Excerpts from Jill Mountford, The case for a workers' government, Workers' Liberty 45
The mass working-class political movement has, with Blair and his gang, reached the end of a long political road. It is time to ask ourselves, where did we go wrong? Where did we take the wrong turning? The short answer is: when the movement began to lose sight of the original working-class goals for the realisation of which the labour movement first turned to independent politics.
It is high time the labour movement - and in the first place its left wing - remembered where we have come from and where generations of labour movement activists have been trying to go. That is the only way we will understand how we come to find ourselves in this Blairite blind alley. Only by taking stock can we find a way out of it. To do that we need to rearm the labour movement with the basic socialist ideas and goals, now half forgotten, which inspired and guided the pioneers who built the great labour movement which the Blairites are working to subvert. We need once more to raise up before the eyes of the labour movement and argue for a vision not only of the working-class goal of socialism, but of the sort of labour movement needed to achieve that goal.
We did not create the Labour Party almost a century ago in order that careerist politicians could ride in the swing of the party pendulum at Westminster, but to win a working-class government that would serve our interests as the Tories and Liberals served bourgeois interests. A workers' government worthy of the name would be a radical socialist government driving to create socialism in the only way it ever can be created - by expropriating the bourgeoisie, by destroying their state power and by abolishing wage slavery. We propose to those in the labour movement who want a government loyal to the interests of the working class, but do not agree with us about the need for a socialist transformation of society as defined here - that is, for a socialist revolution - but who are principled reform socialists, that we can at least agree on the centrality of mounting independent working class and labour movement political action. We propose to them that they fight to stop the Blairites and, if Blair stifles all working-class life in the Labour Party, join with us to prepare a revival of mass, trade union-based, working class politics - a new mass workers' party. We propose to them that they form with us a common front to fight for a government of a Labour Party reclaimed by its working-class activists and purged of the Blair leadership, or of a new workers' party based on the trade unions, which would push through such measures as:
* The liberation of the trade unions from the shackles riveted on them by Tory laws which outlaw such essential trade union action as solidarity strikes;
* The restoration of the National Health Service;
* The restoration of the welfare state;
* A decent minimum wage for all;
* Equality in education opportunities and free education for all;
* The return to public ownership of the industries pillaged by the Tories, this time under proper democratic control;
* Taxation of the rich, and expropriation of the big banks and financial institutions which dominate economic life through the "casino economy" of high finance, to acquire the resources to establish jobs and welfare for all.
Immediately, our battle centres round the demands for free trade unions and a rebuilt welfare state; as the revival of the labour movement develops, so the need for more far-reaching demands will be felt. One demand leads to another, in a chain of class-struggle logic that leads from the immediate battles of today to full-blown socialist conclusions.
While continuing the day-to-day fight at every level of the trade unions and the Labour Party, socialists need insistently and repeatedly to spell out the historical and political context of current politics. Why do we want to keep the link between the unions and the Labour Party? Because we want to maintain and develop a working class party! Why? Because we want a government that will serve our side as the Tories serve the bourgeoisie!
Class is the decisive test. To restore the idea of class politics to the centre of the labour movement's concerns, we have to shake that movement out of its hypnosis with official bourgeois politics, and win it back to an understanding that we need a workers' party and a workers' government, because working-class politics is more than the see-saw of the Westminster party game. The question of government is central to working-class politics. If the labour movement does not have a socialist notion of government, then it will have a bourgeois (right now, Blairite) one. That is the lesson of Labour's 15-year drift to the right in pursuit of government, and its miserable performance now in office...
The road to a workers' government
If we agree that the interests of the two main classes are diametrically opposed to each other and that in its fundamental nature capitalism, which is rooted in relentless class exploitation, inevitably generates class conflict and class struggle, then we must conclude that the working class needs a party and a government that is prepared to fight for workers' class interests as hard and as consistently as the bosses' governments defend the interests of capital. We need a workers' government!
