Subversion #15

Issue of Subversion from 1994 with articles about the Labour Party, South Africa, racism, unions against the workers and more.

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DAM rank and filists! The Communication Workers Group

Article written by one of Subversion, a former member of the rank and file Communication Workers Group, in 1994 looking at his/her experiences with the group and making suggestions on future efforts of workplace organising - importantly rejecting the CWG's rank and filism.

The first thing to state is that the last thing Subversion would want to encourage is the creation of a rank and file movement. Rank and file movements are always and without question union movements. They are inspired by the mistaken notion that The Unions have failed us, instead of the truth: which is that all unions are our enemy. [Unions are organisations that negotiate with the bosses over the ways and rates at which we are exploited, but in no way do they object to the principle of our exploitation. Unions support capitalism and work, and need capitalism to survive.]

DAM rank and filists!
Take the case of the postal workers' Communication Workers Group:
The CWG was set up by members of the Direct Action Movement (DAM - now the Solidarity Federation) and was a rank and file postal workers group. The DAM promoted anarcho-syndicalism as a means of working class organisation. Anarcho-syndicalists want to organise unions democratically and imbue them with anarchist politics. Such unions, imbued with anarchist methods and ideals, anarcho-syndicalists argue, will be revolutionary.
CWG never got to the stage where the DAM members pushed for it to become an actual union. CWG, through its bulletin, Communication Worker (CW), aimed to inform and radicalise postal workers, to emphasise that active solidarity across trade, industry and union divides was essential if victories were to be won. In the tradition of rank and file groups CWG was open to all militant workers, including low-level union officials, i.e. shop stewards.

For most of the time CWG worked on the basis of an agreement between the various political tendencies. These ranged from anarchist, or anti-state communist to Trotskyist, as well as the original anarcho-syndicalism. As time went by these divisions became more pronounced. Eventually we had to re-emphasise the groups broader rank and file nature by drawing up a basic aims and principles. Due to the variance of views within the organisation these common denominators had to be fairly low and it was generally felt that the aims and principles were virtually meaningless as soon as we had written them.

Compromising positions
This compromise didn't last long. Some of us felt we needed to make deeper and clearer criticisms of unions and rank and filism. We all saw the potential (however distant!) for a group like CWG to eventually replace the union - in small ways, over certain areas, or totally. To some this was highly desirable of course, but others had misgivings. We realised that we could only replace the existing postal workers union (UCW) with another union, and if CWG expanded and became more successful this is eventually what the group would become.

The question became: how to work in a rank and file workers group, clearly and consistently attacking the union, without letting the group turn itself into a reformist organisation or union. We liked to see ourselves as a revolutionary group, but what would happen if we were flooded with militant, but reformist-minded workers? What if these workers wanted the group to articulate reformist demands? What if we gained more support in a workplace than the existing union, would we then participate in a day to day dialogue with the employers, would we help make deals, would we accept the "legality" of exploitation as long as it was a "fairer" exploitation and one we had actively agreed to? Would we behave in just the same way as the old union once we had become the permanent workplace organisation?

The first problem we tried to tackle was the old one about being swamped by different minded individuals.

Keeping out the riff-raff
There was no formal way of preventing people from entering the group, we just hoped that if we didn't like someone's politics then the rest of the group would agree and that person wouldn't be let in. Obviously this wasn't very satisfactory. Some thought we shouldn't let SWP members in, for example, because they were actively pro-statist/authoritarian and they might try to hijack the group. Others thought we should let them in as long as they didn't stray out of line too much or try to push their politics down our throats, thus causing interminable political arguments. Others thought we should let them in since they were militant workers. This problem was never satisfactorily resolved, the reason being that it lies at the crux of the argument over whether a rank and file group can be revolutionary. That is, whether a group that attracts an increasing number of non-revolutionaries can remain revolutionary in all its publications and interventions.

