Beyond rank and vile trade unionism, 1994 - Subversion

Subversion conference paper on rank and file groups in trade unions.

First it is necessary to spell out what we do not mean – that is the myth of a ‘rank and file’ straining at the leash, only held back by a cunning and devious trade union bureaucratised leadership. Today it is obvious such a movement does not exist, but it is doubtful if in reality this ever was the case except for a brief period after the First World War. There have been rank and file groupings in many industries and unions, but except for isolated instances and in very specific circumstances they have not challenged the outlook or mentality of conventional trade unionism. So first we have to establish to some extent what constitutes a genuine challenge to existing trade unionism rather than merely a ‘loyal opposition’ to existing workers organisations. (In this regard we do not refer merely to the existing trade unions – but to the whole outlook and philosophy of what is known as ‘ the Labour Movement’.)

Today our contention is that what passes for the ‘Labour Movement’ is entirely reactionary. We do not mourn its passing, but wish to point out the necessity of recognising this reality. Everything that has in the past been presented as the socialist project is now revealed as part of capitalism’s management of its crisis. All that has hitherto been assumed as being in the workers interests – the welfare state, post war consensus politics, the commitment to ‘full employment’ is now revealed as merely the result of the old movements’ politics to tie us more closely to the system.

As such it must be rejected.

Workers Movement versus the Movement of the Workers

Now this might seem a rather pessimistic conclusion, but we believe it is as well to start off from a realistic appreciation of the situation so that anyone proposing either to start a ‘rank and file ‘ grouping or faced with one already in existence can begin to arrive at some kind of analysis of what they are doing. In our experience there has been and is far too much uncritical action simply for actions sake. We want to avoid the situation where militants end up isolated, left only to protest futilely at the latest ‘betrayal’ or even worse in the name of some mythical ‘unity’ obliged to present the latest stitch up between management and unions as some kind of ‘victory’. Much of the present disorientation amongst the working class is not the result of the ‘Thatcher revolution’ (which we are convinced will soon be revealed as nothing of the sort,) but of the fact that a sea change has taken place in politics internationally and the old certainties (held in place by the Cold War) have gone. The traditional institutions that the working class looked to for help in times past, principally the Unions and the Labour Party, are now revealed for what they are pillars of the system and defenders of the status quo.

We propose to look at ‘rank and file’ groups under five main headings which although they are treated separately here for the purposes of analysis are in fact inter-dependent and inter-related. It is our view that we are working towards a coherent outlook, and one of the main purposes of attending this conference is not only to broaden and deepen our own understanding but to see if what we have worked out strikes a chord with other participants or even if someone else has arrived at a better understanding than ourselves. However it would not be correct to give the impression necessarily that we are prepared to give up on what we have fought so hard to understand. For instance our understanding of the place of trade unions in capitalist society or the role of the Labour Party is not something we are prepared to compromise.

That being said our five headings are as follows:-

* The Distinction between Minority and Mass (or majority organisations)

* A ‘rank and file’ populism against the development of a coherent political understanding and outlook (or reformism versus revolution)

* The relationship between rank and file organisations and the existing trade union structure

* The question of the creation of permanent institutions of a rank and file nature.

* The relationship (if any) of rank and file movements to political parties

(i) The distinction between minority and mass organisations.
In modern capitalist society mass organisations of a genuinely representative type no longer exist. It is inconceivable that we will witness a rebirth of trade unions as mass organisations. It would be as well to remember that the original founding of trade unions in this country was by minorities of skilled craftsmen. Mass unionism is very much a product of modern society and modern unions owe their structure and organisation to the post Second World War consensus which is now breaking” up.

In this situation it would be as well for rank and file movements to recognise their necessarilv minority character, rather than pretending to speak for the amorphous mass of workers. If this is the case then they have no need to hold back or pretend that initially at least they are anything other than political organisations pursuing a particular programme. It therefore makes no sense to hide this political character, rather it should be openly acknowledged. Moreover it is our view that such movements will be obliged to take on an increasingly social dimension. It is no longer possible to maintain the old social-democratic split between ‘political’ and economic’ questions on which the Labour Party was founded.

