Marxism and Syndicalism

Submitted by AWL on 6 October, 2007 - 2:18 Author: John Bloxam and Sean Matgamna


Syndicalists varied greatly from place to place and had varying relationships with left-wing politicians.

The pre-World War One syndicalists in Britain — Tom Mann etc — recoiled against the weak-kneed parliamentarians of the Mac Donald-led Labour Party and disappointment with the effects of early labour movement Parliamentary action.

The Labour Party, still heavily entwined with the Liberals in politics, and in many constituencies entangled in electoral pacts with them, must have looked like only another edition of the pre-Labour Party “Lib-Labs” MPs fielded by the trade unions under the Liberal banner at the end of the 19th century.

In France the syndicalists and the Socialist Party were, respectively, working class and petty bourgeois in composition: there was a clear class, and to an important extent, also a regional, distinction between them; and they were all conscious of it.

As Trotsky pointed out at the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920, the French syndicalists were, in fact, a party, albeit one that shunned conventional politics.

In Ireland, the syndicalists, Connolly, Larkin, William O’Brien and others, working in what for the labour movement was by and large politically untilled terrain, thought they could shape a political party to their own purposes, avoiding the faults and weaknesses they saw in the early Labour Party in Britain.

They founded the Irish Labour Party on a motion from James Connolly, backed by Jim Larkin, at the 1912 ITCU conference in Clonmel.

They decided to organise the Labour Party as the political wing of the Irish trade union congress (which had been founded in 1894, 26 years later than the Britain Trade Union Congress). They tried organically to fuse two fronts of the class struggle, the political and the economic, by organisationally fusing the unions and the Labour Party.

They named the organisation: “the Irish Trade Union Congress and Labour Party”.

Thus, they believed, the ideal of trade-union control of the parliamentarians could be realised. Between the formation of the Irish Labour Party in 1912 and the formal separation of the Labour Party and the Irish Trade Union Congress in 1930, the trade unionists, in theory, controlled the parliamentarians. And?

Politically, the result was disaster for working class politics!

In the Irish national revolution and the Anglo-Irish war (1919-21), the unions tail-ended the bourgeois nationalists. They played an important part in the national struggle. They organised a general strike. But politically they played no independent part at all (Connolly was dead and Larkin in America.)

The central miscalculation of Connolly and Larkin was in thinking that the ITGWU would remain the militant organisation they led; that the union, itself free of the corrupting pressure of parliamentarianism, would control the parliamentarians and make them politically serve the working class as the unions did.

In fact in the period after Connolly’s death (May 12, 1916) and Larkin’s American exile (1914-23), the ITGWU, led by William O’Brien, expanded greatly but became heavily bureaucratic.

When Larkin came back in 1923 and tried to shake things up, all he managed to do was create a smallish, mainly Dublin-based, split-off, the Comintern-linked Workers’ Union of Ireland. (It reunited with the ITGWU, after over half a century, as SIPTU).


For us the point is that there are three fronts in the class struggle and the schema of trade union control of the parliamentarians lacks the essential third dimension of class struggle — the class struggle on the ideological front. What happens on that front ultimately shapes the outcome of the battle on the other fronts of the class struggle too.

Working-class movements have won tremendous victories on the other fronts and ultimately lost out because of weaknesses on the third front.

There are many examples of this, but perhaps the most terrible is what happened in Spain during the civil war.

The working class in Catalonia took power but, led by anarchists, was dominated by radically false ideas about the state which stopped them consolidating the power they had in fact won.

The result was first Stalinist victory in Catalonia and, ultimately, Fascist victory in Spain followed by fascist rule for four decades…

In 1945, the majority of the working class in Britain wanted to smash capitalism, but their ideas of what this involved were grossly inadequate.

The result was a Labour Government that carried out important reforms, clearing islands in the capitalist swamp, but only islands: the swamp was not drained, as it needed to be if the islands were to be secured. The swamp has since once more engulfed a lot of the territory then cleared…

Trade unions are organisations of broad layers of the class, not entities whose members have emerged through a political and ideological selection. The class struggle on the ideological front has to be fought within the trade unions too.

The decisive question is not trade union control of the parliamentarians, but who leads the unions and what their politics are.

