- Category: International
- Published on Tuesday, 18 November 2014
- Written by Duncan Chapel
Twenty-five years on, how has the fall of the Berlin Wall affected our analysis of Soviet Russia? How has what we have learnt changed our analysis of post-’89 Eastern Europe, Russia and the current situation in Ukraine?
The deepest discussions in the international workers’ movement about the relationship between dictatorship and democracy happened in the years after 1917 and either side of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the 1980s, revolutionary Marxists faced a growing crisis of Stalinist power in the East, and of the Stalinist parties in the West. Unlike the 1930s or 1940s, the failure of the Stalinist states to deliver democratic rights was more visible to many workers than capitalism’s failings. That, coupled with the low level of class consciousness, meant that many aspirations of working people and our allies could easily be channelled into social democracy and other pro-capitalist avenues. The way that the USSR and the other Stalinist states misrepresented the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ meant that workers rejected it both East and West.
In the 1980s, working people around the world were looking for alternatives to the dogmas of Stalinism. Stalinism was the root of elitist schemes in which a paternalist and monolithic party excluded workers from power, on the premise that freedom of discussion opened up the possibilities for counter-revolutionary ideas. Because it reflected the common sense of the post-war imperialism, this notion spread beyond the Stalinist parties and into parts of the social democratic and revolutionary Marxist movements.
The search for alternatives took place largely outside these parties and flowed into the social movements. In the East and the West, class consciousness was deeply stratified and uneven. Struggles spilled out in many directions, picking up the movements and leaderships to hand, like flood waters flowing down the path of least resistance.
The paucity of open, democratic and accessible organisations on the left had two results. First, the anti-Stalinist movements had to find direction independently, much as early feminist movements rejected by the western Communist parties found their ways into the social movements: the Stalinist narrative saw independent movements only as counter-revolutionary. Second, the left could not learn from those movements if it failed to recruit from them.
Schemas and dogmas, however, were not the sole preserve of Stalinists. Many revolutionary Marxists equated socialism with states that used nationalisation to deprive imperialism of a toehold, regardless of the concrete power of the working class. That blind spot meant that some socialists found themselves quite adrift. Some ended up supporting state-capitalist enterprises that operated in order to intensify the profit system. Many found themselves disoriented when working class movements confronted states that opposed a larger imperialism or defended nationalised property. They focused attention on the crimes of imperialism, but failed to make solidarity with the masses when they confronted governments which simultaneously excluded imperialism and the people from power. This acquiescence to the repressive secret-police apparatus of the Stalinist states meant that some socialists underestimated the degree to which the Stalinist co-option of socialist rhetoric would channel working class struggles into trade union, church and democratic movements.
Some comrades found themselves caught in the political dead-end that Ernest Mandel, the pre-eminent leader of the post-war Fourth International, called “campism”. Writing in 1983, Mandel criticised those who subordinated the interests of the working class and the revolution to the interests of defending the camp of states that opposed Western imperialism. He pointed out that the bureaucratic leaderships of these states were often mortal enemies of national liberation movements and working class struggles.
This campist viewpoint was widespead in the Trotskyist movement, notably in the English-speaking countries, as well as in the social democratic and Communist parties. In 1986, for example, the US SWP wrote that the progressive character of the Russian states was “a far more weighty factor for the world revolution than the obstacles represented by the Stalinist bureaucracies”. Mandel’s position was the opposite: “The counter-revolutionary role of the Soviet bureaucracy weighs more heavily on world history than the objective positive effects.”
These dogmas made much of the left unable to understand the developments of the anti-Stalinist movements, and the reality of the new movements’ fragile foundations led many on the left into quite disoriented positions.
The fall of the Berlin Wall remains a useful yardstick for revolutionaries. The working class moves imperfectly, and works with the ideas and the leaders it has to hand. The left must celebrate and learn from its imperfect legacies, from the NHS to the unfinished struggle for equality and unity in Germany.
On the 20th anniversary Gareth Dale wrote in the International Socialism journal to remind us of the revolutionary nature of the movement for unification in East Germany. Those struggles are outlined well in his trio of books on the end of the DDR. However, Dale showed an appreciation of his readers when he wrote, “Readers of this journal are unlikely to be participating in the twentieth anniversary celebrations of the ‘transition to capitalism’ in Central and Eastern Europe and it’s easy to see why.”
Ironically it is Gregor Gysi, spokesperson of Germany’s ex-Stalinist party, who struck a more useful note on the 25th anniversary. Speaking last week, he reminded the Bundestag that the fall of the Wall was a victory for the masses: they confronted a dictatorship and defeated it in order to fight for democracy.
The challenge for the left is to celebrate the fall of the Wall as a progressive, revolutionary accomplishment of the German working class. The East German masses took up the ideas they had to hand: pacifism and trade unionism. The peace movement provided the initial core for the New Forum, a movement eventually backed by 200,000 East Germans. It argued for participatory democracy to reshape society but, partly because the trade unions were state organs, it mobilised workers through a grassroots movement rather than through the workplace.
That said, trade union militancy has deep roots in Germany, which had been warped by the DDR to meet the needs of the state. With the movements for democracy came new labour struggles and the foundation of independent trade unions, starting in East Berlin, encouraged by the positive experience of the independent Solidarity union in Poland. There were also unsuccessful attempts to move the New Forum into the workplaces by demanding a general strike, as Linda Fuller mentions in her book Where Was the Working Class? Mathieu Denis and Gareth Dale have also written convincingly about the role of workers in the movement: something removed from pro-capitalist and campist narratives about reunification. We should not deny the mass, revolutionary nature of these movements because of the later failure to defend and extend the social state, or because of the collapse of heavy industry on both sides of the former border. The ‘counter-revolution’ in East Germany did not happen in 1989, but before the establishment of the DDR itself. The creation of the DDR, far from creating socialism, had replaced one brutal, repressive dictatorship with another.
Nor, as John Rees does, should we view the outcome of reunification primarily as a matter of shifting walls between camps of states. In Rees’s opinion, the mass movement in 1989 was doomed because of the absence of socialist ideas. On the Counterfire website, he writes, “When Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev abandoned his East German satellite there was no social force that could resist the embrace of right wing West German chancellor Helmut Kohl. German unification would be a Western annexation, not the beginning of a social revolution... The neoliberal offensive that took a huge step forward in Germany in 1989 has created a wall between the rich and the poor that is higher than ever, and more difficult to cross.”
This view is mistaken. Echoing Dale’s 2009 article in International Socialism, the revolutionary struggle in East Germany is discounted because of the prior absence of the ideal social force: a working class with revolutionary socialist ideas. The outcome is measured only in the partial attenuation of inequality between West and East, and the geopolitical defeat of Russia. For Rees, it seems, the development, success and memory of mass movements that ended the Stalinist dictatorships are nothing when weighed up against the expansion of NATO.
The same must be said of other struggles. Campism is alive and well, most clearly in relation to Ukraine and Syria. Some socialists have cultivated the absurdity of seeing Putin, leader of the Russian plutocracy that has used IMF diktats to suck wealth out of Russia, and his allies as governing an anti-imperialist bloc of states. The revolutionary struggles of the Syrian workers and peasants against the Syrian dictatorship are discounted by these comrades because US imperialism finds it expedient to oppose dictators who are independent of its sphere of control. In Ukraine, with a different constellation, some comrades are championing reactionary ultra-nationalists in the Donbass against a mass democratic movement. The nationwide Maidan movement took the path of demanding democratic rights and legal protections against corruption and oligarchical power. Because that movement mistakenly believed that an association with the EU was the most effective path towards those victories, some socialists discount the positive nature of the mass movements because one faction of imperialists benefits.
The reality is that mass movements do not always arise in the form of a working class acting consciously for itself. Whatever the level of class consciousness, factions of imperialism will try to co-opt, channel the course of and benefit from progressive movements. Transforming these capitalist factions into blocs whose interests outweigh progressive working class movements leads us to not celebrate the masses’ victories, but eventually to see them as counterproductive struggles which should be subordinated to the interests of neoliberal elites in Russia, Syria and elsewhere.
Socialists must learn different lessons from the fall of the Berlin Wall. The working class and its allies will never have perfect self-consciousness. Our task is to support its forward movement, preparing for the reality of the uneven and unknown path ahead, and never to mourn partial victories.
Ernest Mandel on state campism:
What lies today behind the argument of the ‘international relationship of forces’ is in reality the strategy of ‘state campism’, which tends to subordinate the interests of the working class and the revolution in a given country to the interests of defending this or that workers’ state, or the so-called ‘socialist camp’ of states in its totality. We do not accept that subordination in any shape or form – again not for ‘dogmatic’ reasons, but because history has proven again and again that any victorious spread of revolution strengthens the international situation of any and all workers’ states, because it weakens imperialism and international capitalism. Reciprocally, the defeat of revolution in any country, whatever may have been its origins or the pretexts for which it was sacrificed, weakens the international situation of the workers’ states and the working class.
So in reality, those who defend revolutionary self-restraint and self-limitation (including in Poland) do not defend the interests of the working class, the workers’ states, world socialism or world peace. They defend the interests and material privileges of the labour bureaucracy, even if this defence finds its ideological roots in the ‘dialectic of partial conquests’. In the bureaucratised workers’ states, these layers have become a monstrous ossified caste which rules despotically over society and oppresses the great majority of the working class. In open conflicts with that working class, they do not defend the workers’ state. They defend their privileges and their monopoly in the exercise of power, which are barriers on the way forward towards socialism. Likewise, when they oppose the international extension of the revolution, including with ‘pacifist’ arguments of the type ‘We do not want to provoke imperialism into launching war’ or ‘Destabilisation undermines peace’, they do not serve the interests of the workers’ state, of world socialism or of world peace. They serve the particular, conservative, anti-socialist interests of the bureaucracy. So there is no reason whatsoever to yield to these reactionary strategies and arguments.
