The trade unions are rotten. Working class action and unity is consistently stymied and undermined by a bureaucracy on a comfortable meal ticket at our expense. It doesn’t matter whether we have leftwing or rightwing leaders: our struggles are sold out again and again.
How easy has it been for capitalism to pick us off a bit at a time, pay off this section to isolate and punish another? It is the same old story: when a union goes out to fight and asks for help from the others, the various officials, committees and rule book disciples ,wound or fatally undermine solidarity. Currently the rejectionist union leaders are scrabbling around to bring back into the field Unison, GMB, etc. Meanwhile the working class and the left wait for action. In James Connolly’s words: “… by this inconsequent fiddling of time and opportunity, a thousand Romes would have burned to extinction” (1914).
The current situation is partly of our own making. The revolutionary left has become adept at fusing radical rhetoric with opportunist abdication. Instead of attempting to prepare and organise workers at the base of the unions we are called to a series of rallies and conferences where nothing is decided, little is debated and the stage is opened up for the left wing of the trade union bureaucracy to spout its platitudes. We are promised united strike action, civil disobedience and a mass movement of opposition. What we get is a dysfunctional fight, followed by a disorganised retreat. The left helps maintain this impasse through legitimising the bureaucracy and hoping to become part of it. Comrades need only to look at the Socialist Party’s National Shop Stewards Network or the Socialist Workers Party’s Unite the Resistance as all the evidence needed to understand the deep failings of such strategies. The time for relying on the bureaucracy for action has to end.
If we look at the state of the movement surely we can to learn a few things from the electricians and their fight against imposed changes to the Building Engineering Services National Agreement? Here a small but militant section of the working class did not wait around to be called out to battle, but began an insurgency that spread from site to site the length and breadth of the country. Eventually the union caught up out of fear of letting the struggle go out of their control.
Paul Demarty confuses my appeal, ‘Fresh attacks as unions retreat’ (Weekly Worker March 22), for our movement to bypass “the bureaucratic structures whenever necessary” as some “leftist” attempt to ignore the mass organisations of the class (Weekly Worker March 29). The point is simple: under the blows of the capitalist onslaught workers should act with the unions where possible, but without them where necessary. Comrade Demarty was right to raise the necessity of revolutionary patience. Yet if patience is not tempered with meaningful participation within the class struggle now then all the patience in the world will amount to nothing. If half of this duality is ignored or sidelined by a communist organisation then very soon it will find itself going down the road of opportunism (Socialist Workers Party) or voluntarism (Socialist Party of Great Britain).
The student movement in Britain, Indignados in Spain and Occupy in the United States acted as the progenitor of a working class fightback against austerity, where the lethargic unions have been forced to solidarise and take action precisely because the struggle was taking place beyond the traditional class organisations. The use of mass assemblies to make decisions and direct action to further the fight are tools large sections of the revolutionary left have to relearn. It was not the occupying of spaces that made Los Indignados stand out: it was what they did alongside hundreds of thousands of workers when they go there. Where the unions fail to fight we need mechanisms, networks and eventually a party to ensure the fightback is not aborted in a committee room at Congress House.
Leon Trotsky warned in 1940 that there is “one common feature in the development, or more correctly the degeneration, of modern trade union organisations in the entire world: it is their drawing closely to and growing together with the state power. This process is equally characteristic of the neutral, the social democratic, the communist and ‘anarchist’ trade unions. This fact alone shows that the tendency towards ‘growing together’ is intrinsic not in this or that doctrine as such, but derives from social conditions common for all unions” (1940).
Seventy-two years later it would be very hard to argue that Trotsky’s assessment has not come to fruition. Whether looking at Unison in Britain, the CGT in France, Cobas in Italy, the UAW in the United States or the UGT in Spain, it is clear the trade unions have been partially incorporated by capital as a defence mechanism. We see this clearly with how the TUC is prosecuting the pensions dispute. The argument has long stopped being about whether workers get less, but more about which workers get less.
However, trade unions still remain disputed mass organisations of the class. We need to be inside and organised at the base, fighting for a winning strategy in the immediate struggles. We also need to provide spaces for workers to clarify a longer-term strategy for transforming the trade unions. The struggle against the bureaucracy, and the politics of trade unionism, is synonymous with the struggle against capital.
