Issue of Subversion from 1994 with articles about the war in Ireland, SWP and militant, trade unionism, the media and more.
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.
Subversion, No. 14 (Spring 1994)
Flame or ember
Subversion on signs of a resurgence in class struggle in 1994.
Revolutionaries in Britain have witnessed the defeat of a number of important working class struggles over the last 10 years followed by a rising tide of nationalism and racism across the globe. In this situation they are understandably desperate for some good news. Articles have appeared in a number of publications heralding a resurgence of class struggle across Europe, supposedly throwing a beacon of light to militants here in our efforts to promote a fight back against the current bosses' offensive.
There have certainly been by comparison some impressive flash points in the European class struggle over recent months. Massive street demonstrations involving between 50,000 and 500,000 workers have taken place in Italy, Belgium, Germany and Spain against government austerity plans, redundancies and wage cuts. There have been angry and violent strikes at Air France and the state chemical company in Crotone, Italy, involving confrontations with armed police. Major strikes have also taken place amongst coal and steel workers in Germany at the heart of European capitalism. There have also been numerous smaller strikes right across Europe, east and west. Whilst all of this can only warm our hearts, there are serious worries in our heads at least, about the way things are going.
There have been suggestions that the bosses deliberately provoked the strike at Air France with a carefully–timed announcement of huge redundancies well in excess of those actually required at the present time, with the hope that the workers would be isolated and exhausted before a more general assault on the rest of the class. If this is true then the bosses probably got more than they bargained for. Certainly the Financial Times was sufficiently worried to bemoan the lack of trade union control over its members at Air France and to express concern over spreading militancy amongst European workers generally.
GERMANY AND COAL
It is noticeable, however, that the strongest opposition to austerity in Europe comes from workers in the substantial state–owned industrial and public service sectors which have generally still to see the level of restructuring and job losses experienced by those sectors in this country.
Although strikes amongst German coal miners have sometimes been 'spontaneous' and organised outside the official unions, they have quickly been brought under those unions' control. Ideologically they have been sidetracked into nationalism and corporatism (i.e. identifying with the industry rather than the wider working class) with slogans such as 'Defend German Coal'.
Struggles have been isolated with the focus on occupations of pits threatened with closure and token union–led demonstrations. There are many echoes here of the British NUM's defence of the 'Plan for Coal', its appeal for moral support from the 'general public', MPs, etc, and insistence on getting every last miner out on strike, which prevented miners from spreading their struggle directly to other workers in the crucial early stages of the strike. There was also much wasted and misdirected debate over capitalist issues such as which energy industries did, or should, get the most state subsidies. As a result of all this the British miners for all their militancy and courage were roundly defeated.
ITALY AND THE SCHOOLS
In Italy the 'base committees' (COBAS) had some success in organising struggles of workers, mainly in the state sector, outside and against the traditional union structures. They continue to have some influence but even here corporatist tendencies have appeared. For instance, in the schools COBAS there have been attempts to sidetrack the movement into 'advising' the government on how schooling should be planned, making the COBAS look inward towards the needs of capitalist schooling rather than outward towards the rest of the class and class–based needs. It seems that 'professionalism' for long such a barrier to 'class' resistance amongst school workers in Britain is still a force amongst such workers in Italy, despite their comparatively more militant stance.
ITALY – SCOTLAND
There are some other unhealthy comparisons to be made. The extremely militant strike and occupation of the Crotone chemical plant in southern Italy which received the enthusiastic support of the whole town bears a number of similarities to the failed Timex strike in Dundee, Scotland:
– considerable militancy and initiative on the ground by the workers involved, but links with the 'outside' world largely left in the hands of the official unions and parties etc
– the blurring of class lines between the workers and their families on the one hand and local politicians, churchmen and capitalists on the other in 'defence' of 'their' area
– an element of 'north' versus 'south' ideology particularly strong in Italian politics today comparable to the Scotland versus England debate here, setting workers in one region against workers in another region.
Clearly there has been an upturn in the European class struggle and there exists a huge wellspring of class anger beneath the surface that could give rise to even larger struggles in the near future. The obstacles to such a movement are however very great.
Unlike the left our conclusions are that, at this juncture, we in Britain have less to learn from the supposed 'successes' of workers in the rest of Europe, than they have to learn from our failures.