Dale, Gareth, ‘A short autumn of utopia: The East German revolution of 1989’, International Socialism 124 (autumn 2009), http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=581&issue=124
Denis, Mathieu, ‘Labor in the Collapse of the GDR and Reunification: A Crucial, Yet Overlooked Actor’, doctoral dissertation, http://edoc.hu-berlin.de/dissertationen/denis-mathieu-2007-05-31/PDF/denis.pdf
Fuller, Linda, Where Was the Working Class?, University of Illinois Press, 1999
Mandel, Ernest, ‘The Threat of Nuclear War and the Struggle for Socialism’, New Left Review http://bit.ly/Campism
Rees, John, ‘Berlin: the wall that came down and the walls that went up’, http://www.counterfire.org/articles/analysis/17510-berlin-the-wall-that-came-down-and-the-walls-that-went-up
- Category: Analysis
- Published on Thursday, 30 October 2014
- Written by Tim Nelson
The latest in a series on Trotskyism by Tim Nelson. The previous essay 'Trotskyism during the Second World War' can be read here.
Despite the many heroic activities engaged in by Trotskyists throughout the Second World War, it can be reasonably said that this period was, in many ways, a disaster for the Trotskyist movement and the Fourth International. Whether one agrees with Shachtman and his supporters’ conclusions about the Soviet Union, its role in the Second World War, and its analysis of imperialism; his arguments were at least an attempt to push the movement to come to grips with the monumental events at the beginning of the war, and re-orientate it in light of these events. The refusal to do so by the majority, and the eventual split as a result of this, left the Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International ill-equipped to deal with the new problems which would face them. Furthermore, the political practices which emerged, or rather became exposed, as a result of these disputes were problematic in many ways.
The internal culture of petty bureaucratic manoeuvring, the isolation and stigmatisation of political opponents, the dogmatism and heresy hunting, all were major features of the faction fight with the “Shachtmanites”. The politics of denunciation, where any perceived deviation from the orthodoxy was met with hostility, meant that a culture of intellectual stagnation was fostered. This could only store up more trouble for the future, as more events arose which would challenge the orthodoxy and would not fit with the Cannonites’ preconceived notions and world view.
Faction fights take on a life of their own. Shachtman and his supporters, by challenging the concept of the Soviet Union being a degenerated workers’ state and the idea that it must be defended, broke with a major feature of Trotsky’s theory. It was inevitable that those who disagreed relied heavily on Trotsky’s writings in order to challenge them. Firstly, because the works that Trotsky produced were far and away more persuasive and intelligent than anything that even the most talented of the Majority leaders may have put together, and secondly because the stature of Leon Trotsky- leader of the October Revolution and opponent of Stalin- was too great not to utilise, especially when he spent his last days opposing the Shachtmanite faction up to the point of the split. Unfortunately, there was a danger to this approach, which was that it hardly encouraged the critical faculties of its supporters. “Because Trotsky said...” might have been a knockout blow in many a faction row, but was not the most rigorous debating technique. It encouraged a dogmatic approach to discussion. Whatever one feels about Shachtman’s theories, in a healthy revolutionary movement his willingness to challenge orthodoxy would have been applauded and then critically engaged with- in the Trotskyist movement he was slandered and ostracised. Those attracted to the “Trotsky said” method of argument and who were impressed by the alienation and denunciation of political minorities were those least likely to challenge the line, or the leadership, in the future. Thus, the faction fight with Shachtman brought to the fore some of the worst tendencies in the Trotskyist movement, and some of the worst instincts in the individuals which constituted it.
It must be said that the preeminence of Cannon in the SWP, and therefore in the Fourth International, was the manifestation at the top of the organisation of this process. Some of the best elements of the Trotskyist movement at this time could be found in Cannon- he was intransigent, tireless, and an excellent agitator with a real talent for political trade unionism. However, all of its worst features could also be found in him as well- his aggressive approach to dealing with political opponents, intolerance of “deviations” from the line, dogmatism. All these would come to the fore when dealing with the next major dispute in international Trotskyism, which regarded questions as to what kind of societies would emerge in Europe out of the Second World War. The already small and isolated Trotskyist movement in Europe was unsurprisingly devastated by the rise of fascism and its dominance of the continent. What few cadres there were faced conditions of terrible repression, and those who survived were forced underground. Therefore, by 1943, when an Allied victory seemed to be the most likely outcome, a disproportionate role in analysing events and preparing the Fourth International fell to the US Socialist Workers Party, which had already been the foremost section of the International even before war had devastated its European sister organisations.
The debate primarily focused upon what form of capitalist state would emerge in Western Europe once the Allies defeated the fascist government, as this would naturally have a direct impact on the nature of the workers’ movement in those countries, and therefore the strategy and tactics of the Trotskyists within it. The majority viewpoint in the Trotskyist movement at that time was that the Second World War would end in much the same way that the First World War did- with a wave of workers’ revolutions and uprisings. This was based on Trotsky’s predictions at the beginning of the war. It was argued that the threat of these revolutions would mean that capitalism could no longer allow bourgeois democracies, under which workers would be able to organise their own political parties and organisations and mobilise against the state. It was likely, therefore, that what would emerge from the Second World War in Western Europe, imposed by Anglo-American imperialism, would be “naked military dictatorships” similar to that of Franco in Spain. An alternative point of view emerged, centred around two leading members of the SWP, Felix Morrow and Albert Goldman. They argued that it was to perfectly possible that rather than installing authoritarian dictatorships, Anglo-American imperialism could set up bourgeois democracies; and these, far from leading immediately to revolutionary situations, could instead lead to a period of relative stability. This had many long term and short term implications for the Trotskyist movement.
In the 1930s Trotsky developed what could be described as a “catastrophist” theory. He argued that the Second World War was the result of capitalism’s final crisis, which began with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression which followed it. This crisis was so deep that there were only two possible outcomes: workers’ revolution, or capitalism establishing outright authoritarian dictatorships in order to keep the bourgeoisie in control and the working class in check. He invoked the old quote from Rosa Luxemburg: “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism”. For Trotsky, and for many of his followers after his death, there was no middle of the road outcome. In the debates with Shachtman shortly before his death, Trotsky maintained that the truth of this analysis was becoming proven by events. He pointed out that the bourgeois democracies opposed to Nazi Germany, most notably Great Britain, were resorting to increasingly authoritarian domestic policies in order to keep control of their populations and ensure the effective running of the war economy.
The crisis which engulfed the world economy after the 1929 crash was the most serious in capitalist history, and the proof of this was the drastic methods the bourgeoisie were forced to employ to maintain their power. The seizure of power by fascist movements in Italy, Germany, Spain and elsewhere was a direct result of the wave of reaction released by the bourgeoisie in order to crush the workers’ movements which had developed out of this crisis. The Second World War was an imperialist war which emerged from this crisis, and was the most destructive war the world had ever seen. The collapse of liberal democratic forms of government, such as the Weimar Republic in Germany, and their replacement with fascism, were clearly proof that with capitalism in such severe crisis the bourgeoisie was incapable of maintaining its rule through bourgeois democratic methods- it could only do so through extreme reaction and authoritarianism.
Therefore, whoever the victors of the Second World War would be, Europe could expect to be dominated by authoritarian regimes, which were the only form of rule capable of keeping down the working class. The era of bourgeois democracy was over. This form of political rule was best suited to the period of competitive capitalism, its earlier stage of development, while the world economy had entered a period of monopoly capitalism, for which bourgeois democracy was ill-suited, and authoritarianism was the natural form of rule. The other issue which arose out of the victory of fascism and the economic crisis was the complete political bankruptcy of the “traditional” workers’ parties. The working class, Trotsky argued, was in such a period radicalised, or easily capable of being radicalised, by the objective circumstances of capitalist crisis and state repression. However, the problem for revolutionaries was that the organisations which had the support of the vast majority of the working class were reformist organisations which served only to prop up the bourgeois state, and in the final analysis were more likely to aid the ruling class in crushing any revolutionary workers’ movement rather than lead it.
The mass workers’ parties in the 1930s were either social democratic organisations such as the SPD in Germany and the Labour Party in Britain, or the Stalinist Communist parties. All these organisations, both in the revolutionary wave of 1917-23 after the First World War and during the economic crisis which preceded the Second, played their part in holding back the workers’ movement and, in the case of Germany, Italy, Spain and elsewhere, failing to halt the rise of fascism. In Germany, the Stalinist KPD applied the disastrously ultra-left Third Period strategy, where they denounced the SPD as “social fascists” and refused to work with them to combat the rise of fascism. In Spain, in an effort to facilitate an alliance between the Kremlin and the bourgeois democracies, the Communist Party applied the Popular Front strategy, where it made an alliance with anti-fascist elements of the bourgeoisie, and therefore opposed any continuation or deepening of the workers’ revolution there. This line eventually led to them leading the crushing of the workers’ councils and militias in Spain and paved the way for Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War.
After these events in Europe, Trotsky resolved that the parties of the Third International were too “Stalinised”- their internal regimes were deeply authoritarian and bureaucratic, and their ability to lead the workers’ movement was proven to be non-existent- and therefore a new revolutionary International needed to be formed. He argued that with capitalism in its greatest crisis and the huge wave of militancy unleashed within the working class in response to this, the situation was objectively revolutionary. The missing ingredient was the subjective factor- the revolutionary party. The current bureaucratic, reformist leadership of the working class needed replacing with the revolutionary leadership of a Bolshevik Party. The primary task, therefore, was to build such a party. This was also an urgent task, as with capitalism in its final crisis, and the revolutionary leadership being the one missing ingredient; building the party was what would make the difference in whether humanity achieved socialism or descended into barbarism.
This theory is what has come to be described as the idea of the “crisis of leadership”, where Trotskyists argue that the key factor in a movement which needs addressing is the lack of revolutionary leadership of the working class. It did not, however, start with Trotsky’s analysis of the 1930s, but in fact existed in various forms throughout the history of the Third International. Many argued that the key to the success of the workers’ insurrection in October 1917 was the role played by the Bolshevik Party in providing revolutionary leadership. One of the reasons why revolutions failed in Germany and elsewhere between 1917 and 1923 was either the absence of such a party, or its failure to apply the lessons learned by the Bolsheviks in 1917 correctly. It was this thinking which was behind the forming of the Comintern in 1919. The Bolsheviks were hoping to set up Communist parties based upon the Bolshevik model across the world, and particularly in Europe which, under the guidance of the Russian party, could provide the necessary revolutionary leadership.
