The basic issues in dispute (Part IV of The Trade Union Movement, New Labour, and Working-Class Politics)

Submitted by AWL on 20 November, 2006 - 12:58 Author: John Bloxam and Sean Matgamna


“Defeats there have been, but there has been no decisive irreversible shift in the class character of the Labour Party.
It remains a bourgeois workers’ party. If any qualifications need to be made to this formula they would be that it has become a neo-liberal, business unionist, bourgeois workers’ party. Labour has never been a workers’ party in any meaningful political sense, it has always been a bourgeois political machine sitting on top of the trade union movement. The union/labour link has always functioned in the last analysis as a mechanism tying the bedrock organisations of the class to the capitalist state. The fact, that through this mechanism of ruling class domination the trade unions have also secured piecemeal reforms and concessions, is no more remarkable than the idea that the union leaderships can sometimes achieve concessions through agreements regulating the terms of the labour contract”.

This stark and hard definition of the Labour Party throughout history is usually stressed by “ultra-left” sectarian socialists opposed to any involvement with it — “Labour has never been a workers’ party in any meaningful political sense.” It is used here to underpin a “rightist” position, the conclusion which others have drawn from stressing the “workers’” element in the “bourgeois workers’ party”: soft accommodation to the status quo.

The perfectly correct designation of the Labour Party as a “bourgeois workers’ party” is used here to confuse things by making it more difficult to see clearly what is new in the movement that has indeed, all through its history, been a “bourgeois workers’ party.”

But the dispute is about what conclusions AWL should draw from what is new in the “bourgeois workers’ party”!

J & S settle the question for themselves by saying, truly, that in terms of its historic class character, the Labour Party was never anything else, that it was always a bourgeois workers’ party; and by slipping in the enormous lie (in the first place, we guess, lying to themselves…) that therefore, in terms of immediate on-the-ground working-class politics, the Labour Party always was what it is now and is now everything it always was.

The Labour Party was never other than what it is now? That is only true on a very high level of abstraction. It is used here to avoid the “concrete analysis of a concrete situation” which they call for at the beginning of their document.

It was the characteristics of the Labour Party “below” the level of how we classify it in history, and in its overall place in the British body politic, that determined for us the approach we used to have to the Labour Party.

We have argued that there has been a massive shift to the bourgeois pole of this still highly contradictory phenomenon. J & S hide the concrete issue we face right now in generalities that are not in dispute amongst us.

There really is no problem you see — so long as we follow them in substituting general historical truths for the concrete questions we face now! They define the problem we face in the Blairite Labour Party out of existence.

In fact, on the ground, the “bourgeois workers’ party” is very, very different from what it was in the 30, and even in the 90, years before Blair!

Where have we encountered this sort of polemic recently? Yes, in the irresponsible and unserious idiot polemics of the oxymoron-mongering in Weekly Worker!

And where before have we encountered the method of substituting historical generalisations for concrete questions of tactics? In the Militant (RSL) of the 1960s and 70s. (See “What We Are and What We Must Become”, available at But then the practical conclusion which the Grantites drew from this operation placed them in a living Labour Party and Labour youth movement. Thereby their tendency grew. J & S’s conclusions would give us no such advantage. The very opposite, in fact. There is very little life in the Labour Party; the Young Socialists is long gone.


This method of dissolving tactical questions into broad historical generalisations is a dangerous weapon for people who, like J & S, choose to look at the issues we face now from a narrowly trade unionist standpoint. On the same level of historical-social abstraction at which the Labour Party undoubtedly is and always was a bourgeois workers’ party, what are the trade unions?

Sociologically they are working-class organisations. But they usually have petty bourgeois leaderships. Sociologically, that is what the union bureaucracies are, a layer of trade unionists who have attained petty bourgeois and even bourgeois standards of life as a caste of specialists in bargaining within the wage-system.

The trade union exists to bargain within capitalism. In the conduct of its daily business, in discharging its raison d’etre, the trade union bargains within the wage labour relationship. For practical purposes even the most left wing trade union accepts the wage-labour system.

Militant unionists often fight to win or maintain differentials in wages as between themselves and other workers, differentials based on the market value of different kinds of labour-power. This often sets worker against worker.