It is necessary to bring to an end the misery and insecurity that capitalism inflicts on the very people who create its wealth. This can only be achieved by the working class organising in a political party which fights for the liberation of the working class from the exploitation and oppression to which it is doomed under capitalism. That is what the socialist founders of the Labour Party meant it to be. The party was hijacked by the trade-union bureaucrats and self-serving Labour careerists - from whom it has now in turn been hijacked by Blair's gang of openly bourgeois lawyers, journalists, academics, and practising capitalists. The need for a workers' government, a government that in a measurable way will serve our class, is as urgent today as it ever was. The openly capitalist character of Blair's New Labour administration poses the question: how can we get such a government?
The answer is first another question: what force in society can create a workers' government? Only the organised working class - the labour movement. But for that to be possible, we must first transform the existing labour movement.
Bureaucratic working-class organisations, steeped in capitalist ideas, are content with fighting for limited wage gains. Our organisations are in the grip of bureaucratic dry rot. Trade unions today are mainly led by college-graduate careerists with no experience of shop-floor class struggle. We must democratise to the highest level every structure of our organisations, rebuilding an open and democratic trade-union movement that can develop the demands and interests of the working class and carry them out to their full.
That would mean a radically different kind of party and government. A socialist workers' government would begin to organise society to meet human need rather than to create wealth for a few. It would organise industry so that everyone who could work has a job and the chance to contribute to the common social wealth and well-being. The technological advances made under capitalism in the recent decades would, if rationally developed and organised for people and not for profit, allow the working week to be cut, probably halved, without loss of pay and, indeed, with a large-scale levelling-up of wages so that many millions would benefit from a minimum wage.
A workers' government would close the vast gap between the richest in our society and poorest at the bottom of the heap. A radically socialist workers' government which arose on the basis of a mass working-class self-mobilisation would lay the foundations for the complete transformation of our present capitalist society into a socialist society, a society where all classes and class differences would be abolished once and for all, a society organised at every level for the benefit of the whole population, and based on people's needs, not profit.
All that is possible. Its achievement depends on whether or not the workers can build and rebuild and renovate the labour movement into a force that desires to and can defeat the capitalists. When the capitalists feel their property and profits are endangered, there are no lengths to which they will not go to preserve them. The interests and welfare of the working class are their very last concern. They will have no qualms about using the might of the state machine to crush the workers' efforts to create a higher and more civilised form of society. They have done it often, for example in Chile in September 1973 against the none-too-radical but honestly reforming government of Salvador Allende. They will do all they can to sabotage industries and production. They will attempt to wreck the workers' government at every level.
When the war between capital and labour rages fiercely, victory for the workers will only be secured if a mass democratic workers' party has been built, committed to victory for our side, a party that is rooted in the organised working class and has independent working-class politics. Without such a party, mass struggle can make gains for our class but will always stop short of making a real step forward to abolish this system that crushes the minds, bodies and spirits of the working class.
At worst the workers' movement will be smashed...
How do we get from the situation we are in now, with an under-confident labour movement, to the possibility of a workers' government? To begin with, we need an honest appraisal of where we are at...
The labour movement is lacking in confidence as a result of years of defeat and the operation of anti-working-class laws that have fettered the trade unions. Blair wants to keep it that way, and make matters worse by driving the unions out of politics...
Conflict is inevitable here between the labour movement and the government. For the "modernisation" of the welfare state has to go ahead as far as the boss class is concerned. And this will means more cuts, more attacks and further denial of workers' rights, which in turn will lead to further class conflicts. The labour movement will fight back, learning to demonstrate its strength and building up its confidence by way of action - initially by demonstrations and petitions, and then occupations and strikes. We have done it before and we will do it again!...
[In the 1970s] The workers' movement went from mass solidarity class action that forced the state to release class prisoners, to bringing down a bosses' government. We elected a Labour government; but it did not serve the working class. Instead it attacked us. What can be done to prevent that happening again?
