pay cuts) and high workload. For those wanting to enter academia it will mean the possibility of a total or near total hiring freeze by the Universities, meaning many will either join the dole queues or have to switch trades.

The Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE, http://www.hefce.ac.uk) have today released the figures for education funding for academic year 2010-11. Overall the budget has gone up in cash figures slightly by 0.4%, but with inflation running much higher this is actually a severe cut (Consumer Price Index at 3.5% and Retail Price Index at 3.7%, also these are government figures which are known to often underestimate real inflation).

Oxford and Oxford Brookes have both had a slightly higher total funding increase in cash terms than the national average, but this is still a severe cut overall.I will discuss the implications of this later, but first here are the figures and the percentage changes (some worked out by myself using figures from this year compared with the upcoming one).

Oxford University:

Teaching 2010-11: £60,195,000

Teaching 2009-10: £66,211,000

Teaching percent CUT: 9.1% in cash terms (12.16% when you include inflation at 3.5%)

Research 2010-11: £126,036,000

Research 2009-10: £119,434,000

Research percent rise:  5.53% in cash terms (a less impressive 1.96% increase when including inflation at 3.5%)

Total 2010-11: £188,131,000

Total 2009-10: £187,450,000

Total change: 0.36% in cash terms increase, 3% in real terms decrease with inflation at 3.5%

Oxford Brookes University:

Teaching 2010-11: £36,384,000

Teaching 2009-10: £36,520,00

Teaching percent CUT: 0.37% in cash terms (3.74% when you include inflation at 3.5%)

Research 2010-11: £4,273,000

Research 2009-10: £4,290,000

Research percent cut:  0.4% in cash terms (3.76% cut when including inflation at 3.5%)

Total 2010-11: £42,556,000

Total 2009-10: £42,516,000

Total change: 0.1% increase in cash terms however this is a  3.29% in real terms cut with inflation at 3.5%

The totals include research and teaching funding, but also other types therefore do not match up. See HEFCE website for more complete figures, although calculations will be required to figure out changes between years.

Conclusions

While surprisingly there has been research increases at Oxford University, the overwhelming trend here is negative and especially on the core teaching which is what students get from universities. The move towards research shows the government see universities as having the role of providing research for business rather than teaching for students.

Students and staff at both universities need to organise to resist these cuts. At both universities it will be possible even without the government altering these figures (which we should also demand) for cuts to be stopped. This also doesn’t require the cap of fees to be lifted as the Oxford Uni administration is pushing for as the money is already there, just misspent. The number of senior managers at both institutions with wages above £100,000 is ridiculous – we’re writing a post on this which will appear soon. If all management that earns these ridiculous sums had a pay cut to £100,000 or better yet £50,000 then it is clear these funding cuts would not be necessary.

These figures mask something however – other sources of funding. Oxford has millionaire and billionaire alumni who donate vast sums to the university, and it’s investments provide large dividends. It can weather the storm if it chooses to. Our job is to make sure it does! But for Brookes the situation is different and while cuts are by no means necessary or inevitable it is less able to weather the storm using other sources of income. We therefore demand that as a matter of emergency the government increase funding to Brookes to prevent the social catastrophe that cuts might cause to the staff and students at the university.

Both universities are likely to attempt to use these funding cuts to reduce staff pay, and Brookes is likely to make cuts (Oxford uni clearly prefers arguing for higher fees while attempting to maintain staffing levels – although may well cut too). The reason for the governments cuts is ultimately the debt they gained by bailing out the bankers. The question therefore is: Who will pay for the crisis? Our answer has to be: Those who caused it, not us! Profitable banks should be nationalised without compensation to pay for those that were bailed out. There should be ban on bonuses to bankers and a strict pay limit including mass reductions for those earning six-figure and higher salaries. Higher tax bands should be increased. This will provide the necessary funds to reduce state debt while still paying for all our current public services including education, without having to raise the cap on tutition fees (which could also be abolished).

Our task is to ensure this happens. Our fight is first with the university management but also with the government – victories on a local level can force the government to raise funding nationally. When cuts are announced we will argue for UCU and UNISON to ballot for strike action and for students to support them. If the universities cut we will raise the question – who decided this? Where is the democracy when unelected management has control over our education? We will take all necessary action, inspired by campaigns at other universities such as Sussex, to prevent cuts and fees and to democratize our universities. In Oxford this means demanding mass congregations open to all staff and students.

We can win! Leeds UCU strike has won the concession of no compulsary redundancies already before the HEFCE figures were even announced! Join the campaign: OCCUPY! STRIKE! RESIST!

All views expressed in this post are by the author and not necessarily the position of the campaign.

Bureaucratic centralism and ineffectiveness

The split of the John Rees-Lindsey German Left Platform from the Socialist Workers Party has generated a small round of discussion on the party question in the left blogosphere, writes Mike Macnair. But what is missing is a recognition of the need for Marxist unity

The Left Platform split, amidst complaints of a new restrictiveness in the Socialist Workers Party’s regime and a sectarian turn, is not that important in itself: a small number of comrades have taken a step away from partyism towards ‘movementism’. Rees and German can hardly be regarded as principled actors in this affair, and their claim that the SWP’s bureaucratic centralist regime has dramatically and qualitatively changed for the worse is obvious rubbish.

But even if the Left Platform split is unimportant, the question it poses is this. The SWP way of doing things is mirrored in rather less grotesque forms in the Socialist Party in England and Wales and in more grotesque forms in many smaller left groups. The recent substantial split in the International Marxist Tendency[1] and in recent years and on a smaller scale splits in Workers Power (Permanent Revolution) and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (the Commune) provide examples from a very long and lamentable history. Is there an alternative to this way of doing things?

SWP and split

The basic bureaucratic centralist institutional forms of the SWP regime – ie, the central appointment of district organisers, the secret character of internal discussion and the ban on ‘permanent factions’ and ‘factionalising’ outside the pre-conference period – were adopted by the International Socialists-SWP under Tony Cliff in the 1970s. They were copied from the US Socialist Workers Party and the ideas of James P Cannon, and justified on the basis of ‘Bolshevisation’.

Their adoption marked the end of a period of splits in the SWP which had given birth to Workers Fight (now AWL), Workers Power, the Revolutionary Communist Group (aka Fight Racism, Fight Imperialism), the short-lived Workers League (later International Socialist Alliance) and others. The new regime prevented big splits by pre-emptive expulsion of dissenters as soon as they attempted to contact other people or spread their ideas. In effect, the latest split is a merely the latest operation by the SWP Kremlin (central committee) to cut off debate before it really gets going, through provocations, to which the Left Platform have responded by walking out.

The culture which naturally goes along with these institutional forms is one of hiding differences in the central leadership from the membership, secrecy more generally, degradation of the education and political culture of the ranks (since education means developing the ability to make your own informed decisions), a top-down organisational approach, arrogance of the full-timers and permanent leaders and bullying of other members, a tendency to marginalise dissent by ad hominem smears on the dissentients, and, as a result, a growing dominance of a group-think which diverges further and further from engagement with reality.

In the external world the result of the political degradation of internal life and education is that the organisation’s existence and ‘leading role’ becomes its only real purpose: to be attained by bureaucratic top-down control of fronts and by bureaucratic alliances in which ‘the party’ can pose as ‘the left’ for internal consumption without actually fighting for any concrete political positions. The resulting control-freakery inevitably produces a gradual growth of cynicism, demoralisation and demobilisation among everyone involved who is not either an SWP member or employed as a trade union or party full-timer.

Rees and German were slightly junior to the original creators of the SWP’s institutional forms and political culture, but they were full participants in its operation, and the Respect debacle – which centred on the personal role of John Rees – was in a sense the moment at which the unreal group-think came up against reality and its unreality was exposed.

A minority went over to George Galloway. The majority of the SWP, including the Left Platform, preferred to cling to the group-think idealisation of the role of their own organisation and its history. They could not deny that the outcome of Respect was a defeat for their project, but the only explanation they offered was Alex Callinicos’s obviously false group-think idea that it represented a shift to the right by George Galloway – allegedly part of the same process as Bertinotti dragging Rifondazione Comunista into the Unione government coalition in Italy. Not even SWP members could wholly self-deceive to the extent of buying this as an explanation, and John Rees was the obvious scapegoat for the defeat. Since then, as Peter Manson explained in last week’s paper, Rees and his supporters have been looking for a more or less dignified way out of the SWP.[2]

Blogosphere

SWPers who have intervened in the blogosphere discussion argue that the negative aspects of the internal regime of the SWP have been overstated, Rees and German got what they deserved and so on. This is trivial. More importantly, they are driven to some extent to recognise the negatives. And they certainly recognise them in other groups. But they argue that we just have to put up with them – either as unfortunate consequences of objective dynamics, or as negative side-effects of the necessities of effective organisation.

At its most brutal this idea is expressed in Mark P’s comment on Louis Proyect’s blog: “… A problem with your line of argument, Louis, is that there has been no shortage of attempts to build socialist groups with less ‘centralist’ structures, including those that reject democratic centralism and those that keep the language but do regularly publish their internal debates. I am unaware of any of these groups being notably more successful in growing than, say, the British SWP. It’s the ISO rather than Solidarity which has grown over the last decade.”[3] Or, put another way (as I have heard it said by SWPers), ‘You can criticise our organisational methods when you’re as big as we are.’

On the other hand, the SWP’s critics have in common the belief that the character of the SWP regime and the endless splits flow from sectarianism. (We in CPGB share this view, but our interpretation of what sectarianism means is so different from the modern, standard leftwing interpretation of the word that the point needs to be flagged here before substantive discussion.)

The SWP’s critics also commonly reject the idea of the ‘Leninist vanguard party’ in favour of something both politically broader and organisationally looser: an attempt to organise the whole of the left, not merely the whole of the Marxist left, or the whole of the workers’ movement (but without the pro-capitalist right wing of that movement, which is assumed to be somehow outside it). And an attempt to do so on the basis of ‘network’ and less centralist forms of organisation.

The problem of this view is that what it leads to – under the conditions which have prevailed since the fall of the Soviet Union – is the abandonment of anything but unorganised commentary from the standpoint of Marxism. Because it insists on broad unity as a panacea for Marxist disunity and the bureaucratic rule in the groups, it refuses to confront the actual strategic political differences in the broad, mass workers’ movement about the state, nationalism and political democracy. The result is the drag to the right – like Rifondazione.

If comrades were to look their line squarely in the face, it implies the policy of the Communist Party of the USA of promoting the ‘left’ in the US Democratic Party and promoting the Democrats against the Republicans; and in Britain, it implies an unorganised ‘soft left’ in the Labour Party (and ultimately the course of the British Eurocommunists, who liquidated their party to become hangers-on of … Blairism).

Bureaucratic centralism

There are, of course, arguments from Lenin, Trotsky and other Bolshevik leaders in favour of the institutional forms of the ‘Leninist combat party’ – basically, arguments constructed in the early 1920s. At this time the Bolsheviks were engaged in building a state out of a peasant war against landlordism, and had to construct a collective Bonaparte or ‘man on horseback’ to represent the peasants against the landlords by mastering the peasants’ resistance to giving up their surplus.

Meanwhile, the ‘centrist’ leaders – Kautsky, Martov, the Austro-Marxists and so on – were using arguments for broad class unity and the defence of democracy, meaning the liberties of the pro-capitalist leaders of the broad workers’ movement, against Bolshevik ‘terrorism’ and ‘adventurism’. At the end of the day, these arguments boiled down to a policy of lending political support to the global war against Bolshevism and for the ‘restoration of order’, which the capitalist states were conducting and which capitalist politicians and media internationally, including the pro-capitalist leaders of the broad workers’ movement, certainly understood as a ‘hot war’.[4]

In this context, it is hardly surprising that the Bolshevik leaders produced arguments in favour of a violent military centralism, mitigated only by the congress, as the basis of party organisation. As the revolutionary movements in the west were defeated, the Bolsheviks also emphasised their own unique strengths as against the defeated western left. And in the process – beginning with Lenin’s Leftwing communism, an infantile disorder – they constructed an almost completely fictional origin-myth, in which the military centralism created in 1919-21 was represented falsely as the direct continuity of Lenin’s 1902 What is to be done? and the decisions taken in the 1903 split in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party.[5] After Lenin’s death, the historical myth was only emphasised and re-emphasised in the leadership’s struggle against Trotsky and ‘Trotskyism’.[6]

However, apart from ‘orthodox Trotskyists’ and ‘Marxist-Leninists’, defenders of bureaucratic-centralism do not use these arguments. Some of the better educated SWPers are no doubt aware that the origin-myth has been disproved and that the RSDLP (Bolsheviks) down to 1919 functioned in ways totally unlike Tony Cliff’s image of it and equally unlike the institutions and culture of the SWP and similar organisations, and therefore do not want to venture into these waters. Others simply have no real knowledge of the history of their own movement. Either way, the arguments they advance are practical ones about the present situation, rather than theoretical ones about the history of the movement or the inevitability of a future revolutionary crisis.