Our temporary solution was to print our basic aims and principles in the bulletin and hope the "wrong" sort of people wouldn't want to join anyway! [In the event this never became a practical problem, partly due to the fact that the CWG didn't survive that much longer.]

It has been argued that we should set up groups, encourage people to join, and hopefully their experience and learning in the group will turn them into revolutionaries. This might be alright if you have a hierarchical Party of thousands and are recruiting one or two people a month. But if a drastically smaller group (a few people), with egalitarian methods, recruited that many people as members then they would soon find themselves outweighed by the new recruits and unable to brainwash them fast enough to keep the group on its original lines!

We have enough reformist organisations around already, we don't want to inadvertently create any more.

To cut a long story short, the anti-union tendency finally realised the impossibility of keeping, or rather making, this rank and file group revolutionary. By no means did this mean we had fully developed our ideas but we did know that we no longer wanted to make the compromises towards unionism that were necessary in working with anarcho-syndicalists and leftists.

Workplace groups
There is a knee-jerk reflex amongst a lot of revolutionaries when talking about "the workplace", they say that what we need are workplace groups. Beyond this though little practical is usually done or suggested. It's time to face up to the hollowness of this slogan and forget about trying (or talking about trying!) to set up our exalted Revolutionary Workplace Groups. What we need is more revolutionaries everywhere. If we have more revolutionaries everywhere a few, at least, are going to have jobs. Revolutionaries in their workplaces will respond to disputes, attempt to escalate workplaces struggles and generally try to show other workers what a crap situation we are all in. They will argue against the economy (capitalism) and its union lackey, and during struggles they will actively participate in specific actions: like producing leaflets, secondary picketing, sabotage, setting up and speaking at unofficial assemblies, etc.

If we happen to be a few revolutionaries at one workplace and produce regular propaganda specific to work, this is fortunate, but obviously we are also acting as revolutionaries together outside work.

The time has come to finally put to rest the myth of "workplace groups" and their desirability - unless we are talking about temporary groupings of workers formed during struggles to perpetrate specific acts of propaganda or violence against the bosses, union and economy in general.

Some might say that this is all a bit too "purist" and that we should be involved in creating or sustaining reformist demands or campaigns in order to supposedly escalate the class struggle, however, there are plenty of reformist workers around, ready to demand a wage rise, or abortion rights, etc, without going further. Some lefties think we have to formulate reformist demands for workers to take up because otherwise they wouldn't think of any themselves. This is patronising and wrong. Workers are constantly making demands. For us to take part in putting forward demands would be merely to lapse into reformism, as we gave the impression that we believed a few more crumbs off our masters' tables would appease our real class interests. Our message must be revolutionary, not reformist. We support the struggle of the working class to improve its living standards. We aren't interested in reform campaigns that, by their nature, are only aiming at modifying the economy, which means modifying our exploitation. However, just because some people want to turn a struggle into a reform campaign does not mean that we don't support the struggle.

The anti-Poll Tax fight was an example of this. It was primarily a struggle of the working class to resist an attack on living standards. When there is a pay dispute we try to show the way to win it but also why pay rises will never be enough. When we go back to work, whether we have won or not, it is not the revolutionaries that should negotiate with the bosses, others can do this. Some might say this is "purist", to not negotiate with the bosses ourselves if we agree that, in the circumstances, such negotiation is inevitable.

Well, we may win the odd battle in the class war but the working class is always in defeat while there is wage-slavery - so revolutionaries should never lead workers back to work. To do such a thing is to help the bosses manage our oppression - which is what reformism is all about. If we have to go back to work we go as proletarians, not as "managers".

Just as we shouldn't take union posts we shouldn't encourage the creation of rank and file groups or movements. A revolutionary rank and file movement is a contradiction in terms, there can only be a revolutionary movement.

Text taken from Subversion

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Pit sense or no sense?

Subversion review Pit Sense Versus the State - a history of militant miners in the Doncaster area, by David John Douglass, published by Phoenix Press.