(See the article on Timex in the last Subversion and the article on Crotone in Workers' Voice 69. For more information on the COBAS, see the pamphlet by David Brown, 'The Cobas: Italy 1986–88: A New Rank and File Movement', published by Echanges, address given elsewhere in this bulletin)
Solidarnosc: trade unionism in Poland - Subversion
Subversion look at Solidarność's role in the uprisings which preceded the end of Stalinist rule in Poland.
The 1980 workers’ uprising in Poland was not the first time the working class there had fought back against state capitalism. ln 1956, 1970 and 1976 workers had taken to the streets when the state had tried to impose cuts in their standard of living by raising food prices.
The strength of the working class was such that, despite severe repression, in each case the state gave in. These uprisings underlined the fact that there was a line beyond which the state could not go at that time. They also meant that the state was forced to constantly rethink its strategies for increasing the competitiveness of Polish capital. The state’s solution to the 1970 revolt was to try to modernise the economy by importing western capital and technology. This was to be paid for by exploiting the peasantry in order to subsidise the money wages of the workers with cheap food After 1976 the idea of autonomy for enterprise management was introduced. This was to prove crucial in the early stages of 1980.
Despite their best efforts, the Polish state built up a huge debt to western banks by 1980 – approximately $28 billion. It’s response was to try to cut the subsidies to workers and on June 30th announced a “reorganisation of meat distribution”, which meant a 60% increase in the price of meat.
The working class responded with a wave of strikes effecting factories in Ursus (tractors), Huta Warzawa (steel), Poznan (metallurgy), Tczew (transmissions), Mielec (aviation) and Swidnica (aviation).
The party’s response was to try to negotiate locally. They couldn’t risk losing the goodwill of the West, nor risk a major disruption of production which would endanger its ability to service the massive foreign debt. The policy of local enterprise autonomy made this policy easier to put into practice The hope was that it would keep workers divided. The result was the exact opposite. Workers in other plants saw their fellows winning demands and immediately went on strike themselves’ They took the opportunity to elect strike committees and organise themselves. By July 15th there were 50 strikes going on. Two days later the city of Lublin, with a population of 300,000 started a general strike.
Even at this stage there was a major change with previous uprisings. In earlier years workers had taken to the streets, this time they remained in their workplaces to avoid being gunned down. They remained where they were strong and united.
The strike wave continued until early August. At this point the state decided on a new approach. If the carrot had failed, now they would go back to trying the stick. The problem they faced was in finding who to repress. These strikes were examples of workers organising themselves. There were no obvious leaders who had instigated it, nor easy targets to pick on. There were underground groups and “free trade unionists”, but they had not played a central role in the struggle up to this point. Failing anyone else to repress, the state turned on these people.
Repression started on August 11th when a bin man was arrested for 9 hours. Two days later, 3 Lenin Shipyard workers connected with underground unions were arrested. Up to this point, Gdansk, Sopot and Gdnyia (the centres of the shipbuilding industry) had been mostly quiet. The result was a general strike that spread rapidly from shipyard to city. A strike committee of 10 was elected (including Lech Walesa who had climbed over the wall when the strike broke out) which was soon joined by 100 delegates from other departments. They published a list of demands, some of which were economic, some political.
By 18th August 100 enterprises in a 100km area around Gdansk were on strike. An inter factory strike committee (the MKS) was set up with two delegates from each factory on strike. The MKS controlled the entire region and resolved all problems of food and transportation.
MKS were set up in Szczecin and the Silesian mines. The strike wave had spread all over Poland, accompanied by self-organisation of the working class that was challenging the authority of the state in a way that had never happened before in Poland or most of Europe. But it also contained the seeds of its own destruction. Soon the strike wave was to be hijacked by those with quite specific objectives that turned out to be against those of the workers.
Enter the KOR
The repression that followed 1976 led a group of intellectuals to set up a Committee for defence Against Repression, the KOR. This was to provide legal defence for those in need and material support for families. It was to become an important centre of opposition to the Communist Party (PUWP). It was soon joined by supporters of free trade unions. The political objectives of the KOR and the free unions were to Iiberalise the Polish state and to make Polish capital more competitive. These objectives can be summed up by quoting from the founding charter of underground unions in Northern Poland drawn up in April 1978. It stated:
“Only free unions and associations can save the state. since only democratisation can lead to the integration of the interests and the will of the citizen and the interests and power of the state.”