Effective campaigning

The first positive argument is that a centralised ‘Leninist’ party (or parties) is necessary to mobilising forces in broad mass campaigns. ‘Christian h’ comments on Louis Proyect’s blog that “there’s a reason why so many movements appear as fronts of democratic centralist groups: it’s because those groups do have the organising power to get things done.” ‘Noel’ on Andy Newman’s Socialist Unity blog remarks, in relation to the London Social Forum, that “History might also tell you that to put on an event for 25,000 activists across Europe meant working with the GLA and Socialist Action, something none of us were expecting to be so, ah, fraught … it was a choice between trying to deal with that as best we could or not doing it at all … there was no way the ‘opposition’ could have done anything …”; and ‘Salman Mirza’ says that “… the majority of calls, emails around things like UAF, volunteers needed for leafleting picket lines, stop the closures campaigns, etc are from the SWP”.[7]

This line is a half-truth. The half that is true is important. Without means of collective decision-making for common action and an agreement that decisions for common action are binding, the multifarious efforts of individuals run into the ground. If there are 57 varieties of left groups in Britain, there are 570 varieties of single-issue campaigns, most of them creating absolutely negligible impact on national or local politics, and 5,700 varieties of leftwing ‘independents’ with even less collective impact.

The half that is untrue is equally important. Collective decision-making mechanisms for collective action long antedate the ‘Leninist combat party’ form. Single-issue campaigns go back at least as far as the campaign against the slave trade in the late 18th and early 19th century, trade unions emerged from the differentiation of the craft guild tradition between masters and employees over the same period, and so on.[8] It would be ridiculous to suggest that because these organisations and movements had no ‘Leninist combat party’ they were ineffective.

Also before the ‘Leninist combat party’ form emerged, pre-1914 France and Germany had broad-unity socialist parties. Britain had Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation, the De Leonist Socialist Labour Party, the impossiblist Socialist Party of Great Britain, and so on. In terms of the ‘level of agreement on fundamentals required for practical common action’ according to SWP supporters (and SPEW supporters) the pre-war British organisations look more like the British far left today. Guess which form was more effective for practical political campaigning: the British or the continental?

The reality is that the bureaucratic-centralist groups dominate decision-making in broader organisations not because the groups are indispensable to decision-making for campaigning, but because the groups form coherent minorities, while the ‘independents’ are scattered – the same mechanism which allows a single shareholder with, say, a 30% minority to dominate a corporation. The issue has been studied at a more general theoretical level by Moshé Machover.[9]

It follows that the strength of the bureaucratic-centralist left groups in broader organisations is not because bureaucratic centralism is actually essential to effective campaigning. It is merely an effect of the fact that the bureaucratic-centralist groups are (currently) larger than any alternative form. The issue therefore has no independence of the argument I cited earlier – the simple point supporters of the SWP (and SPEW, and so on) argue, that their relatively large size proves the success of their organisational forms.

Don’t meddle with the big guys

At a certain level, if we take this argument seriously, it reduces to absurdity. None of the groups are anything like the size of the Labour Party or has achieved anything comparable to the gains it achieved for (sections of) the British working class. So it should follow that none of us (SWP included) has any right to criticise the organisational forms of the Labour Party. We can go further than that. The Tory Party is and always has been larger than the Labour Party. So … The biggest organised international political organisation in the world is the Catholic church.[10] So perhaps the far left should adopt papal infallibility …

Oops. It has. That was where we started, with the organisational forms of the SWP. In Cliff’s lifetime these worked from the infallibility of Tony Cliff, backed up by the Vatican (the central apparatus) and the centrally appointed bishops (the district full-timers). Since his death it has worked from the infallibility of the central committee, which has to remain monolithic (hence the need to drive out Rees and German).

Louis Proyect in his post on the topic suggests that bureaucratic-centralist groups can get up to a few thousand members but then get stuck, unable to progress further to real mass influence. One of the commentators remarked that, if so, the advice to the far left should be to build groups like the SWP, but then break with their organisational forms when you get to a few thousand members …

Comrade Proyect’s argument is another half-truth. A few thousand is certainly the usual maximum size of such groups both globally at present and on average across the history of the workers’ movement. But the Italian far-left groups in the 1970s got considerably bigger, and of these only Lotta Continua had a ‘loose’ structure. The Iranian Fedayeen at its height got up to tens of thousands – while retaining the structural and political forms of a far-left sect. And, of course, the fully-Stalinised ‘official’ communist parties were thoroughly bureaucratic-centralist, if – outside of the USSR itself  – they were less inclined to pre-emptive suppression of dissent, leadership bullying, etc, than the SWP. But they were mostly (including the old CPGB) a lot bigger than any of the far-left groups. Hence (in part) Andy Newman’s conversion to ‘official communism’.

Moreover, what happens to far-left groups that get up into the mid-thousands is not usually to get stuck and stay there at that size for a prolonged period of time. Rather what happens is that they explode. Once you are up into the mid-thousands – let alone above – you repeatedly confront political questions for which the distinctive theoretical positions of Cliff-think, or Grant-think, or Moreno-think, or whatever, do not prepare you. What you need is a summary political programme identifying the organisation’s strategic, long-term goals. This can both orient members facing new tactical choices and identify the common political ground that members share, even when they disagree about major political questions like bussing in Boston (which blew up the large US Maoist groups).[11]

The other aspect of the half-truth is that far-left groups commonly start out with the intention to do better on the ‘democracy front’ than the ‘official communist’ parties. The International Socialists, the predecessor of the SWP, grew from around 200 in 1966-67 to around 1,500-2,000 (real members, not paper members) in the mid-1970s. It did so on the basis of a highly open organisational regime. I can personally remember ISers in 1974-75 criticising the excessive centralism of the International Marxist Group. More recently, the IMG has been their usual ‘object lesson’ of how allowing ‘permanent factions’ destroys an organisation. Bureaucratic centralism develops with the growth of the full-time apparatus.

This history – not the history of tactical nous or of ‘real work in the class struggle’ – is the real reason why the SWP is big. In the late 1940s there was a Trotskyist organisation in Britain called the Revolutionary Communist Party. It split into several fragments of varying sizes. By the mid-1960s the largest was Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League (later Workers Revolutionary Party). Second largest was Cliff’s Socialist Review group. Third was Ted Grant’s Revolutionary Socialist Group (Militant, the predecessor of today’s Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal). The IMG was a micro-group of adherents of the European Fourth International. In the 1970s all the groups grew very dramatically, albeit unevenly; but the relation of forces between them did not change.

Since then the number of small groups has multiplied, and the relation of forces has changed. It has changed because the WRP imploded, the IMG broke into fragments (Socialist Action, Communist League, International Socialist Group) and Militant split and the Taaffe wing split again. It has not changed because of the relative success of the organisational forms of the SWP and similar organisations. Their size is no more than their inheritance of their long history, their organisational forms are no more than the (indirect) inheritance of Stalinism.

We’re splintered because we’re small

A very widespread view both among supporters and critics of the SWP’s regime is that these phenomena are regrettable, but result inevitably from the small size of the far-left groups and their isolation from the ‘real mass movement’. Perhaps if the right means were adopted of integrating yourself in the broader mass movement the phenomena would be overcome. Perhaps (SWPers are apt to argue) we just have to wait out the current downturn in the class struggle and put up with it.

Both arguments are nonsense. In the first place, very few of the organised left groups are ‘classic sectarians’ who reject participation in trade unions and mass campaigns in favour of street-stall propaganda. Organise a broad campaign, demonstration or electoral coalition, organise a strike support group or network: most of us will be there (to the extent, of course, that we have the forces). Secondly, integration in the mass movement has in no way been an obstacle to sect-building: look at the multiple, competing left groups within the Labour Party (fewer now that there were, of course); look at the collisions between the projects of different groups in the trade unions.

Secondly, big upturns in the class struggle do not drive the left towards any more effective unity than it achieves already through campaigns, strike support activities, etc. The rising tide lifts all boats, as happened across Europe and in North and Latin America in the 1970s. If anything, the rise in the mass struggle tends to drive towards splits and the multiplication of groups, as all political choices become sharper and more urgent.

Thirdly, at a time when the bourgeois press is dominated by allegations of Gordon Brown bullying Downing Street staff, it is ridiculous to suppose that bureaucratic centralism is a prerogative of small, marginal political groups. To repeat my characterisation of the SWP’s culture above: hiding differences in the central leadership from the membership, secrecy more generally, degradation of the education and political culture of the ranks (since education means developing the ability to make your own informed decisions), a top-down organisational approach, arrogance of the full-timers and permanent leaders and bullying of other members, a tendency to marginalise dissent by ad hominem smears on the dissentients, and, as a result, a growing dominance of a group-think which diverges further and further from engagement with reality. Isn’t this also a characterisation of New Labour (and, for that matter, of the Tories in Thatcher’s later years)?

We are not splintered because we’re small; we’re small because we’re splintered. The ability to construct unity in the parties of the Second International and – for Britain, the US and a few other places – in those of the Comintern – was not a result of a favourable objective situation:[12] the favourable objective situation can exist without producing unity. It was the result of a will to unity, of concrete decisions to fight for unity on the basis of definite political projects.

What alternative?

The questions of the objective and subjective causes of bureaucratic centralism and unprincipled splits, and the argument that isolation from the mass movement is the real cause, leads naturally to the question of the alternatives offered by critics. Louis Proyect offers merely a negative critique of ‘Zinovievism’. Other critics of the SWP’s party regime offer a more or less common response, though the tactical details vary. What is needed is a broad mass party.

The theoretical basis of this proposal I have just criticised. It is ‘We’re splintered because we’re small’: the idea that the only way the Marxist left can unite is to unite with the broader left – whoever this broader left is be – trade union officials, Labour MPs, ‘anti-imperialist’ nationalists of one sort or another, greens, liberation theologists – take your pick.

Within this party ‘revolutionaries’ may form unorganised trends or even semi-organised platforms, but should not form ‘democratic-centralist’ groups, which tend to ‘place the interests of their group above the interests of the movement as a whole’.

Sectarianism

‘Placing the interests of your group above the interests of the movement as a whole’, according to these comrades, is the essence of sectarianism. Surprising as it may at first sight seem, supporters of the SWP agree with them … and so would supporters of a great many … sects.

The ‘formal source’ of this concept of ‘sectarianism’ is in the English version of the Communist manifesto. The passage is famous:

“In what relation do the communists stand to the proletarians as a whole? The communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working class parties.

“They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.

“They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.

“The communists are distinguished from the other working class parties by this only:

1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.

2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.”

In point 2, the reference to “the movement as a whole”, the German Marx and Engels wrote was: “dass sie in den verschiedenen Entwicklungsstufen, welche der Kampf zwischen Proletariat und Bourgeoisie durchläuft, stets das Interesse der Gesamtbewegung vertreten”. Here “the movement as a whole”, the Gesamtbewegung, is the ‘movement’ in the sense of historical process as a whole, the dictatorship of the proletariat as the road to communism. It is not the ‘movement’ in the sense in which we speak of ‘the workers’ movement’ or ‘the trade union movement’ in modern English.

Sectarianism and bureaucratic centralism are quite genuinely two sides of the same face. That face is not, however, separation from the mass movement or ‘placing the interests of your group above the interests of the movement as a whole’. It is the refusal to unite for common action at the maximum possible level at which unity is possible. The essence is an unwillingness to be in a minority: either from majorities which drive out minorities by bureaucratic means for fear that they might just win if the discussion was allowed to go on, or from minorities which walk out in order to pursue their own projects free from the ‘fetters’ of working with the majority round common ground. Both factors seem to have been at work in the Left Platform split from the SWP.

That was then

If the Communist manifesto supplies – falsely – the ‘proof-text’ for comrades’ definition of ‘sectarianism’, the First International and a highly artificial interpretation of the Second supply the practice which is supposed to go along with this orientation: uniting with reformists (especially with trade union leaders) on a minimal political platform, in the hope that this will produce a mass party within which the ‘revolutionaries’ can fight for their ideas. The First International was just such a ‘broad movement’. (The Second was not: the German Social Democratic Party began as a unification of left groups on the basis of a formal programme,[13] and only afterward acquired a trade union base; the French and Italian parties began as unifications, but the trade unions in those countries remained separate syndicalist organisations; and so on.)

But something has changed since 1870. It is a change analogous to that which took place during the rise of the capitalist class in the late medieval to early modern period. Then, the city communes – originally the bourgeoisie’s instruments of class struggle against the feudal lords and kings – were captured through concessions and turned into instruments of the late-feudal absolutist state. From around 1870 the capitalist class and its state began to pursue the same policy in relation to the trade unions and – more gradually, with stops and starts – in relation to the broad workers’ parties. Extensions of the franchise, in Germany partial inclusion of the workers’ organisations in social security arrangements, and so on …

It is for this reason that the ‘broad workers’ party’ idea fails. The capitalist class has integrated an element of the workers’ organisations into its state arrangements. This fact finds political expression among the dominant section of the workers’ leaders in nationalism, class-collaborationism, constitutional loyalism – and forms of top-down, bureaucratic control to force through pro-capitalist policies.

The result is that the ‘broad workers’ party’ is doomed either to fail – because there is already a ‘broad workers’ party’, like the Labour Party – or, if it succeeds, to recapitulate the path of the Labour Party to serving capital, as has happened to the Brazilian Workers Party. In neither case does it provide a road out of bureaucratic centralism and sectarianism.

