The Trade Union Movement, New Labour, and Working-Class Politics: Part V. Methods, models, mystifications

Submitted by AWL on 19 November, 2006 - 1:11


“We would like to see the political funds above the affiliation fee used to organise a wide range of assertive campaigning and organising initiatives both inside and outside the Labour Party. Unions could insist on only funding MPs who would be prepared to be accountable to them. The union could seek to group together and organise pro-trade union MPs, preferably alongside other unions. Support could be given to a campaign to reclaim the Labour Party. Local campaigns could be organised to deselect Blairite MPs and promote democratically accountable trade union candidates. If solidly based trade union candidates were blocked by the Blair machine that would include using the fund to support that candidate and campaign against the official Labour candidate”.

This passage shows what is wrong with J & S’s approach. Some of it reads like a not-very-good trade union conference resolution. They would “like to see” “a wide range of assertive campaigning and organising initiatives both inside and outside the Labour Party”, etc. There are some good and possibly good ideas here. But they all belong to the category of “wouldn’t it be nice if”. If Long Jack Silver and Hopalong H. ruled the world, if wishes were horses.... The key phrase is “we would like to see”, followed by the “good ideas”.

They are all presented as generalities, not as specific proposals. Get them passed at a trade union conference, and everything would still be left for interpretation and implementation to the trade union leaders.

The central thing wrong with the “good ideas” presented here is that none of them depend on us just deciding to do them. All the ideas, the vague and not so vague proposals do not concern things that are ours to do at will. They are “good ideas” for us to advocate within the unions, things for the unions and union leaders to do, no more than planks in an AWL propaganda campaign.

In fact, were a union or group of unions to do these things in a serious and sustained way, they would be well on the way to splitting from the Blair party. But all that is open to AWL is propaganda for those ideas. And propaganda alone cannot conceivably lead to their adoption by the union leaders.

Let us, if only for the sake of argument agree that AWL should do such a propaganda campaign. And? More or less on principle, accepting “the discipline of working class organisations”, for an indefinite period ahead, the revolutionary socialists do nothing else about working-class representation in Parliament? We leave the entire field to the Blairites (and the sectarians)? In practice, of course, AWL alone might have little choice but to do that. But J & S do not argue it from practicalities, but from different general principles.

The last part of this passage shows what they really think about standing anti-Labour working-class candidates. “If solidly based trade union candidates were blocked by the Blair machine that would include using the fund to support that candidate and campaign against the official Labour candidate”.

But it is only something we might do when there is already a strong upsurge against the Blairites and, in fact, when the labour movement is already in a process of splitting.


“The fact that there is so little political life in the Labour Party flows fundamentally from the politics and passivity of the trade union leaders... What is decisive and all-shaping in the Labour Party today is the refusal of the union leaders to fight Blair and their bureaucratic grip on the unions preventing the rank and file doing so...”

Bits of truth, here as throughout CRR, are mixed with nonsense and stirred into a hopeless muddle.

If the trade union leaders, or a substantial minority of them, launched a serious and sustained struggle to gain control of the Labour Party; if they appealed for people to join the Party to back them up; if they would offer a credible perspective of either winning control of the Labour Party or splitting it and founding a replacement LP — then most likely there would soon be a burst of new life in and around the Labour Party. If…

True, the changes in rules and functioning in the Labour Party would inhibit that new life and work to minimise it for as long as those rules held.

But the rules might be defied, perhaps even at Conference.

When the Healyites split the Young Socialists in 1964/65, the rump remaining in the Labour Party had crippling restrictions imposed on it, including a ban on political discussion at what was still to be called a Conference.

At the first Conference, in Easter 1965, the delegates voted overwhelmingly to defy the new rules and the full-time officials in charge of the Conference, daring the Labour Party to close them down. It didn’t; they won; the NEC backed down.

But that was a time of a tremendous loosening up of a party in which the Bevanite rebels of a decade before, including Prime Minister Harold Wilson, had unexpectedly came into control of the Party with the sudden death of the right wing leader Hugh Gaitskell.

Of course, one can indeed blame the trade union leaders’ failure to launch a big determined fight for the lack of life in the Labour Party. An editorial by one of us in Solidarity in August 2002 pointed to the new possibilities that the rise of the new trade union leaders could open for the Labour Party.

“The incumbent trade union leaders have for five years betrayed the labour movement by belly-crawling to Blair. They seemed to have forgotten what trade unionism is for, and what the unions had in mind when they founded the Labour Party a hundred years ago. These have now been replaced by people who may have learned something from the bitter five years of Tory Blair government.

In any case, those who have elected new trade union leaders — the unions rank and file — have learned ...