It was also the logic behind Zinoviev’s “Bolshevisation” drive. After Trotsky’s death, Cannon and his supporters continued to maintain the basic validity of this theory, and resisted any attempts to revise it. They argued that the traditional workers’ parties, the social democrats and the Stalinist Communists, were discredited in the eyes of the working class due to their failure to either lead the working class struggle or stop the rise of fascism. Similarly, bourgeois democracy was also discredited to working class people, who had seen it usher in reaction and world war. They predicted, after the Second World War, revolutions on an even greater scale than those that followed the First. Trotsky’s catastrophist theory also applied to Stalinist Russia. Trotsky believed that the Stalinist bureaucracy- being a parasitic caste rather than a ruling class- was in an inherently unstable position. He argued that the bureaucracy would inevitably be swept away if there was a new revolutionary wave in Europe. While the bureaucracy may play a counterrevolutionary role, as it did in Spain, in the European revolution, it could also play an objectively revolutionary role in establishing nationalised property forms in territories it occupied, leaving the working class the need only to seize political power. Stalinism, in allowing the fascists to seize power, was devalued in the eyes of the working class, and its regime inherently unstable.
The Theory Tested: Italy
This theory remained dominant in the Trotskyist movement throughout the Second World War. The increasingly authoritarian measures utilised by the Allies at home and in the territories they controlled appeared to support the idea that the post-war society, rather than being dominated by bourgeois democracies, would in fact be a system of authoritarian dictatorships. As mentioned above, some members of the SWP, led by Felix Morrow and Albert Goldman, began to question the validity of the theory when it was tested against real events. As the tide of the war turned against the fascist governments, and the Allies began to take over territory in Europe previously dominated by Germany and its allies, the question of what sort of regimes would replace them and what sort of societies would emerge ceased to be a matter of hypothesis as theories began to be tested against reality.
In Morrow and Goldman’s view, the majority position within the Fourth International was found wanting in a number of ways. Neither Morrow nor Goldman were minor figures in the Trotskyist movement. Both had split from the Communist Party in 1933 and became involved in the Communist League of America, which was the predecessor of the SWP founded by Cannon and Shachtman. Goldman had been the defence advocate in a number of high profile cases within the labour movement, and worked on behalf of Trotsky as his defence attorney, defending him against the accusations which emerged from Stalin’s show trials at the Dewey Commission. Felix Morrow had edited both the SWP’s agitational paper Militant, and the Fourth International journal after Shachtman split with the party. He had been a respected journalist in the movement for many years. Both were imprisoned in 1941, along with Cannon and fifteen other leading SWP members, for a year under the Smith Act (a law which made advocating the overthrow of the US government during the Second World War) after a high profile trial in which Goldman was the defence lawyer. It was in prison that they developed their criticisms of the party line.
The main event which first raised questions as to the validity of the Fourth International’s position was the Allied invasion of Italy. In July 1943 British, Canadian and American forces invaded Sicily from territory in North Africa. They attacked the Italian mainland in September 3 that year, the day the Italian government signed an armistice. Mussolini had already been toppled by an internal fascist coup in July, largely as a result of his failure to contain growing discontent among the Italian people. To begin with, the SWP’s predictions regarding post-war Europe seemed to be proven by events. Mussolini was replaced in Southern Italy, which was occupied by the Allies, by Marshal Badoglio, a fascist whose first government was for all intents and purposes a military dictatorship. His government was backed by Anglo-American imperialism, and fascists were largely kept in place within the state machine. Morrow pointed out how the Allies refused to arm Italian resistance fighters or émigrés, and ceased the bombing of Italy for two weeks in July in order to allow the Italian state time to crush the growing opposition movement. During the bombing raids themselves, mostly carried out by the British military, Milan- the centre of working class anti-fascist movement- was subjected to saturation bombings of its factories and working class housing districts. Rome- the centre of the fascist state- was subjected only to precision bombing against certain military targets, leaving most arms of state oppression untouched. The Allies clearly aimed to prop up the authoritarian Italian state, and facilitate the crushing of any Italian revolution.
That there was a genuine mass uprising in Italy from 1943 there is no question. In March 1943, a wave of strike action in the industrial north of the country, centred in Milan and Turin- the first since 1925- shook the state. Morrow described the movement that grew in 1943 as an “elemental movement from below”. Although both the Communist Party and the Action Party (a party which focussed on armed resistance to the fascists, including individual acts of terrorism) claimed to have extensive underground organisations in place, the strike movement which broke out was largely based upon the spontaneous organisation of workers and was not led by any particular party.
However, it was as this movement developed that Morrow first started to question the validity of the orthodox Trotskyist analysis. While outwardly the predictions of Trotsky seemed to be being proven correct- an authoritarian government backed by Anglo-American imperialism against the threat of workers’ uprisings- there were some developments which went against the orthodox perspective. Morrow pointed out that after the initial spontaneity of the uprising, the spaces it created through mass activity allowed the underground organisations to come to the surface, which meant political parties could take more of a leading role in the movement. The parties which made the biggest gains in this period were not revolutionary organisations, but instead the traditional workers’ parties- the reformist social democratic, or Socialist Party, the Partito Socialista Italiano; and the Stalinist Communist Party, the Partito Communista Italiano (PCI). In the first days after Mussolini was forced out, for example, thousands joined the Socialist Party daily. Under the guidance of these organisations the movement did not progress in a revolutionary direction, and instead focused primarily on winning the rights afforded in a bourgeois democracy. Both the Communist Party and the Socialist Party restricted themselves to very limited democratic demands on the state. The Stalinists called for a cross-class coalition of all major democratic parties, including bourgeois liberal and Christian Democrat (conservative) parties. After Mussolini’s overthrow, they refused to call for the abolition of the monarchy, and instead limited the demand to the abdication of King Victor Emmanuel II, and his replacement with another monarch. The coalition’s main task, for the Communist Party, would be unconditional surrender to the Allied armies. These aims were clearly based upon the requirements of Moscow’s foreign policy. Despite this conservative approach, which in many ways was to the right of even the Socialist Party, the Communist Party emerged from this period as one of the largest parties in Italy. It had gained enormous prestige, not just from the victories of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany; but also because of its leading role in the underground resistance movement. Furthermore, Morrow pointed out that since fascism gained power in Italy in 1922, before the Stalinisation of the Comintern and its affiliated parties, for many Italians the party had not lost its revolutionary reputation. The Socialist Party had, in many respects, policies to the left of the Communist Party at this time. It called for a democratic republic and the abolition of the monarchy, and rejected the Stalinists’ call for a “national front” and collaboration with the Christian Democrats. However, despite slight differences in line, both the traditional workers’ parties limited themselves to demands which amounted to a return to bourgeois democracy.
Although initially the Italian state appeared to be moving in the authoritarian direction that Trotsky and others expected, post-fascist Italy soon began to regain the model of bourgeois democracy, even if the first government formed, with Mussolini’s general Pietro Badoglio as Prime Minister, could be described as nothing more than a military dictatorship. However, Morrow argued that his second government, with the support of mass petty bourgeois and workers’ parties, was clearly a bourgeois democracy. In 1944 he was replaced by Ivanoe Bonomi, leader of the liberal Labour Democratic Party, whose government included Socialists and Communists. The Italian state, by the end of the war in 1945, had to a large extent all the trappings of a bourgeois democracy, including crucially, the support and participation of mass workers and petty bourgeois parties. Furthermore, far from being resisted by the insurgent masses, Anglo-American imperial armies were largely welcomed as liberators from fascism. Therefore, for Morrow and Goldman, the Italian events raised serious questions as to the validity of the orthodox Trotskyist predictions of what form of society would emerge out of the Second World War. Given that these predictions were crucial to the Trotskyist movement’s strategy during this period, once it was recognised that they were inaccurate, this had ramifications for whole swathes of the movement’s theory and practice.
The Greek Events
Events in Greece during the war were a prime example of both the importance of the democratic movement for European workers, and the counterrevolutionary role of Stalinism. Before the invasion by Italy in October 1940 Greece was under the control of a right-wing authoritarian regime, led by Ioannis Metaxas, who had seized power through a coup in 1936. His regime was supported by the Greek monarch, King George II, and backed by British imperialism. Greece had, from the nineteenth century onwards, been firmly within the British Empire’s sphere of influence, mostly through the mechanism of national debt. The British aimed, following the war, to re-establish the old regime in Greece. In a now infamous meeting with Stalin in Moscow in October 1944 Churchill had agreed to carve up the Balkans. During the discussions, Churchill had passed a scrap of paper to Stalin, with the following notes jotted down:
- Russia- 90%
- The others- 10%
- Great Britain- 90%
- Russia- 10%
- Russia- 75%
- The others- 25%
According to Churchill’s own account of the meeting Churchill “pushed this across to Stalin, [...] he took his blue pencil and made a large tick upon it.” Thus, the fate of the Balkans was decided by the Great Powers, and it was agreed that Greece would return to Britain’s sphere of influence. The Greek people however were far from receptive to this idea. The Greek National Liberation Front (EAM) was a mass movement which had opposed Italian and German occupation for years, both through armed struggle and industrial activity. By the end of the war it controlled up to four-fifths of the country and had 1.5 million members- perhaps a fifth of Greece’s population. This resistance had not developed as a result of the initiation of any organisation, but was a spontaneous movement, formed originally out of defeated military units and largely based on the peasantry. This had swiftly spread to the cities and throughout the country. The strategy advocated by the Greek Communist Party, the KKE, was one of a “national front” against the occupation, which meant uniting all opposition to the fascist armies, including with remnants of the old regime which remained loyal to the monarchy and were backed by British imperialism. Despite the resistance movement largely being based upon the working class and the peasantry, the EAM refused to raise issues of social change in the hope of maintaining the support of the ruling class and of the Allies. Still, between 1942 and 1944 there was a series of mass strikes against the occupation, including a general strike in Athens in June 1943. While the KKE and many of its Allies in the leadership of the EAM insisted that the struggle was a “national struggle”, including all classes of society, class divisions began to show in the resistance. These class divisions were to highlight the importance of the democratic struggle.