The workers’ movement is really faced with a fundamental political choice: between nationalism, class-collaborationism, constitutional loyalism and bureaucratic control on the one hand – represented by the actual mass workers’ parties; and class-political independence, the international solidarity of the working class as a class, and radical democracy in the state and in the movement on the other – represented, most imperfectly, by the far left. The path of ‘broad’ unity with class-collaborationist and nationalist bureaucrats as a precondition for unity of the Marxists is therefore a path which unavoidably leads to the abandonment of Marxist politics (class independence, internationalism, democracy) to create or preserve a unity which is in reality under the dictation of the capitalist state.

Breaking with bureaucratic centralism and endless splits is not a problem of changing the objective situation of the left. It is a problem of changing its subjective ideas about organisation and its political culture. If we achieve unity of the Marxist left our ideas will begin to impact on the broader left. If we do not achieve the unity of the Marxist left and an end to bureaucratic centralism, the result will be endless further splintering and even more pronounced ineffectiveness.

Notes

  1. See ‘Oil slick divisions’, February 11.
  2. ‘Left Platform throws in the towel’, February 18.
  3. http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2010/02/17/lindsey-german-resigns-from-the-swp
  4. A Read The world on fire: 1919 and the battle with Bolshevism (London 2008) tells the story from an anti-communist, journalistic perspective, but effectively brings out this point.
  5. Lars T Lih Lenin rediscovered (Leiden 2006) is the most recent and most systematic discussion.
  6. Trotsky’s The Third International after Lenin and The Stalin school of falsification narrate this part of the process. The result is a tendency among some Trotskyist critics of SWP-style bureaucratic centralism to blame this set of practices simply on Grigory Zinoviev – when any study of Lenin’s Collected works for the period or of Trotsky’s own How the revolution armed shows that both men played a central role in the development of the new party order.
  7. www.socialistunity.com/?p=5289;comments201,208
  8. Slave trade: A Hochschild Bury the chains (New York 2005) and M Macnair, ‘Abolition and working class solidarity’ Weekly Worker March 15 2007; trade unions: RA Leeson Travelling brothers (London 1979).
  9. DS Felsenthal, M Machover The measurement of voting power (Cheltenham 1998); and on decision-making in communist society see www.zcommunications.org/collective-decision-making-and-supervision-in-a-communist-society-by-moshe-machover (2009).
  10. A point made in one of his posts by ‘Splintered Sunrise’: splinteredsunrise.wordpress.com
  11. M Elbaum Revolution in the air (London 2002).
  12. Except in the limited sense that the 1875 Gotha unification of the German socialists came at the right time to catch the massive expansion of the German working class at the same period.
  13. For all the faults of the Gotha programme, criticised by Marx and Engels, it was well to the left of the programmes on offer by the British left as the basis of unity today.

World politics, long waves and the decline of capitalism

Are we facing a new ‘long slump’ like the 1930s or is the recent financial crisis merely a blip in a larger picture of capitalist expansion? And how does the decline of capitalism fit into the picture? In an article in the Weekly Worker Mike Macnair examines the issues

Arthur Bough’s letters (December 10 and December 18 2009), and his fuller version of the argument of these letters on his blog [1], reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the CPGB’s discussion on the issues of the economic crisis.

To some extent this was the result of unclarities in Peter Manson’s brief report (December 3) of my opening on this issue at the November 29 CPGB aggregate. We had intended to transcribe and edit my opening for publication, but this was held up for various reasons. In fact in the December 3 paper we printed the opening I gave at the November 28 Hands Off the People of Iran annual general meeting on the policy of US imperialism. This argued that the decline of US world dominance, paralleling but different from the decline of British world dominance in the later 19th century, was the primary driver of international economic and political dynamics in the present period.

The primary purpose of my November 29 opening, upon which this article is based, was to stress both the real uncertainty of the immediate economic situation and the need to take seriously the arguments that what is involved may be merely a ‘blip’ and avoid staking all our political orientation on ‘slumpism’.

My personal opinion is that a ‘second leg down’ of the recession in 2010 – driven by concerns about state finances, leading to public expenditure cuts and other forms of withdrawal of liquidity which hold down consumer demand – is now more likely than not. However, I also emphasise both the level of uncertainty in all predictions, and that it is not the business of Marxists to hope for crashes and slumps to make our politics attractive; and that much of the left which does predict a severe crisis does so precisely in the hope that a slump will make their rather unattractive alternative to capitalism attractive. In reality, such a slump is more likely to benefit the far right.

In discussion comrade John Bridge criticised my opening as tending to reduce the problem with capitalism to that of cycles and to offer a cyclical theory of history more generally (this relates to my Hopi opening). It was in this context that he made the point that “it was not just a question of capitalism’s cyclical crises that ought to concern us, but the fact that it is a system in long-term decline”.[2]

My reply to the discussion was to a considerable extent addressed to the question of the decline of capitalism and the meaning and limits of this idea. I address this question again at the end of this article.

Economic conjuncture

Looking at the immediate indicators, there has been a rise in global markets over the last few months, and the general expectation is that the increase in unemployment will be reversed now that confidence has returned in the financial markets and the ‘real’ economy – there is some data indicating a rise in actual output. In theory UK output is still in decline, but whether this is accurate remains to be seen. There was a brief acute bout of nerves on the market following the Dubai government defaulting on its debts. But it is not clear if this is a complete default, and this is essentially a huge, but single property development which has gone bust.

The nerves caused by its collapse show the fear which exists amongst the investing section of the capitalist class that we are in a similar phase as 1929-31 – after the first crash, but yet to fall off the precipice, when the downturn hits the material economy and unemployment sky-rockets, masses of factories close, there is major deflation, etc. There is a perception among both Marxist and bourgeois economists that this is a possibility. At the same time there are those on both sides who argue this will not happen and that what has occurred can be compared to the market crashes of 1987, 1998 or 2001; a big financial crash, but one which capitalist states can manage by interventions to ensure liquidity.

It is important to be clear that having a Marxist methodology does not give us an answer to this question. Why this is the case can best be explained by looking at the attempts of Marxists to explain the current crisis as a minor financial bubble. Permanent Revolution takes this line, and a recent article by PR’s Bill Jeffries argues that the underlying trend is a massive recovery of capitalist profitability, which has continued since the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1990s, and the rise of capitalist zones and foreign investment in China.[3]

Long waves

Capitalism goes into crisis because it runs up against limits to the profitable investment of capital, the consequence being that it shifts into speculative activities and the search for short-term liquidity. Hence there is an overproduction of fictitious capital (a bubble), leading in due course to a financial crash, which temporarily chokes commercial credit, resulting in depression and recession in the real economy. But Jeffries argues, broadly following Trotsky’s argument around long waves in the capitalist economy, that fundamental transformations in global conditions may allow for capitalist investment in new areas. Whether they take the form of new technology, a world-historical defeat of the working class or capitalism expanding into pre-capitalist countries, the new possibility of investment creates the conditions for a major revival in the profitability of productive industry and therefore a sustained expansion in investment. This does not do away with the business cycle, but mitigates the effects of it. The downturns are less acute and shorter, and the ‘up’ phases are stronger and more persistent. In PR’s view the fall of the Stalinist regimes and the market turn in China and Vietnam created the same effect as, in the 19th century, capital breaking into Africa or east Asia, opening up large fields for profitable investment.

In this view the underlying condition since the late 1990s is one of long-term boom analogous to the period of capitalist expansion in the late 19th century, or the 1950s boom and capitalist realignment. Why did World War II open up the possibility for profitable investment? Because it broke up the British and French colonial empires, which to a large extent kept US business out of their colonies. The effect of British dependence on the US was that Britain had to hand over large quantities of overseas investments, to be passed on to US corporations, in payment for the arms which were supplied. Britain and France were also compelled to agree to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt 1), which managed trade between the main capitalist powers, but centrally broke down the old imperial protection system and allowed US capital to dramatically expand into British and French territory.

Arthur Bough, an ex-member of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, has an alternative view which must be taken seriously, though he is an individual rather than representing a group, since he offers considered economic arguments. His argument draws on Kondratiev rather than Trotsky. Kondratiev argued that over the long term there was an (approximately) 50-year cycle running concurrently with the usual short cycle of booms and slumps of capitalism. In the first half of the cycle there are strong booms and weak recessions, and in the second half there are weak booms and heavy recessions. In Bough’s view the recessionary phase of the cycle opened in the early 1970s and closed in the 1990s, so we are about 10 years into the boom phase.

Kondratiev never offered a serious causal explanation of why there should be a long cycle, or why the periodisation should be 50 years. A variety of causal mechanisms have been offered ranging from technical innovations to long-range weather changes which affect harvests and hence food prices. None of them are really satisfactory.

The idea of fixed-period cycles is itself generally problematic. The short boom-bust cycle takes very approximately six to 10 years. Marx made some attempt to theorise this periodisation on the basis of the turnover time of fixed capital. That is, to simplify grossly, capitalists all buy machines and buildings at the same time, causing a forward push for a boom, then demand for these ‘capital goods’ necessarily falls and a downturn results until the fixed capital has to be replaced, triggering another upturn. There is correspondence between Marx and Engels where Marx is looking for evidence that the turnover of fixed capital accounts for the boom-bust cycle and so the latter can be reduced to a mathematical certainty. Engels – who was engaged in running a capitalist business at the time – denied the importance of this, telling Marx that capitalist decision-making was often based on guesstimates and back-of-the-envelope calculations.

There is an approximate regularity, and it is certainly the case that free-market capitalism cannot go longer than 10 or 12 years without a recession caused by a financial crash (if it is not triggered earlier by state action, as it was by the ‘demand management’ of the 1950s-70s). But talking about a range between six and 10 years is not the same thing as the ability to predict the date of crashes, and so on; there are many contributory factors in the determination of the cycle.

If this is the case with short cycles, why should there be a 50-year cycle over the long term? It is worthwhile pointing out that Kondratiev conceived the 50-year cycle based on 100 years worth of data – hardly sufficient to demonstrate a trend. In contrast, we know that the short business cycle has a considerable degree of regularity, including from the data going back to 1760s Britain.

This was Trotsky’s original criticism of Kondratiev – that there was not enough data to draw such a firm conclusion. Hence Trotsky’s ‘long waves’ were both less definitely periodised, and driven by aspects of the class struggle and capitalist expansion rather than ‘internal’ capitalist dynamics.

Both Kondratiev cycles and Trotsky’s long waves gained popularity among Marxist economists because of the long boom in the 1950s and 60s. In this period there was sustained material growth in the imperialist centres and colonial countries, as well as in the USSR and China, and there was a mitigated form of the business cycle: that is, neither booms nor busts ran away. It was a standard Marxist idea that with imperialism, capitalism had reached its terminal stage, and would tend to stagnation and persistent, repetitive crisis. That worked pretty well as a characterisation of the world between 1914 and 1948, but the question was how Marxists could explain the new stage of the 1950s and 60s. Long cycle theories came to be used to address this problem.

While comrade Bough’s argument is over-dependent on the dubious long waves of Kondratiev, Permanent Revolution’s argument has a considerably stronger basis: what happened in 1989-91. The Stalinist regimes were half-inside the capitalist economy; their purchase of higher-tech production equipment from the west gave a significant stimulus to ‘department I’ (capital goods) industries, with the usual multiplier effects for the rest of the economy. They also sold raw materials on a large scale to the capitalist economies. So, although the domestic relations of production in the USSR, etc were not straightforwardly those of capitalist production, the productive activity of those countries was in a contradictory sense part of the capitalist world economy.

In that sense, the breakdown of those economies and in particular that of the former USSR was the equivalent of an enormous bankruptcy. A fundamental part of the Marxist theory of cycles and crisis is that at the end of the boom period over-investment of capital occurs, and in order to clear this, particularly in certain sectors, a wave of bankruptcies is necessary. This is the crisis phase of the cycle and opens the way to new growth by devalorising a section of capital. From that point of view, it is correct to say, as Permanent Revolution does, that in this period we saw an enormous devalorisation of fixed capital – factories, etc – in the formerly Stalinist states. This devalorisation and reduction in barriers to trade opened the way for a substantial increase in potential capitalist investment, considerably so in China and Vietnam, but also in eastern Europe.

The fall of the Soviet Union and semi-marketisation of the eastern regimes should, therefore, in theory have paved the way for a prolonged period of capitalist growth. However, as pointed out by other Marxists, including Hillel Ticktin and István Mészáros, there was so much standing overcapacity in the capitalist economy that it is not clear if the collapse of the Stalinist economies provided that much of an opening for new profitable productive investment. Unemployment and underutilisation of capacity still afflicted the western and ‘southern’ economies. Though money profits rose after 1989, this overcapacity and underutilisation persisted through the 1990s. It remained the case that there were factories in the US and Mexico running at 60% of their capacity. So it is not clear that the fall of the Stalinist economies provided a real help in dealing with this overcapacity. In the ‘third world’ countries, production has shifted around more from one location to another: for example, from Latin America to China.

