The Trade Union Movement, New Labour, and Working-Class Politics: Part X. AWL and "the sects"

Submitted by AWL on 13 November, 2006 - 1:27


“With the class or with the sects? Bloxam and O’Mahony fail to focus clearly on the tasks before the class.
The entire logic of their argument is that because we cannot control what happens — a mind-numbing banality — we should not even aspire to play a role in initiating, organising and preparing the ground for what they describe as the “epochal” battle for control of the Labour Party. No, that is for the future and to be organised “from above” by the official leaderships.. We must know our place. We build the new party “from below”. In the here and now all we can do is get involved in small scale local electoralism, or travel as reluctant passengers while Bob Crow and his friends derail the RMT as a political force in the workers’ movement”.

You can “derail” only what was previously on the tracks, and following the right course. Do they really intend to say what they imply, that the RMT was “on track” politically under Knapp, and becomes “derailed” only by turning left?

Again, the demagogy! Here, in fact, it is vintage Ted-Grant-speak that Jack will have heard in the Labour Party Young Socialists when he was young. By “the sects” here he means primarily the SWP.

But, no, we don’t relate to that organisation, the biggest ostensibly revolutionary-socialist organisation in Britain, by sinking our political differences with them into “sociological” abuse!

We would not use such demagogy in a trade union branch to carry our point against a proposal to give money, or whatever, to some project we rejected. Would we?

We would not argue on the basis of a crude “workerism” — “we’re with the workers”, “we don’t counterpose ourselves to the workers, and, yah boo, you do!”

We do, and we most certainly should, counterpose ourselves to the politics of both the pseudo-left and the right of the existing labour movement.

We are “with the workers” in politics only on our own political terms. We “stay with the class” to educate it politically, not to use it to camouflage our own political demoralisation. That applies to the present situation vis-a-vis the Labour Party.

“Because we cannot control what happens” — so J & S claim that we argue — “we should not even aspire to play a role in initiating, organising and preparing the ground for what they describe as the “epochal” battle for control of the Labour Party”.

Here we have demagogy again — or maybe Jack can’t understand what he reads. We used the word “epochal” in this context:

“Advocacy of our ‘epochal’ concern — the mass trade union break with Blair and move to a new workers’ party — should not shade into a conservative defence of and support for the Blair-serving status quo against immediate limited initiatives, left-wing or labour-movement electoral challenges to the New Labour party; things which, on their merits, we should support here and now”.

We said that the transformations of the unions which are implied in the idea of the unions “reclaiming the Labour Party” is the task of an epoch. We did that in the course of questioning whether the Labour Party can in fact be what they call “reclaimed”. We argued that the best that can be hoped for is to split the Labour Party, which we said was a variant of the unions refounding a labour party.


J & S:

“What is conservatism—the dim-witted conservatism of fearing to be out of step with the left—is to pretend to be an independent force, while we tag along on the road of protest candidates behind a motley crew of bombastic trade union leaders, the manipulative sectarians of the SWP, self confessedly ‘apolitical’ trade unionists, opportunists from Plaid Cymru, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats, not to mention George Galloway MP and the MAB”.

We are people who “fear being out of step with the left”? Right…! This is not disgraceful demagogy only because it is disgraceful self-defeating silliness! That they can say this about the organisation and its orientation for the last half decade or so, is evidence of how disoriented J & S are on this issue. Yet a serious issue is embedded in this blustering.

It is this: do we let our heartfelt and entirely justified disgust with the pseudo-left like the SWP determine what we do in this field? Because we don’t like or politically approve of the groups and individuals J & S list, do we then turn away in disgust and leave electoral activity to them? (And of course to the Blairites. There is a symmetry in their conclusions from awe at the survival of the Blairites and disgust at the pseudo-left: both lead to one conclusion). Do we ignore the youth who gather around this unprincipled sect for their ostensibly left wing militancy on the war? We should do neither.

The idea that we followed the SWP into electioneering does not accord with the facts and the chronology of the events that led to the existing Socialist Alliance. We arrived at the opinion that the hijacking of the Labour Party placed the issue of working class representation in Parliament centre stage before the SWP joined the Socialist Alliance and for the first time since the late mid-70s decided to stand in elections. Our involvement in the SA and the stress on restoring working class representation which we have fought for in the way SA candidates present themselves — to be focused on the need to restore working class representation in Parliament rather than the need for a “socialist alternative” — flowed from that.

The stress on restoring working class representation in our own election campaigns — Pete Radcliff’s distinctive and comparatively successful electioneering, for example — was the result of the analysis we made of the situation of working class politics in Britain: it predates the SWP's turn to “politics” and elections.