Despite the structural changes that have more or less gutted the old Labour Party, the trade unions still have a great deal of power in the Labour Party. They should begin to use it.

Many things that were up to now unthinkable are again possible. The trade unions can recompose a working class presence in politics by concertedly demanding that the Government begins to do things like repeal the Tory anti-union laws which New Labour has made its own. They can organise to fight this government when it refuses.

.... The trade unions need a political voice ... New Labour is not and cannot possibly be such a voice. Blair’s is the voice of second-string Toryism and, indeed, of sublimated Thatcherism.

It is scarcely conceivable even in the most favourable course of events that the unions could simply run the film of the last decade in the Labour Party backwards and root out Blairism. Probably the best that could be hoped for would be a concerted trade union break with Blair and the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party, backed by a minority of the PLP.

That, it should be stressed, is a long way off. But now it is an objective possibility. It raises for the left fundamental questions of strategy and perspective — for example, it puts the question of the trade unions’ political funds in a new light.”

That sober registering of newly emerging possibilities contrasts sharply with T’s fuses-blown-out — everything has already changed! — response to these possible prospects. But speculating about possible prospects is not the elaboration of Marxist “perspectives”. The perspectives the AWL elaborates for itself are a different thing entirely.

The question is: out of these possibilities what can we do to facilitate the most favourable developments for us?

The problem AWL confronts is how do we combine advocacy of a fight in the Labour Party by the trade unions — or even an attempt to organise such a fight, or, anyway, a campaign advocating it — with such things as standing in elections. Can we combine them? That can only be worked out concretely. It cannot simply be read off either from possible prospects or general principles or pseudo-principles.

For example, one could base a wish-infused speculative scenario for future Labour developments on the precedent of the replacement of the hard-nosed right wing Gaitskellites by Wilson and his friends in 1963.

Blair serves his natural political time in the leadership, or he is forced out, or goes to the USA to try for the Presidency… Or he drops dead: not only was Labour Party history changed by the sudden death of its leader Hugh Gaitskell in 1963, so, earlier, was that of the TGWU by the death of General Secretary Arthur Deakin and then, very soon, of his successor Tiffin.

Tiffin dropping dead suddenly and opened the way for the leftish CNDer Frank Cousins as General Secretary, thereby making the then biggest union, the TGWU, a force for the left in the LP.

Someone like — just for illustration — Peter Hain replaces Blair. The Labour Party re-knits its strained links with the unions. The rules that have stifled political life in the Labour Party are relaxed, some of them defied, some repealed.

Something like the old ramshackle Labour Party reappears, chastened perhaps by 10 or 15 years of Blair-Brown government followed by electoral defeat and recoil against the Blairite years.

The cry that went up after the fall of Callaghan’s government in June ‘79, might be heard in the labour movement once more: — “never again!”

Such a thing, like the trade union leaders starting an all-out fight against Blairism, may well be possible, if not now, then in 5, 10 or 15 years from now.

What happened in February 1963, when Gaitskell died, was unpredictable and very unexpected. For thirty years it took the Labour Party off the track on which parties such as the German Social Democrats (who had got rid of their “socialist Clause 4” in 1959) continued to travel, and back on to which the Blairites shunted the Labour Party in the 1990s.

Such things are all possible. Whether they are probable is a different question entirely. But what has that got to do with AWL hammering out a perspective for work, for what we do, in the period ahead?

There is nothing we can do to make such possible developments come about. Is there? So what should we do? Sit around hoping that in a decade or twenty years from now something like the old Labour Party will be restored in some such scenario as the one we’ve sketched out above? Meanwhile? We commission a voodoo doll of Blair and stick pins in it?

Should we — as J & S seem to want — confine ourselves to a propaganda campaign in the unions, with some such slogan as “Make the trade union leaders fight Blair”?

That we should call on them for such things is common ground. The difference — if we understand it — is on whether to make that the main content and more or less exclusive focus of our political activity in the years ahead; and on whether that can or should be combined with electoral activity in which we try to get the unions to back anti-Blairite working-class candidacies.

Simply pointing out that if the union leaders were different, then much else would be different — or credulously suggesting that the whole picture is already different because some union leaders have promised to act differently — has the attraction of seeming to, maybe, offer a quick political fix. Even if one sees that their talk may open up new possibilities for action by AWL, as, for example, the August 2002 editorial in Solidarity did, there is still an enormous gap between these perhaps-possibilities and their realisation.

We do not mean by this, to rule out the idea that AWL might attempt by way of an organised campaign to make the most of the fighting talk of some of the new union leaders. “Passive propaganda”, if that is all we think we might be able to do, is, after all, better than mere passivity… But the distinction between such a campaign and an AWL perspective for restoring the working class political representation, which Blairism has destroyed, is very important.