The trade unions in the course of their daily business inevitably work to convince workers that the market relationship of wage-labour to capital is normal, natural and proper. The trade unions are organisations of workers within capitalism and rooted in capitalist marketism. Aren’t they? Listen to what Trotsky wrote in the mid-1920s about the centrality of the bureaucratised British trade unions.

“From the example of England, one sees very clearly how absurd it is to counterpose … the trade union organisation and the state organisation. In England more than anywhere else, the state rests upon the back of the working class … The mechanism is such that the bureaucracy is based directly on the workers, and the state indirectly, through the intermediary of the trade union bureaucracy.”

And just as all sorts of sectarians have used the correct historical designation of the Labour Party to justify having nothing to do with it, so there have been people — not only the more stupid anarchists, for example, but the “Council Communist” tendency in the early Comintern — who have concluded that those who want to uproot the wage-slave system must have nothing to do with trade unions.


“The changes to the Labour Party rulebook introduced with Partnership in Power are the alibi, not the crime. To argue that the rule changes are decisive is to lapse into constitutional fetishism and a morbid variant of ‘Resolutionary Socialism’ which deludes itself about the realities of party democracy in Classic Labourism. After all, the normal practice of Labour governments over the last 80 years is to ignore Party Conference. Nor is Blair the first leader to say that he will govern in the interests of the ‘nation’ not the working class. That fashion started with MacDonald. Remember what Trotsky said: the bureaucracy will not surrender”.

What Camille Desmoulins said during the French Revolution: “The great are great only because we are on our knees”, is in general almost always true. But to pretend that we can at will call forth what the class, or the organised trade-union movement, could do, and deploy the general truths as answers to specific problems that have the form they have because the class, the trade-union rank and file, and the bureaucracy are “on their knees” — that is simply foolish.

Like the mystic who thinks his spirit soars above crude corporeality, Jack doesn’t think the rules count for anything. With the same sort of “what if...? approach, you could say what he says about the Labour Party rules and with far more justification about the anti-union laws.

You could truly say that if at any time in the last 22 years the labour movement had used its strength and acted resolutely in a body, then we could have ripped up the current anti-union laws as we once ripped up those of the Heath government.

Yet in fact, in the absence of such a vast upsurge, the anti-union laws have often crippled action which groups of workers have taken, and the solidarity there might otherwise have been.

If T had a stable point of view, he could not write like this about the “rule changes”. He could not dismiss the changes in functioning and interrelationships that have gutted the Labour Party as mere “rule changes” that only have effect because the trade union bureaucrats want an alibi.

For T, the utter destruction of the Labour Party as it was is not “real” — so long as the trade union bureaucrats use it as an “alibi”!

It is the same technique as using the very abstract truth that the Labour Party, which is still a bourgeois workers’ party, was always a bourgeois workers’ party, to hide what is new. Labour Governments over 80 years have ignored Party conference — ergo, nothing is new, not even when Blair has gone much of the way to abolishing Party conference!

T can’t recognise qualitative change when it hits us repeatedly in the face.

Yes indeed, James Ramsey MacDonald proclaimed himself the representative of the nation and not of the working class. So did one-time railworkers leader Jimmy Thomas, the Alan Johnson of his day.

The nine-months Labour government of 1924 was a helpless minority government existing on the sufferance of the Liberals and Tories.

But the 1929-31 minority Labour government fell apart when MacDonald, Snowden and others proposed to cut the dole. The Labour Party split.

The 1945-51 Labour government created the modern welfare state and repealed the anti-union laws imposed after the defeat of the General Strike.

Even the Wilson and Callaghan governments of 1964-70 and 1974-9, whatever anyone said about the “national interest”, had ties to the labour movement and made concessions.

To pretend that the Blair government does not represent a radical break with the Labour governments of the past is to show yourself as either too ignorant to hold an intelligent discussion on the subject, or politically and intellectually unserious in your attitude to it.

In defence of their thesis that there is nothing new to get excited about, J & S indirectly and unwittingly wind up as apologist for the Blairite status quo. It isn’t really much worse than the Labour governments that have gone before …

They are gripped by the logic of a false point of view. In short, this is scandalously unserious and irresponsible.


The basic position of J & S is that we and the pseudo-left combined are too weak to stand credible election candidates even in a few constituencies. They even exaggerate our admitted weakness, and leave out of the picture the price the Socialist Alliance has paid for the political and organisational grip of the SWP. But abracadabra! Suddenly we find them talking as if the self-same forces are big enough to soon take control of the labour movement from the bureaucrats, and the Labour Party from Blair.