The electricians’ dispute showed we need to be able to act and fight when the official structures do not move. Passive propaganda is just as much an abdication as playing the bureaucrats’ game and, worse, it treats working class militants as dolts to be taught by a clever few with clever arguments. The necessity of creating an independent rank-and-file opposition is an immediate task for the working class. We need to fight the broad left strategy based on winning seats on committees instead of overcoming sectionalism, initiating action and opening a space for revolutionary ideas to be debated and flourish.
Tony Clark says the problem for William Jevons was “not having the knowledge at that time to determine how much coal remained underground, nor being able to predict the coming energy revolution based on oil” (Letters, April 5). He does not seem to recognise that, similarly, he himself does not have the required knowledge to be able to predict the coming energy revolution based on the variety of fuels that could replace oil. We cannot know by how much oil consumption will be reduced, nor whether, despite peak oil, there will continue to be not just sufficient oil to meet demands for it, but that there will be sufficient supplies of energy in general.
We do know, for example, that increased fuel efficiency in cars has dramatically reduced the amount of oil used per mile travelled. That is despite the world’s largest car market in the US having made little advance in that respect until now. In fact, the application of various new technologies means that fuel consumption is likely to decline dramatically over the coming decades.
Even with known alternatives to oil, it is possible to see how demand for oil could be dramatically reduced. For example, legendary oil man T Boone Pickens has been advocating to the US government for the last couple of years his Pickens plan to replace petrol and diesel engines in the US truck and bus fleet with liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). Pickens argues, with all the necessary data, that the US could easily finance the conversion, and save itself billions of dollars in oil imports, by using its plentiful and very cheap supply of natural gas. In fact, once that conversion was done, and the necessary infrastructure for fuel stations established, there is no reason why a rapid conversion of other vehicles to LPG could not be achieved. That is before we have even looked at shale oil, of which there are billions of tons available in the US.
One fear of environmentalists is, of course, that global warming could unlock trillions of gallons of frozen methane lying at the bottom of the oceans. But methane is the very same natural gas. Rather than risk that gas escaping catastrophically, how much better would it be for scientists to provide the basis for mining it safely as yet another plentiful and cheap alternative to oil?
Finally, just of those technologies we know of at present that offer the potential to provide a replacement fuel for oil, we have the use of genetic engineering. At least one company is already using GE to create new life forms which metabolise sugars to produce a petrol equivalent on an industrial scale, and at a much lower cost than current ethanol production. The company I am aware of that is involved in this spoke a couple of weeks ago about ramping up their production to millions of litres per year in the near future. The Stone Age did not come to an end because we ran out of stones! The Steam Age did not end because we ran out of coal. The Age of the internal combustion engine will not end because we run out of oil.
Comrade Mike Macnair’s recent article is a welcome rebuttal to Pham Binh and Paul LeBlanc, but there are issues (‘Both Pham Binh and Paul Le Blanc are wrong’, April 5).
What has not been stated by any of the debaters to date regarding Occupy is the dynamic between the political and the economic. Occupy has done workers and ‘the left’ enormous favours by demonstrating that such activity will always surpass those coming from mere labour disputes precisely because it starts being political. I think this is the rationale behind Binh’s ‘idolising’ of Occupy.
On unity, the word ‘international’ is so slippery. Left nationalism is quite compatible with international solidarity, and this is something comrade Macnair hasn’t acknowledged. I am of the opinion that ‘inter-nationalism’ (note the prefix) is bankrupt, and that there are two (compatible, but otherwise different) replacements: transnationalism and workers’ pan-nationalism (like, say, applied to the European Union as a whole).
On factionalism, its negative connotation is not the same as political diversity within a party, which can take on a number of more transparent forms, such as forums and horizontal networks, currents, platforms and tendencies. Factionalism is characterised by its very contrast to publicised discursive unity. As opposed to tendencies, factions and their culture of secrecy limit audience access to intra-party discussions, overemphasise representative voting and top-down appointments, exhibit unprofessional behaviour in striving to be a political and organisational majority, refuse to act in accordance with agreed action, and abstain from presenting majority viewpoints in addition to their own.