For anything we do to be a realistic perspective for restoring working class representation that we might at will engineer into existence, we would have to have large-scale fractions in the trade unions, on the scale of the Minority Movement.


And if we did have large scale trade union fractions? That too would change many things! It would entirely change what we could try to do. We would not be calling on the trade union leaders to fight, not as a fundamental emphasis; we would be calling on workers to put them out and replace them with a leadership that would fight for our politics.

We would not necessarily be calling for the restoration of the pre-Blair Labour Party/trade union status quo ante. We would be able to go for a great deal more than reconstructing the old Labour Party! We would be able to go for a politically reorganised labour movement, perhaps on the pattern which Trotsky advocated in 1925, around Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty.

J & S’s approach is abracadabra politics, what Trotsky once called “alchemist politics”, not Marxism. It resembles the way some people — the Grantites, for example — used the idea of a peaceful socialist revolution, and it is in the same order of things.

If, Ted Grant used to argue, the leaders of the Labour Party and the trade unions were to mobilise the strength of the working class movement, and had won a Parliamentary majority which they intended to use to expropriate the capitalists, then they could do it peacefully. We could have peaceful revolution in Britain.

The proof offered was 1945, when the mood of many millions who voted Labour to secure irreversible change was that they would not go back to the 1930s. That mood affected the armed forces, who voted Labour in their big majority. Ergo there could then have been a peaceful revolution.

But it is the old “if my aunt had wheels, then she’d be a bicycle” conundrum.

If the Labour leaders, who for five years (1940-45) had been in a coalition government, had been remotely likely to attempt a socialist revolution, or if there was a calculable likelihood that they would be pushed aside by people who would, then the ruling class would never have let things get to the point where peaceful expropriation of the capitalists was “objectively” possible. It was only a “possibility” in an artificial scenario, concocted from selected bits of reality, wrought into something that could not in reality ever have come into existence.

It was, so to speak, allowed to appear as a “real” possibility in 1945 only because in the world as it was it was not a real possibility at all.


J & S’s preposterous “methodological” observations — the quote from Karl Marx’s Thesis on Feuerbach —advocate a crass know-nothing empiricism, decked out in mysticism

Marx makes a vast generalisation about the relationship between theory and practice in human history. What is its relevance to the specific and clearly definable and calculable things in dispute? They know. Listen:

“For Marxists it is impossible to gauge what the actual (!) and lasting (?) impact (!) of Blair’s constitutional reforms have (?) been on the nature of (?) the Labour Party until they are put to the test by a militant trade union struggle. Just as (!) in the process of production (!), where there is no other (?) way for the worker to test the strength of any material except (!) by (!) applying (!) pressure to it (!) to determine the breaking point, also in the class struggle – there is no other (!) way (!) to assess (!) the ruling classes’ defences, but to probe, apply pressure (!), get a struggle going and see (!) what happens. The same goes for the bureaucratic structures of the labour movement. To look at the question any other way is pure scholasticism.”

Chou En Lai is supposed to have responded to the question “Was the French Revolution a success?”, with, “It is too early to say.” Has the Blairite revolution succeeded? Has the Labour Party been radically transformed? Has its relationship to the trade unions and the working class changed? J & S think it is too early to say! We won’t know until after the trade unions have mounted a concerted effort to undo Blairism, and failed!

A thing has not happened, cannot with its effects and consequences be defined as a definite event until the maximum conceivable forces have made an effort to reverse it and failed!

If this is meant seriously, it is advocacy of crass, blind, mindless empiricism!

In terms of what is in dispute about the Labour Party now, it is as we shall see, a trick argument of the sort which we have often encountered in discussing Ireland. (You have no right to discuss Catholic-Protestant relations in Ireland, comrade! These are things for the Irish to decide. We in Britain have no right to discuss internal Irish affairs. We have no right to do anything but fight to get the Brits out! Except that that attitude implies an undisclosed analysis of internal Irish affairs and a taking of sides in the issues that divide the Irish by the very people who told us that we had no right to make an analysis!)

We can’t “know”, survey, gauge, assess, measure, calculate what the effect of the Blairite transformation of the Labour Party has been on the “nature of” the Labour Party? The transformation was possible only because some trade unions did not fight against it, and others actively supported it. Therefore, we can’t know what is what until after we have tested it by a militant full-scale, all-out trade union struggle to sideline or reverse the Blairite coup?

That is utterly preposterous! Of course we know.