Suddenly Jack is elatedly striding around our political world like a colossus, dismissing our Lilliputian small-minded “fetish” of such things as the Labour Party rules. Rules — ha! He isn’t bound by such things!

The rule changes “are the alibi and not the crime”? The union bureaucrats use them to excuse doing nothing or not enough? Ergo, there is no problem. If only... If only we could control what the bureaucrats and the unions they control do, then the rules would be no problem at all! What may be alibi for them, is, of course, shackling objective fact for us.

One minute we are a small propaganda group — albeit a fighting propaganda group — locked into the structures of the labour movement, into the real condition of the trade unions, and into the real working class. Then suddenly we rise up above it all, surveying it from the heights. The rules? Only “alibis”. Only lesser people are inhibited by such things!

It is all just too much like the famous Ambrose Bierce story, “Incident at Owl Creek”. A captured Confederate spy, his arms tied behind his back, a rope round his neck, is being marched by Union soldiers to be hanged off a bridge. They push him off the bridge into oblivion. Or so the deluded Union untermenschen think.

The spy knows better. He knows he is superior to such things as gravity. The rope breaks, he gets his arms free, he swims safely to the shore and starts running. In no time at all he is back at his country mansion, still running. He sees his wife with her arms out to hug him warmly ...

And then the rope twangs taut with his weight and breaks his neck. The whole story was a fantasy flashing through his mind in the time from when his feet left the bridge until he ran out of rope and died...

It is not quite as desperate as that for us. But to dismiss the rule changes and so on as J & S do is delirious fantasy. The soaring is all in T’s head. And that is shown in his conclusion, which, stripped of grandiloquence, is very tame indeed: a propaganda campaign in the unions to get the bureaucrats to do something.

The problem is not with the idea that we might run such a campaign, but with their insistence that we confine ourselves to such work and, more or less on principle, rule out using elections against New Labour.


“If any qualifications need to be made to this formula [bourgeois workers’ party] they would be that it has become a neo-liberal, business unionist, bourgeois workers’ party”.

Much has been made of this sort of thing. In fact it is anything but a new idea amongst us. Our tendency for decades stressed that we were not in the Labour Party because of its politics — because of the ‘socialist’ “Clause 4” for example (the clause committing the Labour Party to an attempt “to secure for the workers by hand and brain”, the means of production. The Blairites got rid of it in 1995).

We knew and explained that at different times in its history the Labour Party had had different political outlooks, and that it tended to keep in step with the swings of bourgeois public opinion, usually lagging a little behind the pioneering thinkers. For example, the Labour Party picked up Keynesianism and then moved away from it broadly in step with the shifting bourgeois wisdom of the day.

Blair, in keeping with the Labour Party’s long tradition of playing chameleon to the changes in bourgeois thinking, has come to embrace Thatcherism. For example, WL 20 (April 1995) illustrated the idea on the cover, with a picture of Thatcher using a Tony Blair face mask to hide her own, with the headline “Who put the ‘new’ in New Labour?”. That cover was made by Jack H to the specifications of one of the authors.

But for us, the changes in the structures of the party and in the party’s relationship with the trade unions and with the working class are more fundamental.

In the past, whatever the dominant political and economic philosophy was — that of a MacDonald, an Attlee, a Wilson or a Callaghan — the Labour Party was organically tied to the working class. It had “open valves” to the affiliated bedrock organisations of the working class. When Wilson in 1969 tried to bring in anti-union legislation, internal Labour Party opposition — allied with big militant demonstrations — could stop it before it became law. Now? Blair could promise the Tory Daily Mail on 1997 before the Election that under New Labour Britain would keep the most restrictive union laws in the western world. Seven years later we still have those laws. There hasn’t even been noticeable pressure in the PLP for their repeal.

The description “neo-Liberal, business-unionist, bourgeois workers’ party”, whether it is an apt description or not, is beside the point of our differences. It is an attempt to substitute an ideological description for an answer to the issues in dispute: the structures of the Labour Party and its political relationship to the working class, to the trade unions and to the trade union bureaucracy. That tag — “neo-Liberal, business-unionist, bourgeois workers’ party” — adds nothing to our understanding here; it is an obfuscation.

