In his letter on the forthcoming Public and Commercial Services union conference, Dave Vincent makes his usual pertinent points about the absence of a serious strategy when resisting cuts and attacks on members’ conditions (Letters, May 3).
He writes: “The main issue is ... wider membership apathy and low combativity across the movement. There has been no united action of the public-sector unions over the 1% pay cap that was actually agreed at the September TUC congress in 2017. PCS cannot win alone.”
Absolutely correct. But what about the politics? As comrade Vincent well knows, it is essential for any fightback to be waged at the political level first and foremost. Along with most of the left, he recognises the significance of Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, but, just like the Socialist Party in England and Wales, he thinks unions like PCS should stand aside from the battle to transform Labour. He states:
“My view on affiliation remains unchanged - I am still opposed. If all the super-unions with all their tens of millions of pounds in donations, plus the largest Labour membership in decades, have not pulled the party left, a union the size of PCS will make no extra impact ... The back-tracking by Corbyn, the anti-democratic coup in Momentum, the continual overwhelming hostility of the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the leadership’s failure to support deselection of these traitors convinces me that PCS will make no difference.”
The first point to note here is that a union of almost 200,000 members is hardly insignificant, as comrade Vincent seems to believe. But it is not just PCS which is considering affiliation. At this very time the 80,000-strong Rail, Maritime and Transport union is engaged in a membership consultation and will make a decision on whether or not to reaffiliate to Labour very soon. And they are not the only ones. What if the National Education Union, with its 450,000 members, decided to come on board too?
It is absurd to claim that such forces can have no effect on the outcome of Labour’s internal battle - although at least comrade Vincent does not follow in SPEW’s footsteps by saying that affiliation would not give the union ‘value for money’! But does he think it is impossible to transform Labour into a fighting, working class party? If he believed that, his stance would be even more backward than SPEW’s, which does at least call for such a transformation - it is just that SPEW wants to stand aside and leave it all to others!
What about “the largest Labour membership in decades”? It is true that an individual socialist who joins Labour will not be able to transform the party on their own, but, when we are talking about tens of thousands of working class activists, it is just plain wrong to say that they are having, and will have, no effect. It is a long battle, but many local parties are in the process of being transformed - take Haringey, for instance.
It is essential for all pro-working class forces to join the battle. Of course we can win! The Labour machine is hardly invincible and it is perfectly possible to give Corbyn some backbone by our own actions. What else should we do? Just shrug our shoulders and forget about the politics?
I agree with the sentiment expressed in the headline to Tony Greenstein’s article in last week’s paper: ‘Corbyn: grow a backbone’ (May 3). As Tony says, Corbyn has totally capitulated to Labour’s right wing over so-called anti-Semitism. Now we have their expulsion of Marc Wadsworth. So if Corbyn ever gets into No10 what do we expect he will do?
The Labour left and Momentum members, the activists and people who saw in Corbyn someone who could realise their aspirations of transforming the world, generated enough of a motivation to join the party and to tirelessly work to get Labour councillors and MPs elected. This commitment is a demonstration of the willingness of those members to attempt to change the direction of the party and take back control from the right wing, represented by Progress, Labour First and the entrenched interests who test the rule book to its limit. But Corbyn’s concessions to the right and lack of leadership have created a vacuum where there should be inspiration.
It is now over two years since Momentum was founded and, although huge progress has been made, there needs to be more coming from Corbyn to inspire and provide direction to the members. It’s not that fatigue is a problem, but that there is a lack of differentiation of politics at local level - almost to the point of giving up on the battle and compromising with the right. As Corbyn is not providing a “backbone”, this will eventually feed down to local level.
This is one aspect: another is the total lack of democracy in Momentum - the message being, campaign at local level, win new members, but that is it. All parties can campaign locally over potholes or litter, but it is the bigger issues - the long game of winning power in the party and holding representatives to account - that are what really matter.
It’s slow progress, but local campaigners need the political education about the journey, going forward.
Anyone who believes there is no anti-Semitism in the Labour Party and that it is just a big conspiracy between rightwing Labour MPs, the Tory Party and sections of the media should read three recent books dealing in depth with the issues: Dave Rich’s The left’s Jewish problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and anti-Semitism; Bob Fine and Phil Spencer’s The left and anti-Semitism: the recurrence of the Jewish question; and Dave Hirsh’s Contemporary left anti-Semitism.
Paul Flewers’ excellent article on the misplaced enthusiasm of Sydney and Beatrice Webb for Stalinism is a reminder of the perception some people continue to have of the Labour Party and socialism (‘Stalin’s fellow travellers’, April 26).
Paul argues that the Webbs admired Stalinism because they imagined it had realised their ideal society. At the heart of this was rule by an elite of professionals and experts. The Webbs believed that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was an elite institution, guided by the principles of science, service, order and progress. It was therefore more advanced than capitalism. It was a new civilisation, controlled by a superior caste of educated leaders.