Victory for consistent class-struggle politics has to be won inside the unions. Without that, “trade union control” of MPs could, at best, produce only a replica of the old Labour Party.

That can only be done by an organisation whose members are selected by way of political ideas and political programme, as well as by raw commitment to defending their own and other workers’ interests and well-being. An organisation which is able to win the leadership of the trade unions. That is, a Marxist party.

This is the element missing in J & S’s schemas. And it isn’t just omitted because they assume that we can all take these ideas as something that can go without saying with us. What they do say contradicts those ideas.


“Without the possibility of accountability, of replacing those who act against you, of subordinating them to the basic class organs, then what is proposed is not the Marxist idea of the trade unions creating and controlling a new workers’ party, but trade union financial support for various incoherent, social democratic-cum-populist initiatives. This would mean reproducing all the worst characteristics of the Labour Party in miniature while losing sight of the revolutionary democratic working class principle of a party controlled by the workers”.

We have seen that “united” union control of the party is not secured by mere unity, and still less is control by people with adequate working-class politics.

J & S worry about anti-Blair initiatives “reproducing all the worst characteristics of the Labour Party in miniature”, and conclude from that, that our governing programme must be to subordinate everything else to keeping open the possibility of recreating the Labour Party in its old large self from within its present union-Party relationships in the Blair Labour Party.

And, reading back from that goal, they propose what, now?

That the AWL guard the possibility of re-reaching that goal by fighting against the SWamPies and others to maintain the trade unions’ horse-to-rider relation to the Blairite Labour Party (which, by the way, T not long ago used to define as Christian-Democratic).

Finally, they conflate the working class with the trade unions (and, in actual implications, the trade unions with the bureaucracy), by writing nonsensically of some “revolutionary democratic principle of a party controlled by the workers”.

Trade-union control is not synonymous with working-class control; authentic working-class control of the trade unions is possible only by means of a party, a combative minority, acquiring democratic hegemony within (in that sense, “control over”) the trade unions.

Even though they manage to bamboozle themselves, the incoherent syndicalism here is not hidden but brought into focus by the grandiloquent description of the trade unions as “the basic class organs”.

The unions are indeed “the basic class organs”, but they are not even remotely adequate “class organs” for the purpose AWL exists to promote and help realise, the socialist transformation of society.

In a future union-created or “reclaimed” Labour Party, the Marxists would have to fight for influence against the many political trends that always exist and always will exist in the trade unions precisely because they are the basic class organisations, built not by way of a political selection but on an occupation, that is, a trade union basis.

The trends that we will have to fight politically in the unions include those who think that what is involved in the fight for a consistently class-conscious mass working class party based on the unions is just trade union control of the workers’ party — the de facto syndicalists. That is, those who seriously believe in and consistently hold to the politics expounded in J & S’s document.

We have already looked at syndicalism in working-class history. Syndicalists come in many political varieties, from right wing chauvinists to revolutionary (or embryonic revolutionary) socialist. The thing that the best syndicalists promote, militant working-class industrial mobilisation, is the bedrock on which we too erect all our hopes and perspectives.

But even the best, the organised revolutionary syndicalists, those who are in effect a revolutionary party, lack essential organs that the fully developed revolutionary party must have.

There is thus, from a Marxist viewpoint, an impermissible demagogy — “basic class organs” — in the way J & S formulate the question. The trade unions are the “basic class organs”, but the trade unions are not capable of emancipating the class either from bourgeois ideas, in society and in the labour movement itself, or bourgeois rule. That is the lesson of history. The international working-class has paid a very high price for that lesson.

It is what separates us from even the best “mere” trade unionists and the best revolutionary syndicalists.


There is an organic tendency in trade unions under capitalism to throw up bureaucracies which develop distinct caste interests of their own. Their politics tend to reflect and serve what they are. Our answer to that is a never-ceasing struggle against bureaucracy and bureaucratism.

We put up alternative rank and file leaders, and prepare to throw up replacements for these too, if they go rotten.

The decisive factor in determining what happens with both the parliamentarians and the trade unionists is the existence of a revolutionary Marxist organisation which understands what has to be done and organises to do it by educating a political cadre able to work in trade unions, in trade union leaderships or bourgeois parliaments (or, for that matter, military formations) as Communists.