If it is intended to explain the structural changes, then plainly it doesn’t. You have only to compare the structural changes in the Labour Party with the Australian Labor Party after it embraced neo-liberalism (for its 1983-96 period in government) to see that it doesn’t. The Australian Labor Party adopted the same neo-liberalism as the British Labour Party, without altering its relationship to the trade unions and without closing down its internal life. (Its internal life did weaken, but not nearly as much as the British Labour Party’s).

The British Labour Party has changed its structures and its relationships to the working class and to the trade unions. That is the point.

The structures because of which, and by way of which, trade unionists and socialists found it worthwhile to work in the Labour Party, the things that once made the British Labour Party different from other “bourgeois workers’ parties”, either no longer exist or have been qualitatively diminished. That is the point.

Even if — and this seems to be their thought — the present structures and relationships in which the Labour Party, including the affiliated trade unions, is entangled, correspond to what you would expect in a “neo-Liberal, business-unionist, bourgeois workers’ party”, that does not get us away from the fact that the old structures and relationships and modus operandi on which our old attitude to the old Labour Party rested, have changed fundamentally.

“Rationalising” and “explaining” things by calling New Labour a “neo-liberal” bourgeois workers’ party is beside the point in dispute.

It cannot lead people who pursue our objectives, and who worked in the old Labour Party in the way we did and for the reasons we did, to the conclusion J & S draw — Labour Party business as usual, because the Labour Party was never other than a bourgeois workers’ party. It cannot undo the fact that enormous changes have taken place in the Labour Party that make it very different from the party we used to relate to in the way J & S want to go on relating to New Labour.

Those changes require of us, if we are to go on serving the goals we used to serve by working in and through the Labour Party, an understanding that neither we nor the labour movement can continue to go on in the old way.

Just as the changes have, inside the old forms, given a different class-political content to the Labour Party/trade union relationship, so also the changes mean that there will be a different class and political content to our work if we continue to relate to Blair’s Labour Party as we used to relate to the old Labour Party.

Yet, unless we misunderstand them, that is how J & S want to go on relating to it. In a modified way, to be sure.

Even if we were to accept their description — we don’t — for us, the proper conclusion would be: in the era of the “neo-Liberal, business unionist, bourgeois workers’ party”, we can no longer go on in the old way with the LP.


One could without injustice describe J & S’s attitude as the belief that the Blair party still has a positive role for now as a repository, so to speak, a parking place, for trade-union affiliations and trade-union political funds. The LP affiliation to and funding of the Blairite Party is, they say, better than “a decollectivised anarchist mess”.

Better than making it “perhaps too easy” for the unions to back non-Labour candidates. It is better for now that the unions and the Blairites stay together and — if J & S will forgive us repeating the idea! — preserve the union affiliation fees as one mass of political money.

Their idea here is weirdly akin to the notion that the Stalinist bureaucracy, despite everything, acted as a “guardian” of the collectivist property of the “workers’ state”, acting as a locum for the working class. We do not say that J & S think like this; only that the striking parallel exists and it is illuminating.

The neo-”Trotskyist” ideas about the Stalinist “workers’ states” were wrong and nonsensical in premise and conclusion, but they made a sort of sense. There was something real — nationalised property — that the bureaucrats did “preserve”. That nationalised property was, according to the argument of the neo-Trotskyists (never of Trotsky himself), intrinsically “working-class”, and so, until the working class was ready and able to “take it back” from them, the bureaucrats played a positive role by preserving it from “bourgeois restorationists”.

But what is it that the Blairites are “preserving” of the old Labour Party, of the old working-class representation? What is it that the Blair party and its union financing preserve that is better than a fragmentation that might see money which now goes to the government party going to, say, Plaid Cymru, the SWP, the SSP, even the Greens?

They preserve nothing except, maybe — and this is what J & S seem to think — the potential of the “unified mass” of money being kept intact to pass on to a “reclaimed” Labour Party, or a new one founded by the unions.

The idea that this now serves the working class — or the unions — is about as sensible as the idea that nationalised property in the USSR, etc, served the working class!

We argued in ‘A workers’ voice in politics?’ that this attitude amounted in the real world to a hopelessly conservative and sterile defence of the status quo.

Other than the idea that continuing trade-union affiliation to the Labour Party is unconditionally a good thing, whatever its political content, we can think of only two possible arguments for it.