This thin volume unfortunately does not live up to its title. Most of the book is a recital of union resolutions and a commentary on the activities of Doncaster miners in the N.U.M. [National Union of Mineworkers] during the 1984/85 national strike. For those not familiar with the mining industry or the structure and functioning of the N.U.M. it is also quite difficult to follow, lacking as it does a preliminary chronology of the strike or annotated diagram of the N.U.M.’s organisational structure.

Indeed the purpose behind the writing of this book is difficult to fathom until you reach the last 3 short chapters which largely a duplication of material previously published in the pamphlet ‘Refracted Perspective’. It then becomes apparent that it is an attempt to provide some documentary evidence in support of Douglass’s defence of trade unionism and the N.U.M. in particular against criticism by revolutionaries. Basically he believes that "unofficial" action is parallel to and supportive of "official union action, rather than the beginning of a move outside and against the unions, as we believe. Partly this is done by falsely amalgamating the views of the "left" (particularly the trotskyists with those of genuine revolutionaries. Douglass makes a reasonable job of exposing the left’s contradictory and arrogant attitude towards workers in struggle but his position in the N.U.M prevents him from dealing adequately with revolutionary criticism.

A reasonable demolition job on Douglass’s arguments has already been done in the Wildcat pamphlet "outside and against the unions" (60p from us, or direct from Wildcat, BM Cat, London, WC1N 3XX). Other useful material on this debate can also be found in "Echanges" (from BP241, 75866 PARIS CEDEX 18, FRANCE in English and French). We don’t intend to repeat all these arguments here but a few points are worth making.

In saying that trade unions and trade unionism are a barrier to the successful extension and development of the class struggle we are not saying that unions will never support or even organise industrial action.

Firstly, the trade union officials if they are to maintain their role as the workers’ ‘representatives’ and junior partners in the management of capitalism must be able to demonstrate their control of their ‘constituency’. This means that in the face of militancy amongst their members ‘action’ of some kind has to be proposed - but the purpose of the action is to maintain their control not promote the workers’ interests.

Secondly, capitalism is made up of numerous sectional interests. The ruling class is only united when faced with a potentially revolutionary opposition. In normal circumstances different sections of the ruling class are at each others throats. Different sections will be on top at different times. It is quite possible for trade union officials or a particular group of trade union officials to have to fight for their interests or even their survival within capitalism. That may even require wheeling in their members to do battle on their behalf.In some cases, and we suggest this applied to the miners and the NUM in 1984/5, both the workers and the union officials and their organisation can be under threat at the same time. In this situation understanding the different interests of each when both are involved in a ‘life or death’ struggle is much more difficult, but none-the-less necessary. The old adage that "our enemies’ enemies are not necessarily our friends" is worth remembering.

Thirdly, whilst we think it is necessary in any major struggle for workers to move outside the union framework, this process can often happen in practice, in only a halting and partial way. It is up to revolutionaries to encourage this process not try to tie it back into the union framework as Douglass wants to.

And lastly it is true to say that there are many aspects to the nature of the British coal mining industry and its relationship to miners and the union which make the case of the NUM not entirely typical of British and other unions. Douglass continually makes the mistake of generalising from the experience of the NUM rather than looking at the actual experience of other workers and the unions they belong to.

All in all we have to say that the writing of this book was a wasted opportunity.

What's wrong with anti-racism?

Subversion critique bourgeois anti-racism. We don't agree with how all of this article is written, but reproduce it for reference.

