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The rank and file and the bureaucracy after Grangemouth

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The defeat at Grangemouth oil refinery has raised serious questions for revolutionaries regarding the strategy and tactics we employ inside the trade union movement. These questions have opened up a debate both within the IS Network, and within the wider left, which requires discussion. At our politics conference in October the IS Network adopted a clear and unequivocal rank and file perspective. The events of Grangemouth and their fallout in the movement require this perspective to be revisited.

Grangemouth oil refinery was one of the best-organised and powerful union workplaces in the country. In a dispute over the victimisation of a Unite convenor, picked by the employer Ineos, the union was faced with a lockout and, potentially, the closure of the entire plant. Ineos then went over the union’s heads and offered the workers £15,000 in exchange for accepting a deal. The union advised that the workers reject the deal, and the vast majority did, but about a third accepted, and the union capitulated. The union surrendered its members’ final salary pension scheme, accepted a freeze in pay, and a three-year no-strike deal. This defeat has to be seen as part of a general retreat across the movement as a whole. After the public sector pensions strike of 2011 the trade union leadership put the brakes on that struggle, and cancelled further strike action. One by one the leaderships of the public sector unions accepted deals and sold out the strikes. These sellouts essentially put a halt to the fight back against austerity before it had even properly begun. The sell-off of the postal service without a shot being fired, and the non-existent fight in the public sector over pay - all these battles have ended in defeat for the working class.

For the sake of simplicity, I would argue that analyses of the Grangemouth dispute can be divided into three basic perspectives. The first perspective is that of the Unite leadership, which has been parroted by the majority of the trade union bureaucracy, left and right, and the majority of the reformist left. They argue that, faced with the imminent closure of the plant, and the loss of all the jobs it provided, the Unite leadership, and their representatives in Grangemouth, won the best deal possible in the circumstances. In fact, the union leaders should be applauded for achieving even this much. Andrew Murray, Unite Chief of Staff and leading Communist Party member, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, went as far as to praise Unite general secretary Len McCluskey’s “industrial statesmanship” in facing down the crisis and saving the jobs (one can imagine the bewildered look on Murray’s face when McCluskey isn’t greeted with salutes wherever he goes). This argument should be absolutely rejected. The plant was facing closure and the workers the dole, because of the Unite leadership’s weakness. The humiliating deal imposed by employers was not a victory snatched from the jaws of defeat but a defeat plain and simple. One of the best-organised and powerful union workforces in the country was forced to capitulate and accept a deal which set the union movement back from what was already an all-time low.

The second perspective is one that has been answered by a number of revolutionaries and militants. They stop short of praising the bureaucracy, and recognise a defeat when they see one; however, they accept the argument that the outcome was inevitable. They argue that due to the historic low level of class struggle and weakness of working class organisation, no other outcome could have been expected. To criticise the trade union bureaucracy, therefore, is pointless. The objective circumstances meant the defeat was inevitable, there was no mood to fight among the workforce, and changes in the structure of capitalism mean that the old methods of resistance, such as calls for a rank and file fightback, are ineffective. The rank and file strategy was largely developed in a very different period of capitalism. The last time there was a real rank and file movement in Britain it was built in the 1960s. At this point, the working class was organised along classic Fordist lines. The industrial base of Britain at this time was largely manufacturing, much of which was organised in the form of a production line. Organisation at a workplace level could, relatively easily, shut down then production line. This led to a system which was vulnerable to short strikes carried out by small numbers of workers.

These were conditions where a rank and file movement was capable of growing. Tony Cliff referred to the movement as “do it yourself reformism”. Workers were able to improve their own pay and conditions, and increase their power in the workplace, through direct industrial action and workplace organisation independent of the bureaucracy. However, the defeats of the 1980s and the reorganisation of capitalism along neoliberal lines. The old Fordist-organised sectors of the economy were largely shut down. Andrew Bebbington argues:

The majority of workers that British socialists are likely to have contact with play the role of either reproducing the system, or circulating commodities, in activity such as health, education, retail store work and social care.

Furthermore, one of the most important tools at the disposal of modern capitalists is the ability to move capital across borders much easier. This had a major impact on the effectiveness of localised disputes in one specific part of the production system. The implementation of neoliberalism not only dismantled workplace organisations; it radically altered the basis of capitalism itself to make such methods of organisation completely ineffective. The defeat at Grangemouth was a prime example of this. A powerful workplace union organisation organised along traditional lines capitulated when it was faced with the threat of closure due to the corporations’ ability to move capital across borders. In these conditions the idea of building a rank and file movement is pointless, and in fact the old relationship between the trade union bureaucracy and the rank and file membership has fundamentally altered. Due to the fluid nature of labour and the disappearance of rank and file organisation, the role of the bureaucracy can actually be positive, providing the national organisation necessary. Certainly, the reorganisation of capitalism is of more profound importance than the leadership of the trade union bureaucracy.

The problem with this argument is that it downplays the continued role the trade union bureaucracy plays in the neoliberal system, and has in actual fact increased in importance in the trade union movement as the organised working class movement declined. Proponents of this perspective are correct in arguing that in many cases the trade union bureaucracy has played a crucial role in organising the working class with the collapse of the traditional rank and file movement. However, the fact that in a period of relative weakness the bureaucracy has played a positive role does not in any way change the position of this stratum in society. In fact, their central position in the movement, with the increased role of national bargaining and more integral role in organisation, while remaining isolated from any active movement based upon the workplace can increase its conservatism. It is true that the decline of traditional rank and file organisation and changes in capitalism made a direct contribution to the defeat of Grangemouth; however, the nature of the trade union bureaucracy in the period did also. An end to criticism of the bureaucracy, and an over-reliance upon it to organise the movement, is not a solution.

The third perspective is that Grangemouth was a defeat brought about in part by the weakness of the trade union bureaucracy. This is not to say that the workers there were straining at the leash for militant struggle, but rather that one of the most organised workforces in the country was put in a position where it was forced to accept a catastrophic deal due to the limitations of the trade union leadership’s ability, or willingness, to carry out the kind of struggle necessary for victory. The workers at Grangemouth may well have still lost if they had fought back, but the one guarantee of defeat is not fighting at all.

I would argue that the trade union leadership’s inability to lead a working class fightback, both at Grangemouth and against the bosses’ assault generally, is down not to incompetence or lack of willpower, but due to their position in society and the social relationship they have both with bosses and workers. Those who argue that there’s no point in criticising the bureaucracy in fact miss the point entirely. It’s not about blaming all the problems of the working class and the labour movement on the trade union leadership, but recognising that many of the weaknesses of our class and movement are of benefit, not just to the bosses, but to the trade union bureaucracy which claims to lead us, and therefore, far from solving those problems the bureaucracy often in fact exacerbate them. Much of the left, including many revolutionary socialists, have for too long pursued a policy of tailing the bureaucracy, and provided it with left wing cover, when in actual fact it should be one of the roles of revolutionaries to subject it to the most rigorous political criticism. Revolutionaries should do this, not in the hope that workers will, once the correct arguments are made in the correct way, cast off the bureaucracy and accept the leadership of the revolutionaries themselves, but rather it is in part through such criticism, along with building alternative organisation and structures based upon the self-activity of the workers themselves, that a radical alternative strategy, based upon workers' self-organisation can be argued for. Marxists argue that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself, and therefore at every point, particularly during a defeat, we must argue against workers passively ceding leadership of the movement to a privileged stratum whose interests are not those of the working class.