According to Terry Austrin (‘Fabianism and Stalinism’ Critique No27, 1995), the Webbs were followers of the French positivist philosopher and founding father of sociology, Auguste Comte (1789-1857). Comte not only argued that all forms of inquiry should conform to a scientific method, based on observation and experience, but that scientists should become priests of a new religion of humanity. This religion would replace service to god with service to humans.
The Webbs projected this idea onto the Soviet bureaucracy, whose sociology purported to be Marxist. They compared the CPSU to a religious order, which required the constant checking of the ideas and behaviour of its members. As Paul observes, the Webbs approved of regular purges as a means of ensuring ‘quality control’. They thought the idea of members being made to stand trial, confess their shortcomings and answer accusations helped to improve national efficiency. The confessional nature of it convinced the Webbs the CPSU was similar to Comte’s priestly order of scientists.
Within the Webbs’ positivist utopia, a superior caste of the scientifically enlightened controlled workers’ ideas and behaviour. The Webbs were therefore glad the Soviet state had incorporated the trade unions. They admired the role trade unions had in making workers work harder. They praised the “comradely courts” trade unions set up to shame lazy workers. They agreed that the trade unions’ use of so-called “socialist competition” and “shock brigades” were necessary to increase productivity.
Although the Webbs’ influence on the Labour Party has been in decline for many years, there remain elements that remind me of their positivist vision of ‘socialism’. Presently members are experiencing one of the Labour’s regular purges of its activist left. Under the pretext of cleansing the party of anti-Semitism, leftists are being expelled and isolated - especially if they claim to be influenced by Marxist ideas of socialism or communism. The Labour Party demands that members answer accusations, stand trial and confess their political sins. Coupled with elevating the leader to the status of a saviour, this gives Labour a quasi-religious character.
Moreover, it appears that middle class professionals tend to dominate the Labour Party. This social layer - if not a ‘priesthood’ - seems to be concerned chiefly with bureaucratic administration, service to the disadvantaged and underprivileged, and solving the problems of an unproductive, discontented workforce through Keynesian demand management.
Of course, there are differences between the Webbs’ vision and the contemporary reality of the Labour Party. For example, despite their leaders’ history of craven subservience to repressive legislation and their willingness to collaborate with and advise bourgeois governments, trade unions in the UK have yet to be fully transformed into an arm of the state. The reaction to such a move would force workers’ organisations underground - a risk the British ruling class and its allies in Labour seem to be unwilling to take right now.
Paul B Smith
In response to Rex Dunn, I’d like to say a few words - and quote a few - about the relationship of oppressed groups and the movement for a better world (‘The alternative to patriarchy’, May 3). Like Rex, I too oppose the politics of ‘intersectionality’ - or sectionalism, as we might more properly call it. But let us focus on the opposite mistake - what could be called class idealism: the notion that the working class should ideally be united, and that any observation at all of different sections is politically divisive.
Karl Marx had an opinion on that, writing more than a century ago about new technology (knowledge, ‘social wealth’) and the splits within the working class: “The greater the social wealth, the functioning capital, the extent and energy of its growth, and, therefore, also the absolute mass of the proletariat and the productiveness of its labour, the greater will be the industrial reserve army [the unemployed] … But, the greater this reserve army in proportion to the active-labour army, the greater is the mass of consolidated surplus population, whose misery is in inverse ratio to its torment of labour. The more extensive, finally, the Lazarus layers of the working class and the industrial reserve army, the greater is official pauperism. This is the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation” (original emphasis Capital Vol 1, chapter 25, London 1954, p602).
In the 1870s, the working class was already made up of sections - the employed, unemployed and the ‘redundant’ - generated by the process involved in the mode of production. A few more layers of underpaid immigrants, low-paid youth and unpaid women only add to the actual divisions.
As for acknowledging racism and the like, that well-known poststructuralist liberal, VI Lenin, had an opinion on this - specifically, in his day, on the attitude of party members to those from national minorities of the Russian empire: “… internationalism on the part of oppressor or ‘great’ nations … must consist not only in the observance of the formal equality of nations, but even in an inequality of the oppressor nation, the great nation, that must make up for the inequality that obtains in actual practice … It is necessary to compensate the non-Russians for the lack of trust, for the suspicion and the insults to which the government of the ‘dominant’ nation subjected them in the past” (‘The question of nationalities’, December 31 1922). This is actual solidarity, not an immediate assumption of real equality.
Perhaps the requirement that we see the class as an undifferentiated bloc comes from Labour and Stalinist leaders looking for a mass of voters or activists to follow orders. Those of us looking for something more need to acknowledge the differences of resource, morale and experience that distinguish the working class and the diverse groups that we must attract to get anywhere.