Unrest was first to appear within the military units formed by the Greek Government in Exile stationed in Egypt. In October 1941 Greek soldiers who opposed those that remained loyal to the Metaxas regime and the monarchy formed the Military Organisation for Liberation (ASO) and there were two mutinies, the latter of which was much more serious and culminated in brutal repression by the Greek Government in Exile and the British High Command. Twenty thousand Greek soldiers were sent to prison camps. At the beginning of the second mutiny in March 1944, the soldiers sent a delegation to the Soviet Embassy in Egypt and were refused entry. The mutineers were opposed to the reinstallation of the old regime and the leadership of the Metaxites in the movement. The slogan of opposition to the monarchy was central, as for many it became the symbol of the old regime’s authoritarianism and of the dominance of British imperialism but the Soviet Union was committed to a deal with the British Empire where the latter would have a free hand in Greece, and therefore insisted that the KKE should not come into conflict with the monarchists. In May 1944 the KKE unconditionally joined the Government in Exile, which was now led by right wing General Papandreou who formed the first government when the Germans withdrew from Athens in October of that year. As the KKE called on people to “maintain order”, Papandreou and Churchill took control of the Security Battalions, repressive units formed of Greek collaborators, and ordered the disbandment of the ELAS, the People’s Liberation Army resistance movement. A demonstration against the disarmament of resistance fighters was fired upon, and thirty three days of fighting followed. The resistance movement, for the time being, was defeated and the old regime secured.
The suppression of the Greek resistance by British imperialism in conjunction with the old regime showed the importance of democratic struggle in the post-fascist states. It had been demands for greater democracy and opposition to monarchy which had mobilised almost open class warfare in Greece in 1944. It was an example of democratic issues which ran directly counter to the interests of the Greek ruling class and Anglo-American imperialism being raised by the working class. It also exposed the counterrevolutionary role Stalinism would play in post-war Europe, as the Stalinist KKE held back, then actively betrayed, the workers’ struggle for greater democracy in order to preserve the status quo and the Soviet bureaucracy’s alliance with British imperialism. The KKE continued to defend the Stalinist bureaucracy’s interests over that of the working class.
Felix Morrow and Albert Goldman developed their alternative to the orthodox Trotskyist theory while imprisoned under the Smith Act in 1941. They argued that it needed to be revised in a number of ways. Firstly, and most importantly, they argued that it was perfectly plausible that rather than establishing authoritarian regimes Anglo-American imperialism would in fact support the European bourgeoisie in establishing bourgeois democracies. This, in part, was due to people in Europe, who had spent decades under fascist rule or occupation, had little experience of bourgeois democracy; and their experience of living under fascism would have fostered renewed illusions in it. Similarly, far from resisting the “democratic” imperialists, the masses in Europe were likely to welcome them as liberators, and believe that they could provide an alternative to fascism. Illusions in bourgeois democracy could contribute to a revival of reformist social democratic and Stalinist parties, which may not be as discredited in the eyes of the working class as many Trotskyists expected. Given their suppression by the fascists, many workers saw them as leaders of the resistance, and had not experienced their betrayals for two generations. Finally, Morrow and Goldman warned of the danger of Stalinism, which they felt was underplayed by the Cannonites who restricted themselves to talking of how the implementation of state ownership in Soviet occupied territories would be progressive. They warned of the counterrevolutionary role that Stalinism could play in Europe, both through its parties in Western Europe and its armies in the East. They also argued that the renewed prestige of Stalinism due to the Soviet Union’s victories over Nazi Germany and the role of Communists in the resistance, could mean this role could be even more significant due to its increased influence.
The revisions, if followed to their logical conclusions, had serious implications for Trotskyists’ theory and practice. Generally, Morrow and Goldman argued that the incorrect positions had led the Fourth International to misjudge what they referred to as the “tempo of the revolution”. For most of the debate they conceded that they had not given up on the idea of revolution in Europe; but argued that due to the factors referred to above revolution would not arrive at the pace most in the Trotskyist movement expected. This over-optimism could lead, in many ways, to a dangerous strain of ultra-leftism in the Fourth International. They argued that Trotskyists in Europe should be focussing on democratic demands, pushing for the most radical democratic reforms, which many working class people were expecting and demanding.
The Possibility of Bourgeois Democracy
The orthodox Trotskyists believed that the European working class could only be kept in place by military dictatorships, while Morrow and Goldman believed the methods of bourgeois democracy could in fact be more effective. The majority argued that Anglo-American imperialism was “equally predatory” to that of Nazi Germany. Morrow countered that while both Nazi Germany and the Allies were equally imperialist, this did not necessarily mean they were equally predatory. When the Nazis invaded a country it tended to plunder it for resources, shutting down factories and transferring their machinery to Germany. They also set up fascist military and police dictatorships with the collaboration of indigenous fascist parties and, of course, set up the most brutal genocidal system of oppression in human history. When Allied armies invaded a territory however, they attempted, with much success, to appear as liberators. They invested in development of industry and infrastructure, and brought food and other necessities. It was important to the Allies that they were seen as solving the occupied countries’ economic problems. Where the fascists relied upon direct oppression, the Allies largely used methods which won the majority of the population to support the new regimes they installed. In this regard bourgeois democracy was much more useful than authoritarianism. The belief that the Allies would install military dictatorships was based on two premises. The first was that these were the only forms of government capable of preventing a revolutionary upsurge, and in the era of monopoly capitalism bourgeois democracy was no longer effective and was giving way to authoritarianism. The second was that bourgeois democracy relied upon the consent and participation of the working classes, and after the failure of bourgeois democracy and the onset of fascism working class people would no longer have illusions in it.
The idea that the working class was bereft of bourgeois democratic illusions was challenged by Morrow and Goldman. They also questioned the idea which followed from this, that the working masses were on the cusp of a revolutionary upsurge. The orthodox perspective was largely based upon the idea that the situation after the Second World War would be similar to that in Europe after the First World War. A wave of working class revolutions would take place, and the key to all of it- as it had been then- was a successful revolution in Germany. Morrow pointed out that the situation in Germany, and throughout Europe, would be very different to that in 1918. The working class in Germany and Italy would be emerging out of generations of fascist rule and elsewhere, such as France and Belgium, years of Nazi occupation. They would be coming straight from fascist domination into military occupation by the Allies. They would have no recent experiences, in some cases for decades, of bourgeois democracy or working class organisation. Furthermore, nowhere in Europe was there a revolutionary party beyond the small, isolated sects of the Fourth International. In such circumstances, a revolutionary situation, let alone a successful revolution, was extremely unlikely.
It was clear from 1943, as Anglo-American imperialist armies began to capture territories previously occupied by the Nazis and fascists, that a key part of their strategy was the establishment of democracies in conjunction with the native bourgeoisie. This was a deliberate attempt to contrast their own military presence with that of the fascists, and give themselves the appearance of a liberating rather than occupying force. While the populations of those countries were unlikely to rise up and fight for socialism at this point, they could and did fight for democracy- which is what many of them had been doing as part of the resistance movements. Attempts to establish military dictatorships were likely to be met with hostility, or even outright mass resistance. Throughout Western Europe, therefore, bourgeois democracies were established. The nature of the regimes established by the Western European bourgeoisie and Anglo-American imperialism became a key battleground for the Fourth International’s faction fight. E. R. Frank, the sword of the Cannonite faction in the SWP who replaced Morrow as editor of the Fourth International journal, argued that in fact the regimes being established in Italy and France were Bonapartist dictatorships and pointed out that they had been established by Anglo-American imperialism without elections or parliaments. Furthermore, given power rested solely in the hands of the Allied military, a key aspect which defines a regime as bourgeois democratic- sovereignty- was lacking. Morrow argued that this showed a complete lack of understanding on Frank’s part, both of the actual situation in Europe, and of what bourgeois democracy actually was. There had been many governments which Marxists had considered bourgeois democracies which had neither been elected nor based upon parliaments. The two most obvious examples being Prince Lvov’s government formed in Russia after the 1917 February Revolution and Prince Maximilian’s government following the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm in Germany in 1918. Neither had been elected, but had been formed out of remnants of the old regime and backed by the bourgeoisie. What both had was the active support and participation of mass petty bourgeois and workers’ parties.
It was this, not the abstract concept of “sovereignty”, which defined a regime as bourgeois democratic. The argument that bourgeois democracies are defined by “sovereignty” is even less convincing, as many bourgeois democracies, particularly after losing wars, are subject to domination by imperialist countries. The regimes which were established in France and Italy both included this essential ingredient- the support of mass petit-bourgeois and workers’ parties. Also, Frank’s classification of these governments as Bonapartist military dictatorships did not take into account their changes in nature and composition over time. In Italy, Morrow argued, the first Badoglio was a military dictatorship reliant on Anglo-American imperialism. However, the second government he formed, and later ones formed by Bonomi, were supported by mass democratic parties, and were therefore bourgeois democracies in character. The same could be said of the Gaullist government which Anglo-American imperialism installed in France. While Morrow acknowledged that this government had many Bonapartist tendencies, he maintained that most governments in bourgeois democracies shared such tendencies. It could not be doubted, however, that this government enjoyed the support of mass democratic parties. It was clear as the Allies established new regimes in Western Europe that the orthodox analysis was inadequate, and Morrow and Goldman’s arguments were correct- “Franco-like” regimes were not being established, bourgeois democratic governments were. Revolutionary situations were not developing, and instead the masses were accepting the parameters of bourgeois democracy, while the most politically conscious elements were flocking towards the “traditional” workers’ parties and demanding greater levels of democracy.