The left should be against factions and factionalism, not because of Lenin, but because of Marx; it is no wonder why the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin and his immediate conspirators, despite their baseless and hypocritical charge of authoritarianism on the part of Marx, were expelled from the International Workingmen’s Association for maintaining the International Alliance for Socialist Democracy as a secret faction inside and outside the former.
The best approach to factions versus tendencies would indeed be similar to the left-reformist Eurocommunist approach (as described by Macnair himself in his Revolutionary strategy): the only organs that should be allowed to have one or two factional characteristics under pressing circumstances (overemphasising representative voting and top-down appointments, plus limiting audience access to intra-party discussions especially during politically revolutionary periods) are the central committee and its lower-level equivalents within the party.
Separate printing presses are economically wasteful in the long run. More people by the day are becoming internet-savvy, so I think things like party-run internet boards, email lists and social media are the way to go on the diversity front, while the printing press should have only the snapshots of the main debates (like ‘left-right’ editorial columns in mainstream newspapers).
Comrade Macnair’s polemic against reformist unity terms (“if they are in control”) is valid except perhaps on the language front. Shrill language tends to turn people off, and this is the language most of the left tends to use against ‘reformists’. However, otherwise ‘sensational’ language (with obvious cynicism) should be adopted.
Before becoming a revisionist, Bernstein recognised the usefulness of personality cults as means to mobilise workers, especially if the figures of said cults have short but nonetheless momentous or successful leadership tenures. Relatedly, long-standing leaders should not be able to override congressional or other mass representative or direct decisions, but I see no problem with them having ‘strong veto’ authority within small groups of about half a dozen participants. That is why, I think, the left should get past general secretaries, chairs and co-chairs, and continue to revive within the worker-class movement the presidential leadership function (I say ‘continue’ because the United Socialist Party of Venezuela started the revival of this German innovation).
We want to inform you that several revolutionary communist organisations have decided to found a new international organisation: the Revolutionary Communist International Tendency (RCIT).
As you might be aware, the founding organisations - the Revolutionary Communist Organisation for Liberation (Austria), the Revolutionary Workers Organisation (Pakistan), United Lankan Workers Party (Sri Lanka) and the Revolutionary Workers Collective (USA) - have already collaborated closely for some time.
Since autumn 2011 we have published a joint English-language journal, Revolutionary Communism, and an email newsletter, RC-News, and will continue to do this. The RCIT also now has a new website: www.thecommunists.net. Naturally, the website is still under construction and we will put more articles online in the next days and weeks. It is in the English language, but we will also put it online very soon in German and we plan to translate it into other languages too. We ask you to take into account that for most of our members English is not the mother language so this explains mistakes and weaknesses in our translations.
For us, as Trotskyists, the programme plays a central role, since it summarises the Marxist analysis and the lessons of the past, and applies them to the present situation in order to intervene and change it. As we wrote in our introduction to the programme, it is, of course, not the last word. There are no last words in a world which is constantly changing. Future experiences, a broader integration of revolutionary organisation in more countries, deeper roots in the working class, further research, debates - all these will help us to improve our theory and programme.
But this will not come by itself or spontaneously. To make advances on this road we must start with what we have now: our present forces and our ideas. We must bundle them in one united organisation and a programme which serves as the basis of our interventions into the class struggles. A programme is a compass and without a compass one has no orientation in the upheavals of the political, economic and ideological class struggles.
We are fully aware of the fact that the RCIT is currently a small international organisation and there are many challenges and obstacles to overcome on the road to build the revolutionary Fifth Workers’ International. But we are confident that, on the basis of a correct programme and a correct understanding, a revolutionary organisation has enormous possibilities to grow in the present historic period, which is full of sharp turns and profound instability in world politics, revolutionary events and counterrevolutionary dangers.
We want to join forces with all those with whom we have programmatic agreement and a common understanding of the methods of building the revolutionary party. We are therefore highly interested to hear your opinion on the RCIT programme and to discuss any criticism or suggestions.
