1. The mainstream workers' movement

Submitted by Steven. on December 15, 2012


This chapter will introduce the mainstream currents in the workers’ movement, from their origins until today. This is done in three parts. First, we look at how trade unions began as a response by workers to the conditions of early capitalism. By forming associations, workers could get the strength in numbers to change the balance of power versus employers. But we will see how, alongside this, a representative function arose, where unions developed a life independent of their membership and began to operate over their heads, mediating and ultimately diminishing their power within the limits set down by capital and the state. We will also see how this led trade unions to see themselves as purely economic organisations, leaving ‘politics’ to separate party organisations. We will then look at the notionally ‘revolutionary workers’ parties’ originating in Marxism and Leninism, and set out a critique of their inherent statism. Finally, we will retrace the history of the British Labour Party, dispelling some of the rose tinted nostalgia for this ‘workers’ party’, which was always a party of the trade union bureaucrats and never of the workers themselves.

Trade unionism

Britain was the first industrialised country, and so it was here that the first working class developed. The Enclosure Acts from 1750 onwards evicted the peasantry from traditional common land and turned them into rural wage labourers or landless vagabonds. Meanwhile, the need for large numbers of workers to staff the burgeoning manufacturing industries created an intense wave of urbanisation. Rural migrants were joined by former craft workers thrown into unemployment by the competition of industry. The labouring population of town and country were completely dispossessed, having nothing to sell but their labour power. They were the first members of a class which today accounts for the majority of humanity – the proletariat.

At first, industrialisation was seen as the death knell for the power that producers, organised in craft guilds, had over production. The system of apprenticeships and monopolisation of specialist skills had given craft workers a degree of control over their work that automation was set to wipe out in the new deskilled, mechanised division of labour. However, the fear that workers would never again exercise collective power over the production process would prove to be premature. After a few decades, new forms of collective organisation began to emerge. As early as 1799 and 1825 Combination Acts were passed as capital sought to curtail emerging working class organisation.

These early unions were small and transient. Typically they tended to form for the purpose of organising a conflict with the bosses, dissolving some time later following the conclusion of the conflict in victory or defeat. This posed several problems for the union movement. Firstly, the division of workers at each firm into small and transient unions meant a strike at one firm could simply mean ruin and subsequent unemployment as rival firms took advantage. Secondly, the impermanence of these early unions meant they were largely reactive rather than proactive, being formed to counter specific conditions rather than fight for the general improvement of working class living standards, let alone holding aspirations of revolutionary social transformation. These pitfalls led to the growth of a burgeoning amalgamation movement.

The amalgamation movement saw smaller unions combining into larger, more permanent ones. Their increased resources meant paid organisers could be employed to further swell the membership, which was stabilised by the introduction of services such as unemployment and sickness benefits, which at that time were not provided by the state. But amalgamation also had unintended consequences. Unions went from being a means to organise class conflicts to becoming an end in themselves, as permanent representatives of workers, acting on their behalves and supposedly in their interests. It is this latter role which came to dominate the union movement and with which we are mostly familiar today in the shape of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) unions.

It is therefore possible to identify two distinct meanings bound up in the term ‘union’. The first is simply that of an association of workers, joining together for some common purpose (whatever that may be). In other words, the union is the means by which workers relate to one another. That relationship may be horizontal or hierarchical, usually voluntary but, as in the case of ‘closed shops’ where workers have to join the union, sometimes compulsory. Their association may be long-lasting as in today’s trade unionism, or more transient as in the early, pre-amalgamation unions. The purpose of their association may be simply economic – ‘bread and butter issues’ – or encompass wider social or political goals. We can call this the associational function. This function is a product of the reality of life under capitalism. Individually, workers are powerless. Collectively we have power. Workers needed to defend themselves against the opposing interests of the bosses and have historically organised themselves into combinations such as trade unions in order to do this, realising that workers' strength lay in their association.

The second function, perhaps most familiar in the age of the ‘service provider’ union model, is that of the representation of workers vis-à-vis capital. This usually means management, but sometimes includes politicians and the state, should they decide to intervene in a dispute. We can call this function the representative function. The representative function carries with it certain assumptions. Firstly, it is premised on the legitimacy of the existence of social classes, between which it seeks to mediate. Secondly, in order to gain the right to negotiate on workers’ behalves, representative unions tend to jettison any explicit politics which could put off potential members, since size becomes the all important factor in determining their place in the TUC pecking order (in the UK, this has normally meant outsourcing ‘politics’ to the Labour Party).

