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Financial Appeal

The rank and file and the bureaucracy after Grangemouth - Page 2


The social position of the bureaucracy

It has been suggested recently, particularly in some of the debates over Grangemouth, that criticism of the trade union bureaucracy is too simplistic. It is suggested that those who do so are laying the blame for objective problems in the workers' movement, such as the destruction of our organisations by neoliberalism, on the trade union leadership. In doing so, we are indulging in one of the most common mistakes of the far left, which is to view the working class as a naturally revolutionary mass straining at the leash, being held back by the treacherous trade union leaders. The solution is simply to replace them with firm proletarian revolutionary leadership and the problem is solved. This is not our position. The fact remains, however, that the current leadership of the working class movement, both in the trade unions and in the Labour Party, is based upon the bureaucracy. The strategy being pursued by the organised working class is decided by the bureaucracy, and therefore the left’s arguments, policies and alternative strategies are heavily influenced by them. Criticism is therefore not only necessary, but inevitable. Furthermore, and most importantly, if we are to develop our own arguments we must base our criticisms of the current leadership’s strategy on a correct understanding of what social and political interests these strategies, and those who espouse them, represent.

Trade union bureaucrats are not, in the strictest sense of the term, a part of the working class. They do not sell their labour to the capitalists in exchange for their wages, but instead are maintained and sustained by the working class. They are a privileged stratum in the sense that their salaries and living conditions are over and above those of the vast majority of the working class. This position, furthermore, is entirely dependent upon the continued existence of capitalism. Trade unions exist to defend the interests of the working class within the capitalist system. By extension, the trade union bureaucracy can only maintain its privileged position so long as the antagonism between the bosses and the workers, and therefore the capitalist system as a whole, remains. The trade union bureaucracy has no interest in the abolition of capital. The bureaucrat’s social position dictates the approach it takes towards the movement. It depends upon the continued support of the working class, but has as much to lose from any growth of self-organisation and radicalism. It will therefore pursue its membership’s interests as much as possible, while attempting to hold back the workers from direct, open antagonism with the ruling class. It therefore takes on a vacillatory role, mediating between worker and capitalist. This is not to suggest that the trade union bureaucracy is in ideological terms reactionary, while the working class is always revolutionary. The vast majority of the working class have absolutely no desire for a revolutionary movement. The dominant ideas in any society are those of the ruling class, and most of the time the trade union bureaucracy will in actual fact hold ideas well to the left of the average worker. However, even the most backward, reactionary worker has a material interest in the abolition of capitalism, while even the most progressive trade union bureaucrat does not.

If the recent failures of the trade union leadership are viewed from this perspective then things become much clearer. The bureaucracy’s position in society ensures that they accept the basic logic of capitalism - they do not believe can be opposed completely or defeated outright. It has a direct interest in defending the trade union apparatus, and therefore in opposing the excesses of the capitalist agenda, such as the complete destruction of the welfare state and the smashing of what remains of the trade union movement; but at the same time, in order to maintain this apparatus it is willing to make all manner of concessions, and sacrifice the interests of its own members and the class as a whole. The sellout of the public sector pension strike and the capitulation at Grangemouth must be viewed in this light. Fearing the complete destruction of the union apparatus, at the Grangemouth plant, or in the public sector, in order to maintain some semblance of trade union organisation, the bureaucracy was willing to sacrifice both the immediate interests of their members, and ultimately the interests of the class, which requires the total defeat of the austerity agenda. That workers, demoralised, without their own organisations independent of the bureaucracy, and largely dependent upon the trade union leadership, go along with, and even support such decisions, should not be surprising. The role of revolutionaries, whether their opinions are popular (or even listened to), is to raise an argument for a strategy which will benefit the class as a whole, and aims to help build the self-organisation of the working class. The reason Marxists argue that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself is not only because true emancipation cannot simply be granted by others, but also because it is only the working class, and other exploited classes, which will benefit from that emancipation. If the leadership of the movement is held by those who do not share the interests of the working class then, naturally, those interests will not always be pursued. There are, of course, many points when the interests of the trade union bureaucracy and those of the working class are aligned. Both have an interest, for example, in the defence of the trade unions. The bureaucracy, as has been said, is in a contradictory position, and as a result vacillates. However, while at points it may share interests with the working class there will be many occasions when these interests conflict, and the trade union bureaucracy will always ultimately pursue its own interests to the detriment of the workers if necessary.