We were in what became the Socialist Alliance before the SWP affiliated to it. Should we have abandoned our analysis of how things stood and the conclusions we drew from it, and left this field of work to the sectarians once they moved into it? The approach is utterly subjective and politically unserious. So subjective that they misrepresent the recent history of their own organisation.

And yet, one of the central factors in play in this discussion is the widespread disgust in the group with the SWP. What might be called “SWamPophobia”.

Malign, naïve, or presumptuous observers sometimes say that we are motivated in this or that policy by hostility to, or competition with, the SWP. There is never a word of truth in it!

One of the central things we can see at play in destroying the old left, properly speaking, the pseudo left, is their mere negativism towards capitalism and their progressive loss over many years of an adequate positive definition of what they stand for. That, if we understand it properly, is the prerequisite for much we all find intolerable in the pseudo left.

That being so, it would be preposterous to define ourselves negatively in relation to the SWP.

Of course some of the things we focus on and the way we deal with them are determined for us because of the prevailing attitudes around us — most notably, on the Middle East, our propaganda against demonising Israel. If the rest of the left were not as they are on this question, we would be able to concentrate now almost exclusively on solidarity with the Palestinians, expressing our Two-States argument as a demand for a Palestinian state. But the content of what we say is not determined by the “left” around us. We neither succumb to the pressure of that left nor let ourselves become a mere negative imprint of it. We make our own independent analysis, here as everywhere else. Only after that is done do we let “the left” influence us.

Would J & S seriously, as distinct from demagogic bluster, contend that we don’t? On the facts, they couldn’t sustain such a charge. In fact they can’t even formulate it plausibly. The underlying thought in the passage above is that we are not “independent” because the SWamPies share something like our conclusion — stand candidates, etc. And what about the political distinctions between us and them inside the SA, even on electioneering? We have not been remiss in noting the faults of the SWP or of the SWP-dominated “independents” and SWP-satellites like Workers’ Power and the Weekly Worker. One of us wrote this assessment of the Socialist Alliance in the 2001 General Election:

“We have something to congratulate ourselves for in having organised such a widespread public challenge to Blairism. The Socialist Alliance has little else to congratulate itself for. With very few exceptions our impact on the electorate was not noticeably greater than that which any halfway presentable socialist candidate would have made in any suitable constituency at any time in the last hundred years.”

One of the things on which developing a rational discussion on this question depends is that we separate out common negative assessment of the Socialist Alliance from our assessment of the Labour Party, etc. What we have said about the Labour Party may be true or false, but that does not depend on whether the SA is a viable enterprise or not…


The AWL fought in the RMT against Crow’s moves to “seek closer links” with Plaid Cymru and to reduce the union’s Labour Party affiliation to a token level. We did not do so on the basis of second-string Blairism, and not on the basis of telling the RMT to get back into Blair’s “workers’ movement”.

Comrades may recall Jack’s violent speech at the second-last conference accusing us of being driven by personal feeling in our criticism of Ken Livingstone (a performance so obviously full of his own “personal feeling” that it provided an instant auto-antidote to what he was saying, as he was saying it). He does something of the same here.

“The root of this loss of focus comes from the fact that the comrades start their analysis from the sects, not from the class. They have accepted much of the basic framework with which the sectarians relate to the labour movement. Remember, it was the sectarians who started the whole debate going about the political funds. From the very start their intentions have been clear: not to organise a workers’ party, but to use workers’ money to fund their own”.

In which analysis did we “start from the sects and not from the class” and the state of the labour movement? The John Nihill piece in Workers’ Liberty five years ago? The issues raised in the “workers’ government” discussion before that?

In the argument about the centrality of workers’ representation? The analysis of the transformation of the Labour Party (against which the SWP argues that nothing fundamental has changed in the Labour Party?)

The analysis that led us to help found the proto-Socialist Alliance before the SWP was ready to join?

The answer may lie in the function of this sort of thing for its authors. For it is a way of denying that anything fundamental has changed in the Labour-union relation in politics.

It is not, you see, that we have modified our views in response to changes such as the Blairite hijacking of the Labour Party and the blatantly anti-working-class character of the Blair government over the last six years. No, it is that we lack Jack’s solid Bolshevik objectivity!

The discussion about the political funds does not come from the actual political relations of the Blair government to the trade unions and to the working-class: it comes from the “sectarians’” desire to enrich themselves with “workers’ money”.

(The only basis on which AWL could object to that is our political criticisms of the SWP: apart from that, they are perfectly entitled to try to secure financial support from the labour movement. The whole tone of what J & S write is that of “workerist” resentment of any politics outside the trade unions. That is not the AWL’s approach).