Subversion is not anti-racist because "we are all human beings" or "we all have the same colour blood" or "we should all be able to live together, respecting each others different cultures, religions, colour, etc". Subversion is anti-racist because racism is one of the ideological tools used by our rulers to keep the international working class divided and unaware of the thing which binds all the worlds workers together: the fact that we are the working class; that we must sell our labour power to survive; that we are wage slaves. Racism has been used to justify genocide and slavery in the past but now it is used to help keep class consciousness at bay. Instead of seeing the world as being made up of bosses and workers we are meant to see it filled up with "foreigners". We are meant to see all the people who live in France as one group, instead of as it really is: a small group of exploiters and the mass of exploited, just as it is in Britain. Just as we are encouraged to identify with the very same scum who rip us off, make us work, sack us, send us to war, we are also encouraged to identify "foreign" workers with the very scumbags who rip them off. We are meant to blame migrant workers for local unemployment. We are meant to fear everyone in Japan or Germany because they are surely conspiring to wreck "our economy", aren't they?

Divided and ruled

Just as racism in its basic forms helps dilute and divert working class consciousness so does the "anti-racist" formula: "we are all human beings". This sort of argument tries to say that "we" are all in it together, "we" means bosses and workers, the leaders and the led, the powerful and the powerless. Once again we (the working class) are supposed to identify with our exploiters (the bosses/bourgeoisie) and THEIR murdering economy, capitalism. This use of the word "we" to describe all humans is a clever way of denying class, notice how Greenies say that "we" have ruined the planet. Are they stupid? Do they really think that all humans are to blame, all the masses of people who have been thrown off the land, all the masses of proletarians who have starved, been killed by poverty, forced to work like slaves all their lives? Anyone with half an ounce of sense can see that the great majority of the worlds population has never had any control over even their own lives let alone the actions of those people who live on our backs. Anyone who uses the word "we" to describe every person in the world either has no idea that there is an exploiting class and an exploited class, or wants to have at least some say in the ordering about and bleeding dry of the working class. And this is certainly the aim of left-wingers who say "we are all human beings", as well as the "green" movement.

Pro-capitalist anti-racism

The anti-racism of the Labour Movement is a pro-capitalism anti-racism, you won't catch the leader of the TUC saying that racism is a tool used by the ruling class to keep the international working class divided. The leader of the TUC will say that racism is a cancer that divides society, and that it is stirred up by right wing elements. Yes, racism may be stirred up by capitalism's right wing defenders, but society is already divided into classes - only a defender of capitalism and the present order of things could call racism a threat to society. There is NOTHING about this society worth defending but it is essential for workers to fight racism in the working class as part of the struggle to raise class consciousness and unite against capitalism. While the Labour Movement might defend a black member of the boss class who is under racist attack we could not. What we would do is use the incident to point out the fact that racism is a tool of the ruling class to keep us confused and in our place, but we could never defend this black boss or her/his "right" to trade, give orders, make profits, etc. - if we defended the rights of anyone to lord it over us we would be anti-working class.

What is race anyway?

At the beginning of this article an example of racism was given which involved only attitudes between France and Britain. Some people might say that this is not racism because the French and the British are of the same "race", they might call it "chauvinism" instead. The people who argue this obviously think that there are real differences biological between people in the world, they would categorise all people with the same skin colour into a specific racial type (African, Eurasian etc.) therefore arguing that "racism" can only happen between these different coloured groups and that only "chauvinism" can happen between people of different countries but who share the same colour. Other people argue that racism can only be defined in terms of a "dominant country" exploiting a "minor country", or the legacy of this exploitation. Thus British people can only be racist to people from all its ex-colonies, although in effect they really mean anyone in those countries that Britain is perceived to be superior to. In this philosophy people from the ex-colonies cannot be racist towards white British people, what we might perceive as racism (e.g., "fuck off, you white bastard") is, in fact, anti-imperialism!

Class

It's not worth trying to find your way around the torturous and inane logic of the proponents of the ideas described above. If we want to understand what racism really has to do with our daily lives, what the reality of it is, then we must look at it from a class perspective. We must understand who actually benefits from it and why it is an enemy of class struggle. Never mind all the dubious philosophical ins and outs of it: racism sets workers against workers and obscures who our real enemies are - the manipulators and benefactors of a divided and confused working class.