Why else do we try in the unions to organise rank and file movements as distinct from confining ourselves to winning positions in the bureaucratic structures?

We can agree that the assumption of union control of the Labour Party and a large union break with the Blairites would be qualitatively better than what exists now. It would put the labour movement back in politics and restore some measure of working-class representation in Parliament. We advocate and fight for that.

But we know, and where appropriate we say, that it wouldn’t necessarily solve anything politically.

At best it would restore the status quo ante. When that existed, we fought to change it. We were not, even then, just citizens of the existing labour movement…

Everybody knows what Lenin said about what made the difference between the Catholic trade unions in Italy and the socialist unions in Germany: in one case it was “the consciousness of priests” that interacted with and leavened the working class movement, and in Germany the consciousness of Marxists.

“To say, however, that ideologists (i.e., politically conscious leaders) cannot divert the movement from the path determined by the interaction of environment and elements is to ignore the simple truth that the conscious element participates in this interaction and in the determination of the path. Catholic and monarchist labour unions in Europe are also an inevitable result of the interaction of environment and elements, but it was the consciousness of priests and Zubatovs and not that of socialists that participated in this interaction”.

(A Talk With Defenders of Economism. Iskra, no. 12, 6 December 1901. Collected Works, Volume 5, pp 313-320).

It is a fact that the trade unions and the trade union bureaucracy had a great deal of influence, if not control, in the Labour Party ten years ago. They supported Blair, and continued to support Blairism until the trade union leaders involved retired.

We repeat: the whole way J & S cast the question is trade unionist, syndicalist, not Marxist (albeit a platonic, notional syndicalism, and an all-too-real conservatism vis-a-vis the existing trade unions).

For trade union control of the Labour Party to even partially serve our politics we would require not only the defeat of the incumbent Blairites, but also the creation and victory in the unions or most of them, of militant rank and file movements led by Marxists, who could win leadership and organisational-political control in the unions.

It would require the defeat and replacement of most of the new trade union leaders.

In terms of time we cannot measure how long that will take. It could happen in a comparatively short time. But in terms of what it entails, it is the programme for an entire epoch. Meanwhile?


Meanwhile? We keep the existing structures and relationships, which now serve the Blairites, resolutely in place so that they can be there one day to let the trade unions exercise control of the parliamentarians?

We guard the status quo, which includes the existing rider-to-donkey relationship of the Blairite Labour Party and the unions?

We act as their political frontier guards against the fuck-wit sectarians of the SWP?

In the political struggle against Blairism, we insist that nothing moves until the unions move as unions, or as the Trade Union Congress?

We apply to the political struggle within the working class the idea that governs trade unions as trade unions — unity and collective action at almost any cost.

The very idea that that is the role for Solidarity and Workers Liberty to play is ridiculous! The only thing more ridiculous is the idea that if we did that, we would still be acting as revolutionary Marxists.

It is nothing less than a programme for the political self-elimination of the AWL.

J & S concede that we may, while waiting for a rebirth of Old Labour, in certain circumstances stand socialist candidates and appeal to trade unionists for their votes — either our own political candidates or other more-or-less, socialist candidates who advocate our axial demand for the restoration of working class representation. But only for their individual votes!

We cannot under any circumstances appeal to trade unions to “fund” such candidacies and stop funding the Blairites!

Why not? Because we must above all preserve the existing union-New Labour financial relationship! That is sacrosanct!

In effect, J & S think you should not do anything about socialist or labour representation candidacies within the unions.

The unions must be allowed to continue in their present relationship to the Blair Labour Party until the unions — in big clumps, in unison or in their big majority — decide to act to break from the Blair Party for the working class interest in politics.

Not the least of what is wrong with this is that it removes from our hands one important tool for fighting the political fight in the unions now: agitation and propaganda to convince workers that trade unionists should act, even in a limited, local way, to win back union representation by supporting labour-representation or socialist candidates.

That they should act not only as individual citizens but collectively, as unionists willing where they can to throw union backing, local or whatever, behind anti-Labour candidacies.