What for J & S is the point of this? To take refuge in mystification; to deny “philosophically” what in our real world is glaringly obvious! For now and for the future, it implies waiting, perhaps indefinitely, for something to happen — a full-scale, concerted trade union attempt to reverse and overthrow Blairism — which may never happen and which anyway we can’t make happen until we become a dominant force in the unions.

It is reminiscent of a certain type of “left faking” by trade union and local government leaders — although J & S are of course sincere — the refusal to do anything in their own area but mark time on the grounds that only a general strike, which depends on others to organise it, can succeed. The NUM leader Joe Gormley used it to argue against action by the miners in the 1970s; some of the local government left used it after Thatcher came to power in 1979 (arguing that only a general strike could stop Thatcher and until that happened the local government left would have to cut services, raise local taxes etc).

But we have to function now, in this situation, where the Blairite coup in the Labour Party and its consequent destruction of working class political life and parliamentary representation dominate working class politics. That is not something whose “nature” is indiscernible but something real, indeed an all-pervasive reality in working class politics.

One way of testing J & S’s ideas is to apply their approach to other things. Say — all proportions guarded — to Germany in mid-1933 or mid-1934.

Hitler’s victory most likely would not have been possible without the surrender and even the help of the Stalinist and social democratic parties. “Therefore we can’t know what lasting impact Hitler’s constitutional reforms have had on the nature of the German state and the German body politic until they are put to the test of a full-scale CP and SPD working class struggle against them! The immediate changes are of no consequence. They are just the alibi, not the crime. Communists don’t need to go underground or take precautions against the police. We must advertise our meetings as before, meet openly. We scorn the ‘you-can’t-do-that-Hitler-will-stop-us’ scholastics and the Trotskyite sects”.

In fact, the “Third Period” German Stalinists did say something like that for 18 months or more after Hitler came to power, insisting that only wretchedly faint-hearted, ‘capitulating’, right wing Trotskyites, who vastly overestimated the Hitlerites, could insist that the German working class had suffered a catastrophic defeat.

Or take the much more mundane matter of an engineer in a factory dealing with delicate material. He breaks every piece of work he tries to do by putting too much pressure on it. But he refuses to learn. As the detritus piles up around him, he keeps on insisting to the indignant foreman that there is “no other way”… “to test the strength of the material except by applying pressure to each and every piece of material to determine the breaking point. You”, he insists to the foreman, “are a hopeless scholastic with your abstract models and calculations.”

Or apply J & S’s preposterous put-out-your-own-eyes generalities to a trade union struggle. Miners, say, are discussing strike action, and their chances of victory. Someone says that there are coal stocks that will last for months and therefore it might be best to wait until stocks are down.

Trotsky above, discussing relations between trade union and political party, says that the Marxist party “helps the trade union to decide the question of knowing if the strike is opportune, by means of its political and economic information and by its advice”. That is, by its “scholastic” calculations. J & S are not to be impressed. They insist: “You can’t know that by calculation or by just looking passively at the piled up coal! There is no other way to assess the ruling classes’ defences, but to probe, apply pressure, get a struggle going and see what happens.”

Or imagine that Jack and Sean are four stories up and Jack is about to step out of the window. SM says: “Thousands of human generations have understood it from experience, and in the last 300 years scientists have defined it: something called the force of gravity exists, and if you continue out of that window, Jack, you will fall and break your neck”.

Jack has just re-read Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach. He is full of himself — and of undigested “Marx”.

He insists: “This is not a question of theorising, comrade, but a practical question! There is no other way for me to test the strength of gravity outside this window except to apply the pressure of my weight to the air beneath me — get a struggle going and see what happens. Disputation over the reality or non-reality of the law of gravity which is isolated from practice is a scholastic exercise! You should leave the ‘you-can’t-walk-on-air-because-gravity-will-stop-you’ faintheartedness to the scholastics and sectarians.”

Goodbye Jack!

The idea that you start a struggle ‘and then see’ is often the best approach. But in fact any such approach if it is to be rational is always grounded in calculations and always based on assumptions about what is actually possible in such a struggle. Nobody sane would proceed otherwise.


J & S don’t do the sort of sober “concrete analysis” they call for. Their approach reproduces a very familiar pattern in “revolutionary” politics. The Mandelites — the International Marxist Group: IMG or “MIGs” after a Russian airplane — used to specialise in it, in international affairs.

You take the elements in the present situation. Out of them you extrapolate an elaborate, optimistic, best-case scenario. Then you read back from that best-case scenario recipes for what you do now, in order to get to the ideal situation. Take, for example, what they did with the British-Argentina 1982 war.