Lech Walesa was one of the signatories of this charter.
Supporters of KOR had a lot of respect in Poland. They endured state repression and carried on their work. There is no denying that they were brave men and women. It is right to deny that their objectives coincided with the needs of the working class.
They had little role in the early days of the uprising. Ironically it was the state which turned them into its leaders. Looking for someone to pick on, it was supporters of KOR that they found. This reinforced the idea that they were the state’s strongest opponents, so workers looking for new ideas increasingly turned to them for leadership. Thus it was that Walesa got elected to the strike committee at Gdansk. even though he did not work in the shipyard he represented. Other oppositionists became members of the MKS Praesidium on the basis of their being experienced negotiators.
The original demands of the Gdansk strikers were as political as they were economic. They contained all sorts of mystifications about democracy, free elections and judicial independence, but nonetheless their central thrust was simple – to get rid of the Communist regime in Poland. This terrified the oppositionists. Bogdan Borusewicz, a leader of KOR in Gdansk said “Asking for pluralist electionss is maximalism. If the Parry gave in, Moscow would intervene. There must be no demands which either force the government to resort to violence or lead to its collapse. It was the ending of censorship that led to intervention in Prague. We must leave them some exits.” By the time the demands had been finalised, the KOR had got their way. The state would be allowed a way out.
The government realised that it had to negotiate On September I st the Gdansk Accords were signed. Lech Walesa immediately called for a return to work. He said: “The strike is over. We did not get everything we wanted, but we did get all that was possible in the current situation. We will win the rest later because now we have the essentials: the right to strike and independent unions.”
Kuron, an important KOR leader, said “The unions ought to be partners in the administration, protectors of the workers. “
Work resumed. The MKS at Gdnask and Szcezin formed themselves into branches of Solidarnosc. By the end of the month it represented 90% of the workers in Poland.
Union against the worker
What was really amazing was just how quickly Solidarnosc began to act like established trade unions in the West. Its leaders quickly get themselves into positions of being intermediaries between the workers and the state. In the guise of “representing” the working class they went around stopping strikes, toning down wage and other demands in the interests of “national unity”. As early as September 16th, Solidarnosc in Gdansk warned against wildcat strikes – even though it was these same strikes that had started the uprising just two months before!
The Gdansk Accords had left unsettled the workers economic demands. Very important amongst these was the right to not work on Saturdays. There were many strikes in the winter of 1980-81 over this. The Solidarity National Coordinating Committee issued a statement on January 28th asking branches not to call any more strikes. Walesa said: “The situation is dangerous. We need national unity. To achieve it, we, government and workers, ought to seek a common path: we should unite in the country’s interests. We extend out hand to the government.”
The government again tried repression as a tactic. After a particularly nasty incident at Bydgoszcz in March, Solidarity was forced to do something when some of its organisers were beaten up by the militia. They called for a token 2 hour work stoppage. When the government refused to yield, Solidarnosc called for a general strike on March 31. In the best tradition of union bosses, Walesa negotiated with the state, got a few minor concessions
and called the strike off, without consulting anyone.
A pattern was beginning to emerge. Faced with pressure from the working class, Solidarnosc called for token strikes, did deals and called off strikes. A common spectacle was Walesa flying round the country in a government helicopter telling workers to go back to work.
However, the strikes continued. October and November 1981 saw the beginning of street demonstrations which the union could not control. By the middle of November there were more than 400,000 wildcat strikers in Poland.
After its September and October Congress, Solidarnosc started to make political demands of the state. It wanted to move towards Poland becoming a western style democracy, so it could operate as a western style trade union. Having lost much of their political control over their members, Solidarnosc’s leaders hoped that such reforms would enable them to regain it.
The state could not permit such a challenge to its authority. Solidarnosc was useful when it could control the working class. Faced with a working class outside its control the state called upon the Polish military to take over and reestablish order. In 1980 the military, faced with a united and confident working class, and trusting in the Party’s ability to rule, had been unwilling and unable to do this. Fourteen month’s of Solidarnosc’s malign influence had undermined the unity of the working class, at the same time as the Party had lost its legitimacy and ability to govern. The army took over in the first military coup in a state capitalist country. Workers fought back but were put down ruthlessly by the army. Many were given long prison sentences, others killed. Walesa was put into “preventative custody”. Clearly he was not someone who should he dealt with too harshly. Maybe they saw him as a person they would need to deal with in the future.