J & S say that they support the idea that we should in trade union branches, etc., advocate support for a given socialist candidate by the branch, etc. But they would draw the line at using union funds to back this and other such candidacies. Having successfully argued that a branch, district, whatever, should back the socialist candidate, they would do a quick-change act should some “sectarian” suggest giving union money — or challenging rules that would restrict them in doing that — and using the ensuing conflict to pose sharply the absurdity of the union being tied to the Blairites financially.

This combination would involve us in hopeless contradictions.

It is not far from the absurd “transitional” position which IS (SWP) adopted briefly in the Summer of 1971, when its central leaders were engaged in doing a complete back flip into the camp of the anti-European chauvinists. In a trade union discussion of the issue, we would, Tony Cliff told the National Committee and the organisation, continue to argue for European working-class unity, continue to point out that in Europe or out of it workers would still have to fight the same fight. But then, once our amendment had been defeated, we would vote with the chauvinists! [He said: “Vote with the left”].

The hopeless, absurd, contradictions involved in this position led within weeks to Socialist Worker publishing articles directly backing the “no” vote — and the chauvinists! But Tony Cliff was engaged in tricking and manipulating the organisation, and J & S are serious in what they say…

In practice, the logic of what J & S say would more or less rule out a fight within the local unions for union support for a given candidacy, or at least would rule out using such a candidacy to pose the political issue of the union funds going to Blairites.

The use of labour-representation or socialist candidacies as a tool for shaking up the unions by sharply bringing out the absurdity of trade-union support for this Blairite Government, and help get us to a situation in which sizeable sections will be willing to back labour-representation or socialist candidates — that, say J & S, is ruled out.

There has to be a rigid separation between our trade union work and our election, that is an important part of our directly political, work.

This is split-personality politics! It ignores the very important part which candidacies — especially local government candidacies — played in creating the Labour Party over 100 years ago. Logically J & S should completely oppose the standing of non-Labour candidates for the entire period ahead.

Their expressed attitude, that it’s all right for labour representation and socialist candidates to stand, so long as that does not impinge on the trade unions’ relationship with the Blairite Labour Party, is a recipe for tokenism in elections.

This attitude also implies a crevice down the middle of the revolutionary organisation between trade unionists and others.


But don’t we want the unions to act against the Blairites, that is, to use the existing links? Of course we do!

But if we go from that to turning ourselves for the indefinite future into champions and guardians of the status quo for the sake of keeping open those possibilities, we will thereby be turning ourselves, in immediate politics, for the foreseeable future, into conservatives, militants against any change unless it is to our recipe.

We would cease to be governed “by the logic of the class struggle” and become a sect in the classic Marxist definition, people with a (bureaucratic) recipe to impose on the labour movement, insisting that there can be only one road out of the situation created by the Blair hi-jack — through the channels now held by the Blairites. The conceit that thereby we were “staying with” the mass of the trade unions would hide the fact from some of us, but that is how it would be.

In practice we would ally with status-quo-conservatives and God knows who else in the unions. We would have to. The logic of our politics would compel us to it.

That would blight our prospects of making AWL into a force capable of using the possibilities we would be trying to maintain — turning ourselves inside out politically to maintain.

Even under their new leaderships the unions may never get around to developing the full possibilities that objectively exist for those who control the unions to challenge the Blairites and restore working-class representation.

That now would certainly mean splitting the Labour Party into “New Labour” and something like Old Labour. And in that event there would be people, cynical manipulators and political idiots, to read us lessons about the need for working class unity, who would blame the class-struggle left for disunity.

The split might well be untidy, with a number of unions remaining with “New Labour”.

In 1900 the new Labour Representation Committee had the affiliation of unions and trades councils representing only 353,000 members. Even ignoring double-counting that was a small proportion of the two million trade unionists in Britain then. The Miners’ Federation, then by far the biggest union, remained Liberal until 1909.

If the socialists in 1900 had adopted J & S’s approach — unity at all costs, and moving forward only in unison — it would have paralysed them. It would have worked powerfully against the emergence of the Labour Party.

J & S’s political ancestors were not amongst the pioneers of the LP-Union relationship which they now fetishise!


The decisive question is whether it is possible to combine the two things: can we, on one side, advocate that the trade unions and their leaderships should challenge Blairite control of the Labour Party for the purpose of restoring working-class representation; and on the other, stand or support labour-representation or socialist candidacies, and urge local and national trade unions to give support, and finance, to such candidacies?