The Re-emergence of the Traditional Workers’ Parties
One of the most important aspects of Morrow and Goldman’s revision was that they highlighted the manner in which working class people flocked to their traditional organisations during periods of renewed political freedom. They recognised a trend whereby soon after liberation by Allied armies, the first organisations to benefit from the new political freedoms of the working class were the social democratic and Stalinist Communist parties. The Trotskyists were expecting that these parties would be discredited as a result of their monumental and demonstrable failure to halt the rise of fascism. Morrow pointed out that these failures were barely remembered by the working class. Fascism had come to power in Italy in 1922, in Germany in 1933, and proceeded to occupy swathes of Europe from 1938 onwards. Between then and the political freedoms introduced by Anglo-American imperialism no working class or democratic organisations were tolerated by the fascist states. The relative political freedoms allowed by bourgeois democracy could only be dreamt of under the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini. As Trotsky had warned when fascism was on the rise, all democratic and working class organisations were under threat from fascism. When fascism took power, it suppressed social democrats, Communists and democratic liberals and all these political tendencies went underground and became part of the resistance. These groups, most notably the Stalinists, gained enormous credibility as a result of their anti-fascist resistance activity. Finally, in a situation where there is a direct transition from fascist oppression to military occupation by imperialism, and where there is not only no revolutionary party but no workers’ organisation of any sort, the idea that a workers’ revolution could occur is at best optimistic. It was far more likely that workers would welcome the new political freedoms they gained as a result of the Allied victories, and possibly organise for more gains within the framework of bourgeois democracy. The best vehicles for achieving these goals seemed to be the social democratic and Communist parties.
The orthodox Trotskyist theory as to why resolutions failed to develop in the rest Europe after the First World War along the same lines as Russian Revolution was that distinct, mass revolutionary parties of the Bolshevik model were not formed, or were formed too late. Even if, as was the case in Germany, a mass revolutionary party was formed, it did not follow Bolshevik theory and practice in the correct way. Trotskyists argued that the situation in 1943-45 was “objectively revolutionary”, just like, if not more than, the situation was in 1917-23. However, Morrow pointed out that in Europe after the defeat of fascism, not only was there little chance of a mass revolutionary party being formed, any mass workers’ organisations that were constructed- parties, or trade unions- would almost inevitably concentrate on democratic demands. The theoretical background to the orthodox Trotskyist assertion that the working class was objectively revolutionary, and the missing ingredient was the mass revolutionary party, came from their interpretation of Lenin and his theory of monopoly capitalism and imperialism which impacted upon his analysis of reformism and social democracy. He argued that one outcome of imperialism in the twentieth century was that “scraps of booty” would be distributed among the petty bourgeoisie, the trade union bureaucracy, and a privileged layer of the working class referred to as the “aristocracy of labour”. These elements therefore had a perceived material interest in defending capitalism against the working class, and as such provided the material basis for reformism.
This suggests that the majority of the working class is objectively revolutionary but is held back by organisations- trade union bureaucracies and social democratic parties- which are dominated by a privileged stratum of the working class and the middle class. This was interpreted by many Trotskyists to mean that the main task for revolutionaries in the epoch of monopoly capitalism was to replace the “traditional workers’ parties” with a revolutionary leadership. During the faction fight Morrow and Goldman did not move away from this analysis, and in actual fact argued that it was the lack of mass revolutionary parties- the failure of any section of the Fourth International to grow beyond a small revolutionary group- which was the main factor that meant a revolutionary situation could not develop. The question as to why, in an objectively revolutionary situation, where neither mass revolutionary or reformist parties had been allowed to grow due to the conditions of authoritarianism; the traditional workers parties were able to build a mass base in the class virtually from nothing after the collapse of fascism, is central to understanding the failures of the orthodox Trotskyist analysis. Later, in the 1950s, Tony Cliff argued that there was no proof that improved conditions as a result of imperialism only benefited a privileged stratum of the working class:
An inevitable conclusion following upon Lenin’s analysis of reformism is that a small thin crust of conservatism hides the revolutionary urges of the mass of the workers. Any break through this crust would reveal a surging revolutionary lava. The role of the revolutionary party is to simply show the mass of the workers that their interests are betrayed by the “infinitesimal minority” of the “aristocracy of labour”.
This conclusion, however, is not confirmed by the history of reformism in Britain, the United States and elsewhere over the past half century: Its solidarity, its spread throughout the working class, frustrating and largely isolating all revolutionary minorities, makes it abundantly clear that the economic, social roots of reformism are not in “an infinitesimal minority of the working masses” as Lenin argued.
Cliff pointed out that capitalism and imperialism did not just raise the living standards of certain strata of workers. As living standards improve, all tend to be raised at the same time, and in fact differences between layers of workers narrow. This means that reformist organisations, such as social democratic and Communist parties, could maintain the loyalty of the vast majority of the working class as their role was to wrest concessions from capitalist prosperity and growth. Reformist consciousness among workers is therefore linked to the perceived ability of workers to make gains within capitalism. At the time of the fall of the fascist states, Morrow pointed out that the Anglo-American imperialist armies brought both the promise of economic prosperity and of democratic states. Making these gains was perfectly plausible within the boundaries of capitalism, and was also seen as vital by the European working class- here lies the root of the sudden growth of reformist organisations in Western Europe.
One of the weaknesses of Goldman and Morrow’s analysis is that it fails to explain adequately the reasons why reformist organisations grew so quickly. Furthermore, they insisted that the “tempo” of the revolution was going to be slower than originally thought primarily because of the lack of a mass revolutionary party. The “crisis of leadership” narrative runs through much of their writing in this period, with them mostly concentrating on changing the programmes of the Fourth International’s sections in order to best rectify them to the period- they did less to challenge the fundamental roots of the problems with the orthodox Trotskyist perspective. The idea which led the Trotskyists to argue that their primary concern should be to build a mass revolutionary party and advance the correct revolutionary slogans was not simply based upon the catastrophist perspective of the upcoming collapse of capitalism, but also on the false understanding of the nature of reformist consciousness within the working class, and how reformist organisations gain their allegiance. This leads to viewing the working class as being “duped” by reformist leaders who simply need to be displaced by the revolutionary party.
The Counterrevolutionary Role of Stalinism
The orthodox Trotskyists emphasised the progressive nature of the Soviet economy, and while they still maintained that the Stalinist bureaucracy, and by extension the Stalinist parties, were counterrevolutionary; they argued that the Soviet Union should still be supported in the war as its victory would ensure the establishment of state owned property in territories it captured, while its defeat would lead to the introduction of capitalism. This theory was fundamentally important with the Soviet Union’s armies occupying states throughout Eastern Europe. Morrow and Goldman argued that the orthodox perspective underestimated the counterrevolutionary role of Stalinism, which given the weakness of revolutionary groups in Europe may be decisive. The Soviet victories over Nazi Germany, and the Stalinists’ involvement in European resistance movements had strengthened the prestige of the Communist parties and they emerged as major political forces in most liberated territories, and were naturally playing a reactionary role. In Italy for example, their programme was to the right of the Socialist Party in many respects. The danger of Stalinism to the “European revolution” should not, therefore, be underestimated.
The Cannonites argued that this was a pessimistic perspective. The strength of the Red Army and Soviet industry displayed to the working class the gains made as a result of the October Revolution, and that such economies were being established all over Eastern Europe could only make further gains for the working class. Morrow did not challenge the orthodox Trotskyist theory of the Soviet economy and the idea of the degenerated workers’ state however, he did point out that while the superiority of the Red Army and Soviet industry may be true, these remained in the hands of the Stalinist bureaucracy which was counterrevolutionary and would use them for counterrevolutionary means. Felix Morrow had been the author of Revolution and Counterrevolution in Spain- a key book which developed a lot of the Fourth International’s perspectives on the Spanish Civil War. He reminded the orthodox faction of the violent counterrevolutionary role played by the Stalinist Communist Party there, which in pursuing its Popular Front perspective defended private property and the bourgeois republican state against the workers’ revolution, and ultimately led the crushing of the revolutionary workers’ movement. He argued that exactly the same role could be carried out by the Stalinist parties and armies in the European revolution.
The Stalinists did in fact play an extremely reactionary role in Western Europe, though conditions never reached anywhere near the heights of the revolutionary situation in Spain during the civil war. They continued to pursue the Popular Front strategy even after the defeat of fascism, calling for coalition governments including bourgeois liberal and conservative parties. At points in countries such as Italy and Britain, this placed them to the right of the social democratic parties, who either sought coalitions which excluded the conservatives, or sought to govern alone. In all countries in Western Europe the Communist parties sought to hold back any workers’ movements which developed after the defeat of fascism and limit their demands. The role of Stalinism in Eastern Europe was also in no way progressive. Unfortunately, in the course of the debate, Morrow and Goldman did not raise this in any detailed way, this may be in part due to lack of information, though they probably also maintained orthodox Trotskyist illusions in the progressive nature of the Soviet economic system. While Anglo-American imperialism attempted to assume the guise of liberators in Western Europe, in Eastern and Central Europe and particularly in the case of Germany, the Red Army entered territories as conquerors. Stalin had announced a “Great Patriotic War” against Germany, and unleashed a wave of Greater Russian chauvinism. “Trotsky’s Red Army” as it was still referred to by the Cannonites in order to point to who they considered to be the true engineer of the machine which crushed Nazism, and associate the victories of the Red Army with the gains made by the October Revolution; raped and pillaged across Eastern Europe. The Kremlin then imposed authoritarian dictatorships based upon the model of the Soviet Union. Whatever can be said about the role of Stalinism in the East, it certainly did not demonstrate its progressive nature in comparison to Western capitalism.
Morrow and Goldman argued that, whatever one felt about the Trotskyist position of defending the Soviet Union, the issue had lost the central importance that they had given it up until then. The USSR was no longer under direct threat from imperialism, and now the key issue was warning workers of Stalinism’s reactionary nature. Cannon and others argued that the threat of imperialism to the Soviet Union had not receded with the defeat of fascism, and now it faced war with the Western Allies. He actually went as far as to say that the war was in fact not over:
Trotsky predicted that the fate of the Soviet Union would be decided in the war. That remains our firm conviction. Only we disagree with some people who carelessly think that the war is over. The war has only passed through one stage and is now in the process of regroupment and reorganisation for the second. The war is not over, and the revolution which we said would issue from the war in Europe is not taken off the agenda.
Cannon said this in November 1946.
Morrow argued that in the debate over the role of Stalinism Cannon displayed the worst aspects of factionalism and dogmatism:
Cannon is driven by his blind factionalism but also by something which is even more important for us to struggle against: He represents today the crassest example in the Fourth International of those who cling to outworn formulas at any cost. Trotsky said the fate of the Soviet Union would be decided by the war; Cannon is determined to save that formula and in that mad venture is ready to make still greater errors, errors indeed which approach the outer limits of sanity.
