Gary Smith and Eleanor Marx: why calls for union disengagement from politics are not left-wing

Submitted by AWL on 11 June, 2021 - 8:50 Author: Mohan Sen
Gas workers' strike, 1880s

New GMB General Secretary Gary Smith’s 7 June article in the Morning Star suggest he is part of the trend towards union leaders disparaging labour movement political engagement.

Sharon Graham, backed by much of the radical left for Unite General Secretary [and, shortly after this, by Workers' Liberty in fact], is also an example of this trend, strongly suggesting that Unite is too engaged with the Labour Party and with politics as such: more on her politics and campaign here.

“Over the last five years”, Gary Smith writes, “the GMB’s membership has been allowed to decline as we paid more attention to faction fights within the Labour Party than the industrial landscape that defined the lives of those we are supposed to organise, represent and champion. This will change.”

That could be taken as saying that GMB has been too close to the Labour right, at the expense of pursuing workers’ interests. But that is not what it says. As with Unite, but more radically and glaringly, what is a problem is not that the GMB has been too engaged with Labour, but the way it has been engaged and the politics and policies it has used that engagement to promote.

Despite being given a platform by the Morning Star to present himself as a left-winger, Smith himself has all too often sided with the Labour right against the left and promoted right-wing politics (more here). He is a big part of the problem.

Smith also makes a fascinating reference to the GMB’s history:

“Too often we have namechecked our past, without understanding just what it signified.

“In so doing, we declawed figures such as Will Thorne and Eleanor Marx, ignored their socialist and revolutionary politics, and set them up as pale, plaster saints to be worshipped.

“Their legacy of principled action, of industrial militancy, and of syndicalism as opposed to auto-Labourism is that which we now need to channel and celebrate.”

Much of this is on point. But:

Let us leave aside here the very doubtful claim that Smith stands in the militant, class-struggle industrial tradition of Will Thorne and Eleanor Marx when they built the GMB’s predecessor union, the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers, during New Unionism.

Despite the reference to “socialist and revolutionary politics”, the overall suggestion Smith makes about how Thorne and Marx related to politics is very odd.

Thorne in the period he was central to founding the GMB’s predecessor and Marx until her death were certainly principled, militant and focused on industrial militancy. However, they were not syndicalists - ie focused on trade union militancy to the exclusion of politics - but political, socialist and revolutionary trade unionists. They were indeed not “auto-Labourites” – obviously not, since at this stage the Labour Party did not yet exist. (The union was founded in 1889, the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, the Labour Party in 1906; Labour did not become the UK's second party in national vote share until 1918 and in parliamentary seats until 1922.)

Marx and Thorne most certainly did fight for working-class representation in politics.

Both were active, leading members of socialist groups for many years. Thorne was also a Labour councillor, mayor of his borough and then a Labour MP, elected in the breakthrough contingent of 1906. He was a central figure in the building of the Labour Party. (Later on, as an MP, he moved away from revolutionary socialist politics to the right - though still heavily engaged with the Labour Party.)

Marx was dead by the time Labour was founded. But she played a central role in the pre-history of the party, through her work in and with trade unions, through the Social Democratic Federation and Socialist League, and through Keir Hardie’s Independent Labour Party.

In addition to being a woman and Jewish herself, Eleanor Marx was a militant fighter for women's liberation, migrants' rights and many other radical and liberatory causes. This is in stark contrast to Smith's supposedly authentic-working-class "left-wing" conservatism.

At the end of the 19th century organised labour broke through in the trade union field and it also broke through in politics (and to a lesser extent, ideologically as well). The labour movement needs to do the same in order to revive today. Working-class struggle has to be fought in the political sphere - and the ideological - as well as the industrial.

When Gary Smith (and Sharon Graham, and others) say or imply there is a problem of too much union engagement with Labour, that is flatly wrong. The problem is too little class struggle and too little socialism, in workplaces and industry and in politics – including in the Labour Party.

“Less politics, more workplace organising” is at best utterly inadequate. In reality it will usually mean allowing union leaders to let the Keir Starmers of the world get on with it, doing nothing to pressure or challenge them, let alone to actively fight for working-class representation and class politics. Meanwhile they will use the fact the fact of their political abdication as a way of posing as industrially militant.

Or – alternatively, or simultaneously – it will mean union involvement in the Labour Party defined and controlled from above and behind the scenes by union bureaucrats, not through open political debate and active engagement by the membership and democratic structures of unions. That certainly seems to be Smith’s approach, as his record in Scotland shows.

Eleanor Marx and Will Thorne’s approaches were vastly superior, and their spirit is very much what we need in today’s labour movement.

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