Both of these functions have become closely intertwined in the course of the historical development of the trade union movement. It is worth quoting a substantial passage on one such example of this process, because it raises a number of issues which will come up again and again in this pamphlet:

"Much can be explained by John Turner's experiences. From the time of the Harrow Road 'riots' in 1891 until its amalgamation with another small union in 1898 Turner had been (unpaid) president of the United Shop Assistants Union. On amalgamation the total membership of the union was approximately 700. Turner became paid national organiser and threw himself into a recruiting drive around the country. The membership grew rapidly as a result of prodigious efforts on his part. But his experiences in the 'United' Union had brought about a change of approach. Branches then had come into being as different work places had come into conflict with their employers and then faded away as victory or defeat seemed to make union membership less important or more dangerous. Now Turner, to ensure a stable membership, had introduced unemployment and sickness benefits and as a result had members 'of a good type, paying what was, for those days, a fairly high contribution'. His policy worked, but he was now primarily organising a union whereas previously he had primarily been organising conflicts with employers.

“By 1907 the pressure had relaxed somewhat and Turner was a fairly comfortably off trades union official of some importance. By 1910 the Shop Assistants Union had a membership of 13,000 in the London area, making it the largest union in the district. In 1912 John Turner became president of the union. Although he called himself an anarchist until he died it did not show itself in his union activities. Heartbreaking experience as it might have been, the small union before 1898 had been anarchistic, that after 1898 was no different to the other 'new' unions either in power distribution or policy. There were straws in the wind by 1906. The executive of the union was being seen in some quarters as a bureaucratic interference with local militancy and initiative. And complaints were to grow. By 1909 Turner was accused from one quarter of playing the 'role of one of the most blatant reactionaries with which the Trades Union movement was ever cursed'."4

Here we see precisely how the associational function of these small unions were supplemented by the representative function, and at what cost. The representative function is not as innocent as it first appears, as it has implications for the union as a whole. First, in order to represent workers vis-à-vis management, a union needs to maximise its membership in order to show to bosses it really is representative when it claims to speak for the workforce. The easiest, but not the only, way to achieve this is to employ full time officials out of the dues of the membership, as happened in John Turner’s case.

Second, such unions need to be able to deliver industrial peace in return for the satisfaction of demands, otherwise they would not be able to secure a seat at the negotiating table. This in turn tends to develop the union as a purely economic organisation, pushing politics out (typically to political parties), and leads to the creation of a bureaucracy with interests separate from the rank and file membership. That bureaucracy then becomes structurally dependent on their position as mediators between workers and capital and thus prone to reformism and class collaboration, regardless of the professed ideology of the bureaucrats.5 In other words, a consequence of representing workers to capital is that you also must represent capital to workers, becoming a barrier to militant rank and file initiative.

The desire for economic representation makes perfect sense in the absence of a revolutionary perspective, just as the desire for political representation – i.e. suffrage – makes sense in the absence of an anti-parliamentary perspective. If you are not opposed to the capitalist system, representation within it is the most you can ask for. In this respect, the unions originally developed in this direction because this is what many of their members, who were not for the most part revolutionaries, wanted. But once a bureaucracy develops, what the members want becomes far less consequential, as they are no longer in control. Thus the unions in this country long ago accepted the legitimacy of the existence of social classes, between which they sought to mediate. They do not want to put an end to an exploitative social system but to get the best for workers within it, which in practice means collaborating with the bosses and the capitalist system. The class collaboration of the unions has led them to become more and more a part of the system. It means that they now not only fail to defend workers' interests but often go firmly against them. Their priority is not fighting the class struggle but getting 'recognition' at any price (recognition from the bosses, of course, not the workers, i.e. recognition of their representative function to speak on workers’ behalves).