1) The argument of ‘left’ Blairites that the Labour Party, presiding over low unemployment, low inflation, the minimum wage and so on, serves the working class well, and for that reason should be supported.

Even if one agrees that these things are better than some other alternatives under capitalism, that in itself would not for us indicate even broad, old-style support for the Labour Party. One can point to meaningful distinctions between the US Democrats and Republicans — the Republican tax cuts for the rich, for example — things that lead the US unions to back the Democrats, and yet reject the idea that socialists should even vote for the Democrats.

2) Keeping out the Tories. That is what the Blairites argue, conjuring up an image of ultra-reactionary Tories to whip trade union and other opposition into line. But given what New Labour is, what the Government does and doesn’t do, that is now absurd. Is it not?

It is anti-Toryism reduced to absurdity. We have over many years criticised and debunked the hollow “anti-Toryism” of the left as only negative, and, because it is only negative, treacherous.

But what would the Tories in power do now that Blair isn’t doing? The protracted Tory crisis is rooted in the fact that the Blairites are the best Tories, and are in Government.

We are left only with the fact of continued trade union affiliation to the Labour Party to justify defending union-affiliation! That affiliation is now in practice without any of the characteristics which led us in the past to support and defend it.

The unions’ links with New Labour now play an almost entirely negative role, precisely in relation to working-class representation, which New Labour has more or less completely destroyed. We are in a situation of transition and flux.

Certainly we want to use the trade unions’ affiliations in order to take the fight into the Labour Party. For that reason we oppose disaffiliation. We want the unions to break with Blair through a positive political mobilisation of their members, flexing their political muscles by trying to use the unions’ positions in Labour structures for working-class ends. But keeping the affiliations in place is not all-defining.

The difference is that for J & S it is all-defining.

Partly, this is a matter of assessment. We do not think it anything like as certain as J & S seem to think it is that there will be a concerted union attempt to reclaim the Labour Party. We will have to see what comes of the new union leaders’ talk on this matter, and we are far less certain than they are that action will match talk, or that things will be pushed to a break with the Blairites — and nothing less will now suffice.

This assessment would inform rather than rule out AWL involvement in attempting to mobilise the unions for a fight inside the Labour Party structures.

The unions continue to have links with Labour, and so do working-class voters (though the 2001 General Election showed that those ties have seriously eroded and continue to erode). That is the reason why we still advocate a Labour vote as against Tories and Lib-Dems.

What J & S propose is New Labour conservatism rooted in the vague and fantastic underlying idea that New Labour performs a sort of holding operation for the working class to stop the emergence of an “anarchist mess”.

Until such time as the political funds can be “handed over” to the union-based successor party, or the Labour Party is taken “back” by the unions — until the unions organise a “political revolution” — J & S advocate an utterly conservative immobilism.

They make an absolute, all-devouring fetish of the idea of urging the unions to fight in the Labour Party.


J & S’s document relies on bad logic and rhetorical bluster instead of an objective posing of the issues. Read: “We should focus on the fight to reclaim the Labour Party because...”

Because? “Because the struggle starts from the real working class and labour movement as it actually exists and not as it will be in the future”.

Does it? No, not quite.

We try to bridge the gap between the present and future labour movements. Naturally, we need a firm grip on reality [Our quarrel with J & S is rooted in the fact that they do not have a sufficiently realistic picture of the Blairite Labour Party.]

In fact J & S’s argument here is sleight of hand. We should “focus on the fight to reclaim the Labour Party because ...” Not because of any specific facts of the present day, but “because” — a would-be grand generality — we “start from the real working class and labour movement”.

No, the issue between us here is:

a) assessing exactly where the labour movement in politics is at; and

b) what we should do about it.

Whether your approach makes sense or not can only be assessed by arguments about the facts, not by proclaiming yourself as automatically in consonance with reality! We have seen this same trick of argument deployed again and again.

“The starting point of the militant revolutionary outlook is the defence of every gain that the working class has made and an unwillingness to surrender any ground without a fight”.

Yes, we defend every gain the working class has made; but we also must know when something is lost, when we no longer are on the ground on which we once stood. To pretend otherwise is not the way to win the ground back, or achieve something better. It is the way to political irrelevance.

“The struggle” “starts with the real working class”? Since we are arguing about policy in the trade unions, both sides “start from the real working class”. Don’t we?