In fact every step we have taken on this question has been interrogated and measured by our basic analysis and previous positions. Our basic viewpoint and objectives have not changed at all.

“The sectarians seek to focus all the working-class discontent and frustration at Blair, not as it should be focused, on a fight for union control of the Labour Party, but on stunts and gestures of mock defiance. The union leaders then came along and started playing their part in the game. People who had absolutely no intention of fighting Blair started to make vague threats of backing candidates against Labour... Empty postures to strengthen [their] hand in negotiations with the Government. To read these threats as a sign that the labour movement really is entering an epoch of fragmentation is worthy of the IMG, but not serious Marxists”.

Again, the typical mix of denial, ignoring objective background facts, and ridiculous blustering. Jack knows that nothing has changed, that there can be no fragmentation as a result of the fundamental change brought about by the Blair hijacking.

Certainly we disagree with the SWP where we advocate a union fight within the Labour structures. But Jack and the SWP are twins: he thinks we should focus all the discontent into the Labour Party structures.

The IMG was the Mandelite organisation in Britain until some time in the 1980s — the forerunner of the ISG. What were the dominant political traits of the IMG? A high degree of unrealism, of refusing to be deterred by the hard facts from their “big idea” at a given moment; a bee-in-the-bonnet focus on only what they wanted to see and promote; refusal to admit complexities suggested by reality; an altogether too easy dismissal of those who disagreed.

And in fact in this discussion Jack is the “IMGer”, living in an imaginary world, where things are still what they once were in working-class politics. For Jack it is not the past but the present reality of the labour movement that is “a foreign country”!


Jack is too keen to show off his knowledge of union rule books.

“The desire of Bloxam and O’Mahony to play spin-doctor rather than analyse reality doesn’t end with the new union leaders. Here is another oddity: “The political funds that go to New Labour (are) a unified mass of politically directed money”. No they are not. The political funds do not belong to the Labour Party they belong to the trade union. It is simply not the case that all the money is directed towards the coffers of the New Labour machine. A portion (roughly 40% on average) must be paid to the Labour Party for affiliation — the remaining 60% can be spent as the unions decide. (As the comrades Bloxam and O’Mahony support the idea of maintaining Labour Party affiliation, then they are as guilty as anybody else of wanting “a unified mass of politically directed money” to go to New Labour).

The issue is how that 60% remaining in the fund is spent. We think it should go to organising activities by workers organising to control the mass political wing of the labour movement and not to keep the presses of the SWP rolling producing glossy election material. In the CWU, which is affiliated to the Labour Party, the 60% is spent on supporting some constituencies, campaigns and pressure groups and in the case of some London branches even backing candidates against Labour. In other unions it is mainly used to bankroll Blairites. The way the fund is spent reflects the state of union democracy and crucially the level and form of political activity in the union. It could not be otherwise”.

As a reply to what we wrote this is obfuscation. Whether it is 100% of union political money or less that goes to the Labour Party, the money that the unions send to Labour is “a unified mass of politically directed money”.

What is interesting here is that J & S understand perfectly well that in terms of union money going to the Labour Party or elsewhere, there is no necessary financial conflict. It is possible in terms of union finances for a union to remain affiliated to the Labour Party and also give money to labour-representation and socialist candidates.

J & S admit that what we propose — union money for anti-Labour working-class candidates — is financially quite feasible. But they think that the money “should go to organising activities by workers organising to control the mass political wing of the labour movement and not to keep the presses of the SWP rolling producing glossy election material”. (Or the presses of the AWL? Or the SSP? Or any other socialist organisation?)

“Activities”, unspecified; “workers” standing in for the trade union machines; “organising” — what?; to “control” — how exactly?; “the mass political wing of the labour movement” — meaning the present Parliamentary Labour Party (all of it? Most of it?) ... As we have seen, what the high-sounding but vague phrases come down to is a propaganda campaign advocating that the unions do this and that.

In practice, until we have become a major forces in the unions, the stuff J & S list would in practice come down to maybe a donation here and there to various mild Labour left enterprises, and nothing more.

Having shot one horse from under himself — the ideas that there is a stark either/or financial choice in the use of union political money — Hopalong H. has nothing to support his case against walking on two legs but the fear that any union money going to a non-Labour candidate would lead to the union’s disaffiliation from the Labour Party. So long as the unions remain affiliated to the LP that is how it will be? So long as affiliation continues it will be the governing duty of AWL vis a vis elections to sustain affiliation?