The revolutionary left and the trade union bureaucracy

Given its dominant role in the British labour movement, how revolutionaries should relate to the trade union bureaucracy is a crucial issue. It is often this question, more than any other, which has divided different parts of the left and defined their role within the trade union movement. Following the recent retreats, these fault lines are once again becoming obvious. I would argue that a large part of the left has failed to correctly criticise the bureaucracy and concentrate on building alternative independent working class organisations, and instead has fallen into the error of tailing the trade union leaderships, particularly those who are formally on the left of the bureaucracy. In doing this, they are repeating a mistake which has been made time and again in the British labour movement, and has always failed to achieve the desired results.

This issue was most clearly raised during the 1926 British General Strike, which was arguably the greatest upheaval the British labour movement has ever experienced. Here is not the place to go into a full narrative of the strike, but rather to look briefly at the role revolutionaries and the bureaucracy played within it, and more importantly, the relationship between the two. At the time of the General Strike, the Communist Party of Great Britain had roughly 5,000 members. It controlled a paper, the Sunday Worker, with a circulation of 85,000 a week, and, perhaps most significantly, it was the dominant force in the National Minority Movement (NMM), which aimed to organise the most radical and combative elements of the trade union movement, and had significant influence over important sections of that movement, especially in the million strong Miners Federation, which was at the forefront of the general strike, and in whose defence the strike was called. The general secretary of the Miners' Federation, A J Cook, was a communist sympathiser, and a leading figure of the NMM.

The General Strike was called by the TUC to prevent wage reduction and worsening conditions for locked-out coal miners. However, from the outset it was clear that, despite the great response from workers, with 1.7 million workers walking out, were not interested in winning the strike. They had been forced into it by the Tory government, who were aiming to break the power of the unions. There was then, as there is now, a division between the left and the right of the trade union leaderships. However, when the inevitable capitulation of the TUC leadership occurred, those left leaders, with the honourable exception of A J Cook, were pulled by the right and capitulated all the same. The CPGB membership, throughout the strike, played a truly heroic role, being at the forefront of the struggle. However, the strategy which the CPGB pursued proved disastrous. Despite on some occasions warning of the dangers of tailing the bureaucracy, and recognising that the leftist rhetoric of some of the leadership did not make up for a conservative approach to the strike, they nevertheless pursued a policy of attempting to influence the course of events by blocking with the left wing of the bureaucracy through the medium of the NMM. This policy was supported by the leadership of the Comintern, most notably by Zinoviev and Stalin. Trotsky, who at that time was engaged in his own political struggle within the Russian Communist Party, criticised the CPGB strategy:

What were the results of the Stalinists' British experiment? The Minority Movement, embracing almost a million workers, seemed very promising, but it bore the germs of destruction within itself. The masses knew as the leaders of the movement only Purcell, Hicks and Cook, whom, moreover, Moscow vouched for. These ‘left' friends, in a serious test, shamefully betrayed the proletariat. The revolutionary workers were thrown into confusion, sank into apathy and naturally extended their disappointment to the Communist Party itself, which had only been the passive part of this whole mechanism of betrayal and perfidy. The Minority Movement was reduced to zero; the Communist Party returned to the existence of a negligible sect. In this way, thanks to a radically false conception of the party, the greatest movement of the English proletariat, which led to the General Strike, not only did not shake the apparatus of the reactionary bureaucracy, but, on the contrary, reinforced it and compromised Communism in Great Britain for a long time.