It is not clear that if we crunched the global numbers they would show an actual increase in total productive output, as opposed to goods being cheapened by major reductions in global average wage costs. What is clear is that in many peripheral countries there is endemic mass unemployment. Indeed in the core capitalist countries there is both endemic unemployment and underemployment in productive industry. The real level of unemployment is masked in a variety of ways. In the UK, this has been performed by transferring workers to sickness benefit, by the increase in training schemes and by expansion of higher education. The latter has not been undertaken because of a growing demand for highly skilled labour – overwhelmingly the demands of capital are for part-time, casual labour: flipping burgers, fruit picking, cleaning and so on. It has almost entirely been a device to mask unemployment.

The state also runs what are effectively white-collar job-creation schemes, duplicating work and multiplying bureaucracy. Local councils, for example, employ significant numbers processing claims for housing benefit, mostly from tenants in council housing. They also employ significant numbers to chase those tenants to pay their rent, which is, under legislation introduced by the Conservatives and continued by Labour, theoretically based on ‘market values’. It would actually be cheaper and more efficient for the council to lease the houses rent-free to benefit claimants, or to equalise the values of the rent and housing benefit. Housing benefit is a pure recycling of notional money as a way to keep clerical staff in work.

Projects like this and NHS marketisation create many a form-filling job for white-collar staff and managers. Privatisation has produced a series of regulatory quangos, and also multiple companies with their own bureaucracies and staff duplicating the same functions. In the case of the utility companies we have infrastructure monopolies (Transco and the electricity distribution companies) providing ‘services’ to a series of pure rentier/speculator companies running their multiple billing departments. The value of such companies is not based on any fixed capital or control over infrastructure, but on artificially created markets in gas or electricity futures – another form of fictitious capital.

If there had been a real global rise in the real rate of return of productive industry post-1989, one would have expected to see a substantial expansion of capitalist operations in Russia and eastern Europe, but in reality this has been quite marginal. When the US took power in Iraq, one could have expected huge investments by US capital flowing into Iraq, as when Britain took over parts of India. On the contrary, what we have seen is capitalist firms pretending to invest in Iraq as a way of stealing money from the US government – and the Iraqi government to the extent that it has to pay for reconstruction – for fraudulent construction projects.

If Permanent Revolution’s theory is correct, capitalists should be showing confidence that investment in material productive activities will yield above-average profit. They are not behaving this way; indeed predominantly their attitude is that material production will yield no profit, or not an adequate one for the investment, compared to ripping off the state through PFIs, through financial speculation and so on. Their behaviour would indicate they do not believe the rate of return on material production to be high enough to support a sustained expansion in the material productive economy. This is not the 1930s. But it is also not the 1950s.

Is it the case – as Permanent Revolution, Arthur Bough and Michel Husson, among others, argue – that there was a rise in the underlying global rate of profit in productive activities from the late 1980s? It is at least arguable that the statistics used to judge this are so contaminated by unproductive activities that what they reveal is not movements in the rate of profit in productive activities, but simply the ability of the US and the financial services sector to rip everyone else off to a greater extent. Aggregate GDP and profitability figures include the activities of lawyers, accountants, business consultants and the like; and these do not represent new production of material surplus, only the redistribution of surplus.

The point is that PR’s theory is a tenable one, but whether the available evidence really supports that theory is highly debatable. Some economists like Andrew Kliman have attempted to ‘get behind’ these figures, and drawn the conclusion that profitability was high in the 1950s and 60s, then declined and has remained at a low level since. Part of the problem with this approach is that it relies on statistics on productive output by sector (which can then be used to disaggregate the productive and unproductive sectors) which are only published every six years. So it is possible to explain events half a business cycle ago, but impossible to predict future movements in more than the broadest outline.

The view that we are in a phase of long-wave expansion triggered by 1989-91 is on its face theoretically tenable, but appears empirically problematic unless the ‘world economy’ is treated as merely an aggregate of the national ‘advanced economies’ and marginalist aggregate and average statistics, which fail to differentiate productive from unproductive activity, are taken at face value. Why?

My own take – for what it is worth, which is limited – is that the ‘long wave’ phenomenon reflects at least partly the shift between the positive effects of an ascendant world-dominant capitalist state (as creating fairly stable world money and ‘order’ conditions for global trade and productive expansion) and the negative effects of a declining world-dominant state (as exacting financial and other tribute from rising countries and protecting exhausted sectors of its own industry). On this basis a new phase of long-wave capitalist expansion like the 1950s is possible, but depends on the overthrow of the military power of the USA by capitalist rivals and the creation of a replacement world-dominant power: ie, a new 1914-45, which is not on the immediate agenda.

Hence, though in other respects the conditions exist for a new phase of capitalist dynamism and progress, what we actually get is a succession of bubbles and crises against a backdrop of endemic overcapacity and inability of capitalism to break beyond the auto/aerospace/petrochemicals economy. The other side of this coin is increasing irrationalism in politics and the persistence and deepening of the export of death and destruction in the form of the ‘war on terror’.

Against slumpism

PR may be right or wrong. But why does this matter? Of course, it matters to Marxists whether or not we are entering a big depression, but it is not vital for us to know the exact time or place that crisis will hit first. The fundamental points of Marxism’s critique of capitalism and bourgeois political economy are, firstly, that cycles are unavoidable and there will be booms and busts – no amount of management will do away with the business cycle. Secondly, that free markets spontaneously tend towards radical inequality – the concentration of wealth in the hands of an increasingly small number and the relative impoverishment of an ever larger number of workers and petty proprietors. Whether the current crisis is another great depression or another short-cycle financial crisis like those of 1987, 1998 and 2001 but on a larger scale is completely immaterial to these facts about capitalism.

Permanent Revolution’s argument is a negation of that of the Workers Power group from which PR came. WP argues that capitalism entered its terminal phase in 1914, and that the working class needs to create a state like the early Soviet Union, complete with the dictatorship of the party and the dictatorship of the leadership over the party. In this view, the more there is economic chaos and war-induced recession, the more workers will move into action. The Transitional programme is the other side of this coin: people will move into action based on immediate economic concerns, not a vision of an alternative future, and revolutionaries can lever them, step by step, through wage demands, etc, then soviets, into taking power. Without the masses having the idea in their heads that the parliamentary regime is corrupt and unacceptable or that it is possible to institute an alternative socialist order. Without a prolonged period of building up forces, delegitimising the existing state regime and spreading the idea that an alternative system is not just better than capitalism in the depths of recession, but better than capitalism in its boom phase.

The consequence of this strategy is that it becomes essential to predict, as Workers Power does, an enormous slump, which will bring with it street violence, mass strikes, the formation of councils of action and so on. In this situation the small group (whether it be WP, the Spartacists or indeed the Socialist Workers Party) can manoeuvre the masses into taking power. For these groups crisis is fundamental because it leads to the only conditions – if their theory of capitalism is correct – in which masses of workers might conceivably be desperate enough to think it would be good idea to give all power to the central committee of the SWP (or the equivalent ‘Leninist combat party’ group of your choice).

The method is the same; the small cog driving the bigger wheel; the enlightened vanguard vested with dictatorial powers. It is only when crisis gets so severe as to totally dislocate the capitalist economy that it is plausible that broad masses of the working class would consider this a serious alternative to capitalism. Even under these conditions it seems dubious. In a sense we can see this in the failure of the revolution in Germany, in Luxemburg’s critique of the Russian Revolution and the split in Comintern in 1921. The majority of the west European working class did not view the regime in Moscow as representing a superior alternative to capitalism – in spite of World War I, the acute economic contradictions following it and, in the case of Germany, in spite of the brutality with which Noske, Ebert and Scheidemann in alliance with the military right suppressed the radical wing of the workers’ movement.

Because the strategic conceptions of the far left stake everything on slump, there actually develops a desire for it. Crisis is transparently irrational – because of overproduction and overinvestment, people are laid off, reduced to poverty and starved. Too much wealth produces poverty. But actually wanting to experience slump conditions is an irrationality of its own sort, certainly if our aim is the self-emancipation of the working class majority, rather than a coup d’etat by the central committee of your choice.

Uncertain

To return to the present economic situation, the only possible thing to say is that it is uncertain. It may be that the fiscal stimulus from the Bank of England will be enough to re-inflate the financial bubble, at least in the core economies. If that happens there will still be acute crises in the periphery economies, examples of which we have seen already, including the instability in Ireland and eastern Europe.

Each past cyclical bust -1987, 1998, 2001 – has had severe consequences for some periphery countries, like the Argentinian crisis in 2000-01. Millions lost their savings, banks closed, and the country still has many cooperatives formed by factory occupations, such was the acuteness of economic dislocation. Ireland has seen a mass movement spring up. Even if stimulus packages were enough to re-inflate the bubble in the US, western Europe and perhaps China, this would still be at the expense of major recession in several peripheral countries.

It is also possible that a more severe recession will hit the core economies some time this year. If David Cameron were elected and introduced massive cuts in public expenditure, that would probably trigger a severe material recession. Actually doing what has been promised, to sack vast numbers in the public sector, cut local government funding and attack pensions and benefits, would sharply reduce consumer demand, undermining the service sector and triggering serious material recession.

Which way things will go we cannot know, though it seems unlikely that we are in a long boom and this is just another minor recession without consequences. If states have succeeded in re-blowing the bubble, we will see deepened instability in the peripheral countries; the core will be protected, but only for another four to eight years. There will be another upswing, but this will be dependent on liquidity and hence followed by a more severe version of the 2008-09 financial crash (just as 2008-09 was more severe than 2001, which was more severe than 1998, which was more severe than 1987).

Decline

Comrade Bridge is correct to say that capitalism is in decline. Contrary to comrade Bough, this statement has absolutely nothing to do with Lassalle’s “iron law of wages”,[4] with the idea of a secular tendency for the working class to be impoverished, with the Zusammenbruchstheorie (theory of collapse) criticised by Bernstein and wrongly defended by some of his opponents, with Soviet narratives of “the ‘crisis’ and the ‘crash’”, or with Trotsky’s ‘death agony’.[5] Conversely, however, in my opinion when we understand capitalist decline correctly, the fact that capitalism is in decline has only limited implications for the diagnosis of the present economic conjuncture.

Social orders or forms of class rule – the slave-based urbanism of antiquity, feudalism, capitalism – are over historical time replaced by radically different social orders and forms of class rule. That is to say that each individual social order as such rises and declines. We have no reason to suppose that capitalism will be uniquely persistent.

To say that a social order or form of class rule is rising is to say that it plays an increasing role in organising the society’s productive activity and shaping its structure and self-image, replacing any prior social order. To say that it is declining is – obviously – the reverse: that it is decreasingly able to organise the society’s productive activity, that it decreasingly shapes the society’s structure and self-image, that it begins to be displaced by other forms of social order and to lose its legitimacy.

The phase of decline is characterised by statisation. The Roman empire, which artificially created and subsidised cities to keep them alive and attempted to intervene against the potentes, making the free peasants into private clients, represented the decline of the social order of classical antiquity. European monarchical absolutism and the analogous Tokugawa shogunate were forms of the decline of feudalism.

Like certain sorts of coral atolls, social orders may enter into decline at their historical centres even while they are spreading geographically. This is clearest in the case of feudalism. Feudalism was at its apogee in western Europe in the 11th-12th century, but already facing challenges from the rising proto-bourgeoisie and in decline at its core from the 13th century; but it continued to expand geographically both in eastern Europe and in the last phase when as it were ‘neo-feudal’ societies were created by the Spanish state in Latin America in the early modern period.

To say that capitalism is in decline is to say that it is in an analogous phase: declining at the core, while continuing to expand at the periphery at the expense of subsistence and artisan production, forms of feudalism and other pre-capitalist societies. At the core the decline began in the mid-19th century. The rise of the organised workers’ movement, beginning with Chartism and the early trade unions, led to concessions to the working class which had to be organised by the state. The biggest of these concessions was the extension of the suffrage.

This has involved the rise of a different organising principle of society: that of conscious, collective social decision-making: expressed in a distorted form in the form of the growth of state provision and regulation at the expense of market provision.

Meanwhile, the concentration of capital has the result that in several sectors there are firms which are ‘too large’ to be allowed to go bust, and that there are whole sectors which, like transport and agriculture, require permanent subsidies – again resulting in the extension of the capitalist state and of statised capitalism at the expense of the capitalist class in its proper sense.

And the extension of mechanisation has the result that capital needs a more educated proletariat and more extensively educated specific sections of the proletariat. As this extends, the underlying rationality of entrepreneurial ‘one-man management’ – that is, of the social-hierarchical division of labour – declines. This, too, is expressed in distorted forms (the corporate institutional bureaucracies mimic the state bureaucratic hierarchy).

It is also expressed, paradoxically, in the fragmentation of the left: there are too many people who are perfectly capable of serving on central committees, as full-timers and so on for the organisation run by long-serving career ‘professional revolutionaries’ to make sense as an organisational form; the result, given that the leaders cling to their positions and control and mimic the state bureaucratic hierarchy, is the proliferation of ever smaller and smaller splits (far worse than – for example – the divisions of the British far left before World War I).