Argentina invades the Falklands Islands, to which it has no valid claim that consistent democrats or socialists recognise. It is 500 miles from Argentina; its population is and for 150 years has been British. Britain prepares to go to war to take the islands back. Is this an Argentine war of liberation? Is it just British imperialism throwing its weight about? It is neither. In fact it is a freakish event, not part of any general pattern.

So: define it as such, as we did, and, while opposing Thatcher’s war, also oppose the mini-colonial enterprise of the murderous Argentine military dictators? No! This is an unexpected chance for anti-imperialists to show their anti-imperialism!

But it has nothing to do with anti-imperialism? That’s only the appearance of things, comrade: the trouble is that you don’t really want to fight imperialism!

So? Imagine that the sordid little invasion of the Falklands by the discredited blood-soaked Argentine military dictators, seeking popularity at home, provokes a great popular war of “Argentine liberation” against Britain. Imagine further that the left and then the Argentinian neo-Trotskyists (the Moreno group) gain the lead of that mass popular movement.

Imagine that in the course of the war of Argentine liberation — 500 miles from Argentina! — the Argentine neo-Trotskyists thrust the bourgeoisie aside and became the leaders of the Argentine “masses”. Then you have an Argentine socialist revolution!

Conclusions for now? You back the military dictators who have annexed territory and English people on islands 500 miles from Argentina; you proclaim their war with Britain an anti-imperialist war of Argentine liberation (though in fact it has nothing liberating or anti-imperialist about it!).

With this method the optimistic scenario may be more, or less, plausible, more, or less, fantastic (in this case it was simply lunatic, dependent as it was on suppressing the basic facts of the situation and operating with deliberately falsified definitions of the forces in play!). It will serve. So you shout for Argentinian victory and “defend” the butcher-dictator Galtieri, more for what you have projected on to the situation than for anything in play in it (in the real world, the one you actually live in), or likely to emerge out of it.

That happened as we have described it . In fact the self-deluding mental operation served, and in such cases always serves, mainly to assist their accommodation to those who shape the events — the wretched Argentine junta and its political manoeuvres to regain support in Argentina. In the case of J & S, the optimistic scenario serves to assist accommodation to the non-revolutionary left in the trade unions.

For AWL, it would mean tail-ending the dominant trade union bureaucracy or its “left wing” for an entire political epoch. Even if we were running a campaign in the unions to get them to fight New Labour, that could not be how we relate to these people.


“The revolutionary, however, also needs to be able to distinguish the first weeks of pregnancy from the last, and to be able to spot the difference between a genuine movement of the workers and a populist bandwagon”.

Trotsky was fond of this image, applying it to a society he thought was “pregnant” with socialist revolution. He employed it against the Stalinists in their pseudo-ultra left “Third Period”.

But before you can usefully start to assess what stage a pregnancy is at, you must first make certain preliminary assessments. What species of beast is this — placental, marsupial, or monotreme (egg-laying creature)? Is the thing you are talking about pregnant at all? If it is pregnant, how long does pregnancy last in this species? And so on.

If you think a sheep has the same gestation-time as an elephant, you can spend most of two years, the elephant gestation-time, waiting for a sheep that is merely fat to produce lambs.

Alternatively, if you base plans to use elephant traction power to erect barriers against a seasonal flood which you expect some months in the future on the misunderstanding that an elephant gestates and grows to maturity in the same time as a sheep, you may wind up drowned.

All images carry the danger of confusing the image with that for which it is supposed to be a stand-in, the danger that you may find yourself discussing not the issue in dispute but the image.

All images are treacherous when they are used not to nail down a point independently argued, but, as J & S use this image of gestation, as a means of letting them (and, they hope, you, the reader) assume that which, in the discussion, has to be proved.

“Organic” metaphors don’t help a serious and honest discussion of whether or not the new Labour Party is “pregnant”; and then whether it is “pregnant” with a clone of the parent that gave it birth or something else entirely. That can only be assessed by way of concrete and detailed analysis of the state of the labour movement nearly a decade after the old Labour Party was hi-jacked.

And, if we choose to deal in organic metaphors, we should be careful not to forget that a social and not a biological entity like the Labour Party may be pregnant with something other than a modified replica of itself. That it is not predetermined what progeny the “organism” will produce, how long “gestation” will take, or what you should do to affect the nature of that which you believe is in gestation.

We, and others before us, for decades hoped that the old Labour Party would, with our intervention, aided by the logic of the class struggle, produce something closer to what socialists exist to build than to the old Labour Party. In fact, it gave “birth” to Blairism.

That was not inevitable: it was affected by the fate of the labour movement in the broad class struggle and by what the socialists did...

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