Once associational and representative functions become intertwined, unpicking them becomes increasingly difficult. The union becomes backed by a powerful bureaucracy with vested interests in the status quo, and often the ability to expel unruly troublemakers. We have recently experienced opposition from branch union officials to even holding a members’ meeting in the course of a dispute!6 The energy it would take to reform or dislodge such bureaucracies, not just the elected officials but the structures themselves, is many times that required to simply bypass the bureaucracy and take action outside it. In 1969 the Donovan Report, which came out of the Royal Commission into the unions and was set up by a Labour government, found that 95% of post-war strikes were unofficial. This changed after the anti-strike legislation of the 1980s which forced unions to police their rank and file more thoroughly on pain of asset seizure, but it is a simple illustration of the ease with which action can be taken. Many, if not most, of these unofficial strikes would have been organised in the workplace by rank and file union members and lay officials like shop stewards.

And this raises another problem. Militant workers, including those with socialist or anarchist leanings, find there is usually a shortage of willing shop stewards. And what better way to participate in the class struggle? Soon enough you get trained up in ‘rep work’, learning how to file grievances, do casework and navigate the complex industrial relations legislation. This is the terrain of representative functions, a million miles away from direct action.7 Opportunities might open up for facility time – paid time off work to carry out union responsibilities. Such an escape from the day job is welcome. Maybe a role opens up higher up the ladder, a regional convenor or a branch official. As another potential shop floor militant climbs the ladder into the bureaucracy, militancy and revolutionary aims and methods tend to get left behind, or are neutered by the bureaucrat’s role.

This is not, of course, the inevitable consequence of taking a shop steward position, and there are pros as well as cons. Taking on positions as stewards can give us greater access to the workplace making it easier to organise. It also puts us in touch with other militants who may share our aim in wanting to organise in the workplace. But without a clear alternative to the representative approach, it’s easy to become sucked in. The strategy of many state socialist groups is precisely for their members to climb this ladder. Anarcho-syndicalists need a clear strategy to avoid these pitfalls.

In the past the unions paid lip service to the emancipation of the working class and to ‘socialism’ (meaning the Labour Party). They don't even pay lip service now. Today’s TUC unions are the product of over a century of bureaucratisation. Associational and representative functions are now so blurred as to be indistinguishable. Indeed, you join a union in order to be represented. They have become vast corporations in their own right, complete with head offices, highly paid executive boards, legal departments and hundreds of wage labourers in their employ. The TUC for the most part still backs the Labour Party, despite it abandoning any pretence of being a workers’ party. Some Socialists have repeatedly tried to form a new one to replace it. Either way, politics is pushed out of the unions and into the parliamentary arena, a clear separation of the economic and the political. All the time we hear workers and leftists accusing the trade union leaders of ‘selling out’ and being bureaucratic. This is, of course, true, but anarcho-syndicalists view this as inevitable in organisations which collaborate with capitalism and the state rather than seek to destroy them.

How does this play out in practice? Let us start by looking at the basic building block of any union – the branch. The first thing to note is that the vast majority of branches exist and function away from the workplace, the seat of struggle. Rather than the branch proactively organising in the workplace, activists or workers with specific grievances find the onus on them to initiate contact and maintain channels of communication. This they only do on rare occasions and it is safe to say that most workers only attend branch meetings on a handful of occasions throughout their working lives, if at all. Indeed, internal union surveys show that at any given point only 5% of union members attend branch meetings. Nor is it necessarily the case that even those who attend on a regular basis have much in common. Many unions organise meetings on the basis of where members live. These meetings can consist of groups of people who may not work in the same workplace or even the same industry, the only thing in common being that they happen to belong to the same union. This type of meeting can even be reduced to members just turning up to pay dues.

Even in those few unions that do organise on an industrial basis – one workplace, one union – and thus don’t divide the workforce, union meetings are still dominated, not by workplace matters, but internal union business. The staple diet of such meetings is endless correspondence, various motions, countless elections and nominations for committees, conferences and union positions. What is rarely acknowledged is that these decisions are taken by a tiny minority of members. As decisions are taken further up the union ladder, tens of people acting for hundreds eventually becomes hundreds acting for millions. The culmination of this charade is the block vote where union leaders cast votes on behalf of hundreds of thousands of members on policies, and for people, that the overwhelming majority of members will never have heard of let alone voted for. The trade unions may still have millions of members between them, but in day to day union business it is a minority of officials and activists that speaks for them.