The feudalism which Spain exported to Latin America was not the classic feudalism of the central middle ages, but the statised feudalism of the absolute monarchies. In the same way, the capitalism which has expanded geographically at the expense of pre-capitalist social orders and of Stalinism is not the ‘classic’ form of capitalism, but ‘mixed economy’ and corporate, statised capitalism.

In a certain sense, the decline of capitalism is most sharply expressed in the difference between the later 19th century decline of Britain as a world-dominant power and the decline of the US. The first involved Britain – and the other European imperialist powers – exporting population on a large scale to their global empires in an endeavour to create a form of order in the colonies which would serve the metropolitan society. (I do not mean by this to prettify the results of the European colonial empires; the observation is simply that the colonialists did seriously attempt to govern their colonies and protectorates.) Conditions for the working class and middle class in Britain were unpleasant enough to support this process, while the empire was, for Britain and other imperialist states, a source of domestic political legitimacy.

The decline of the US is sharply contrasting. The concessions made by US capital to the working class mean that the US continues to be characterised by large-scale net immigration. Its imperial role is a source, not of domestic political legitimacy, but of domestic political illegitimacy. The overseas operations remain acutely sensitive to US casualties – the ‘Vietnam syndrome’. The result is that the dominant form of US overseas intervention is not to impose any sort of order on the target state, but to impose destruction and chaos. In terms purely of weaponry, metropolitan population and domestic production capacity, the US has more war-fighting power than the British empire ever had: but its decline has set in more quickly than British decline and it is, at the end of the day, weaker in decline than the British empire was.

Decline and crisis

The arguments for seeing capitalism as in decline presented here are arguments in the long term. The analogies should make this obvious: the Roman empire was a form of decline, but lasted for another 500 years in the west and more than 1,000 in the east; feudalism was in decline from the 13th century, but the decisive capitalist breakthrough did not happen till the 17th, or, indeed become Europe-wide until the 19th.

Of course, capitalism develops more rapidly than feudalism (which developed more rapidly than the slave-based urbanism of classical antiquity). We may therefore not unreasonably expect it to ‘burn out’ more rapidly too. But it would be most unwise to use this as an argument that capitalism must be in terminal decay now.

The crisis of 2008-09 is in a certain rather limited sense the product of capitalist decline. This sense is that the immediate trigger of the crisis was financial instruments built on subprime mortgages in the US; and subprime mortgages in the US were a part of the system of controlling the US working class through material concessions, the apogee of the policy of ‘property-owning democracy’ and in a sense the moment at which this policy flew too close to the sun and its wings melted.

Indeed, the more general credit bubble was in part the product of the efforts of the US and other core capitalist states to stave off a crisis which should have produced a more or less severe recession in 1998 by pumping liquidity into the system. If we ask why the recession could not simply be allowed to proceed, the answer is that it was politically unacceptable. It was politically unacceptable because credit expansion and the ‘property-owning democracy’ was the primary means of managing working class expectations after the ‘social-democratic consensus’ was abandoned in the 1970s.

More deeply, however, the failure to break through to a new regime of productive investment is the product not of capitalist decline as such, but of the decline of the USA as a world-dominant power and the specific forms that this decline takes. I do not think that the decline of capitalism as such has proceeded so far that it is excluded that the US can be replaced by a new world-dominant capitalist power, allowing a new long wave of productive growth. The problem is rather the costs of replacing it – namely that the military power of the US has to be broken: the world has to go through another experience of global great-power war like 1914-18 and 1939-45 – and hope that this does not end in the US, in its Götterdämmerung phase (twilight of the gods; the Nazis in 1945), unleashing its nuclear arsenal.

We are as yet some way – probably decades – away from this threat, though the immensely destructive character of the US invasion of Iraq and the millenarian fantasies of the US right already tell us that it is a real one. The idea of a peaceful transfer of power from the US to some other capitalist force (or to a reformed United Nations) is utterly illusory. The only real alternative is if, before the point of global war, the working class can begin to act politically and on at least a continental scale to project its own power as an alternative to capitalist class rule.

We are as of now a long way from this possibility. Hopefully, the workers’ movement will manage to catch up before the processes of US decline reach their end-point.

Notes

  1. http://boffyblog.blogspot.com/2009/12/left-risis.html.
  2. ‘The polemical alternative’, December 3 2009.
  3. ‘Whatever happened to the great depression?’, www.permanentrevolution.net/entry/2887.
  4. A Bough, Letters, December 10 2009.
  5. J and H Tudor (eds) Marxism and social democracy Cambridge 1988; R Day The ‘crisis’ and the ‘crash’ London 1981; L Trotsky The death agony of capitalism and the tasks of the Fourth International (www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/tp/index.htm).

SWP: Bring Loftus to account

CWU president addresses union rally

Dave Isaacson condemns leading SWP members who continually undermine and sabotage attempts to forge rank and file organisation

There was one significant omission in Jim Moody’s article on the sell-out of the postal strike by the Communication Workers Union leadership, which allowed CWU president Jane Loftus to come out of it looking rather good, when actually she has been an utter disgrace (‘Militants condemn sell-out’, November 12).

Loftus, a long-standing member of the Socialist Workers Party and therefore supposedly a revolutionary, is also a member of the CWU’s postal executive committee (PEC), which voted unanimously on November 5 to accept the interim agreement and call off the strikes, just as the strength of the postal workers was starting to be realised. This goes completely against the position of Loftus’s organisation. Socialist Worker has rightly stated that “Leaders of the postal workers’ union were wrong to suspend strikes at Royal Mail last week … There was no reason for the union to sign up to the agreement. The proposed escalation of strike action – that would have seen two 24-hour strikes in close succession last week – had widespread support within the union” (November 14).

Another Socialist Worker article by Cambridge CWU rep Paul Turnbull calls on postal workers to “restart the strikes immediately”. Yet neither questions why Jane Loftus did not vote against this sell-out – indeed her name is not mentioned at all. Activists in the SWP and militants in the CWU need to ask what is going on here. The SWP’s newspaper, Socialist Worker, is arguing one thing, while their highest placed member in the CWU is doing the exact opposite. Like other socialists all over the country, SWP activists put massive amounts of time and energy into supporting the postal workers and their strike. No wonder Socialist Worker might not want them to know that their own comrade on the CWU leadership colluded in undermining that hard work.

Many would expect better from a member of the SWP, but this kind of behaviour is not an aberration. Back in 2007 Loftus failed to speak out against the rotten deal which ended that dispute. The only PEC members who openly campaigned against the 2007 sell-out were Dave Warren and Phil Brown. Loftus also colluded with the bureaucracy by keeping their secrets and withholding vital information from the membership during closed-door negotiations with management. The SWP failed to use this information to warn strikers of the impending sell-out and call on workers to organise independently of the bureaucracy. Again, back in 2003-04 Loftus voted for the Major Change agreement, a management package that involved job cuts.

Loftus is certainly not alone, however. Her actions are reminiscent of those of Martin John and Sue Bond in the Public and Commercial Services union. Similarly, these were the SWP’s leading comrades in a union with a left general secretary (Mark Serwotka) and leadership (dominated by the Socialist Party in England and Wales). The SWP has consistently downplayed (or kept silent about) any criticisms it may have of left union leaders such as these in order to try and draw them into supporting various SWP ‘united fronts’. In the process the SWPers closest to them in the trade unions clearly bought into the ‘awkward squad’ hype and are in thrall to these bureaucrats.

There are plenty of perks to the job and other social pressures which weigh upon those who enter the upper echelons of the union structures. A revolutionary party should be constantly on guard and fighting against the effects of these pressures on its militants, yet the actions of the SWP leadership often do just the opposite of that. Their desire to get close to and win the approval of ‘left’ union leaders creates a culture of diplomatic silence and conciliationism, while what is necessary for accountability within the unions is open debate and rank and file independence from the bureaucracy.

As members of the PCS national executive committee Martin John and Sue Bond had failed to support SWP policy within the union on a number of occasions, and then in 2005 they knowingly went against SWP directions and policy to vote with Serwotka and SPEW for a scandalous pension deal which sold away the rights of new entrants. Only after regular exposures of their actions (not least in the reports of CPGB member Lee Rock in the Weekly Worker), and growing complaints from other SWP members, was the leadership forced to take action against these renegades.

Initially Socialist Worker ignored the actions of its members on the PCS NEC, while condemning the deal as a betrayal of future generations of workers – sound familiar? Even after disciplinary action was begun Sue Bond got off very lightly with a letter of apology in which she stated: “I do regret the position our vote left comrades in, and the significant implications for the left in other public sector unions. I can certainly assure comrades that I have no intention of breaking party discipline in the future” (Weekly Worker November 17 2005). Martin John flounced out of the SWP the day before he was due to face a meeting of the SWP fraction within PCS. It was not until four weeks after the pensions deal was voted on that news of all this made it into Socialist Worker.

However, it is not just a few individual SWP members succumbing to the pressures of the bureaucracy. The SWP itself has consistently failed to use its positions of influence within unions to build genuine rank and file movements which are independent of the union bureaucracy. The SWP-sponsored occasional publication, Post Worker, does not openly take on the likes of general secretary Billy Hayes and his deputy Dave Ward when they act against the interests of their members. Rather, it regularly gives over significant space for them to promote themselves. It might as well be an official union publication.

SWP members may well wonder about the priorities of their leadership, when Alex Snowden – a Reesite Left Platform supporter – has been expelled for “factionalism” (during the pre-conference period when temporary factions are allowed), yet Jane Loftus seems to have got off scot-free for a blatant act of treachery. Comrades in the SWP need to ensure that Jane Loftus is held to account and faces disciplinary action. She must be called before a fraction meeting of SWP comrades in the CWU and made to explain her actions. She must either recant and campaign openly against the acceptance of the interim agreement in line with SWP policy, or it is she who should face expulsion. Beyond this, major questions have to be asked about whether she can continue to be the SWP’s leading representative within the CWU, given her track record. And all of this must be done openly with full reports in Socialist Worker.

I have been told that CWU executive members can only subsequently campaign against majority decisions if they immediately registered their dissent. If this is the case, then Loftus must be made to step down from the PEC in order to campaign within the CWU accordingly.

Prior to this latest sell-out, Socialist Worker quite correctly asked the question, “How do we fight when union leaders waver?” Matthew Cookson wrote: “The best way to take the struggle forward is to organise workers on a rank-and-file level. A strong organisation of this nature could support the officials as long as they were representing the union members, but could act independently the moment their leaders began to look for some way to settle their dispute unfavourably” (October 31).

Yes, but the actions of leading SWP members continually undermine and sabotage attempts at forging such rank and file organisation. Comrades in the SWP need to think much more deeply about the role their organisation plays within the unions. They must be free to use Socialist Worker as a tool to explore why it is their leading representatives in the unions end up acting against the interests of the working class.

Respect conference report

‘Delegates’ voted to build election profile

No coalition with ‘son of No2EU’

Issues of left and right are not so clear-cut when it comes to Respect. Mike Macnair reports on its annual conference, held in Birmingham on Saturday November 14

Respect’s annual conference was marked by somewhat confused debates on anti-fascist activity, and on the so far unnamed ‘son of No2EU’ electoral coalition. These have given rise to somewhat ill-tempered exchanges between the participants and among others in the ‘blogosphere’ in the last few days.1

The conference also changed the name of the organisation from ‘Respect – the Unity Coalition’ to ‘The Respect Party’, altered the mode of election of the leadership, and passed a number of leftwing ‘motherhood and apple pie’ resolutions on international questions, and constructive resolutions on constitutional issues and on free public transport.

This report focuses mainly on the controversies. I have tried to give as much as possible of what was argued on the different sides, so that readers can form their own views of the arguments.

The official report of the conference says that 210 delegates attended2 (‘delegates’ were, of course, any Respect members who had agreed to pay the conference fee, rather than people elected by branches). However, I counted around 100 present in the main hall in each of the morning and afternoon sessions, and in the one vote which was counted (to be discussed below) 113 votes were cast; but it may well be that people coming and going or in circulation outside the hall meant that numbers were higher than I saw. Clive Searle reported that Respect now has 850 members, with a significant growth in recruitment in the last months; it would be interesting to know whether these members are concentrated in east London and Birmingham or more widely spread.

At the beginning of the conference a decision was taken to elect the same number of national council (NC) members as there were nominees, avoiding the need for a contested election. The resulting committee of 47 is overlarge from a group of 850, but, of course, the actual leadership will be some body delegated from the NC.

As if to reaffirm this point, almost the last decision taken at the end of the conference was to adopt for the future a variant of the Socialist Workers Party’s method of election of a ‘party council’, with 40% to be elected by the conference and 60% by regional meetings. Clive Searle moved the proposal on behalf of Manchester Respect with classic SWP arguments: election by conference would tend to favour “people who talk a lot”, while “people who do a lot” do not get elected.

In reality, though, most political work consists of ‘talking a lot’ – on the doorstep, on stalls, in trade union meetings, in public meetings, in discussions with colleagues and neighbours. People who “do a lot” turn out to be, as the SWP experience of this form of election reveals … apparatus yes-men and women. Moreover, a regionally-elected NC lacks the clear lines of authority which would allow it to overrule and remove, if necessary, the actual leadership. This was one of the few contentious votes, but the principle of local/regional election was not controverted: Southwark Respect merely proposed election by branches rather than regions. This proposal was opposed by Ger Francis, Salma Yaqoob and Alan Thornett, on the ground of the very variable development of Respect branches across the country, and overwhelmingly defeated.