The Tempo of the Revolution
Morrow and Goldman insisted during the faction fight that they were not arguing that the European revolution was not going to occur, but rather that it was not an immediate prospect. They argued that events had proven predictions of a workers’ revolution in Europe immediately following the Second World War to be demonstrably wrong. The use by the Western European bourgeoisie and Anglo-American imperialism of bourgeois democratic regimes and their encouragement of economic growth, rather than the establishment of military dictatorships and the plundering of resources meant that they were likely to achieve stability through relative consensus and the passive support of the majority of the population. This was bolstered by the support of the traditional workers’ parties and the reactionary role of Stalinism. All this combined with the lack of mass revolutionary parties in Europe meant that the revolution was not around the corner. They feared that the Trotskyist movement continuing to expect, and plan for, revolution would ultimately lead it in an ultra-left direction. They argued for a concentration on democratic demands which would orientate the Trotskyist movement towards the pace the workers’ struggle was actually moving at. They pointed out that Trotsky himself had suggested it was possible that in the lead up to the European revolution there would be a protracted period where workers would follow reformist parties. There had been a revival of “democratic illusions” among the workers due to the many having grown up without having experienced bourgeois democracy before, and an intensification of nationalism due to fascist occupation. The majority, however, maintained that these illusions would be dispelled by the inevitable reversion to authoritarianism on the part of Anglo-American imperialism.
The importance of democratic demands was central to Morrow and Goldman’s theory. Given the Fourth International’s majority was focused upon what they saw as the upcoming revolution, they believed that the emphasis should be on demands which separated revolutionaries clearly from the social democratic and Stalinist parties, exposing their weaknesses as opposed to the strengths of a truly revolutionary programme. It argued that explicitly proletarian demands, such as nationalisation and the sliding scale of wages, would be more effective in achieving this. Morrow and Goldman argued that democratic demands were central to the struggle in Europe, and this was proven by the mass movements developing against the monarchy in countries such as Italy and Belgium. In Italy, the king was complicit in the fascists gaining power- he appointed Mussolini as Prime Minister- and had actively supported the dictatorship. In Belgium, King Leopold collaborated with the Nazi invaders. In France, they argued for a concentration on a battle for greater democratic freedoms for the left, and for an end to colonialism in South East Asia. After generations of fascist rule and occupation the ability to mobilise mass movements for greater democracy and freedom was clear; and the promises of Anglo-American imperialism, the European bourgeoisie and the reformist leaders had the effect of making people expect such gains, and demanding that they materialise.
They argued that by developing slogans for radical democracy Trotskyists could both enter the mass movements and steer them in a more radical direction, and expose the compromises and equivocations of the traditional workers’ parties. Cannon, Frank, and others accused them of “opportunism”, and of tailing the liberals and reformists. Goldman and Morrow countered that the real danger was not opportunism, but ultra-leftism in the Fourth International. In concentrating on demands for a revolution they expected any minute, the orthodox faction was dismissing mass movements which were actually occurring. Morrow argued that in order to prove to workers that their illusions in bourgeois democracy were incorrect, they needed first to fight for democracy and win one as complete as possible. Firstly, it is only by experiencing bourgeois democracy first hand that workers’ illusions in it can be dispelled. Secondly, resistance by the bourgeoisie to workers’ demands for democracy, and the traditional workers’ parties’ attempts to resist them, would reveal the true nature of both. The Cannonites argued that since the reformists were also advancing democratic demands if revolutionaries did the same it would be impossible for workers to distinguish between the two- only by advancing revolutionary demands could revolutionaries expose the reformists.
At the root of this exchange was the Trotskyist concept of “transitional demands”, which was an approach that both sides of the debate remained convinced by. Transitional demands were first argued for by Trotsky, Lenin and the Comintern. Previous to this, the social democrats of the Second International argued for a division between minimum and maximum demands. Minimum demands could be achievable under capitalism, and would be the slogans of the socialist movement in non-revolutionary periods. Maximum demands were the demands that could only be achieved under socialism. In non-revolutionary periods, maximum demands took on a purely propagandist function, as in they would only be used to educate socialists as to the full nature of Marxist ideas, while minimum demands were at the fore. The problem with this was that social democratic organisations would increasingly treat maximum demands as ideas to be advanced at some unspecified future date, and concentrate solely on the minimum. Transitional demands were suggested as a way to transcend this division. The idea was for revolutionaries to make demands which seemed both reasonable and achievable to workers, but were in fact a direct challenge to capitalism as a whole- these would serve the purpose of engaging with where the class struggle and working class consciousness were at the time, while motivating them to direct confrontation with the system. In this way, Marxists could avoid both pessimistic reformism on the one hand and abstract utopianism on the other.
The Trotskyists argued that it was a sign of the Comintern’s degeneration into reformism that by its Fifth World Congress it had discarded the transitional approach and once again separated demands into minimum and maximum programmes. When the Fourth International was launched in 1938 it formulated a transitional programme written by Trotsky, with the help of Cannon and others, entitled The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International. The programme was, in many ways, an excellent document. It called for, among other things: a sliding scale of wages, where wages rise automatically in relation to any increase in the price of consumer goods; a sliding scale of working hours, where all work is divided equally among the workforce, while wages remain the same irrespective of whether hours go down; expropriation of key branches of industry, such as war industries, railways, and important sources of raw materials; expropriation of the banks; and the placing of military training under the control of workers’ organisations. As well as these demands, it also called for certain forms of workers’ self-organisation, such as factory committees and workers’ self-defence groups. There were also demands which would play a largely educational role until a revolutionary situation, such as the call for the formation of Soviets and for a workers’ government. At the time it was written it would have been a brilliant programme for a mass revolutionary party. However, when it was drawn up the Transitional Programme, as it was generally known, was adhered to by only a handful of small groups and individuals. Furthermore, much of it was based upon the flawed predictions and assumptions of Trotsky and his followers- it was written in a period of intense capitalist crisis, and written in the expectation that this crisis would only intensify. The Transitional Programme, whatever its qualities, seemed fanciful when one looked at the limited forces gathered around it, and it had little to no impact on the working class movement. However, for many Trotskyists, including their leadership, it became almost an article of faith.
Morrow and Goldman argued that the failure of the leadership of the Fourth International was that it continued to apply formulas from the Transitional Programme, written in 1938, to the situation of 1945. Not only did this show a failure to adapt and generate new ideas, many of the predictions upon which it was based were simply proven wrong. Furthermore, they argued that the failure to raise new demands around questions of democracy was against the very spirit, if not the word of the programme. In the last few years of the Second World War, and for several after, movements for greater levels of democracy spread throughout Europe. Social democratic and Stalinist organisations attempted to limit the scope of these movements and hold back any radicalism- they concentrated upon minimum demands. Rather than approach these movements with either calls for revolution, of with more “proletarian” economic slogans, Trotskyists should instead put forward democratic demands of the movement- such as abolition of the monarchy- with more rigorous democratic demands which would directly challenge capitalism. In this manner, they argued that the primacy of democratic demands was not a break with the Trotskyist method of transitional demands, but rather its correct application in new circumstances. Copying the 1938 programme by rote was not remaining loyal to the idea of transitional demands, it was the negation of it.
In the early years of liberation from fascism there were campaigns in Italy and Belgium against the monarchy, and in Italy, France, Holland and Belgium for the formation of constituent assemblies. One of the most instructive examples for Morrow was the movement in Belgium. Between 1944 and 1950 there was a political crisis in the country as King Leopold III attempted to return to the country. In 1940, after the invasion of the German army and the defeat of the British Expeditionary Force, Leopold had surrendered to the Nazis. The decision had unsurprisingly been extremely unpopular in Belgium, and even his own ministers disassociated themselves from him. After he was freed from German imprisonment by American soldiers in 1945, he remained in exile in Switzerland while his brother Charles was appointed as regent. Mass demonstrations and strikes grew in opposition to Leopold’s return, culminating in a general strike in 1950. The social democratic Belgian Socialist Party opposed Leopold’s return, but was a part of a coalition government which included Catholic democrats who supported the monarchy. Due to the general strike, and the wave of unrest which swept the country in 1950, Leopold was forced to abdicate in favour of his son Baudouin in August 1950.
In June 21 1945 Morrow introduced the following motion to the Political Committee of the Socialist Workers Party:
That in our analysis of the Belgian working class struggle against the return of King Leopold, we condemn the Socialist and Communist parties for having failed to take the following steps:
1. Expulsion from the government of the bourgeois ministers, who are favourable to Leopold’s return. Thereby the government would be transformed into a Socialist-Communist government.
2. Arrest of the royal family, including the Regent, and other reactionaries and industrialists who are plotting with Leopold for his return.
3. Immediate proclamation of the democratic republic.
4. Authorisation of election of soldiers’ committees by the Belgian regiments.
5. Arming of the workers. Control of production by elected factory committees to assure continued production for the needs of the workers.
This is an example of what Morrow and Goldman meant by democratic demands as transitional demands. They use popular pro-democracy movements to raise demands which challenge the bourgeois state and expose the traditional workers’ parties’ leaders, and also to raise demands which directly challenge capitalism. The task of revolutionaries was to raise these slogans in order to contrast what the social democratic and Stalinist parties should do, and more importantly, what the workers were expecting them to do, with what they actually did. The Leopold crisis in Belgium was an opportunity to do this- the Socialist and Communist parties opposed his return, but supported the retention of the monarchy as an institution. This was in direct contradiction to the programmes of both parties, which were ostensibly republican. By raising democratic demands, far from being indistinguishable from the reformists, revolutionaries could expose them.
The Organisation Question
Although the political differences between the minority led by Shachtman and that led by Morrow and Goldman were many, what they both held in common was a rejection of the organisational model propounded by Cannon and his followers. It could be argued in fact that it was their attempts to win their positions within the Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International, and the experience of being a minority tendency within those organisations, which raised these issues and brought them to the fore. A view based simply upon an analysis of their formal positions would conclude that the two minorities were very different. Morrow and Goldman’s faction remained convinced of the theory of Trotsky’s characterisation of the Soviet Union as a degenerated workers’ state, and therefore agreed with the argument that during the Second World War revolutionaries should argue in its defence. However, as the war drew to a close and other weaknesses of the Fourth International’s theory became clear, they questioned the centrality of the slogan. They argued that the main role of revolutionaries with regards to the Soviet Union was not to argue in its defence, but rather to warn the working class of the dangers that Stalinism posed to the revolutionary movement. This, they argued, was not a break from Trotskyist theory, as both the Shachtmanites and the orthodox Trotskyists recognised the counterrevolutionary nature of the Stalinist bureaucracy and by extension the Stalinist parties. They did believe however, that continued emphasis of the need to defend the Soviet Union and of the proletarian nature of the state would downplay its counterrevolutionary role.