We need to renovate and rebuild the working-class movement. We need to revive and renew the trade unions, and either to reclaim the Labour Party from Blair or to begin to build a new mass working-class party. We need to mobilise the labour movement to fight for an extension of democracy in society and against the closing-off of democracy embedded in the bureaucratisation of politics which Blairism represents and seeks to consolidate by driving the working class out of politics. We must democratise the labour movement and put an end to the power and privileges enjoyed by the bureaucratic officialdom. Only then can we build a movement that is capable of fighting to defend the workers' interests against the capitalist class. Such a movement would insist on union officials facing re-election every year or two years. It would end "fat cat" salaries of the kind Alan Johnson of the Communications Workers' Union (now "graduated" - or should that be "degenerated" - to being a Labour MP) awarded himself, salaries that separate out the bureaucrats from the shop-floor workers. No official should earn more than the average shop-floor rate. All officials, at every level, should be held to account for their actions and be immediately recallable if the majority vote for it. There would be an end to electing officials who try to manage capitalism on behalf of the bosses and as a result commit treacherous crimes against the working class. We fight to develop within our own movement a much higher level of democracy than the sham democracy of the bourgeoisie - workers' democracy.
The Marxist left has an irreplaceable role here. The transformation of the labour movement will not happen spontaneously as a reflection of economic class struggles. As workers gain confidence to fight for far-reaching political programmes, inevitably they choose and adapt from the programmes available, presented by groups which have built up a stock of ideas, a literature, an influence, and a network of activists over the years. To deny that a militant Marxist organisation - and not just some loose network of well-meaning left-wingers - must be built continuously, in the very process of fighting to transform the labour movement, is to think that someone and something else will bring about and consolidate that transformation. In fact, unless a Marxist organisation is strong enough to shape events, in a new upsurge we will probably get fiascos and muddle and confusion like the Bennite left of the 1980s...
That is why revolutionary politics is not something for the future - "on the barricades", as the cliché has it - but for here and now. There is an organic relationship, seed to luxuriant growth, between selling magazines on a street corner now and victory or defeat in mass revolutionary struggles. If we do not build now, when the mass labour movement is only just beginning to revive, then we will not be able to seize the big chances when they come.
The transformation of the labour movement simply cannot happen without the continual interaction of a Marxist organisation with the class struggle and the mass movement. And in the interaction the Marxist organisation grows - before the full transformation of the labour movement - by ones and twos, then dozens and hundreds, and then thousands and tens of thousands. Ever watched water boil? All the bubbles don't cascade at once.
Serious Marxists fight for the hegemony of clear socialist ideas in the labour movement, and to do that we must build, as slowly as necessary and as quickly as possible, a coherent organisation active on all fronts of the class struggle, economic, political, and in the battle of ideas. If we do not build up now by way of the ones and twos and threes that can be won, we will never be big enough to win over the tens, hundreds, thousands and millions...
In reality, people who shout about "revolution" but have no way of getting from where we are now to that revolution are no revolutionaries. Trotsky put it brilliantly, "The significance of the party is the significance of the programme; the significance of the programme is the significance of the party". A party without an understanding of the concrete links in the chain to move the working class forward is no party at all; a programme of broad demands to mobilise the movement means nothing without a party to fight for it... We argue for a workers' government because the idea focuses the political struggles that will turn the existing working-class movement into a force for socialism.
There are two perspectives available to us when we set out to be revolutionary activists rather than waiting for the labour movement to advance "spontaneously". Either we work to transform and renew the existing multi-million-strong labour movement into a revolutionary force, while retaining our own autonomy and initiative as an activist minority; or we try to build our "own" "revolutionary" labour movement alongside the existing one and maybe overlapping with it.
Workers'Liberty argues for the first approach, the struggle to remake the labour movement so that it can fight for a workers' government...