That is how it should always be posed by us: restoring working class representation.

To limit ourselves to advocacy that the mass trade unions as trade unions support socialist candidates would be a form of sectarianism. The old Socialist Societies which founded the Labour Party appealed as socialists for support to trade unionists, but those of them who took the working class movement seriously motivated the advocacy of a trade-union-based Labour Party on the need to secure working-class representation in Parliament.

The early Labour Party, which was not until 1918 even nominally socialist, came into existence around the “minimal” demand for working class representation in Parliament.

We believe it is possible to combine an active and independent policy in the electoral arena with advocating a fight by the affiliated trade unions, as unions, within the Labour structures.

The basic political argument is that revolutionaries’ minority initiatives and activities cannot in general be subordinated to the tempo of (or calculations of the direction of) the broad development of the broad movement.

Today, the stifling of political life inside the Labour Party; the widespread working-class resentment against New Labour from the left; the great increase in working-class abstentionism, and the reluctant, inertial, lesser-evil character of much of the remaining working-class Labour vote; and the proven successes of the Scottish Socialist Party in circumstances not fundamentally different from those in England and Wales, all point to the desirability of socialist minority initiative in the electoral field.

What about the organisational and tactical problems? The danger of getting trade-union organisations which we want to have leading a fight within the Labour structures prematurely cut off because they have supported socialist candidates? Or of having leading AWL trade-union activists disabled from participation in unions’ Labour Party business by what they have done in election campaigns?

All those can be resolved practically, case by case, if the basic political approach is understood. Well into the 1970s, after all, our French comrades faced more-or-less automatic expulsion from the country’s biggest and most militant trade union federation, the CGT, as soon as they were identified as Trotskyists. They understood that they must combine patient work within the CGT with open, visible Trotskyist activity.

So they found compromises and stratagems. They had divisions of labour where one comrade would keep his or her head down in the CGT (selling papers, attending meetings, and so on, only where there was little risk of the CGT bureaucrats finding out); another would openly risk expulsion; and a third conducted his or her main activity outside the union.

If they could do it, we can do the vastly less difficult job of combining open AWL activity with the necessary “burrowing” work within the unions.

And what if we were to decide that advocacy of a union fight for the Labour Party is incompatible with standing socialist or labour representation candidates? If this choice had to be made, how would we go about choosing? What should our criteria be?

In principle it would be very simple and straightforward: we can only advocate leaving electoral politics, that is mass labour movement politics, to the Blairites, accepting their monopoly of the union political fund, etc, if:

a) we calculate that the Labour Party could and would be “reclaimed”, and

b) we calculated that it could be “reclaimed” within so short a time that AWL’s renouncing electoral politics now would not amount to a policy of passive waiting on others to reclaim or recreate the old Labour Party — that is restore the political dimension to the labour movement.

Otherwise advocacy of an exclusive focus on reclaiming the Labour Party would be to advocate that the workers and trade unions leave the Blairites with their monopoly of “trade union” politics, and the labour movement effectively without its own Parliamentary representation, for an indefinite period ahead.

There is no way in this discussion that we can get away from political assessment and calculation, and instead reel off a policy from the great ‘general truths’ that J & S invoke.

We have for five years based ourselves on the calculations and assessments in the “John Nihill” (SM) article in Workers’ Liberty (whose policy Jack had some part in making). We presented an assessment of how things stand now in WVP. Is there reason for revising the “pessimistic” assessment made there? In their CRR, J & S do not give us reasons, only timeless “general truths”.

Any reassessment of the case we made 5 years ago could only be grounded on the implications of the election of the new trade union leaders, and the newly rebellious Labour MPs.

This, of course, is a very important question. If we don’t keep living events under review, and submit our earlier calculation to repeated review in the light of new developments, then we will cease to be a living tendency.

Otherwise we will flutter like a pennant in changing winds. We have tried in WVP to go beyond impressions and most-favourable-case extrapolations from the new events.

But we have to work with sober and serious calculations. The way to do that is to honestly and soberly reassess our earlier assessments, measuring them in the light of events, and events in the light of our basic analysis.

