Thameside careworkers: trade union struggle is not enough

Political fightback

There is no future for the Socialist Alliances in tailing spontaneity

It is essential that ideas are articulated out in the open, where their strengths and weaknesses can be examined in the full light of day. This is particular so when the comrades expressing the ideas - however critical of ourselves - are engaged in joint work on a common project.

Last week the Weekly Worker carried letters from two comrades active in Lewisham Socialist Alliance, Toby Abse and Nick Long (July 23). Both comrades played a prominent role in support of the ‘amalgamated’ motion at the July 5 general meeting of the London Socialist Alliance. This motion - a hotchpotch of various parts inelegantly thrown together by the Socialist Party, the Socialist Democracy Group and Socialist Outlook - had as its central aim the ending of the London SA’s inclusive democracy.

A CPGB motion, arguing for the continuation of inclusivity through automatic representation on the steering committee of all affiliated political and other groups, as well as borough SAs like Lewisham, fell on a tied vote (18 for; 18 against). Subsequently the ‘amalgamated’ motion was carried, although its worst features were removed as a result of a series of surgical amendments.

Moving the CPGB motion, I argued that the type of working class democracy we adopt must depend on the nature of our organisations. The annual election of a steering committee, as proposed by the ‘amalgamated’ bloc, might be appropriate for a party or trade union, but an alliance, by its very nature, demanded inclusivity. This was hardly a formula for CPGB ‘domination’, as some alleged. Rather it ensured that we, as a minority, could be outvoted at any time.

On the contrary, a system whereby an AGM - potentially packed by supporters of one or a few larger affiliates - elects its leading committee could clearly lead to the exclusion of minorities. Indeed even large groups could be kept out by an exclusivist bloc. Such a situation would threaten the whole existence of the alliances. Yet, in their rush to sideline the CPGB, the ‘amalgamated’ bloc of the SP, SDG and SO seem prepared to jeopardise the SA project itself.

In replying to our full coverage of the LSA meeting (see Weekly Worker July 9), comrade Toby Abse chooses to concentrate his fire on one individual, comrade John Bridge, a leading member of our organisation. According to comrade Abse, John Bridge did not attend meetings and pickets relating to the “heroic 11-week strike by 150 library workers” in Camden. In an effort to further damn this absence, he claims that the strike had “the potential to serve as an inspiring example to other local government workers”, and “paved the way for the subsequent Blairite offensive against the Islington housing workers”.

If only comrade Bridge had dropped his Communist Party work and thrown everything into this dispute, things could have been oh so different. This one comrade, it seems, could have single-handedly transformed the dispute, perhaps even the entire political situation as a result.

For all its courage and intransigence, the library strike was an extremely low-level workers’ action. Although of course it is possible that even a small spark could produce a raging inferno of struggle, recent protracted disputes - at Hillingdon, Magnet, the Merseyside docks - have shown that this is improbable. We are living in a period where working class militancy and combativity are at an all-time low and workers have no class identity. The ‘socialist’ USSR alternative is no more and the Labour Party has dropped any pretence of representing working class interests. In other words our class no longer has any kind of ideology around which to unite.

What then is the task of the left in this situation? Are we to scatter what remains of our cadre in solidarity with local isolated actions? Or should we concentrate our forces where they can be most effective - where we can make a difference, in the political field? Comrade Abse is not the first to blow up a local action into the strike, of allegedly strategic importance for our class. There will be many more Camden library-type disputes, but they do not necessarily signal a fightback of the class as a whole.

Comrade Abse, admitting for a moment that the LSA’s inaction in Camden was not down to comrade Bridge alone, writes: “I believe that the failure of the LSA, as a collective, to intervene in this dispute was a serious mistake.” A meeting of the LSA expressed solidarity with the strikers and raised a small collection. It was symbolic, but the regular presence of our supporters on the Camden picket line would have been no less so. The Socialist Alliances, let alone the CPGB, cannot conjure up a real solidarity movement out of nothing.

Comrade Abse is right to state that the Weekly Worker emphasises “the primacy of the self-activity of the workers themselves”, but he misses the central point. That self-activity must be inspired and guided by a generalised political awareness. Our paper will continue to cover disputes like Camden, but our main emphasis, our main energy, will go into the generation of the necessary political ideas. Only in this way can our class be re-armed.

That is why our coverage of the “relatively small LSA meeting” was so extensive. Comrade Abse should look at his copy of the July 9 issue of the Weekly Worker again. Did it contain just a series of reports of a meeting? Surely several questions of crucial importance for the entire movement were raised. For example, can we hope to build a real mass movement through backroom intrigue, or should we openly express our different perspectives? Can we get to the truth through the curtailing of debate, or ought we to thrash out our differences for as long as it takes? Is it true that workers are ‘not interested’ in lengthy political discussion, or does their self-liberation depend on the working class making the most advanced ideas their own? Can a movement for the class be re-created entirely on the basis of workers’ current ideas and spontaneous actions, or does this require intervention and leadership based on political consciousness?

For his part, comrade Nick Long seems incapable of grasping the importance of any these vital discussions. Like so many others raised in the bureaucratic traditions of Labourism, Stalinism or Trotskyism, he sees only deadly threats in our practice of openness. That is why he wants to exclude us from the steering committee - even if, as I have pointed out, the structure adopted for the purpose risks wrecking the whole SA project.