The conference started late, and the agenda had to be shuffled because George Galloway, who was supposed to introduce the first session, ‘Resisting the cuts agenda’, was stuck in traffic on the M1, so that the first item taken was the discussion on ‘One society, many cultures’ – in fact on fighting racism and Islamophobia – introduced by Salma Yaqoob. In general, the discussions were quite seriously cramped, with a small number of floor speakers restricted to three minutes.

Racism and fascism

Salma Yaqoob (as usual) started with the personal-political: her experience of growing demonisation of Muslims in the wake of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, which brought her into politics, moving on to a recent expensive racist smear-job leaflet about her which has been circulated to white voters only in the Sparkbrook constituency; and from there to mainstream politicians exploiting the Islamophobic climate, while making mealy-mouthed efforts to dissociate themselves from the British National Party. Terrorist radicalisation in this country arose from British state terrorist operations overseas, rather than the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq reducing the threat of terrorism here. It was not just the English Defence League which had crawled out of the woodwork; mainstream politicians had whipped up issues around immigration and foreigners, to the benefit of the British National Party. They refused to admit that it was their neoliberal economic policies which had led to the present crisis.

She argued that Respect’s stance, in contrast, was to insist on telling the truth. We had told the truth about unjust wars abroad; now we had to tell the truth about immigration. Britain benefited from immigration; even Boris Johnson admitted that half a million illegal immigrants in London needed to be legitimised, since if they were deported the city would grind to a halt. Society is richer for diversity and pluralism. Respect believes in the solidarity of all human beings. There is a 13,000 waiting list for social housing in Birmingham, which breeds resentment. If we invested in social housing, in infrastructure, in the hardworking working class people of this country, we would strike racism at the root. “We will fight together,” she concluded, “black, white, Asian, Christian, Muslim, Jew and atheist, for the betterment of all.”

This was not a sharply contentious speech. However, the second floor speaker, Stuart Richardson of Socialist Resistance, focussed his attention on ‘the anti-fascist struggle’. The context of the rise of the far right was the decline of the framework of working class politics; this made space for the demagogues of fascism. The EDL had come to Birmingham three times. The first time was unopposed. In early August, Asian youth had mobilised against them, but had been regrettably isolated. Unite Against Fascism had issued a statement calling for resistance to the EDL. But when they came the third time UAF refused to mobilise, and called for a police ban. In fact, the only police ban was on a ‘Birmingham United’ meeting called by a local journalist, and the EDL were unopposed. The EDL needed to be opposed whenever they came. And – anticipating the second debate – unless there was a broad left coalition in the coming general election, there would be massive space for the growth of the far right.

Among several very varied non-contentious contributions from the floor, comrade Richardson’s was opposed by a number of speakers, including Ger Francis and Kevin Ovenden, and by Salma Yaqoob in her reply to the debate. The gist of these arguments was that as a matter of tactics the EDL was aiming to cause a ‘race riot’, which could then be exploited to smear Asian/Muslim communities and win votes for the far right. In this situation the problem was how to avoid the youth getting into a ruck with the police; if this happened, said comrade Ovenden, it would not be people like comrade Richardson who ended up in jail. It was tactically necessary to call for police bans, precisely in order to avoid being seen to call for a ruck. If they came into Sparkbrook, said another speaker, a confrontation would be inevitable; but turning small demonstrations in Birmingham city centre into street fights was tactically wrong. Salma Yaqoob argued that we were fighting a propaganda war, not just a barney. The police had initially repeated the EDL lie that it was not a racist organisation, but had been forced to recant on this by UAF’s tactics.

Various blogosphere commentators have described the conference as a shift to the right, and this debate was one of the supposed symptoms. In fact, it is less clear. Both sides in the debate – the supposed ‘left’ as well as the supposed ‘right’ – framed the ‘anti-fascist issue’ within the popular-frontist ‘broadest possible coalition approach’ of UAF. Within this framework, Stuart Richardson’s argument was standard far-left, head-banging, ‘no platform’ politics. His opponents were certainly correct to say that going for a ruck with small EDL demonstrations in Birmingham city centre would have been bad tactics. The defence of Sparkbrook, if it had been posed, or the defence of a Harrow mosque – which actually happened – is a different matter. The point is that the left’s and migrant communities’ response to far-right mobilisations has to both be, and be seen by broad masses to be, clearly defensive.

The question of calling for police bans undoubtedly does place Socialist Resistance on the left of the discussion, as against Ovenden and co. The evidence of history, including recent history, is perfectly clear: police bans are used primarily to assist the far right against its opponents. For the left to call for them serves merely to legitimise the use of similar legal moves against the left. But then, of course, this is also a difference with … the SWP.

At a more fundamental level, comrade Richardson’s argument – connected both to the commitment to UAF, and to his views on ‘son of No2EU’ – is fundamentally mistaken. As Salma Yaqoob and others said, in order to confront far-right racism it is necessary to confront the myths about immigration promoted by the mainstream media and parties. And in order to confront these myths, it is necessary to fight for public services – housing, health, welfare – to meet the needs of all. It follows that a revival of “the framework of working class politics” or a broad left coalition which was unwilling to take on the immigration myths head-on and raise clear demands on production for need, not for profit, would not succeed in defeating the far right. In this respect Salma Yaqoob and co-thinkers have made a partial but fundamental step to the left of the standard Anti-Nazi League/UAF ideology. And so too has Abjol Miah, who spoke to the same point – the need to fight for public services in order to undercut racism – in the second debate.

Electoral strategy

The sharper debate came in the second session, ‘Resisting the cuts agenda’, actually about electoral strategy. The session was opened by Nick Wrack raising a point of order: an emergency motion he and others had proposed calling for support to the ‘son of No2EU’ coalition, had been ruled out of order. The point was deferred to after the lunch break (after George Galloway had introduced the session and there had been a brief question and answer session). It then took the form of Clive Searle giving a conference arrangements committee report, which argued that neither this motion, nor another on anti-fascism moved after the deadline, were genuine emergency motions on the basis of new circumstances.

Nick Wrack now moved reference back of the report. Left unity had been discussed over the last year, and comrades who favoured support for a project of this sort had been constantly told that nothing concrete had been agreed. Now something concrete had been agreed. This was a development since the deadline for motions, and therefore justified an emergency motion. The proposal for reference back was, however, defeated by 79 votes to 34.

From the technical or procedural point of view the conference arrangements committee was right. Nick Wrack and his co-thinkers could perfectly well have proposed before the deadline a motion supporting ‘son of No2EU’ on the assumption that the negotiators for this coalition might agree something. However, from the points of view of a clear, therefore democratic vote on the issues, the decision was wrong. The issue was central to the debate. When it came to the vote at the end of the session, however, both the motions which had been proposed on this issue were accepted nem con. It is reasonably clear that this would not have been the case if Nick Wrack and co’s motion had been allowed to go to the vote. In this sense the decision to rule the motion out of order obfuscated the decision-making process: the vote on the reference-back is left to stand as an indirect proxy for the scale of support for the ‘Wrackite’ position.

George Galloway’s introduction to the session displayed his usual rhetorical skills, targeted on New Labour, on anti-immigration, and on the all-party consensus for cuts – and also on the advocates of support for ‘son of No2EU’. Respect has to offer an alternative, because none of the mainstream parties will; the problem, he argued, is how to do so effectively. Respect is back on its feet and has a good chance of getting three MPs elected: “It is not for us to sew together a coalition which can get 1.8% of the vote. We want a breakthrough into the big time.” Long-standing membership of far-left organisations seems, he said, to be an obstacle to unity because comrades find it hard to break bad habits.

In the question and answer session, among other contributors, Stuart Richardson argued for a coalition; and for the possibility of mass strikes to stop the cuts, as in Ireland. George Barrett, from Barking, asked what help Respect could give to fighting the fascists in Barking. Another contributor asked what vote George would recommend where Respect was not standing. Kevin Ovenden asked what the impact on politics would be if Respect won three MPs.

These questions set the framework for George Galloway’s reply. In the first place, he argued for a Labour vote to try to minimise the Tory landslide. The Tories are worse than Labour because they have no connection with working people, while Labour depends on the trade unions for funding. In Glasgow North East, Labour was running “as insurgents” against the Scottish National Party, and the candidate made himself sound leftwing like a Respect candidate; he was not to be believed, but it reflects pressures Labour is under. Secondly, Respect had to make a choice whether to aim to coalesce with small forces to its left, or with larger forces who are now Labour supporters; this was a strategic choice which needed to be discussed through and settled.

In response to George Barrett, he said that the answer was practically no help could be given and this would remain the case unless Respect got a lot bigger and had more resources. To parachute a far-left candidate into Barking would, if anything, increase Griffin’s chances of success. Stuart Richardson, he said, was living in a fantasy world in relation to mass strikes against cuts. Respect had no leading trade unionists in a position to call for strikes, and in any case the unions had been so weakened that they would have difficulty sustaining such serious action. In some cases, like the NHS, what was needed was not strike action, but unity between workers and services users.

We should not call for a Labour vote across the board, Galloway said, but needed to consider the degree to which Labour candidates were implicated in government, and the degree of their venality, and also the likelihood that left candidates would win the seat rather than give the seat to the Tories. We should support Caroline Lucas (Green Party) in Brighton, and perhaps Peter Tatchell (also Green) in Oxford East. But we needed to avoid “auto-anti-Labourism” (nice to hear a phrase borrowed from this paper … even if it was used in service of the Morning Star’s line).

It was important to avoid illusions in the trade union movement, Galloway concluded; just as EP Thompson showed how the British working class was made, today it has been unmade as a class. We should keep nostalgia for mass strikes or storming the Winter Palace at home, and develop new ideas for a new world. Respect has, he repeated, a real chance of three MPs. If it achieves this goal it will become the magnet around which the left coalesces.

Debate

The afternoon session, after a speech by fraternal speaker Andrew Murray of the Stop the War Coalition, saw a continuation of this debate. Kevin Ovenden moved a motion from the outgoing NC, urging that the main aim is to win three MPs in the target seats, but beyond this the importance of flexibility; the Greens have agreed to stand down in Sparkbrook in favour of Salma Yaqoob; we could support, for example, the People’s Party in Blaenau Gwent, Val Wise in Preston, or David Nellist in Coventry. Alan Thornett, moving a motion from Southwark, was carefully ambiguous on the disputed issues: though Respect needed to reach out to its right, he said, it was also necessary to collaborate with others to our left to build up a system of socialist candidates. We should not only support candidates who could win: for example, even if Dave Nellist could not win, we should support him against Bob Ainsworth. At the last resort we should vote Labour. And it was right for Respect to stand in its own name.

Ian Donovan, moving another motion on alliances, spoke in effect for the emergency motion not taken (to which he was a signatory). ‘Son of No2EU’ was more serious than comrade Galloway had suggested: the Communist Party of Britain was not a sect, and comrade Galloway writes for the Morning Star. The general secretaries of three trade unions were on the platform at the RMT conference. This was a partial break by the trade unions from Labour, and leftists should approach it “sympathetically”.

Ger Francis said that comrades were presenting a divide between those for and those against unity. The question was, rather, what sort of unity. The advocates of ‘son of No2EU’ had wanted Respect to stand in the Euro elections (in fact, they wanted Respect to support No2EU in those elections). In contrast, by choosing not to stand then, Respect had prepared the way for a similar action by the Greens in Sparkbrook. ‘Son of No2EU’ was exaggerated: all three general secretaries on the platform had been speaking in a personal capacity. The scheme was too close to the old Socialist Alliance, which got marginal votes.

Nick Wrack said that no-one was denigrating Respect or advocating that Respect not stand in its own name. But we need “a new party which brings together all strands of working class opinion against New Labour”. Respect candidates will only reach perhaps 2-3 million of an electorate of 20-30 million. Comrades were underestimating ‘son of No2EU’: these were not small, unpopular organisations. Many former Labour voters will not vote Labour. What alternative do we offer them? Salma Yaqoob said that the argument was about what sort of unity. By standing down in the Euro elections Respect showed the Greens we were able to work with others. Nick had opposed that.

Fred Leplat from Socialist Resistance argued for the need to collaborate with ‘son of No2EU’. It was a big step to have two trade union general secretaries and a leftwing daily saying they would back candidates to the left of Labour. It was like what was happening in Europe with Die Linke. John Nicholson from Manchester said that unity required an offer of trust. That was what Respect had done with the Greens in the Euro elections. ‘Son of No2EU’ was the opposite: “You do not build up trust by announcing an unnamed coalition shortly before an election and after having refused to work with others in No2EU.”

Curiously, George Galloway’s reply to the debate was held until after the votes had been taken (mostly, as I said, nem con) and a message of support read out from Peter Cranie, the defeated Green candidate in the North West Euro constituency. Comrade Galloway’s reply was quite sharply polemical. He argued that No2EU had “objectively helped Griffin into the European parliament”. Now there was another coalition being set up with no name, which would adopt the same schematic approach to elections. He is against it. There is a clear choice of priorities: if everything is a priority, nothing is. Respect should focus on its target constituencies, not divert resources to building a broader coalition.