This leads us directly on to our second heading concerning the question of populism versus a coherent political outlook.

(ii) Reform versus Revolution
In the past we have had cause to question what we termed ‘money militancy’. By this we meant that whatever reforms we won in terms of money or working conditions, of necessity, such ‘victories’ always turned out to be short lived. Inflation always ate away at our gains. We always found ourselves in a minority shouting about a ‘betrayal’ – but if the union demands £10 should a revolutionary policy be to demand £20? Today although it is possible that a new wages movement might emerge, we doubt that it could achieve even the modest gains which were so easily wiped away in the 70s. So around what practical programme could a rank and file movement emerge?

Today the system itself constantly proposes reforms with which it hopes to draw in any opposition, so what attitude should a rank and file movement take to this process. Our answer to this is to reject the whole project for reforming the system and to argue for its abolition. This is not to dismiss anyone who finds themselves drawn into existing organisations – it is above all a practical question. In the past socialist groupings had to come to practical decisions on this point. The pre First World War SLP actually forbad its members from taking up union positions – again this leads us directly onto our next point, the relationship of any rank and file movement to the existing trade unions.

(iii) ‘Rank and File’ and the existing Trade Unions
It should be fairly clear by now that we see no role for the trade unions in any future stuggle. We do not want to make a fetish of this, it obviousy’ depends on circumstances. But even where a movement utilises the existing union base machinery (for example combine committees, or local area committees) and it is looked on favourably by the local trade union bureaucracy (as regards funds, premises, printing facilities and so on) at crucial moments (that is the only ones that matter) this dependence will be the undoing of the movement. A classic example of this was the London Busmen’s Combined Committee broken by Bevin and the TGWU in 1937.

Not only therefore do we see no positive role for the trade unions, hut we believe of necessity that any rank and file movement can only emerge in opposition to them. This has been the experience abroad and especially we believe in Italy with the COBAS movement. Indeed in our opinion it is a good sign of the health of such a movement to see how much opposition from the existing unions it inspires. It also follows therefore that all attempts at democratising the unions or pressurising union leaderships to take action are futile and a waste of time and indeed positively reactionary.

(iv) Permanent Organisation?
We have shown how it is impossible for new mass organisations to emerge except at times of exceptional crisis (indeed one of the ways you know you are in a crisis is the practical question of the emergence of such institutions). In our view it would be a mistake to try and artificially prolong the life of such organisations outside periods of struggle by making them permanent. If we accept that movements ebb and flow, that disputes are going to be resolved on whatever terms at least temporarily, then the need for a fighting organisation fades away. Any attempt to artificially prolong it risks ossifying it at best and at worst turning it into a fully fledged capitalist organisation (by obliging it to maintain itself with finance, permanent staff or the usual risk with working class organisations – the treasurer runs of with the funds).

Prior to the dockers attempts to take over (by joining ‘en masse’) the ‘blue’ union (NASD) in the 1950s, rank and tile organisation was kept alive as a political idea not by any organisational device. It was only the fact that some dockers influenced by Trotskyism wanted to take over a union (and ultimately to have some influence over the Labour Party itself) that made them believe that they could ‘take shelter’ under the umbrella of the NASD.

(v) Relationship to Politics Parties
If you’re not part of the solution then you must be part of the problem!

We have said already that any rank and file movement is by its nature the organisation of a political minority. How then does it differ from any one of the different Leftist groups which are also political minorities?

Only in the ways we which we have already outlined. We have already stated our views on the old ‘Labour Movement’, and as there are not many leftist groups which would subscribe to them so they are almost automatically excluded.

If only life were so simple!

Apart from those movements which are merely fronts for already established parties – a genuine rank and file movement would begin by trying to outgrow its sectional roots, by breaking out of the limitations that capitalist society imposes on it and become social in character. Other political groupings, who of course it is impossible to exclude from such a development either help or hinder such a process.

By Graham.
Subversion, No. 14 (Spring 1994)
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