Trotskyists in the United States have in the last few years abandoned the slogan of a ‘Labour Party’ and substituted it with the ambiguous ‘workers’ party’. This is a slogan that means all things to all people ... on the left. That may be its attraction. For some, the ‘workers’ party’ is a substitute for the revolutionary party. For others, it is another name for the future revolutionary party. I would support the latter position, though the phrase by itself leads to confusion.
If we give the revolutionary party another name, it still requires us to develop the party as a theory and not just a slogan. Slogans can easily turn into phrase-mongering. We cannot simply copy the stereotype of the Bolshevik Party as if nothing has happened in the last 100 years.
The Mensheviks advocated a workers’ party in 1902 in counterposition to Lenin’s conception of the party, though we can still criticise the underground structure of the Bolsheviks. However, without knowing anything about the Mensheviks, their position is prevalent today among radicals who have given up on building a revolutionary party.
It is true that Trotsky advocated a ‘Labour Party’ in the late 1930s. (Trotsky’s positions 70 years ago do not prove what we need to do today - that should be obvious.) Trotsky was reacting to the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations and the Minneapolis general strike. There was logic to Trotsky’s position then, but we are in a different situation now. That is, tactics correct for one period may be mistakes in another period.
There is little discussion in the US about revolutionary regroupment of Marxists to build a revolutionary party. Unfortunately, most Trotskyists in the US reject the necessary multi-tendency aspect of such a party, an inevitable result of real regroupment. Of course, we cannot regroup with social democrats and centrists. However, we often have differences and splits based on our own ignorance of events in other countries - eg, Serbia and Libya. We can certainly split over anything, including our relative ignorance of movements in other countries, which we sometimes identify with because we rely on the bourgeois press. As long as we agree on basics - ie, no support to imperialist intervention at any time or anywhere - we can differ/and or hold off judgement.
I believe that, since Trotsky wrote the Transitional programme, there are new historical experiences we need to incorporate into our programme. I refer to the Cordones Industriales in Chile in 1972-73, the People’s Assembly in
Bolivia in 1973, the Oaxaca Commune of 2006. They all represent attempts at forms of people’s assemblies, and have an aspect of soviets which we need to deepen as a practical alternative to bourgeois parliamentary democracy.
Regarding your feature ‘1912 and 2012’ (April 5), I would say that the great absentee in the whole Leninist-Bolshevik tradition is the self-emancipation of the working class (and the oppressed in general), as enshrined in Marx’s declaration, “The emancipation of the working class is the task of the workers themselves”.
Instead of the proletariat being organised as the ruling class, there comes the great substitutionism: it is the party, arrogating to itself the legitimacy of representing the working class, which seizes political power, not the workers represented by the self-governing organs created by themselves (the 1871 commune, the 1917 soviets and factory committees). Really, the Bolsheviks seized power not from the provisional government, but from the soviets. One should read Lenin’s confidential letters to his party (leadership) comrades, written on the eve of October, to see how very derogatory his remarks were on the soviets, while publicly sloganeering ‘All power to the soviets’.
One should also have a look at his so-miscalled ‘libertarian’ brochure, State and revolution, along with Marx’s Gotha critique side by side to see how Lenin stood Marx on his head. Separating socialism from communism (equivalent in Marx), and qualifying socialism as being the first phase of and as transition to communism, he introduces into socialism hired labourers of the state. That is, both the enslaving elements of the old society - the state and wage labour. In Marx, even in the first phase, there is neither wage labour nor state. It is already the beginning of the association of free individuals (socialism or communism) without commodities, the wage system and the state.
I was surprised to see Lee Rock’s letter (April 5). He believes I attribute to him the view that the Public and Commercial Services union was right to cave in on pensions. In fact, I did not intend to attribute any such view to him, which even the most cursory look at his comments in the interview the previous week would contradict.
In fact, I wished to communicate my agreement with him on this point - that it would be wrong for the PCS to give up. My point was, rather, that success in all these matters requires a long-term, strategic-political view, not just haggling over exactly what form this or that strike ought to take. I realise now that my wording was pretty ambiguous, for which I apologise.