It is true, he said, that he writes for the Morning Star, but the Communist Party of Britain is electorally marginal and an electoral liability. He does not want to be in a coalition with communist and Trotskyist groups. He doubts that Brian Caton will be able to swing his members in the Prison Officers Association, who are not exactly leftwingers; or that the RMT or FBU will back the coalition when it comes to the crunch. Even if it gets off the ground, in the vast majority of constituencies the coalition will not be a serious contender, and the right answer will to be to vote Labour. At all costs we need to avoid the possibility of being seen to help the Tories to a landslide victory. We have to be able to say after the election: we stood where we were strong, and in a few constituencies on this or that principle against the sitting Labour MP, but in the main we did what we could to stop the Tories.

I spoke briefly to Nick Wrack in the tea break. He said – as Ian Donovan, and some Socialist Resistance supporters, also did – that there was an underlying issue of direction. Was the orientation of Respect to be to a ‘left’ including the Greens, or, on the other hand, to a working class movement? ‘Son of No2EU’ meant some very tentative steps towards a trade union break with Labour; it was important not to ‘diss’ these steps, but to encourage them.

A move to the right?

Was this a left-right debate and did it, as some blogosphere commentators suggest, amount to a move to the right? It is in my opinion much more ambiguous, and it is necessary to disentangle the different threads. In the first place, neither Galloway’s underlying position that Labour is preferable to the Tories nor his and his co-thinkers’ willingness to reach stand-down agreements with the Greens if possible is a novelty. Respect has always been a project for a ‘left’ defined in non-class or cross-class terms. So this is not a move to the right.

If anything, the arguments of Galloway, Yaqoob and Miah at this conference were posed more in terms of the working class and of collectivism than they were in previous years. (The cause is probably the crash and the threat of massive cuts to public services, which has forced everyone – even sections of the right – to think to some extent in these terms.)

Secondly, he and other platform and floor speakers showed considerable willingness to take on anti-immigration arguments directly and upfront. At the early Respect conferences, Galloway argued explicitly against opposition to immigration controls and I have no idea whether he has actually changed his view on this question (probably not). But the pro-migrant emphasis represents a substantial shift to the left. If it is followed in the run-up to the general election, and if the as-yet-unknown political platform of ‘son of No2EU’ is anything like that of No2EU itself, Respect will be well to the left of it on this front, on constitutional issues and on internationalism.

Thirdly, in my personal opinion Galloway’s judgment of the British political dynamics in the run-up to the coming general election and of the likely success of No2EU is much more realistic than that of the advocates of support for ‘son of No2EU’. The next general election will be fought under conditions of a realistic prospect of a Tory victory, and that will squeeze any ‘left of Labour’ vote, (as happened in 1979), precisely because – though Galloway did not use this expression – Labour remains a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’. ‘Son of No2EU’ remains – a little more than four months before the last possible date for an election – without a name, a political platform, target constituencies or candidates selected. It would take a miracle for it to make a serious impact. That said, Galloway and his co-thinkers’ hopes for Respect winning three MPs are also probably overstated: the squeeze on ‘left of Labour’ votes will hit them, too.

In a sense the core issue is, on the one hand, the arguments of the ‘Wrackites’ that ‘son of No2EU’ represents a class movement because of its trade union basis; and, on the other, Galloway’s arguments, casually thrown into his reply to questions, about an “unmaking of the British working class”; and connected, but sitting on one side, the issue of stand-down agreements with the Greens.

The ‘Wrackite’ argument is probably unsound. If ‘son of No2EU’ really involved trade unions turning out large numbers of rank and file activists as canvassers, fundraisers and local activists of the new project, we could really speak of a mass working class movement. No2EU itself, however, involved nothing of the sort. It would be surprising if it had, since the trade unions have never directly mobilised much more than money in support of the Labour Party – the grunt work being done originally by the affiliated socialist groups, later by the constituency and ward parties as a sort of socialist group.

Conversely, while in one sense Galloway is correct to talk of an “unmaking” – that is, the decay from within of the still formally and numerically imposing institutions of the working class – his argument is, like that of the Eurocommunists from which it is derived, overstated. Class is still a large feature of lived experience in Britain and one which has real influence on practical politics; and workers in industry and infrastructure, though fewer than they once were, retain very substantial numbers and are to a considerable extent organised in trade unions. It is this fact, which actually underlies the political dynamics of the general election, which Galloway throws at his opponents.

This in turn affects the issue of the Greens. The Greens are, quite simply, a semi-leftist petty bourgeois party: meaning by that that their financial and activist base is among professionals and small businesspeople. This is reflected in their conduct in local government office, which tends to be similar to that of the Liberal Democrats.

This does not imply that stand-down agreements with the Greens are unprincipled. On the contrary: it would be a perfectly principled tactic for a Communist Party, in order to overcome undemocratic hurdles to electoral representation, to enter into stand-down agreements with leftish petty bourgeois parties, as long as these agreements did not involve ‘mixing the banners’ or pretending that class did not matter.

Respect is, of course, not a Communist Party, but – as constructed – a cross-class, left-populist formation. But, paradoxically, the debate at its 2009 conference shows the ‘right wing’ in some ways closer to the idea of a Communist Party than the ‘left wing’. The reason is that the ‘right wing’ recognises that Labour is in some degraded sense still a workers’ party, and hence is groping towards a policy alternative to Labour. Meanwhile the ‘left wing’, believing Labour has ceased to be a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’, is hoping to reinvent Labour on the basis of a trade union coalition without any real policy alternative to Labour.

Notes

 

  1. For example, on Liam Mac Uaid’s blog: liammacuaid.wordpress.com/2009/11/15/respect-conference-2/; on Andy Newman’s Socialist Unity site: www.socialistunity.com/?p=4884; on Dave Osler’s Dave’s Part: www.davidosler.com/2009/11/respect_dead_end_for_the_serio.html
  2. www.therespectparty.net/breakingnews.php?id=767

Soviet ‘planning’ and bolt-on democracy

The Socialist Party in England and Wales’ Socialism event in London had a session on Stalinism’s collapse. Mark Fischer points out what it represents for Marxists

Socialist Party general secretary Peter Taaffe made a number of rather dubious claims in his competently delivered session entitled ‘Why did Stalinism collapse in the Soviet Union – what have the consequences been?’

Prominent amongst these was the assertion that his was “the only organisation” that recognised that the collapse of the Soviet Union – and in particular, the ignominious manner of its defeat – represented an important “ideological defeat” for the left as a whole that precipitated a rightwing global offensive on working class gains. He used the Labour Party as an especially pertinent example, correctly pinpointing the removal of clause four and growing confidence of the right as a political consequence of the collapse of Stalinism.

He did not even qualify this – manifestly untrue – statement about the ‘unique’ position of his organisation by admitting that the Socialist Party had arrived at it in hindsight. This was, after all, the same Peter Taaffe who told us in 1989 that talk of “capitalist restoration” was a “chimera” (Militant July 21 1989). Indeed, he once thought that “Gorbachev’s coming to power signified the beginning of the political revolution” and would define the coming decade as the “red 90s” (Militant January 19 1990). A tad on the over-optimistic side, I’m sure even comrade Taaffe would now concede.

He was not alone in this confusion, of course. Practically the entire Trotskyist/Trotskyoid left mechanically insisted that there were only two possibilities open to societies such as the USSR. There “will either be totalitarian rule under a one-party state” (i.e. the status quo) “or there will be control of industry and state by the workers” (i.e. a healthy workers’ state – Ted Grant, writing in Militant October 3 1980). Ironically, this was quoted as an example of how “Militant was absolutely correct and born out by events” in the May 1989 introduction to Grant’s selected works, The unbroken thread.

In vivid contrast, our organisation – despite its very different evaluation of the nature of bureaucratic socialism in those days – was able to point to the obvious fact that “in these countries capitalism is being restored with the consent of the broad mass of the population and that for the full-blown reintroduction of capitalism there exists no necessity for violently smashing the existing state” (editorial The Leninist April 1 1990). To halt this process, we called for “a real political revolution” in the USSR, not the counterrevolutionary farce headed by Gorbachev (The Leninist November 21 1987) – a simple fact that belies comrade Taaffe’s assertion in his reply to remarks I made during the discussion that it was our now highly critical attitude to the Stalinist states that was retrospective and that “no wing” of the Communist Party had made these sorts of criticisms at the time.

I decided not to explore these rather involved questions in my five-minute contribution to the discussion. Instead, I took issue with a much more straightforward difference – the notion that collapse of Stalinism equated with the “liquidation of planned economies”, an historical ‘gain’ of the revolution that had been preserved despite the bureaucratic excrescences.

I pointed out that planning for Marxists was not simply target-setting – it must have a genuine social content. Specifically, the democratic formulation of that plan by the direct producers themselves. The farcical nature of bureaucratic ‘planning’ in the USSR was perfectly illustrated in the five-year plans, when Stalin and Molotov arbitrarily leapfrogged one crazily unrealistic set of targets by another, with no concern for equilibrium or balance in the economy, nor indeed for genuine utility of the outputs.

Comrade Taaffe would later reply to discussion and underline that the “vital issues” that were raised as we endeavour to “understand Stalinism” would have a “direct bearing on our coming struggles”. This was not simply relevant to regimes such as Venezuela and its creeping Bonapartist authoritarianism, he suggested, but also because Stalin would be “used as a scarecrow to frighten new generations away from socialism”.

Absolutely. And the fact that SPEW comrades – including Peter Taaffe himself – can still see the unviable monstrosity of the USSR as an “anticipation from an economic point of view” of the society of the future is a pretty frightening prospect in itself. Summing up, the comrade told the meeting that what existed in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe was “planning in a rudimentary form” (although quite why and how it “disintegrated” in the 1980s he did not elaborate) and, even in this primitive form, the mass of simple “empirical evidence” countered my claim about the absence of planning. I actually got quite nostalgic when comrade Taaffe cited achievements such as Sputnik and other SPEWers talked of the rights enjoyed by Soviet citizens to “a home, a job, a decent health service” – it was like being in a CPGB meeting from the mid-70s again.

One comrade put it particularly crudely. After listing all the economic advantages conferred on the population by even bureaucratic ‘planning’, he conceded “the bit that was missing was democracy”.

The notion that democracy is a desirable, but non-essential bolt-on in a workers’ state underlines that SPEW – in common with much of the rest of the left – in practice has a top-down, paternalistic view of socialism. Many of the comrades were reduced to citing the catastrophic collapse in living standards that followed the counterrevolutions as circumstantial evidence of the partially progressive nature of these regimes. Living standards are hardly an irrelevance, but the key when we evaluate such societies should be the levels of proletarian consciousness and organisation, its room for independent initiative and the genuine workers’ control that can be observed. It simply is not Marxism to work backwards from the growth in pig iron production or even – an example closer to home – the number of council houses put up in Liverpool and extrapolate from this dull “empirical evidence” that what we have in front of us is a working class entity in any meaningful sense.

Royal Mail’s assault and our political tasks

As expected, attempts to broker a deal between Royal Mail and the Communication Workers Union have been unsuccessful. Mike Macnair examines why Royal Mail, encouraged by the government, has been determined to push ahead with confrontation, and looks at the implications of this decision

cwu-demoA Sunday Times front-page headline reads: “Brown faces winter of discontent” (October 25). In other words, this is not the only industrial dispute in the pipeline at the moment. There are a whole range of them expected to come to a head in the next six months.

There is a risk – one that would not be at all surprising, as it is normal to the British political cycle – that the last months of this Labour government will be characterised by large-scale industrial disputes and substantial disruption. This will therefore see an increasing degree of support for the Tories from suburban middle class voters due to the perceived lack of Labour control over the trade unions. Certainly the Tories are already winning a substantial number of votes. Nonetheless, the fear of a “winter of discontent” is plainly an element in the calculations of the government in relation to its attitude toward the current postal dispute.

The media are producing their usual outpouring of anti-strike propaganda. In particular it is said that Royal Mail is habitually losing money – surprise, surprise! Most postal services across Europe are subsidised. Even the early privately owned Thurn und Taxis postal service back in 17th century Germany had to have state-backed monopoly rights, for the very simple reason that a profit could not – and still cannot – be made without them. A universal postal service is, precisely, public infrastructure. Privatising the postal service or requiring it to make profits is like selling off the public highways in pieces or prohibiting public expenditure on ‘unprofitable’ repairs to roads and bridges.

It is true that the universal postal service is, in some senses, of decreasing use because people have turned to email and other forms of electronic communication. The same has been the case in relation to businesses for quite some time: private couriers offering same-day delivery were used for some time before fax and email became routine.

So there is lower demand for postal services than there has been in the past. The government has been looking for ways to undermine wages and conditions, drastically reduce its pensions commitment, casualise the workforce and hopefully even get rid of the universal service obligation. This assault is aimed at creating conditions for privatising the postal service – government subsidies would be withdrawn without too much worry about the major losers: people living in the countryside.