How did it all happen?
It is too easy to look at the Polish uprising as being a simple case of good workers against bad bureaucrats. We have tried to show that the aims and activities of Walesa, the Solidarnosc bureaucracy and the KOR were against the interests of the working class. They were able to substitute their own agenda for that of the working class. What we have not tried to show is that the working class were champing at the bit for revolution in 1980 and only held back by the bureaucrats. Such a view, favoured by many, pays no regard to reality.
The uprising was a result of the self-organisation of the working class. It wasn’t the result of any planning by underground bodies. The initial objectives of the working class were economic, but we have seen how many workers had political objectives which included getting rid of the Stalinist state.
However, most workers saw Solidarnosc as being their own creation. Even after a year of backstabbing, Solidamosc had a membership comprising 90% of the Polish working class. There was a very real tension between the centre and the branches, with rank and file members pushing demands forward, fighting for them and then the centre acting to diffuse the situation. Within the branches there was still a healthy tendency to struggle which had not at this stage succumbed to the ideology of trade unionism. It was the failure of the bureaucrats to gain control of the branches that led the army to seize control in the end.
It is hardly surprising that for many workers Solidarnosc was a creation they supported. For years they had been fighting against the Polish state. Each time they rose up their gains were snatched back. They were looking for something that would guarantee their gains. Because they knew no different, they believed that free unions were the answer. What they had in mind was the kind of idealised conception of unions that keeps workers supporting them throughout the world.
If workers here, who have years of experience of sell-outs still support the unions, is it surprising that Polish workers should see them as an advance?
Further, Polish workers knew that they were on their own. There were no similar actions in other parts of the Soviet bloc, and especially no similar activity in the USSR itself. They knew that if they pushed too far the result could only be Soviet intervention and massacre. This situation was made worse by a strong nationalist tendency which saw the situation as being a purely “Polish” one. Active revolutionaries would have tried to spread the struggle as internationally as possible.
Any attempt by workers to set up permanent organisations to negotiate with the state and employers will eventually go the same way as Solidarnosc. Trying to fulfil that role immediately raises questions of reaching compromises, doing deals, seeing the other side’s point of view. For workers that means accepting speed ups, productivity deals, lower living standards, job cuts and so on. It means accepting the boss’s right· to own and control the means of production.
The logic of class struggle is the opposite of this. It questions the right of the boss to manage and ultimately brings into question who controls society. It is clear to us that the only way forward for our class is to get rid of the whole buying and selling system and the state and bosses who go with it.
Despite the failure of the workers in Poland, despite their setting up of Solidarnosc, their uprising shows us many positive things.
It shows us that even in the most unlikely of situations, up against ruthless enemies, the working class is capable of fighting hard and taking on the enemy. The way they organised themselves, in their strike committees and the ways their delegates reported their deliberations were an example for others.
It shows the limits of struggles within national borders and the need to spread the struggle internationally. When our class is united and the struggle is international, there is nothing that can not be accomplished.
Subversion, No. 14 (Spring 1994)
Thanks for that one.
Some more reflections: One of the major drawbacks to Solidarity was the fact that it quickly established a few leadership cliques which exerted their influence over the union. What lacks in this article, and in fact in many studies on Solidarity published outside Poland, is an analysis of the internal structure of the organization. What we clearly see is that it was far less than democratic, although many works published in the West tend to label it so.
There were of course different factions in the leadership. Most tended to want to control and deradicalize the workers.
The workers themselves were never able to organize themselves effective without the leadership, which eventually undermined the whole thing.
The long-term goals of different leadership factions also were contradictory, which is evident in both their postulates and publications. There has been debate in the left (albeit too little) about whether or not they were arguing for the restitution of capitalist. According to the postulates, they were - although there were often strong social democratic elements and a touch of "workers' control". We see from the experience of Eastern Europe that in some countries this initially meant debureaucratization of the industries, then meant self-management in conditions more in tune with the market, then meant the integration into the market... etc. etc.
Thanks for those comments akai.
A feminist take on Solidarity:
A feminist take on Solidarity:
Interesting, would you be able to post that to the library/history?