He complains that the publishing of “private letters from other socialists” has become our “trade mark”. Clear proof, in comrade Long’s eyes, that

“the CPGB, far from wanting to work with comrades in a fraternal and cooperative fashion to help build an alliance of socialists, sees its work as splitting groups and a party-building exercise for the CPGB” (Letters, July 23).

If the “private letters” published in the Weekly Worker contained details of comrades’ domestic relationships or sexual liaisons, he would have very good grounds for condemning us. But, as the comrade well knows, such documents are not given publicity in order to titillate our readers. What irks comrade Long is not some abstract concern for ‘the right to personal privacy’. It is our exposure of the Socialist Democracy Group’s method that upsets him. The SDG - of which he is a member - appears now to have renounced openness in favour of intrigue. It mouths a commitment to “inclusion” while practising the opposite.

Why should comrade Duncan Chapple (whose “private letter” we published in Weekly Worker July 23) be concerned that we revealed his desire to exclude the CPGB from the LSA steering committee? Because he wanted to continue denying that this was his intention. He had political reasons for keeping secret the political contents of his “private letter”, just as we had political reasons for publishing it.

Comrade Long himself, however, does not even have the nous to keep his hypocrisy to himself. He parades it for all to see. He writes: “The notion of ‘conspiracy, plots and intrigue’ all directed at excluding the CPGB is silly” (Letters, July 23). Yet in the same issue we reproduce his ‘Campaigning Alliances Bulletin’, in which he reports (of the July 5 LSA general meeting): “A motion to give tokenistic automatic representation to tiny crackpot sect and ‘front’ campaigns on a future official London steering committee fell.” Who can he be referring to? Why, the “spooky CPGB”, the “fanatical and paranoiac CPGB” of course.

Comrade Long’s latest scheme is to establish a ‘south London committee’ of Socialist Alliances. When asked by a CPGB comrade the purpose of this extra tier, he replied: “It’s a body the CPGB can’t control.” Unsurprisingly comrades from Lambeth and Southwark were less than inspired by this pointless exercise and failed to turn up to comrade Long’s ‘informal discussions’ earlier this week.

According to Nick,

“The reality is that the CPGB fear the SA becoming a mass organisation - hence their opposition to a London founding conference and an orientation to mass organisations of the working class” (‘Campaigning Alliances Bulletin’ Weekly Worker July 23).

The logic is clear. The SAs have not attracted support among the “mass organisations of the working class” - so blame it on the CPGB and kick us off the steering committee. Then the alliances would really take off, wouldn’t they? I have no doubt that comrade Long is sincere in his dedication to the working class cause, but he is letting his frustration at the absence of any fightback get the better of him.

Which “mass organisations of the working class” is he referring to? Only the trade unions could be placed in that category, but at the moment they are hardly organs of struggle. Instead of looking for scapegoats to excuse this wishful thinking, we should be prepared to engage in long, patient work to re-equip our class politically.

Comrade Long’s accusations that the CPGB is somehow out to wreck the London Socialist Alliance are wide of the mark, to put it mildly. Perhaps my memory is faulty, but was it not the CPGB that actually took the initiative to set up the LSA? And what of the six affiliated borough alliances? Two of those - Hackney and Brent - were also established through our actions. In addition CPGB comrades work in Lewisham and Lambeth SAs. We have employed our small forces to the greatest effect possible. But comrade Abse thinks we should have scattered them ineffectively, through instructing comrade Bridge to contest a council seat in Camden, for example, and diverting some comrades to build an SA there.

Just as Nick Long accused the CPGB of mounting a “smash and grab raid” on the Socialist Labour Party (and was an enthusiastic participant of the anti-communist witch hunt during his period of SLP membership), again without any basis in fact he alleges that we want to conduct a similar operation within the alliances. Of course we want to recruit individuals to the CPGB. No doubt the SDG - another “tiny sect” - would like to do the same. But we want to see the alliances grow and develop, just as we encouraged the SLP break from New Labour. Communists have a duty to try to mould and influence such movements.

It is ironic that comrade Long’s SDG is part of a bloc within the LSA alongside an organisation which really is more interested in its own “party-building project” than developing the Socialist Alliances. The Socialist Party is singularly unenthusiastic about SA work. It sends only a couple of comrades to LSA meetings, while a handful do irregular work in some of the borough alliances. Hillingdon, the one SA it actually set up, is more or less defunct and the SP proposed that the LSA should be run down through meeting only every two months (comrades Long and Abse both gave their backing to this through supporting the ‘amalgamated’ motion). While CPGB candidates in the May local elections stood as ‘Socialist Alliance-CPGB’, the SP stood only under its own name.

While there are divisions within the SP - Dave Nellist in Coventry represents the pro-SA minority - the Taaffe leadership would see developing, expanding alliances as a threat, particularly in elections. It openly espouses the sectarian project of a “small mass party”.

On the contrary, the CPGB is unequivocally committed to the SA project. But we do not seek to exclude those whose commitment is more questionable. Neither do we wish to sideline comrades to our right. We remain convinced that the SAs must be based on a genuinely inclusive democracy, where all ideas, including our own, can compete.

Peter Manson