To begin with, partly as a result of the pressure of the faction fight, the SWP and the Fourth International’s leaderships were not entirely in disagreement. They began to push the slogan “unconditional defence of the Soviet Union” to the background and bring the new slogan, “defend the European Revolution from Stalinism” to the fore. This seemed to better fit the new conditions towards the end of the war when the threat of Stalinism to the revolutionary and democratic movements in Europe was more real than the threat of imperialism to the Soviet Union. On this basis, the SWP Minority began to argue that the continued division of the Trotskyist movement in the United States between Shachtman’s Workers Party, formed by members who had split in 1940, and the SWP, was no longer justified. The main difference between the two parties was on the question of the nature of the Soviet Union, which in practical terms was translated into a division over the question of the Soviet Union. During the Second World War, when the slogan “unconditional defence of the Soviet Union" was central to the SWP’s political activity, a division between the two parties was understandable. However, as the war drew to a close this slogan lost its importance, and opposition to Stalinism- an issue both had agreement on- became more important; there was a strong argument in favour of unity. Furthermore, they pointed out that at the time of the original split in 1940, the Majority, Cannon, and in fact Trotsky himself, had argued that the political differences between the two factions were not in themselves grounds for a split. These arguments, particularly from Cannon, may in fact have simply been an attempt to lay the blame for the split at the feet of Shachtman and his comrades after having purposefully made life inside the SWP so intolerable for them they were forced to leave; however the argument that the split was unnecessary and resolvable had been common among the Majority at the time.
The arguments for merger, made primarily by Albert Goldman, were quite straight forward. At the time when unity was discussed in 1946, there were two weekly Trotskyist agitational newspapers, two monthly theoretical magazines, and any number of activities carried out by the two parties which were virtually indistinguishable from one another. Merger of the two organisations would drastically reduce duplication of effort. On the more general political level, there were no differences with regards to the general anti-capitalist programme between the two parties, and their list of transitional demands differed very little. Both refused support for US imperialism during the Second World War, fought against the unions’ no-strike pledge, and supported all strikes during the war. They also both agreed on the necessity of building a US party of labour, and called for the withdrawal of US troops from occupied territories. The existence of two separate parties in these conditions would only lead to confusion and demoralisation. A revolutionary worker, rejecting reformism, and then Stalinism, would then have to choose between two virtually indistinguishable Trotskyist parties. When merger was proposed by the SWP Minority, the Workers Party indicated that they were in favour of the idea. This positivity was not reciprocated by the Cannonites. Goldman argued that it was the rejection of unity and, more importantly how it was rejected by the Cannonites, which exposed serious problems with their model of revolutionary organisation. To begin with, Goldman described Cannon himself as reacting “violently” to the idea of a merger. The Minority proposed, as they had done even before the idea of unity arose, joint action on key areas of agreement- a bloc in trade unions, joint anti-fascist work, and cooperation in elections. The Cannonites refused this cooperation, and Cannon argued “we must deepen the split”. When unity was proposed, he accused the Minority of attempting to split the party. In Cannon’s view, the Minority was attempting to form an unprincipled bloc with the Shachtmanites- by merging with the Workers Party hundreds of oppositional members would be brought into the SWP, and challenge the lines of the party and the position of the leadership. Goldman, for his part, argued that the main reason Cannon and his supporters were so opposed to unity was that it would allow a thousand independent minded revolutionaries into the organisation, who would challenge the analysis of the leadership and refuse to follow them blindly.
However, Cannon’s outright rejection of unity shifted somewhat due to there being enthusiasm for such a fusion within the International. The leadership shifted from being set against it, to a “neither for nor against” position, and an opening up of discussion on the subject. For Goldman, this appeared to be nothing more than a manoeuvre rather than a genuine openness to unity. For example, when the Workers Party raised the possibility of maintaining their own internal publication after a merger, this was seized on by the leadership of an example of the Shachtmanites not wishing to dissolve themselves but instead aiming to continue with factional activity. When they waived this right, Cannon and others declared that it had never been a major issue, and the main blocks to unity were issues of political programme. They sent a list of fifteen questions to the Workers Party, stating that the answers would inform the party’s decision. Goldman believed that these were designed to highlight differences and justify the inevitable rejection.
From the point that unity was proposed, the Cannonites began to push the slogan of defence of the Soviet Union back to the forefront of SWP politics. Shachtman argued that this was done to exaggerate the differences between the two parties in order to prevent a merger. He pointed out that it proved the factional, and therefore largely illogical, nature of their approach that the slogan of “unconditional defence of the Soviet Union” was pushed to the background while the war was still ongoing, and brought it back to the fore after the war had ended. It was at this point, in 1946, that Cannon made his ludicrous argument that the Second World War was not yet over. Shachtman argued that the reason the position on Russia was being “fortified” despite its decreased importance, was because it was the clear dividing line between the Workers Party and the SWP, and it was the nature of the bureaucratic method of Cannon and others like him to deepen divisions and create shibboleths:
Bureaucratism is not always merely a system or means of imposing a false policy upon a movement. Bureuacratism has roots of its own, too. Often it is precisely a bureaucratised movement with a bureaucratic leadership that makes it difficult or impossible to have a correct policy adopted when it is proposed by critics of the leadership, or to alter a policy which requires alteration. A bureaucracy always seeks “peace” and “order” in its organisation. It is always sufficiently content with its policy, programme, and theories that prevail, unless and until it and it alone decides that they require modification. It is concerned beyond measure with its prestige and authority, while maintaining and saving face. It is resentful of initiative taken by others which reflects upon its own failure to take initiative. Rather than credit opponents and critics by accepting their policies, it will seek to discredit these critics by persisting in outlived or false policies about which it itself no longer has firm convictions. If not at every given moment, then certainly in the long run, bureaucratism and false policy go hand in hand, they rise - or sink - to each other’s level, they are the necessary compliment of each other. Then, what began or seemed to begin as a dispute over “organisational” questions clearly becomes a dispute over political questions which puts the organisational difference into the shade. In this sense, one of the criminal evils inherent in an ossified bureaucracy, concerned first and foremost with perpetuating itself and maintaining its prestige and authority, with justifying itself under all circumstances, is its inexorable tendency to convert every normal and small difference of opinion into a violent factional clash, to exaggerate differences, to stimulate, maintain and deepen differences artificially, to prevent normal, simple and easy correction of the course of a party when it needs correction, to drive young and unskilled critics to desperation, to exaggeration of their own, and sometimes even to irresponsible actions which hurt and discredit the opposition, hurt the party and only make the consolidation and self-justification of the bureaucracy easier.
Shachtman wrote this as part of an introduction to Goldman’s pamphlet which outlined the debate in the SWP concerning the question of unity with the Workers Party. However, it also describes the logic behind some of the seemingly incomprehensible actions of the SWP leadership throughout the faction fight with Morrow and Goldman, and the one with Shachtman as well.
The issue of the defence of the Soviet Union was important to the SWP leadership, not because of any fundamental principle being attached to it, but rather because by challenging it, the Shachtmanites had taken it upon themselves to act independently of the party bureaucracy. In putting a stop to this the Cannonites had made a shibboleth of the idea. This was also the case with Morrow and Goldman’s positions on the European Revolution. Shachtman argued that a similar process took place during Tortsky’s faction fight with the Stalinists in Russia. The theory of socialism in one country, Shachtman argued, originated as a factional weapon in the hands of the Stalinist bureaucracy to isolate Trotsky and the Opposition by appealing on a populist basis to the bureaucracy’s, and much of the rest of the Russian population’s, wish for peace and stability. However, what began as a cynical factional tool became a real theory which was taken to heart by the bureaucracy and became central to its actual political practice. The same process, on a smaller scale, happened inside the SWP. The theories- defence of the Soviet Union, the immanency of the European Revolution- at first served to combat the existence of independent factions which were challenging the monopoly of ideas and initiative which were reserved for the leadership. In the course of the faction fights, as divisions deepened and ideas hardened, these theories, for the SWP leadership and their supporters, took the form of political principle and became the justification for the very existence of the leadership- they became fetishised.
In this manner faction fights take on lives of their own, cease to be expressions of political difference and become engines for difference themselves. Bureaucratism ensures that every dispute, however minor, becomes a virtual fight to the death. The bureaucracy cannot be seen to lose. Therefore, for Shachtman and Goldman what began as discussions over the nature of the Soviet Union or the tempo of the European Revolution swiftly escalated into arguments about the nature of revolutionary organisation. Furthermore, the faction fights of the 1940s encouraged and solidified some of the worst aspects of the SWP, hardening the tendencies towards monolithism, conformity and bureaucratism. It is therefore unsurprising that as a result over the dispute over the question of unity many of the SWP Minority ended up splitting and joining the Workers Party. After doing so, Goldman wrote his pamphlet on the unity question, introduced by Shachtman, which laid out the differences he and others in the Workers Party had with the Cannonites on the organisation question. They argued that Cannon’s model of the party had more in common with Stalinism than it did with Bolshevism. While they supported the idea of democratic centralism- that as well as there being open discussion there must be unity in action, they rejected the Zinovievist idea of a monolithic party. Goldman pointed out that, in private, Cannon used to say that he was not a Trotskyist, but a “Leninist on the organisational question”. . Trotskyists, at least in theory, rejected the idea that there was a difference between Trotsky’s idea of a democratic organisation and Lenin’s model of the party. It was Zinoviev and his followers who attempted to draw a distinction between the two. By this, Cannon could only mean that when it came to party organisation he bought into the Zinovievist myth of a Leninist monolithic party. It was this model which, through Cannon, imposed itself on the Trotskyist movement in the 1940s.