Of course, we should evaluate our Labour Party prospects and perspectives in the light of new events (and prospects and perspectives for Marxists are radically different things, despite the fact that in common parlance the two words, are synonymous. One is calculation of passive prospects the other implies an active role in shaping events).

In fact one of us did that in Solidarity in August 2002; MT did the same sort of thing in a later article. (See Appendix 4).


By advocating that the trade union leaders fight — as we do — and making propaganda around the whys and wherefores of the fact that they don’t, or don’t fight seriously or do it inadequately, and so on, we can, of course, hope to gather forces around us. But in order to hope to prevail over the bureaucracy — to really “make the union leaders fight” — such forces would have to be very large indeed.

In practice, what J & S propose is that we collapse our political dimension — other than general propaganda — into internal union propaganda to get the unions to act in politics to revive or refound a Labour Party.

Now the idea that we should campaign for the unions to fight is common ground. We have advocated that for a long time. But even good ideas that are common ground become proposals for political self-liquidation when presented in the one-sided and unbalanced way of J & S.

Why should we confine ourselves self-mutilatingly to that one — intra-trade union — focus in politics? It would help to build our trade union fractions? But the variant of what they propose that is common to them and to us — a fight within the unions to get the unions to flex the muscles they still have vis-a-vis the Labour Party — would do that. Wouldn’t it? Why wouldn’t it?

The exclusion of electoral activity, in so far as it would cut us off from some possible youth recruits that might eventually find their way into our union fractions, will make our trade union campaign less than it might be, confining us more than would otherwise be the case to recruiting within the narrow circles of existing union activists.


Worse than that. The variant of campaigning in the unions that is common to J & S and us would allow us to tell the truth about the overall situation in those campaigns. J & S’s one-sided version of it would not allow us to call it as we see it. We would have to argue and make propaganda to justify our artificial one-sidedness.

We would have to work to discredit “left” electoral initiatives as for example we rightly did in the Walton by-election eleven years ago. Wouldn’t we?

The point is that the approach of J & S is unbalanced and false, and contrary to our understanding — even J & S’s understanding — of the situation the working class is in now.

Inevitably, it would distort everything else.

We spelled out and advocated everything rational in what they propose about campaigning in the unions, in the context of the new union leaderships, many months ago.

What they themselves propose is collapsing the political dimension of AWL into the non-political labour movement.

They accuse us of misrepresenting the situation in order to “justify” turning away “‘for now’ from starting any fight in the mainstream of the labour movement”.

The unions are... trade unions. Define them as “mainstream” or “bedrock” labour movement, or whatever, they are limited working-class organisations.

And why is that current of trade-union opinion that wants to stay behind New Labour — it includes trade union leaders who make fighting noises, and some of whom may actually try to do something — why are they “the mainstream”?

Whether or not we “turn away” from that current — as distinct from turning away from the unions in general — and the particularities of how we relate to them if we do: all that depends on our concrete analysis of what’s what and what is possible.

In all cases we retain our strict political independence — in public, and in our own thinking — from these people.


But, after all, didn’t Trotsky fight for years before mid-1933 to reclaim the Communist International and its parties from Stalinism and for communism; and didn’t he defend this policy by saying that even if it should prove impossible to achieve this goal the cadres of the new international would be won and educated in the fight for the old one? What’s the difference?

The first difference between Trotsky’s situation and ours is where exactly in its evolution the Comintern was when Trotsky held that view, and where we are in the evolution of New Labour out of Old Labour.

The Blair coup is nearly a decade in the past already. The New Labour Government has ruled Britain as a stable Government of the big bourgeoisie for six years now.

Short of some unpredictable melt-down, comparable to what happened to the ultra-corrupt Christian Democrats in Italy after their raison d’etre as a bulwark against Stalinism had vanished with the USSR, the Blairites are sure to win at least the next and probably the next two elections.

It would need an unprecedented electoral switch from New Labour to the Tories or Liberals to defeat Blair or Brown in the next election. It took three elections to erode the majority Margaret Thatcher built up in 1983. It will probably take as long for the Blairite majority to erode.

The Blairites have control of all the commanding posts in the Labour Party.