Jack thinks that this rhetoric establishes that his policy not only — like ours — starts from the real working class and labour movement, but is thereby certified correct!

The bluster about “unwillingness to surrender” expresses an emotional attitude — with emotion substituted for a reasoned case for what Jack wants!

The reasoned case would have to show that refusing to recognise that ground has already been lost — refusing to recognise the enormous implications of the Blairite hijacking of the Labour Party — really makes sense. It needs reason, not bluster.

“Unlike generals and armies who can leave the field of battle after a defeat, or middle-class radicals who can run after the next project or stunt, the working class stays put and lives with the consequences of defeat every day”.

And this says what exactly to the issues we are discussing? Throughout the text, instead of delineating and discussing what really divides us, he has tried to wrap himself up in postures and attitudes and inconsequential rhetoric. Here Jack thinks it adds virtue to the case he has, to use a good old Irish expression, made a hames of presenting!

No, we wrong him! That last bit of rhetoric is meant to prove something. He goes on:

“This is true of the political arena as it is of the workplace”.

And? One of the most preposterous ideas in the whole tract:

“If it were not true then the workers would have abandoned support for the Labour Party long ago”.

So the fact that the left has not been able to win larger numbers of workers, the fact that inertia and demoralisation has kept a large portion of the working-class electorate behind Blair, is not a defeat, not a regrettable result of working class disorientation and of the left’s weakness, but an expression of positive working-class virtue? Of the intransigence and determination of the Blair-voting workers, as opposed to the whimsy of, say, SSP voters in Glasgow? It is the class-conscious workers who will stubbornly go on backing Blair?

What if J & S’s comments were applied to labour movement history?

The Stalinist-poisoned workers remained with the CPs even after the 1930s betrayals in Russia, Germany, France, Spain, not because they were politically disoriented by the defeats, but because of their innate proletarian virtue?

The reader can add many other episodes to the list started here with the Stalinist betrayals of the 1930s — for example, the survival of the trade union and labour leaders after they betrayed the General Strike in 1926.

Follow J & S and you will see labour movement history in a radical new light! (But see the discussion on the class, the party and leadership in the Spanish Revolution on the internet and Trotsky’s 1936 or 37 discussion with CLR James — “Against the Stream”.)

Now a bit of mock-profound tautology.

“To say that we are not yet ready to push for a new trade union party and disaffiliations, implies that we are not yet ready to surrender the Labour Party to the Blairites and pronounce that all the unions can do is give up and start again from scratch”.

Here in his own way Jack focuses on the central illogicality in the case he is pushing.

From the fact that “we are not ready” to “push for a new party”, etc., it does not follow — there is no necessary connection between one and the other — that there is scope for the sort of stuff he wants in and around the Labour Party. There might be, but it would not follow at all from our unreadiness or otherwise to build an alternative.

And who proposes that the unions “give up”? Again and again Jack is incapable of loyal and honest discussion of the real issues between us!

We are for a trade-union fight in the Labour Party. Those of us who have no time for what Jack says here, have over the last year written articles and editorials in Solidarity advocating it. We think AWL members should vote against motions advocating that unions disaffiliate.

The issue is whether such an approach rules out anti-Labour candidates or asking trade unions for money and support for such candidates.

Nobody says the unions should give up. We say they should indeed fight in the Labour Party. The difference is that we want to say other things too.

Again, here, we have rhetoric pressed into service as pretend argument. “We are not ready to surrender the Labour Party”. Who is the “we” who possess the Labour Party and are unwilling to give it up to a new owner?

What does this bluster mean when in fact the Labour Party is tightly controlled by those who have made it very much an anti-Labour party?

“To walk away from a political fight is not the way of Marxists. We stay with the class”.

Again — and again — vague emotionalism in lieu of argument! This empty bombast reminds one of us of the most pitiable thing he ever saw in politics.

It is 1968. The Russians have just invaded Czechoslovakia to stamp on “socialism with a human face” there. The British Communist Party, for the first time ever, has condemned something the Russians have done. It has come out against the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

The Young Communist League, youth section of the CPGB, publishes an issue of its magazine Challenge. What will they say about the invasion and about their “socialist fatherland” Russia? All they have to fall back on is bluff, bluster and childish unrealism. They put a photo of a good-looking woman in a militant posture on the cover of Challenge. She looks boldly into the camera, finger pointing. She speaks for the YCLers to the reader with the following words:

“If you think Communism means that the tanks can roll in at dawn, then you’re bloody wrong!”.