This faction fight was instructive, not simply because of the political arguments which were advanced, but also because it exposed the serious problems in the Trotskyist movement. Over the course of the Second World War the Trotskyist movement’s isolation became even more acute than it had been in the 1930s. While Trotsky exaggerated the extent to which the Western imperialist countries had become authoritarian during the war, it had led to a drastic extension of the state and a suppression of anti-war and trade union militancy. The social democrats had in these countries carried out their usual chauvinist role of supporting their respective states during an imperialist war and after Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 the Stalinist parties joined them. As Shachtman had argued, the Communist parties primarily acted as agents of the Stalinist bureaucracy’s interests. When the Soviet Union was in a military alliance with Nazi Germany, in opposition to Anglo-American imperialism, they agitated against their governments- when the Soviet bureaucracy’s interests lay in its alliance with the Allies, the Communist parties became enthusiastic supporters of the “war effort”. They agitated for an escalation of Anglo-American involvement in the war, demanding the opening of a second front; and became the worst speed-up artists in the factories. In order to further the war effort, the Western governments required industrial peace, and the Communist parties were happy to oblige- dampening down militancy and opposing strike action. However, the increased credibility of the Soviet Union due to its fight against Nazi Germany, particularly as it achieved victories, helped Stalinism gain influence in the Western working class throughout the period. Social democracy, particularly the British Labour Party, also grew in influence. In order to manage the war economy the British government adopted drastic forms of state control, ownership and planning. The Labour Party was to make enormous gains coming out of the war by advocating the adaption of this approach (nationalisation, full employment, state planning) to a peace time economy.
Trotskyists were left isolated. In many cases, they carried out some important revolutionary activity, particularly in the field of industrial militancy; but they were swimming against the tide. In those countries either ruled by fascist dictatorships or occupied by fascist armies, much of the Trotskyist cadre was effectively wiped out. Even those who survived had minimal influence within the resistance movements, as opposed to the Communist parties who were a major component of the resistance in most countries dominated by fascism. The conditions of the most authoritarian forms of illegality did not allow Trotskyism any room to grow. Far from leading to the collapse of reformist organisations and the growth of mass revolutionary parties, the Second World War led to the growth of reformism- both, in the form of illusions in bourgeois democracy and the traditional workers’ organisations- emerged stronger than ever. It was the inability of the Trotskyist movement to come to terms with its own isolation, and the failures of its expectations to come to pass, which was at the root of the debates throughout the Second World War. The key question is why were the Trotskyists and their organisations unable to change course, and break free of their isolation.
Today, it is common sense that the revolutionary left is dogmatic, sectarian and deluded; however this has not always been the case. There had always been these features in some parts of the far left, but the roots of them coming to dominate can be traced to the isolation of the revolutionary movement in the 1930s and 1940s. The political degeneration can be traced earlier, to the degeneration of the Comintern in the 1920s. At that time, the Communist parties in many countries were mass parties, with deep influence over the working class. It was the uprooting of their native democratic structures and the imposition of bureaucratic centralism which sucked the life out of the movement. The application of top-down bureaucratised party structures to organisations of tiny numbers of activists, as opposed to the mass parties of the Comintern, translated the tragedies of the 1920s to the farces of the 1930s and 1940s.
The Second World War was in many ways the end of the old period, which began with the revolutionary wave of 1917-23, and the beginning of a new one. The Trotskyists were ill-equipped for this transition as they attempted to apply the old political and organisational formulae, which had already been somewhat ineffective, to these new circumstances, and demonstrably failed as a result. While the faction fight with Shachtman at the beginning of the Second World War signified the beginning of the end for orthodox Trotskyism, the faction fight with Morrow and Goldman confirmed it. Shachtman’s followers’ grievance was that the Fourth International was unable to revise its analysis of the class nature of the Soviet Union and therefore adapt to the beginning of the war. Morrow and Goldman’s concern was that its inability to understand the nature of either Stalinism or Western imperialism led them to fail to grasp the reality of the situation at the end of it. These failures, and the isolation which resulted, lay the groundwork for the nature of the Trotskyist movement for decades to come.
- Category: Unions
- Published on Monday, 27 October 2014
- Written by Roger Welch
This is written to complement the article I wrote last week on the successful unofficial strike by postal workers in Portsmouth. Since that article was written there was also similar action taken by postal workers in Bridgwater. The aim of that article was to show how unofficial action can both get round the failure of union leaderships to support effective action to further or defend the interests of their members and exploit loopholes in the anti union laws. This article is more of a legal briefing in that the law is explained in greater detail. However, I have also sought to draw out the practicalities involved in organising and participating in unofficial strike action. The relevant law is to be found in sections 20, 237 and 238 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.
Unofficial action deemed official by the law
Section 20 is the key section in terms of unions being legally liable for acts of stewards and other workplace reps who are elected or appointed in accordance with the union’s rules. To avoid liability the union will need properly to repudiate any act which is authorised or endorsed by one or more of such reps. It makes no difference that the rep has acted contrary to the union rulebook or any express instructions issued to that rep by the union leadership or paid officials. Therefore, if a union rep successfully persuades members to walk out the union is liable for this until it repudiates. In law this action does not become unofficial action until the union properly repudiates what the rep has done. Elected reps can be disciplined and indeed dismissed for organising unofficial action, although the rep will retain the right to claim unfair dismissal providing s/he has at least two years completed employment. (This employment requirement is not necessary where a rep is dismissed for trade union activities in which case the dismissal is automatically unfair. However, there is some hostile case law on this which excludes organising unofficial action as a trade union activity.) Union reps have to determine for themselves if they are at risk of victimisation before being up front about organising unofficial action.
It should be noted that all the above applies where a union rep is a member of strike committee, and this is the case even if the committee is an unofficial one in that it is not set up within the union’s rules. Moreover, a union is bound by the acts of such a committee even if the relevant union rep(s) opposed the organisation of unofficial action or were not present at the time the decision to organise the action was made. In short, the fact that at least one workplace rep is a member of the committee is sufficient to mean that the union is deemed to authorise the action and therefore must repudiate in order to avoid legal liability.
Reducing the risk of victimisation
This legal position is useful where there are a number of union militants who can form a strike committee but elected reps need to do what they can to avoid victimisation where they know or suspect the employer is out to get them. Such reps could absent themselves from the committee at the time the decision to call the action is made, and so make it as difficult as possible for the employer to prove the rep was involved in organising the action.
Industrial action is unofficial from the outset and none of the above applies where the strike committee is unofficial and no workplace reps are members of it. However, such action is rendered temporarily official, in the sense that the union will need to repudiate it, if the action is endorsed by one or more elected reps. This would be the case if one or more of the reps participates in the action. This seems to me to be another way in which union reps at risk of victimisation can take steps to reduce that risk. It can be argued that the rep is a participant in but not an organiser of the unofficial action, and therefore not in a different position to that of any of the other workers who take the action.
Action deemed official and unfair dismissal
The practical significance of the action being deemed authorised or endorsed by the union under s.20 TULRCA is that initially it is s.238 that applies to the action in terms of unfair dismissal law. The effect of this section is that an employer can dismiss all the workers who take the action, though the dismissals must take effect whilst the action is taking place not after it has come to an end. Where the employer carries out such dismissals then unfair dismissal rights are excluded and there is nothing in law that the strikers can do about the dismissals. However, if the employer fails to dismiss all the workers taking the action then the dismissals become selective and ordinary unfair dismissal rights apply, though remember these rights are only possessed by employees with at least two years completed employment.
Again union militants on the ground need to assess whether there is a real risk that the employer will be happy to dismiss all members of the workforce who take unofficial action. It is also important to take into account, particularly where all the workers are young, that most or all of them may not have the two years completed employment necessary to claim unfair dismissal. Also unfair dismissal rights are only possessed by employees and this does not include all workers. For example, workers who are employed on a casual basis, where contractually there is no obligation on the employer to offer work and no obligation on the part of the worker to accept any work offered, are not considered in law to be employees. A combination of all of these factors will generally mean that workers on zero hours contracts have no unfair dismissal rights even where technically they might be considered to be employees because they have to be on call and are prohibited from working for any other company.
Where the employer does not dismiss all workers taking the action than as above under s.238 workers who have unfair dismissal rights can bring ordinary unfair dismissal claims. However, it is important to take into account that such claims will not automatically or always succeed, and, in any case, winning the claim only means the workers will be given compensation by a tribunal. Ultimately, tribunals do not possess the power to order employers to reinstate dismissed strikers.
The effect of union repudiation and using ‘days of grace’
The significance of union repudiation is that s.238 ceases to apply and the industrial action has become unofficial within the meaning of the TULRCA. The practical consequence is that the employer can choose to dismiss on a selective basis and therefore deliberately victimise known militants – be they union reps or not. The union will probably refuse to provide any support or advice or representation to workers who are sacked under s.237 to avoid being found to have endorsed the action, as this would have the effect of invalidating the repudiation so that the union once more becomes legally liable. The Act expressly provides that organising industrial action, even though this is done in full compliance with the balloting laws, cannot attract legal immunity, and typically trade union leaderships will refuse to organise such action.
However, this is where practicalities intervene which give unofficial strikers a degree of legal protection. First, a union will have no opportunity to repudiate where a walk out is of short duration as the workers will have returned to work before repudiation can occur. This was the case with both the unofficial strikes by postal workers in Portsmouth and Bridgewater last week. Secondly, even where the duration of unofficial action is more sustained, the employer has to wait one working day after repudiation, before s.237 comes into operation to permit selective dismissals. It is useful to note that Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays do not count as working days even though these days may be contractually worked by workers taking the action. Therefore, if effective union repudiation takes place on a Friday, the employer cannot rely on s.237 until the following Tuesday.
All union militants, let alone revolutionary socialists, will be fully aware that the law cannot be relied on to defend workers rights and generally the law operates in favour of employers and the State. Nevertheless, in my view, it is useful to know the above law, and union militants can assess for themselves if it is of any use to them when it comes to organising or taking unofficial action.
This is the second of two articles by Roger opening up a discussion on the practicalities of organising unofficial action. The first can be found here. Neither article should be taken as the last word on the subject and activists should seek advice from fellow reps and other sources before embarking on unofficial industrial action, which does carry risks of dismissal and disciplinary action if anything should go wrong.