In terms of a comparison, with Trotsky’s pre-1933 policy in relation to the Communist International, an exclusively trade union campaign now to get the unions to “take back” the Labour Party would, amongst other things, be the equivalent of a proposal that the Trotskyists should orient exclusively to the Stalintern in the Popular Front period, say in 1936 or even ten or twenty years later.

We hope that no-one will try to cloud the issue here by recalling that Trotsky urged his US comrades in 1940 to make a turn to the CPUSA, which was then, during the Hitler-Stalin pact, opposed to the war. In the first place, what he proposed was a fundamentally different type of orientation from that followed by the Trotskyists before 1933 — a momentary seizing of political opportunity, not something rooted in Trotsky’s pre-1933 position that the CPs were the epochal parties of the revolutionary workers.

In the second place, the US Trotskyists, discussing Trotsky’s proposal with him, unanimously rejected it, on the grounds that such a “turn” to the Stalinist party would destroy their prospects with politically healthy or potentially healthy elements in the US labour movement who loathed the CPUSA for its antics in the labour movement during the previous decade.

For what it’s worth, it seems to us that Cannon and the other US Trotskyists, who knew the terrain in which they worked, were right, and Trotsky was mistaken. When they rejected his idea, Trotsky, who was not easily discouraged when he thought he was in the right on questions he thought important, did not press the idea…


“Marxists normally support limited and partial proposals because they embody an aspect of our programme. The SA motions do no such thing. They contain a de-politicised organisational formula in lieu of a political proposal. They fail to embody anything of our central concern here, which is, working class representation through trade union control and accountability of candidates, representatives and parties. In conference debates we should sharply distance ourselves from the sectarians. We should speak against along the following lines: ‘Blair would not worry for one moment if the union voted to one day, maybe, support the odd protest candidate. What he fears is a fight by the unions to take back control of the Labour Party. To start that fight, the union should take a vote of no confidence in Blair. That is something that really would send ripples through the labour movement’.”

Again, and even more explicit and clear-cut, the nonsensical and plainly syndicalist formulation: “Our central concern... is working-class representation through trade-union control and accountability of candidates, representatives and parties”.

This is not our politics!

For it even to begin to make sense you have to presuppose a different trade union movement from the one they are writing about.

Such a trade union movement could only ever conceivably emerge as a byproduct of the existence and dominance of a revolutionary Marxist party. But for that party to develop and win leadership, it first has to reject the doctrine of “trade union control” over itself.

What of the Socialist Alliance model motions? The evolution of the SA indicates for the future more AWL distance from it. Nobody in AWL has advocated an automatic calculation-free support for such motions in all circumstances.

We keep open the option of rejecting such a motion as a bad idea in any specific situation. That is where we divide from J & S.

They seem to want to make it a matter of principle, or something like it, that we always and everywhere join with Blairites and trade union bureaucrats to vote down any proposal — and not only from the Socialist Alliance — that would allow for trade union backing for non-Labour candidates; and that we do not make any such proposals ourselves. In conferences we should always oppose “the sectarians” (defined in this context as all those wanting to break with the Blair party).


We have already seen why this formula is intrinsically syndicalist and entirely wrong. The viewpoint of trade unionists, even the most militant trade unionists, is at best only one component of our outlook. We know how far from what we want, how far from any authentic “democratic accountability”, the Labour Party was when the unions notionally were in control.

The idea of “union representatives” in the Labour Party, in councils and in parliament — not only “answerable”, J & S insist, repeating themselves for emphasis, but “accountable” too — unmistakeably implies a model of future working-class democracy in which the unions are the basic skeleton of the future workers’ republic.

If we want to look at this idea when it was at its strongest and most attractive, before it was debunked by working-class experience, we must go to writers like Daniel De Leon (who died in 1914) and James Connolly (who was shot in 1916). Both De Leon and Connolly have a great deal to teach us, but Communists long ago went beyond their syndicalist ideas.

The unions are too narrow. Within capitalism the unions are bureaucratised. They are not consistent embodiments of militancy or democracy, let alone of political clarity. They do not normally embody the whole of the working class or anything like it. The system of democracy and accountability we are for is one of democratic soviets.

J & S’s idea here is anachronistic and has been proven again and again to be utterly inadequate.

[Written in 2000]

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