Ultimatism and learning from history

Martin Ralph of the International Socialist League replies to Alan Stevens

Writing in the Weekly Worker (May 19), Alan Stevens supports Iain Hunter's criticism of the United Socialist Party and denies that Bill Hunter in his article (Weekly Worker May 12) dealt with the main criticism and statements of Iain Hunter (April 14). One of the central points Bill Hunter raised was the lessons of the dockworkers' history of struggle and the importance of the USP being armed with those experiences. Alan gives a short, potted history of the pre-1990s struggle, but says nothing about the 1995-97 dispute of the Liverpool dockworkers. He creates a further smokescreen by reinforcing a subjective and psychological take on the Workers Revolutionary Party. He also accepts unreservedly the assertions, and contradictions held in those assertions, made by Iain. Party democracy Iain makes various complaints about democracy in the USP. Over a course of several meetings the 'democratic behaviour' of Iain and his comrades not only shocked the ex-dockers, but also a Women of the Waterfront representative, TGWU and Ucatt shop stewards, very experienced pensioner and party activists/ex-councillors, International Socialist League and ex-Workers International members, and others. One meeting had to be abandoned as a result. At this meeting Iain demanded that constitutional amendments that he had written be moved - these amendments had not been circulated to members and the meeting was only attended by members from Liverpool. This was unconstitutional and undemocratic. The suggested amendment could and should have been circulated in the internal bulletin - which is now up to issue 4. To achieve a democratic discussion and to persuade others of your viewpoint means giving time and space for debate. The aggressive and obstinate stand and insistence on immediately discussing what Iain's group wanted is a lesson on how not to proceed. During this meeting Iain and others proceeded to walk out and walk back into the meeting - he resigned and then rejoined. This group have a record of being subjective and mischievous - which includes shouting abuse and refusing to abide by a chairperson's ruling. Iain accuses the dockers of packing the next meeting: ""¦ and it became obvious that the dockers had made sure that they had enough bodies. The other camp in their alliance was the ex-WRP "¦ We sensed that we had been set up for a political ambush" (Weekly Worker April 14). The agenda for that meeting included a resolution by Iain on the question of platforms which he withdrew; Jimmy Wilson's (previously an election agent for Eddie Loyden, Labour MP) resolution on the original position of 'one year, two years or leave' which Iain et al voted for; an amendment by John Kennedy to the main motion not to stand in the general election in Liverpool (the vote was 13-13. It was then moved by those who opposed his amendment that it be taken as carried (a) because the opposition included members who came from outside Liverpool; (b) because they did not want to call on the chair to give a casting vote); and a resolution by John on standing orders that was defeated. However, in his attack Iain had already stated that "the clauses relating to democratic mechanisms, structures, roles, etc "¦ had been omitted, although it should be noted that there was a rider that these questions could be re-examined as the USP progressed", and it had been agreed that the period up to the first conference in 2006 would be the appropriate time and place for this. Everyone is in agreement that the constitution and the manifesto are in an early stage of development and require fuller discussion and development, which will continue to the conference in January. The simple fact is that this group was unable to immediately have their positions and their leadership accepted, so they left the USP. No individual or group can wield a baton as if they had the automatic right in front of any group, large or small, of the working class. Iain, John Kennedy, Phyllis Starkey and Jimmy Hackett made contributions at meetings that were based to a large extent on egotism. Or, to put it in pop song parlance, the group could be characterised by 'I want it my way and I want it now'. Their actions have parallels in history and are based on a completely wrong conception of inner-party relations, and of the relationship between the working class and the parties seeking to resolve the problem of leadership. Nothing will be built through a method of ultimatism. There is an important history in relation to such a method that was fought against in the Bolshevik Party and in the communist parties after Lenin, and Trotsky issued many warnings about ultimatist methods. The actions of Iain Hunter and the tiny group he belongs to are reminiscent of the 'up and outers' in the Bolshevik party: ""¦ it is by no means difficult to find in the history of the Russian party the precursor of the present policy of the German CEC [leadership of the German CP - MR]: he is none other than the deceased Bogdanov, the founder of ultimatism. As far back as 1905 he deemed it impossible for the Bolsheviks to participate in the Petrograd soviet unless the soviet recognised beforehand the leadership of the Social Democrats. Under Bogdanov's influence, the Petrograd bureau of the CEC (Bolsheviks) passed a resolution in October 1905 to submit before the Petrograd soviet the demand that it recognise the leadership of the party; and in the event of refusal to walk out of the soviet" (L Trotsky Vital questions for the German proletariat part 1, 1932). Trotsky gives Lenin's response to such ultimatums: "Shortly after that Lenin arrived from abroad, and he raked the ultimatists over the coals mercilessly: 'You can't,' he lectured them, 'nor can anyone else by means of ultimatums, force the masses to skip the necessary phases of their own political development.' "Bogdanov, however, did not discard his methodology, and he subsequently founded an entire faction of ultimatists, or 'up and outers', called Otzovists. They received the latter nickname because of their tendency to call upon the Bolsheviks to get up and get out from all those organisations that refused to accept the ultimatum laid down from above: 