We should also dispel the idea that all branch activists are also involved in the workplace struggle against the bosses. For a start, in many unions branch secretaries are required to be on full time release, and so never see the workplace. And even when they are not officially full time, they can end up sitting on so many committees and holding so many positions they do not have the time for something as mundane as work. Then there are those who are active in the union but have no base in the workplace. These people can even be on the so called 'left' of the union and will argue for all sorts of motions to be passed from 'troops out' to freeing Palestine, but do little to organise in the workplace. Indeed it could be argued that unions act as a check on militancy, even at branch level. How often do angry workers turn to the branch for support and advice over incidents that have happened at work, only to have all that anger deflected away from taking effective action by branch officials promising to 'get something done' by contacting head office or bringing in a full timer? As British syndicalist, Tom Brown, put it in 1943:

"Centralisation takes control too far away from the place of struggle to be effective on the workers’ side in that fight. Most disputes arise in the factory, bus garage or mine. According to trade union procedure the dispute must be reported to the district office of the union, (and in some cases to an area office) then to head office, then back again, then the complicated “machinery for avoiding disputes” devised by trade union ‘leaders’ and the employers’ lawyers is set in its ball passing motion, until everyone forgets the original cause of all this passing up and down. The worker is not allowed any direct approach to, or control of the problem.

“We are reminded of the memoirs of a certain court photographer who was making a picture of the old Emperor of Austria [and wanted him] to turn his head a little to the left. Of course he could not speak to an emperor, so he put his request to a captain of the court guard, who spoke to his colonel, who spoke to a count, the count passed the request to a duke and he had a word with an archduke who begged his Imperial Majesty to turn his head a little to the left. The old chap turned his head and said “Is that sufficient?” and the message trickled back to the photographer via archduke, duke, count, colonel and captain. The humble thanks travelled back by the same road. The steps of trade union communication are just so fixed."8

Despite their failings, branch meetings do at least retain some links with the workforce they represent. Once we move above branch level, we enter that strange world of the full time union official whose working life consists of endless meetings with other union officials, management and union activists. The only time these people come across ordinary union members is when they are called in, often by management, to 'resolve' a problem. The higher up the union structure, the more remote they become, reaching a pinnacle of detachment with union leaders, who only come across ordinary working class people on a day to day basis when they have a friendly chat with their chauffeur or the office cleaner.

It is safe to say that the unions exist in the main outside the workplace with the bulk of union activity taking place above the members’ heads. The ordinary member’s commitment is limited to paying subs, with the expectation of some level of support should trouble arise. Outside national struggles and strike ballots there is little encouragement to see the union as anything more than an insurance scheme, perhaps requiring support itself.

These tendencies towards bureaucracy and the development of institutional interests separate from the workers themselves are natural developments of the representative function. However, they are also increasingly enforced by law. In the UK, industrial action is only lawful if it is preceded by a properly conducted ballot, employers are given sufficient notice, and a host of legal technicalities are followed. Unions are legally liable for damages arising from unlawful action, and consequently become even more conservative in authorising ballots and calling off industrial action at any hint of a legal challenge. The problems with trade unions don’t start with the law, but union legislation has further crippled effective workplace organisation whilst strengthening the bureaucratic tendencies that had already developed.

So, given that the unions organise away from the point of struggle, let us turn to their aims and how they set about achieving them. The main aim of any union is to maintain its power within the wider trade union movement, and also to exert pressure and maintain influence on the state, management, and society as a whole. They seek to do this in various ways, one of the most important being maintaining as high a membership as possible. This is of prime importance, not least in the TUC pecking order. This has now reached the point where it seems to matter little how remote or inactive that membership is, just as long as the dues are coming in and membership figures are up. Of all the areas in which the unions seek to have influence, by far the most important is their dealings with management, for it is from this area that all their power flows. They must retain the right to negotiate wages and conditions with management. Indeed, a ‘consultation’ role in cuts has often been championed as a victory for the union, even while it’s a defeat for the workers. The 2009 postal dispute is one of the more high profile recent examples.9

It is by having the power to negotiate on behalf of workers that the trade unions retain their influence within the workplace and ultimately attract and retain members. This representative function is fundamental to the existence of trade unions. In turn it is having that control and influence in the workplace that they are of use to the boss class. The unions offer stability in the workplace, they channel workers’ anger, shape and influence their demands and, if need be, police the workforce. Perhaps this is best summed up by a quote from the boss class itself: when asked by a reporter why his multinational had recognised unions in South Africa, a manager replied "have you ever tried negotiating with a football field full of militant angry workers?" It was this threat of an uncontrollable militant workforce that first persuaded the bosses of the need to accept reformist unions, seeing them as a way to control the workforce. As that threat of militancy has receded, the trade unions have become increasingly sidelined, finding themselves social partners with bosses increasingly unwilling to play the game.