There would actually be some losses for business out of this policy. Who will deliver all the junk mail – probably the bulk of most post bags these days? Equally, online mail order operations like Amazon could suffer, as it is unlikely that private couriers could actually deliver with the same coverage and at the same price.

The government and its servants in Royal Mail management demand ‘modernisation’. What this actually means is not primarily automation. That claim is bullshit. What it means is a major speed-up, attacks on working conditions and a move to, in effect, piece work, resulting in people not getting paid for a full shift. The language of ‘modernisation’ is merely code for a huge attack on the workforce.

Provocations

In reality there has been industrial guerrilla warfare in Royal Mail locally for at least four or five years. Certainly there were major disputes going on in the more militant sorting offices as far back as the last general election. It was clearly decided in the spring/summer of this year to bring this simmering guerrilla warfare to a head, and have a massive, national confrontation with the CWU.

I say ‘clearly decided’ because it is obvious that in the last six to nine months there has been an escalation of unilateral action by management in the form of provocations, victimisations, etc. Actions that can only be intended to trigger local action and a climate of militancy, leading to a massive vote in support of industrial action. It is equally clear that management (and behind them business secretary Peter Mandelson) intended, as Thatcher and co intended in the 1984-85 miners’ strike, to control the timing of the national dispute. Here the point is if possible to break the union before we get into the Christmas run-up, which is the peak of the mail service business.

Similarly Thatcher aimed to bring out the miners before the overtime ban had reduced the coal stocks to the point where there would be forced power cuts. These tactics have been reflected in the political sphere, with absolute and complete intransigence on the part of Mandelson. And with Mandelson’s unequivocal backing, the Royal Mail management has stood firm to its assertion that it will not go to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service without a pure and unambiguous guarantee from the CWU that there will be no strikes. But  the CWU could not deliver this even if it wanted to, because most of the industrial action has been local, over which the national union has less direct control.

Of course, this is not all one-sided. The CWU executive is generally seen among the membership as a militant leadership, and it, too, has been using the period of local and guerrilla struggles to prepare for the larger struggle which has now arrived.

What we have seen in the last months in relation to this dispute is therefore the run-up to a major class confrontation just like in 1984-85. There is an intention in government – at least among Peter Mandelson and his co-thinkers – and among Royal Mail management, to have a big confrontation and inflict a massive defeat on the CWU workers similar to that of the miners’ strike. This is expected to knock on the head any serious industrial militancy in the next six to nine months, as it will be an object lesson to other unions and other workers.

It will also be an object lesson in a second sense. The Labour government will demonstrate to capital, and to the capitalist media, that they are a safe hand on the tiller, that it is possible for a Labour government to smash an industrial offensive of the working class before it gets off the ground, and therefore capital should leave Labour in place rather than back Tory leader David Cameron.

The bourgeoisie has its concerns over Cameron. Yes, there is at the moment massive support for the Tories. Yes, the media have been backing him. But there are worries about how safe Cameron and shadow chancellor George Osborne will be as managers of the economy, at a time when quite a lot of media commentators are worrying about when the second shoe is going to drop in relation to the economic crisis.

There are also worries that a Cameron government might tip relations with Europe so far into Eurosceptic territory that Britain can no longer build alliances to block further EU integration. This is a central part of the role Britain plays for the United States in Europe: controlling a possible global rival by building alliances against Franco-German integration proposals.

So there are reasons for the capitalist class to have concerns about a Cameron administration. And if the Labour government can show, in these circumstances, that it can break a substantial public sector trade union, derecognise it and casualise its workforce, then Labour might, from that point of view, be in with a chance of regaining some of its lost bourgeois and middle class support prior to the next general election. There are, then, clear political calculations why this government might be thinking about doing a ‘Thatcher on the miners’ job in relation to the CWU.

Labour Party

In discussing the government’s policy I have referred particularly to Peter Mandelson. The reason is not merely that he is the relevant minister, but that there are indications that Gordon Brown is rather less up for a full-on confrontation (see Financial Times October 24); the failed TUC-sponsored talks (without the precondition demanded by Mandelson and management that the strikes be called off) represented a slight retreat by the government.

Behind this is a fundamental political fact. For Thatcher to set up a major class confrontation with the aim of breaking the National Union of Mineworkers was ‘extreme’ from the point of view of the 1940s-70s, but perfectly consistent with the longer historical role of the Tory Party. For a Labour government to actually smash one of its own major affiliated unions in a major national class confrontation would be something different altogether. Rather than allowing Labour to retain power, it would be more likely to break up the Labour Party. The result could be a split by the unions and the left, or – as in the 1931 fall of the Labour administration and the formation of the National government – a party revolt, leading to a split of the right to join up with the Tories to force the confrontation through.

True, the current Labour government since 1997 has faced down trade union action more than once (for example in the case of the firefighters). But in general the workers’ movement had not responded in a militant way. What appears to be different this time is the willingness of the movement to fight. A major conflict between the government and the CWU would pose severe problems for the Labour Party, that is for sure.

If Brown does back down from an all-out confrontation, it will be presented by the media as yet another Brown U-turn. Brown’s reputation for dithering not only reflects a hostile media, but is a real phenomenon. Unlike cynical careerists such as Blair, Mandelson and co, Brown was a genuine convert to neoliberalism from the left; hence, the 2007-08 crash shook his convictions and left him rudderless in policy terms. If Labour does go ahead with a major attack on the CWU, and the result is not a major split in the party, we in the CPGB will certainly need to reassess our current judgment that Labour remains a bourgeois workers’ party: the event would look like the party finally ditching the ‘workers’ side of the contradiction.

But, whatever exact diagnosis we make, if the government goes ahead with plans to break and derecognise one of the Labour Party’s major affiliated trade unions, this will be a fundamental shift in politics and in particular of Labour Party politics.

Our tasks

post workers picketI have no idea why CWU general secretary Billy Hayes let himself be reported as saying he is in a stronger position than Arthur Scargill was (The Times October 17).

True, strike action has received very clear majority support in a ballot. But the actual underlying sectional economic positions are if anything weaker than those of the NUM in the 1980s, and the ability of the postal workers to sustain their internal solidarity in relation to a furious media offensive is likely to be less than the miners. The miners lived in concentrated communities, had networks of solidarity outside the pits in place, and indeed, as a workforce, were highly concentrated. Postal workers are concentrated only in sorting offices, but atomised when out on the streets. So the actual position of the CWU is relatively weak in the purely trade unionist, sectionalist-syndicalist sense of its ability to disrupt the economy.

However, this situation is to a considerable extent general in the service sector (and, indeed in some industrial sectors dominated by highly automated plant with small workforces). In this sense in future disputes the CWU will indeed look like a union with strong sectional power. But this is entirely consistent with my fundamental point: namely simple reliance on ‘industrial muscle’ – ie, sectional ability to disrupt production – is decreasingly adequate as a strategy to defend working people’s immediate interests.

Even if the sectional strength is less than Billy Hayes’ Times interview suggested, the possibilities of the strike winning broad public support are real. Precisely because of the increasing atmosphere of class confrontation in the dispute, because of the intransigent alignment of the government behind Royal Mail management and because we see the unanimity of the bourgeois media behind ideas most clearly expressed in the Daily Mail headline, “The lemming strike is on” (October 22), there has been some public reaction against the capitalist united front. We are beginning to see some, inchoate, inadequately politically represented, support for the postal workers. A poll reported in The Independent on October 24 showed 50% supporting the postal workers and only 25% supporting management and Mandelson.

So where does that leave us? It looks like we are headed for a major class confrontation with a serious and unambiguous effort to break the CWU, and thereby give an object lesson to the rest of the trade union movement, in the hope of preventing a “winter of discontent”.

What should the political left be doing? There are two sorts of task: simple solidarity ones, and those that are specifically political. The first of these are tasks that the labour movement and left will probably do well in spite of divisions and disorganisation. Raising the issue in other trade unions, getting CWU speakers to meetings, organising solidarity campaigns and support groups, collecting for strikers in hardship and so on. Promoting the idea of solidarity action: thus, for example, in Unite the question of instructing the managers not to scab has been posed.

The Socialist Workers Party is therefore entirely correct to advocate the rapid formation of strike support groups, which can play a critical role in mobilising public support and solidarity. There is also the question of international solidarity. Even if this is only symbolic in character – as, in this dispute, it inevitably is – such international solidarity would strengthen the morale of strikers and assist the struggle for broader solidarity within Britain.

A specific task lies in the student movement, because traditionally students have been recruited as casuals by the Royal Mail. We must agitate against students acting as scabs – this is an issue to be raised, addressed and spread. Indeed the general attitude towards scabs is critical. Casualisation is already extensive in the Royal Mail, partly inevitably because of the seasonal nature of the business. Nevertheless it is vital to get across the message that during this dispute taking casual jobs is scabbing. This is partly a job for the student movement; but it is also a job for strikers themselves: the movement needs to revive the basic ideas of non-cooperation with scabs, and that picket lines mean don’t cross. And it is also a job for PCS members working in job centres and so on: scab ‘casual’ jobs in Royal Mail are not ‘normal’ jobs to which the unemployed should be sent and PCS members should refuse to fill them.

Political tasks

The other aspect, where the far left is traditionally much weaker, concerns specifically political tasks. The far left is bad at these because they are the tasks of a party. Solidarity campaigns are necessarily broad movements of all those of whatever political complexion who wish to support the strikers. Hence they necessarily find it hard to address the politics of the strike.

For example, there is an early day motion opposing Royal Mail management’s intransigence, etc. Has your local Labour MP signed it? If not, why not? If your local Labour MP is supporting ‘modernisation’ and all that crap, perhaps it is time that his/her constituency office or surgery should be besieged by strikers and their supporters.

This sounds like a solidarity campaign-type action. But actually it turns out that broad solidarity organisations find it extraordinarily hard to undertake campaigns to besiege scab Labour MPs or whatever, because the Labour lefts and the trade union officials would be unwilling to pursue them. Stop the War Coalition in the 2005 election is an excellent example of the problem – it was unable to make any recommendation on who to vote for. Even in the 1984-85 miners’ strike this issue was posed, as the union leadership was very reluctant either to enter on the terrain of politics itself or for the support groups to do so.

What was said above about the Labour Party means that an absolutely central issue is the question of sharpening the divisions between left and right which a major confrontation with the CWU will inevitably produce. Parts of the left will undoubtedly call for the CWU to disaffiliate from Labour. But at the moment that would be a counsel of retreat and a road to depoliticising the union: neither ‘son of No2EU’ nor any of the other left groups and ‘unity projects’ presently represents a realistic alternative electoral project. What is immediately needed is for the CWU to adopt a tactic of reducing general financial contributions to Labour, targeting any support on Labour MPs and candidates who have backed the strike, and also being willing to back selected workers’ movement candidates outside Labour; if this leads to the party leadership seeking to remove affiliation, the union should fight back.

In other words, the requirement is not (yet) to run away from the Labour Party, but to promote and sharpen a fight both within and outside it against the most pro-capitalist wing of the party.

Equally important is explaining both the character of what is going on, that it is a class confrontation motivated and driven by politics. That is a task for a Communist Party, for communist papers, and for leaflets addressing the broad masses in the districts where they live. The far-left press and the splintered groups do part of these jobs, but we are too limited by our divisions and the left press and leaflets often restrict themselves to basic trade union solidarity – the Morning Star as a daily is closer to having the resources, but prints only what suits leading union officials.

Strike support groups cannot substitute for these tasks, for the reasons already given. Neither can the splintered organised left and the even more splintered ‘independents’. A coalition of the far left could begin to do some of them. In doing so such a coalition would be beginning to act as a party. But for the moment most of the far-left groups fetishise either their own independence as ‘the revolutionary party’ (all 57-plus of them); or ‘broad unity’, which leads to an inability to take political action because it has to include some element of the ‘official lefts’; or both at the same time. So, as valuable as a far-left coalition for the purposes of political solidarity with the postal workers would be, it probably will not happen.

CPGB

Realistically, the CPGB cannot play this role either, because of our very limited resources. We can and should argue for Communist Students to campaign for students not to scab on the postal workers: a campaign which could be conducted in unity with other left student groups and could be very successful. Our contacts, through Hands Off the People of Iran, with the Iranian workers’ movement, can and should be used to promote symbolic international solidarity with the strike.

More generally, what we can do is largely limited to the use of the Weekly Worker, with which we can propagandise around the idea that solidarity has to be more than just hardship support and agitation in the trade union movement; that solidarity has to address the politics, the MPs and the political context of the strike.

The paper also needs to make an effort to contact CWU militants in the localities and get their stories. In spite of the fact that this is something the whole of the left is doing, in the context of the bourgeois media overwhelmingly giving the management and government version of the story, low-level exposures of the provocations management has been engaged in is a useful activity. We need to develop more and broader contacts across different localities, and get the information into the paper.

Equally militants and the left need information about the political alignments within the CWU and about what is going on in the dispute at national level. Are the far-lefts, some of whom sit on the CWU national executive, acting as communists or merely as trade union officials? We need to try to get the information and publicise it.

Across all this, the fundamental point is to use all the resources we have to try and develop the sense of the political context of the dispute, its significance and the question of solidarity of the working class as a whole with the strikers.