That was exactly what the tanks had done! Empty, pitiable bluster, reflecting the politics of the Communist Party and the YCL.

The empty, pitiful bluster deployed by J & S is neither admirable, nor useful to Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty. “Revolutionary Realism” is the last thing if offers.


“This is not a question of denying that Blairism is a defeat. All that is being said is defeats are reversible and that they are normally reversed by the methods of class struggle. The class has hundreds of years of experience in reversing defeats. It is not a new idea. Defeats there have been but there has been no irreversible shift in the class character of the Labour Party. It remains a bourgeois workers’ party”.

Here bluster, bad rhetoric and great general truths are pressed into use to evade a clear definition of what we are arguing about! Great historical generalities are substituted for a discussion of the points in dispute. Things are merely asserted that need to be convincingly argued for.

Defeats are reversible; and the working class has much experience at surviving and reversing defeats: — and? And therefore? Because defeats are reversible (all defeats? the status quo ante is always restored?) there has been “no irreversible shift in the class character of the Labour Party” “It remains a bourgeois workers’ party”. (We are meant to read: it remains the bourgeois workers’ party it always was; the relationship between the two contradictory poles, the bourgeois pole and the workers’ pole, is still in the ratio and balance it once had…)

But because on the broad plain of history defeats can be reversed, it does not at all follow that what used to be is restored in both form and content. History doesn’t work like that. Sometimes defeats are only reversed in a new age, where forms and relationships are very different. How did William Morris express it, dealing in A Dream of John Ball with the defeat of the peasant risings in 1381? (It was a defeat whose fighters won a partial victory in that villeinage was not restored.)

“I pondered all these things, and how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name”.

Or take the first great political workers mass movement, Chartism. It fell apart in the years after 1848, despite the efforts of Ernest Jones and others, backed by Marx and Engels, to save it. For decades after 1848 you will find Marx and, especially, Engels, looking to the Chartists, a movement organised to win working-class electoral-political equality, as the model on which the political workers’ movement would revive.

And? The Tories, under Disraeli (who in the 1840s had been sympathetic to the Chartists and spoken in defence of them in Parliament), carried through the first big instalment of working-class representation, in 1867. The Labour Party was created more than half a century after the collapse of mass Chartism.

One can see many threads of detailed continuity, as well as the fundamental continuity that both Chartism and the Labour Party were forms of working-class political mobilisation. But the “reversal” of the defeat of Chartism did not take the form of a restoration of the forms of Chartism, or of the chaotically loose relationships of the various political currents within Chartism.

One of the layers of the working class that had made Chartism what it was, the handloom weavers, had disappeared completely as a result of technological change by the time the “reversal” began. One very important political demand of the Chartists has not to this day been won — annual Parliaments. When Thatcher was entrenched in power by a Parliamentary majority, but very unpopular, before the Falklands War — so the files of Socialist Organiser testify — we thought the old failure to win Annual Parliaments very important.

Or take the experience of the workers in recent decades. The defeats will be reversed? Yes! But the old forms may not have much part in the “reversal” — more precisely, in the future working-class victories.

In the days of the great labour militancy from the mid-1950s to the late 70s, no group of workers was more combative or more powerful than the teeming hordes of men employed on the docks. They had the power to bring the country to a stop in a matter of days. There are not too many dockers left now, after the technological revolution in the ports of the last three and a half decades. The once hundreds-of-thousands strong movement of coal miners has gone. Coal miners have almost vanished, as a section of the working class.

We will win victories, and the final victory over the bourgeoisie, but some of the battalions that went down to defeat will not be restored, any more than the Labour Party movement picking up the struggle of the Chartists could call back the hand-loom weavers, the backbone of the earlier movement...

The permanent technological revolution which is a central feature of capitalist dynamics means that there is an endless flux in the composition and structure of the working class.

To use sweeping rhetoric, as J & S do, and go from the truth that the working class will again win victories to the implication that the forms of the old Labour Party will thereby certainly be restored — or to imply that if one does not believe they will then one does not believe that the working class, which “has had hundreds of years experience in reversing defeats”, can revive — that is a roundabout way of signalling that you haven’t a clue about any of it…

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