'You must first accept our leadership.' The ultimatists attempted to apply their policy not only to the soviets, but also to the parliamentary sphere and to the trade unions: in short, to all legal and semi-legal organisations of the working class" (ibid). In the early 1930s Trotsky warned, as part of the struggle against the degeneration of the Communist Parties and in the struggle against fascism, of the need to fight the trends of ultimatists in the communist parties of the west, which represented only a minority of the working class. How important are these considerations in the struggle today, where the building of an alternative is at the beginning? Iain's group have learnt nothing from this history: for them it appears that they have done nothing wrong and that they made no mistakes. Dockers In his article Alan Stevens has little to say about the dockers' dispute of 1995-97, although he has some paragraphs on the dockers' struggle from 1960-80. But there is not a great deal to learn from what he writes in his article in relation to the USP. Alan says nothing about the history of the dockworkers in their struggle to develop the 'blue union', the National Association of Stevedores and Dockworkers (NASD), in the 1950s, which came out of the widespread detestation of TGWU officials and its impact on Liverpool dockworkers: "In the 1960s, they were in the lead in the continuous resistance from dockers to the plans which emerged in the employers', state and government circles for the reorganisation of the docks in the interests of British capitalism. The plans had the ear of national trade union leaders like Cousins and Jones (who was later to take over Cousins' former job at the head of the TGWU), and area bureaucrats like Merseyside's notorious Mr 'Crusty' O'Hare" (B Hunter They knew why they fought - unofficial struggles and leadership on the docks 1945-1989 1994). Trade union and employers' leaders were driven together by a joint interest in controlling dockers militancy. In1964 the Wilson government set up the Devlin inquiry, whose aim was "to help reorganise the docks industry and its labour force in the interests of British capitalism" (ibid). This process took decades, resulting from the strength and solidarity of the docks rank and file. The dockers' won economic advances, better working conditions and increased redundancy pay, but steadily lost in the political sphere. The rights of control were attacked and their jobs and communities destroyed. Capitalism needed a different type of labour force with greater 'mobility' and 'flexible' working conditions. The Devlin committee sought to carry through reorganisation by working with the TGWU leadership and also sought to bring on board the NASD leadership. The Devlin committee and its report aroused widespread opposition from rank and file dockers. However, Bill Jones (acting TGWU general secretary) issued a circular that declared: "At long last the dreams of our fathers on dockland are likely to be achieved and the status of dockworkers properly recognised." The opposition to this was headed by the blue union committees and unofficial committees. In the struggle against Devlin, Bill quotes Gerry Edwards (a leader of the blue union): "The Liverpool dockers were completely opposed to Devlin. That was the difference between us and Dash [Jack Dash, London dockworkers leader and Communist Party member - MR] in London. Liverpool never accepted Devlin. They could not apply Devlin to us" (ibid). The London Liaison Committee, led by Jack Dash, welcomed "aspects" of the Devlin report. The combination of official committees and unofficial committees is a product of this history. The point is that the history of the dockers, the blue union and the fight for the dock labour scheme and against the Devlin proposals is more complex than Alan suggests. One thing that he does not appear to understand is that by attacking the dockers and lending support to Iain and his group he is also attacking the accumulated, bitter experience and struggle that moulded the relationship among dockers, their families and the communities in which they lived. Alan gives an impression that he is talking about the central issues of the dockers' history when he refers to London, but fails to acknowledge the depth of history of the Liverpool experience and struggles. International All this history fed into the dockers' dispute of 1995-97 in Liverpool, but at the same time it contained many new features or combinations of features. The dockers' dispute arose on national soil, but they were determined to develop international support. This was not done on a platonic level but by a considerable amount of travel and organisation that led to a number of international days of strike action in ports across the world. It also led to a deeper international dockers' liaison. So, whilst the dockworkers called for a union and political alliance in Britain, they sought to organise dockworkers internationally. On what this means for a new party Alan is completely wrong - he says: "These battles not only ended in defeat, but are history." It is impossible for the working class to build a mass revolutionary party other than building on the lessons from history. Alan says that the international work of the dockworkers was increasingly elevated to substitute for lack of sufficient support at home. But he does not see what lessons such struggles hold for the working class or for the building of an workers' international or revolutionary parties. Marx called for workers of the world to unite. Alan only talks of a revolutionary party in Britain. Internationalists must raise a central lesson from the struggle for Marxism that it is necessary to build an international of direct and organic connections: that is, a real and functioning international. To talk of a mass revolutionary party in Britain without once mentioning the necessity of a struggle for an international is to ensure that no such thing will be built in Britain. The British working class faces a prolonged struggle to build a mass revolutionary party. But just to assert that is what is needed without continually bringing in the lessons from the high points of class struggle is to leave the process of resolving the crisis of leadership to wishful thinking.