Papist Plots an Anti-Semitism

If you want any proof of the good work racism has done for the bosses you only have to take a cursory glance through history. In the 1840's and '50's the Tory Party began a campaign against Irish workers in Britain in order to divide the Chartist Movement. Tory henchmen carried out several atrocities against workers in the North and West which were blamed on Irish workers. Meanwhile the ruling class tried to whip up fear of "Papist Plots" and migrant labour taking work from "the English". While the specific incidents have been forgotten the effects of this campaign to divide the working class are still evident in England. It's no coincidence that anti-Semitism began to be encouraged in Germany after World War One, things had to be done to fragment a proletariat that had created a revolution in 1919 and might try again in the economic depression of the 1920's. It was funny how a couple of years ago we heard lots about strikes in the new "unified" Germany but now most of the news concerns the "rising tide of racism". It has proved very handy for the German Labour Movement and the bosses in general to be able to urge workers to see "society" under threat from nazi types. It's a brutal way of diverting a rising class combativity, and who benefits? The bosses of course.

Recession

In general, it seems, we are likely to see more racism when the economy is in "recession" and when it seems likely that workers might fight back. Since the Trafalgar Square riot and the defeat of the Poll Tax we have seen a marked rise in actual racist attacks, media coverage and the Labour Movement getting back on the anti-racist bandwagon. Is it a coincidence? Today racism does have fairly deep roots in the working class but racism and nationalism tend to be pushed aside during rising class struggle. What we must ask ourselves is: who would benefit from a dissipation of the spirit of rebellion that was brought on by the Poll Tax? Certainly the bosses and certainly the Labour Movement, of which even the left wing (Militant) crapped themselves because of the riot. Instead of getting out of hand, thinking that if we beat the Poll Tax we could beat other things, instead of escalating the class struggle, it's much better for us to worry about rising nazism and go on well-policed and harmless marches where we can hear our Labour Movement leaders going on about the "threat to society" posed by racism. But they don't really want racism to go away, just as they don't want capitalism, oppression and wage slavery to go away either. And racism is so useful to world capitalism that only a fool could believe that they'd let it disappear. Racism can only be defeated in class struggle and only the destruction of global capitalism and the creation of true human community will put it to rest forever, because no longer will it serve any use.

Opportunity Knocks

It will be argued, of course, that things like Equal Opportunities [specifically, the Commission for Racial Equality, 1976] have done a lot to erode racist attitudes and allow black workers, as well as women and the disabled, to "do well" in the workplace. In fact bosses in large companies (including local councils, Royal Mail, etc.) see Equal Opportunities as a numbers game. Managers are given targets for the percentage of black workers they should employ and if they achieve these targets they look much better to their superiors. It goes something like this: the Government realises that black people need to be better integrated into the workforce (why does the State like black police officers?), so they set up things like the Commission for Racial Equality, which, very handily, makes the Government look like it disagrees with racism; Employers are then encouraged to set up an Equal Opportunities policy, being persuaded that they don't really want to look like an old fashioned racist and sexist company, do they? And anyway, local councils and Government might not buy products and services from companies that don't pursue Equal Opportunities, they've got the black, women and disabled vote to think of, after all. And so managers recruit more "under-represented" people, not because anyone in this whole chain is actually anti-racist but simply because everyone in the chain is looking after their own interests (i.e. their profits or power).

We mustn't let ourselves get caught up in their game. The very least that Equal Opportunities might have done for black workers in Britain is have made it easier for them to get a job now. But even this is not true, is it? There is a far greater percentage of black people unemployed than white people, let's face it, it was easier for black people to get work in the 1950's, when there was no such thing as Equal Opportunities! The capitalists are playing games with us. Black workers are supposed to defend a "society" that has Equal Opportunities written into law, that says it is anti-racist, and yet black workers are worse off now than they were 20 or 30 years ago (as all workers are, of course), and for all this Equal Opportunities bullshit we now have another "rising tide of racism". Racism and "anti-racism": for our rulers both are tricks to keep us under the heel.