Anybody who seriously believes that it is intolerable for the present union/New Labour relationship to continue would see conflict between the unions and the New Labour party over the union backing a good non-Labour candidate as a big opportunity on the propaganda level — the only level involved in any of these proposals — to get the union discussing the issues that concern them.

For the same reason, candidates now can help us win support in the unions.

In a sense the dilemma resolves itself. If we were strong enough, had won through propaganda enough support in the unions to generate such a crisis in relations with the Labour Party, then all sorts of other possibilities would open up.

Anywhere we are strong enough to get the union to donate money, we should be strong enough to develop the campaign within the union, perhaps spurred by a crisis in the Labour-union relationship arising out of a decision to give money to a non-Labour candidate. Why not?

The answer you get from what they write is that they can’t see anything in the business of non-Labour candidacies but the SWP. And that begs the further question: why do they not think it enough for AWL to reserve the right to vote in a specific case against giving out political funds?

One core and much-shaping issue here is the attitude to the SWP. Arguing with Rosa Luxemburg about national freedom for Poland, Lenin accused her (whether rightly or wrong we leave aside) of paying too much regard to the nationalism of the Polish Socialist Party, and simply inverting it. He characterises what he says is her over-concern with the PSP like this:

“To the mouse there is no animal bigger than the cat”.

There is a lot of evidence in Jack’s and Susan’s text that they are over-concerned with the SWP. It has already been discussed. It is improbable that either of the present writers has more liking or respect for the SWP than J & S have. But we can’t let animosity and contempt for the SWP push us into the role of guardians of the Blairite/union-bureaucrat status quo!


Historical parallels are never exact. In the nature of things they cannot be. But they are sometimes illuminating.

Let us compare certain things in our own situation to the situation in the nascent Russian labour movement 100 years ago. There are certain limited but piquant parallels between Lenin’s opponents, the people he called “Economists”, and J & S.

The Economists concluded from the perspective agreed by all Marxists then that Russia was moving towards a bourgeois-democratic revolution, that therefore the Marxist organisation should confine itself to organising the workers on the economic front, pursuing only such politics as flowed out directly from that, and making socialist propaganda. Wider immediate politics could be left to the liberals, for now, since they embodied the inevitable next step, a bourgeois revolution.

Most of the Economists became Mensheviks, and the two currents merged into one because they agreed that the ‘next step’ in Russia’s development was, for now, the bourgeois revolution, and therefore the bourgeoisie had to be in the ascendant.

They praised and exaggerated any moves by the bourgeoisie to act against Tsarism. They had a rigidly stageist conception of future development. Some of them wound up arguing that the working class should do nothing to frighten or alarm the liberals.

And what has all that got to do with us, or with such Bolsheviks as J & S? Their approach leaves the entire field of electoral politics “for now” to the Blairites (and secondarily to the sectarians). They want to subordinate everything AWL does to a rigid scheme in which the trade union leaders are seen as the historically “anointed” leaders in the “next stage” which has to be the reclamation and restoration of the Labour Party.

In terms of British experience they parallel Militant (the SP) in the 1960s and 70s. For Militant the inevitable “next stage” was the development of the British labour movement towards Militant’s politics was the emergence of “the mass left wing” which would be led by the Tribunites — people like Michael Foot. Nothing could be done about that. All Militant could do was explain this to them and to the labour movement. They denounced those who rejected this rigid schematisation.

So with J & S’s outlook on the “reclamation” of the Labour Party. It is conceived as a rigidly necessary stage of development.

We are, they think, locked into a preordained stage of going back to something like the old Labour Party. Defeats are always reversed, remember? The old form will they think certainly reappear. We should not do anything — like risk getting a trade union disaffiliated by the Blairites — which upsets the preordained pattern.

We should now make it our “central priority” (in a more candid or lucid exposition they would say, our only activity in this field) to make the trade union leaders fight to reclaim the Labour Party. We can only act through them.

This and the foreseeable period ahead is, so to speak, their era. We must leave immediate electoral politics to them (which in practice means to the Blairites...).

We cannot do anything directly ourselves; we certainly cannot try to get the unions to back independent working class electoral challenges to the Blairites.

We have already noted the rigid compartmentalisation implied even in the idea that we can stand and support anti-Labour working-class candidates so long as we do not ask for union money for them. The compartmentalisation now, and the stages for the future (first get the union bureaucracy to fight, before anything can be done directly), mean that we rule ourselves out politically for the indefinite future. Our role is to argue, cajole and try to compel the trade union bureaucrats to act to remake the Labour Party.

The combined effect of all this if Jack has his way would be to reduce us to work in the trade unions, even for politics.

JB, SM. 21.07.2003

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