'Revolutionary' workers’ parties

The idea of a workers' political party goes a long way back. Perhaps the most famous and influential example would the 1848 Manifesto of the Communist Party, more commonly known as the Communist Manifesto, which even before the days of universal suffrage declared that "the first step in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling as to win the battle of democracy."10 While Marx's ideas subsequently developed (particularly following the Paris Commune of 1871), what remained constant throughout what became known as 'Marxism' was the centrality of the 'need' for a workers’ political party. This organisational form reflected the political content of mainstream Marxism, which is concerned with the capture and use of state power to transform society. One of the great legacies of the 20th century is the strong association of communism with state power, and totalitarian bureaucratic state power at that. Whilst most Marxists distance themselves from the horrors of Stalinism, few reject the idea that revolution entails the capture of state power or the conviction that the Party is the organisational form to do it.

For Lenin, the working class on its own could only achieve "trade union consciousness", i.e. a consciousness of everyday economic life and bread and butter struggles.11 But to become revolutionary, it required the intervention of intellectuals and the leadership of a vanguard party. Inscribed in Marxist theory and practice is this separation between the economic organisations of the working class (trade unions) and the political one (the Party). And this separation is not neutral, but hierarchical: the party leads the class, the political trumps the economic. Leon Trotsky expresses this very clearly:

"Only on the basis of a study of political processes in the masses themselves, can we understand the role of parties and leaders, whom we least of all are inclined to ignore. They constitute not an independent, but nevertheless a very important, element in the process. Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam."12

Trotsky thinks he is giving credit to the working class, and stressing the lack of separation between the party and the class. In fact, his metaphor says far more than he intends. Steam is the unthinking product of applying heat to water, a mere expression of natural, physical laws. The intelligence in his metaphor is that of the engineers who design and operate the piston box which captures and directs the energy of the unthinking mass within it. It is correct that the Party can only ride to power on the back of the workers. What is not correct is that we have any need for them to do so, or that this advances the creation of a free communist society. Trotsky’s view was shared even by left wing Marxists ('left communists'), such as Amadeo Bordiga, whose opposition to the class collaboration of the Bolsheviks 'united front' strategy reaffirmed that 'the dictatorship of the proletariat' really meant the dictatorship of the Communist Party: "Political power cannot be seized, organised, and operated except through a political party."13

This idea of 'the dictatorship of the proletariat' is central to Marxist theory. Much confusion arises from the word 'dictatorship', which today conjures up images of repressive, unelected regimes. This is not necessarily what is meant (although it’s hard to ignore that wherever the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was established in the 20th century ended up looking a lot like… a dictatorship). Bearing in mind suffrage had barely extended beyond male property owners in the 19th century, Marx saw any state as a dictatorship of the ruling class (anarcho-syndicalists agree on this point). In capitalism the state is a dictatorship of the capitalist class – the bourgeoisie – and this is the case whether or not the state in question holds free and fair elections or respects human rights. If we accept this to be true then any revolution would necessarily involve the proletariat establishing its own dictatorship.

The form this dictatorship takes is one of the divisions within Marxism. More reformist, gradualist, social democratic currents subscribe to something like the vision of the Manifesto, aiming to 'win the battle of democracy'. In this analysis, the state is a dictatorship of capital because it is controlled by capitalist parties. Therefore, if a workers' party obtains power, the state will serve the interests of the workers. The state is seen as a relatively neutral instrument which serves the interests of whichever class' representatives control it:

"[I]t follows that every class which is struggling for mastery, even when its domination, as is the case with the proletariat, postulates the abolition of the old form of society in its entirety and of domination itself, must first conquer for itself political power in order to represent its interest in turn as the general interest."14

This is, of course, where we part company with Marx. The idea was that since the state was part of the 'political superstructure' built upon the 'economic base', a 'workers state' would necessarily 'wither away' once it had centralised all the means of production within itself. By uniting the working class with the means of production and thus eliminating the 'economic base' of the state in private property it renders itself obsolete. In practice, centralising all property in the state means the state becomes the sole capitalist and employer.