Trotsky’s argument, in essence, was that, right or left, the trade union bureaucracy was ultimately a conservative force. The CPGB, by tailing the left bureaucracy, was ultimately going to find itself completely isolated when the latter inevitably capitulated to pressure from the right. There were some problems with Trotsky’s analysis, in that he overestimated the revolutionary potential of the situation in Britain at that time. Much of his arguments suggest that if the CPGB had pursued a different course, and put itself in a position to lead the workers, rather than tail the bureaucracy, a revolution would have been possible. This analysis, applied uncritically by Trotskyists in later periods, has led to a number of political errors, which I will return to in greater detail. However, his assessment of the trade union bureaucracy was fundamentally sound. In a period of heightened class struggle, such as the 1926 General Strike, the bureaucracy sees its own interests threatened more by the working class it is supposed to be leading than by the bourgeoisie. They recognised that the ruling class and the state were out to break the unions, and the surest way of warding that off was to capitulate, and sacrifice their own members’ interests. Furthermore, continued mass activity had the potential to build up working class organisation independent of the bureaucracy, threatening their own positions, and direct confrontation between workers and the ruling class could render their role as mediators redundant.

The 1926 General Strike is obviously an extreme example; however, it does expose the role of the trade union bureaucracy very clearly. It is also important to note that from then on, the CPGB continued to pursue what is called a “broad left” strategy, attempting to build alliances with the left bureaucracy, as opposed to pursuing a strategy aimed at building among the rank and file of trade union members. The broad left strategy’s primary goal is to gain and exert influence over the trade union apparatus, as opposed to building independent working class organisation. In many cases an important part of this strategy can be to build a base among rank and file workers and sustain shop floor organisation, and the CPGB often did this with great effect. However, this was seen as being a base from which to gain control of the union apparatus rather than the basis for building alternative organisations. In using this approach the CPGB was ultimately behaving as a reformist organisation, seeing its role as being to represent and work on behalf of the workers through the trade union apparatus, and in many cases it became incorporated into the trade union bureaucracy, carrying out the same mediatory and ultimately conservative role that even the left bureaucracy inevitably plays.

The Trotskyist left has historically often played a very different role, and has been highly critical of the broad left approach. However, as was mentioned above, there have been some important political weaknesses. In overestimating the revolutionary potential of the 1926 General Strike Trotsky, inevitably, overstated the significance of the decisions made by the CPGB, overestimating its ability to influence the course of events. Large parts of the Trotskyist movement after 1945 developed the unfortunate habit of applying Trotsky’s formulations uncritically to any given situation. Thus, many Trotskyists have made the mistake of viewing the primary issue in the workers' movement to be the “crisis of leadership”. The bureaucracy, the Labour Party leadership, the Stalinist Communist Party, all pursue policies which ultimately lead to the defeat of the working class. If the correct, by which we mean revolutionary, leadership were provided then the course of events would be radically different.

The International Socialist tradition has largely rejected both the “broad left” strategy, and the “crisis of leadership” analysis. While each can lead to seemingly polar opposite positions when applied to any particular struggle - one demanding radical activity, and denouncing the trade union leadership, the other tailing the bureaucracy and often as not trying to demobilise the struggle - they both make the same mistake of viewing the working class as a passive mass in the need of leadership, and see the role of that leadership as pursuing the interests of the working class on its behalf. International Socialists do not reject the idea of the need for an alternative leadership to that of the trade union bureaucracy, but they do not believe this leadership can be provided by a ready-made Marxist organisation. Rather, the leadership must be developed out of the working class through struggle. In fighting to build independent working class organisations we are attempting to contribute towards building an alternative leadership to the bureaucracy, based upon the self-activity of the working class. The only way to ensure victory is to ensure the leadership of the working class shares an interest in achieving that victory - it must be working class itself.