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John Riddell: Democracy in Lenin's Comintern

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Financial Appeal

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Financial Appeal

The rank and file and the bureaucracy after Grangemouth - Page 3


The United Lefts

The Communist Party is no longer a real force on the left in Britain. However, the broad left strategy continues to be pursued by a number of left wing groups. Coming out of the 1980s, the trade union movement was seriously weakened, and the left smashed. Those who remained, revolutionaries and reformists both, primarily concerned themselves with keeping what was left of the trade union movement together. Working class participation in the unions is very low, and workplace organisation extremely rare. This has led to the revolutionary left having a much closer relationship with the trade union bureaucracy, and in some cases being incorporated into it.

The defeats of the 1980s had the greatest impact on blue collar union organisation, and the last bastions of trade union organisation, and the left, have largely been the public sector unions. It may seem paradoxical that, in the 1990s up until today, in a period of historically low-level struggle, the left has made a number of gains in terms of capturing sections of the trade union apparatus. Broad left formations, often called United Lefts, have made serious inroads into a number of trade unions, particularly in the public sector, in many cases seizing the leadership. Parts of the revolutionary left have participated in, and often played leading roles in, these formations. The PCS is controlled by the United Left, with its leader Mark Serwotka as general secretary, and almost all of the bureaucracy being in the hands of the left. The Socialist Party has played a key role in PCS United Left, occupying many important positions. Similarly, the UCU is also dominated by the United Left (although there have recently been moves against the far left by Sally Hunt, the general secretary), as is the NUT, both of which are heavily influenced by the Socialist Workers Party. The RMT, CWU and FBU all have left wing leaderships.

However, these “gains” for the left only seem paradoxical if you view them as a sign of the trade unions shifting to the left, rather than a sign of the far left shifting to the right. What we have witnessed is the incorporation of whole swathes of what remains of the left into the trade union apparatus. Revolutionaries have not been elected into positions in the trade union movement as a result of pressure from below - they owe their position, not to the participation of workers in the trade union movement, but the absence of participation. They are hostages to the caprices of the trade union leaders rather than accountable to the shop floor. In a time of low-level struggle, pursuing an alliance with the left bureaucracy may make sense, but the danger is that revolutionaries in broad left formations and trade union positions become just as isolated as their allies. They in fact become more reliant on the bureaucracy than they are on the workers for their positions, and are therefore more accountable to the trade union leadership than they are to the members.

This situation, in part, explains the far left’s inability to deal with the retreat of the trade unions following the 2011 public sector pension strike. The logic of the broad left strategy, applied to the pension dispute, was that using their influence in the smaller “left” unions, the PCS, UCU and NUT, the left could pressure the more right wing sections of the bureaucracy, most notably Unison, into building a mass strike. This would open up a space to build mass activity and more radical action in the future. However, as soon as the strike ended, Unison pulled out of further action. One by one, all the other unions, including the “left” ones followed suit. Rather than the broad lefts exerting influence to pull the right into radical activity, the right of the bureaucracy led the left into capitulation and compromise. Due to the far left lacking any real base among the rank and file members, this could not be resisted in any meaningful way.

If the broad left strategy failed in the public sector unions, it has been farcical in Unite. For several years now, much of the far left has played a key role in United Left, which succeeded in getting Len McCluskey elected general secretary in 2010. While McCluskey has in many cases pursued a more aggressive and politically charged strategy as general secretary, this has not translated into any form of mass fightback from Britain’s largest union, let alone mass strike action. In fact, McCluskey’s efforts seem largely focused upon gaining influence within the Labour Party battling with the Labour right for control of constituency parties and candidate selection. It was this battle, in part, which precipitated the debacle at Grangemouth, McCluskey has led the Unite bureaucracy into a number of left initiatives, most notably the People’s Assembly. He has also been central in initiating Unite Community, which has recruited a number of young and unemployed activists into the trade union movement, and Unite has initiated a number of visible campaigns and organising initiatives. David Renton describes the strategy:

Unite’s organising model emulates the CIO in that Unite organises more like a federation than a union, and emphasises recruitment rather than sustained workplace organising, and is open to employing activists even from the far-left, as it needs the energy of militants to deliver public victories. (and I mean employing – ie recruiting from outside the union people who have previously been reps or NGO campaigners or been involved with the left parties and giving them jobs on the Unite payroll). The model has been tweaked a little compared to its historical inspiration; Unite talks about “leverage” (ie well-financed publicity campaigns involving selective litigation, putting pressure on Labour councils, etc) as being just as important as strikes. And of course Unite’s industrial model overlaps with its other policies: the ambition of recruiting thousands of its members to the Labour Party with the idea of them pulling Labour to the left, and the setting up of branches for unemployed activists who are intended to be next year’s union activists. But all these tweaks only accentuate the central weaknesses of the model – recruitment is dependent on teams of full-timers rather than stewards, there is a much clearer vision for winning recognition in workplaces where the union is not recognised than there is for developing existing workplace reps where the union already has a presence.

I have gone into this in some detail, because of course the recent catastrophic defeat at Grangemouth makes more sense if you grasp why the union, which had a base in the factory, had allowed that base to weaken.

There are some signs of embryonic rank and file organisation in Unite. Rank and file candidate Jerry Hicks gained 50,000 votes in the 2010 general secretary election and 80,000 in 2013. The sparks won victory through rank and file action in 2011-12, and the anti-blacklisting campaign in the construction industry is largely rank and file led. The role of the revolutionary left should be to relate to and nurture these early signs of rank and file activity. Instead, much of the left has continued to tail the Unite leadership, who naturally have little interest in encouraging rank and file organisation. Rather than building and strengthening existing organisation, Unite appears to be neglecting its base in pursuit of new recruitment. It was this neglect which in part contributed to the defeat at Grangemouth.

By concentrating purely on relating to the left bureaucracy, the result has been that the far left has been pulled to the right, rather than pulling the bureaucracy to the left. Unite involvement in the People’s Assembly has effectively silenced criticism of the leadership’s role in Grangemouth from some revolutionaries, for fear of losing its support. Many involved in United Left have either failed to criticise McCluskey, or openly supported him. Some, such as the SWP and the Socialist Party, have been critical of the Grangemouth capitulation, but this has been muted.

The need for a rank and file strategy

The trade union movement is in desperate need of rank and file organisation. The continued over-reliance on the bureaucracy has led to critical weaknesses which have ultimately led to the defeat of the anti-austerity movement. What is needed is workplace organisation which is capable of taking the class struggle forward independent of the trade union bureaucracy. The purpose of this is to build a mass movement which can challenge the power of the bosses at the point of production. We aim, hopefully, to build our own working class leadership and organisations. The role of a tiny revolutionary group such as the IS Network cannot be to build this singlehandedly; however, we can start propagandising within the movement for a rank and file perspective.

The revolutionary left has entered 2014 small, isolated, fragmented, and in crisis. This crisis has primarily been brought about by its failure to make gains out of the current crisis of capitalism, and the retreat of the trade union movement in 2011. Neither of these issues are solely the result of the far left’s inept trade union strategy, but that has far from helped. What is needed on the left is a recognition that we have an arduous process of rebuilding ahead of us, for which there can be no short-cuts. For too long the left has attempted to overcome its historic weakness with quick-fix solutions, which have manifested themselves in voluntarism and substitutionism. For several years we have been motivated by a disorientating mix of catastrophism on the one hand and delusional optimism on the other; which has led to opportunistic practices occasionally interspersed with the odd ultra-left binge. All of this is fueled with hyperactivity which is simply unsustainable. We need to move beyond the culture of seeing every political decision we make as the choice between the road to either catastrophe or the Promised Land, and begin the process of rebuilding the left and working class organisations patiently, from the bottom up.