It is easy to go reading through the works of Lenin and pulling out quotes showing an authoritarian politics that prefigures the police state he ultimately helped create. 'What is to be done?', written in 1905 to address the problems of organising under the repressive Tsarist regime, is a favourite for this kind of criticism. But this is too easy. Rather, we should criticise Lenin at his most libertarian and his most radical. The most significant text here is 'State and revolution', written in 1917, between the February and October revolutions in Russia. In this text, Lenin emphatically rejects the ‘opportunist’ idea that the existing state can simply be taken over and made to serve the interests of the proletariat. Rather, he insists it must be "abolished."15 This has even led some to suggest he was flirting with anarchism.

But a closer reading shows no such thing, as Lenin himself was keen to stress. In place of the existing state, Lenin had taken up the slogan 'all power to the soviets', which was popular with Russian workers (and anarchists) at the time. The soviets were councils of workers and political party delegates which had first emerged in the Revolution of 1905. For Lenin, linking this to Marx's rethinking of the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' following the Paris Commune, the soviets were the form of the 'workers state', through which the proletariat would exercise its dictatorship. So, why would anarcho-syndicalists take issue with this? On closer examination, Lenin's views are far less radical and libertarian than they first appear.

Crucially, Lenin retains the fundamentally bourgeois conception of politics as a competition for power between political parties. His 'innovation' was to transpose this power struggle from the bourgeois forum of parliamentary politics, to the revolutionary proletarian forum provided by the soviets. But this change in venue does not change the fundamental problem of equating the interests of a class with those of its supposed representatives. Indeed, Leon Trotsky sees the proletariat and the Communist Party as indistinguishable, writing that "the revolution in the course of a few months placed the proletariat and the Communist Party in power."16 Which was it? History reveals it was the Communist Party which established its rule over the proletariat.

Remember that Lenin had not rejected the idea of the vanguard party. He had not rejected the idea of ‘politics’ as a struggle for state power between competing parties. And so his party competed for power in the Soviets. Enjoying genuine popularity in many places, they consolidated their majority by becoming representatives rather than delegates. Where they could not secure majorities, they did what all politicians do if they can get away with it, and gerrymandered and manipulated their majorities. Once majorities were secured, the soviets were sidelined or suppressed, as the Communist Party formed a government. And indeed this government was a dictatorship in the more familiar sense, complete with a secret police which began rounding up revolutionaries, from anarchists to rival socialists. The brutal suppression of the Kronstadt Commune is only the most iconic event of this counter-revolution.17

Even at its most radical, Leninism maintains the separation of the economic struggles of the ‘masses’ from the political party who leads them, and maintains that revolution is a question of first the Party seizing state power, before using that power – those secret police and standing armies – to impose 'communism' from above in the form of economic and social diktats.18 By contrast, the soviet/council system poses economic delegates against political representatives; bottom-up, direct democracy against top-down decrees; the free federation of workers against the dictatorship of the proletariat. Against the nationalisation of all property in the 'workers state', it poses the expropriation of social wealth to serve human needs, without a 'transitional phase' of a dictatorial state which we're promised will 'wither away.' To conceive of soviets as a state is to strip them of their revolutionary character and transform them into a mere alternative means of electing a government to run the state apparatus. Hence Rudolf Rocker writes:

"The council system brooks no dictatorships as it proceeds from totally different assumptions. In it is embodied the will from below, the creative energy of the toiling masses. In dictatorship, however, only lives barren compulsion from above, which will suffer no creative activity and proclaims blind submission as the highest laws for all. The two cannot exist together. In Russia dictatorship proved victorious. Hence there are no more soviets there. All that is left of them is the name and a gruesome caricature of its original meaning."19

Despite the collapse of the USSR and its allied bloc, which for a long time provided moral (and sometimes material) support to much of the statist left, ‘revolutionary’ workers’ parties are still very much the staple of leftist organisation. These latter day Leninists are most likely to be found in anything resembling a popular movement, where they’ll promptly form a ‘coalition’ and appoint themselves leaders. Calling for ‘unity’ behind their leadership (often, rival ‘coalitions’ each calling for ‘unity’ and decrying the actions of the other), they tend to smother any grassroots initiative with a stifling routine of marches (a great recruiting ground) and diversions into parliamentary politics. The examples are too numerous to list here. But whilst we can complain about the antics of the Left, ultimately their ability to control movements rests in the weakness of a libertarian, direct action culture within the wider working class which would render such manoeuvres transparent and ineffective.

However, whilst making ample reference to Lenin and Trotsky, in practice the current array of state socialists fall short even of those flawed figures. Today, most of the ‘revolutionary’ parties serve as little more than the extra-parliamentary wing of the Labour Party, urging ‘vote for Labour without illusions’ like clockwork every election. In 2010, this followed just four months after the very same ‘revolutionary’ party had co-organised a ‘Rage Against Labour’ march against the Labour Party Conference in Brighton! We imagine even Lenin would blush at such naked opportunism. There are exceptions with those socialists who seek to found an alternative Labour Party, although this pretty much adds up to the same thing. Revolutionary rhetoric serves as a mask for reformist practice. And so we come to the Labour party.

The Labour party

Unlike the Communist and Socialist Parties of the mainstream Marxist position, the Labour Party (and many of its equivalents around the world) has never claimed to be revolutionary. To criticise it for failing to be so would therefore miss the point. However, the Labour Party, as its name would infer, has long purported to represent the interests of the working class. This pretence only finally expired with the rise of ‘New Labour’, although many on the left still cling forlornly to its corpse. Others, having been kicked out of the party for being too left wing, have resolved to form a new workers’ party to serve the purpose the old one did before its recent neoliberal turn. What both of these perspectives share is the assumption that the Labour Party ever was an asset for the working class. Rose tinted spectacles aside, this premise cannot be sustained.

The Labour Party was founded in 1906 with the election of 29 MPs from the Labour Representation Committee, made up mainly of trade union officials with support from socialist groups. The immediate trigger for this was the ruling in the 1901 Taff Vale case which had made trade unions liable for loss of profits during strike action. The ruling was reversed by the Liberal-Labour supported Trades Disputes Act in 1906.

The honeymoon was short lived. There was a rising wave of class conflicts in 1910-1914, as discontent with both union bureaucracies and Labour MPs spread amongst the more combative sections of the working class. Historian Bob Holton writes that for many militant workers “the clear-cut non-parliamentary message of syndicalism proved more attractive, since it avoided the problems of political incorporation which increasingly beset the Labour Party in parliament” (we will discuss British syndicalism in the following chapter). Indeed, in 1912 the Liberal cabinet minister, Lloyd George, declared the parliamentary socialists “the best policemen for the syndicalist.”20

Having opted to support the First World War, therefore sending millions of workers to die for their bosses, Labour’s first taste of real political power came during the war when they were rewarded with a part in a coalition government. They further underlined their ruling class politics by opposing the upsurge in workers’ militancy that wartime austerity helped ferment. As strikes spread, particularly on ‘Red Clydeside’, Labour responded by helping break them. As socialists and anarchists were imprisoned for refusing to sign up, Labour rallied to “Win the War” and sought to expel pacifist/anti-war elements from within its ranks.

The first two majority Labour governments were no better. When J. H. Thomas, union leader and MP, “was appointed to the Colonial Office (…) he introduced himself to his departmental heads with the statement: 'I’m here to see there is no mucking about with the British Empire.'” Their first term only lasted 10 months, but on top of their enthusiastic imperialism they managed to oppose strikes by dockers, London tramway workers, and railway workers, invoking the 1920 Emergency Powers Act against the latter two, threatening to declare a state of emergency. In 1926, and back in opposition, the party feared the general strike would lead to revolutionary events and scrambled to prevent it. Three years later they again formed a minority government with a promise to lower rampant unemployment. Within two years it had more than doubled.21

From its very inception ‘working class political representation’ acted like every other capitalist political party – at best simply overseeing the misery caused by the capitalist economy, and at worst actively repressing working class self-organisation. In other words, Labour has acted for the bosses and against the working class.

The single most cited ‘achievement’ of the Labour Party is the ‘foundation’ of the welfare state in 1948 (in reality, this was an expansion of the limited welfare state introduced by the Liberals in 1912). Universal healthcare and unemployed benefits certainly represent gains for the working class insofar as they are paid for by the bosses. But why were they introduced? The foundations for the welfare state were laid by the 1942 cross party Beveridge Report, which recommended the measures later implemented by Clement Attlee’s Labour government when they came to power in 1945. Wary of the worldwide revolutionary wave which followed the end of the First World War, there was a cross party consensus that war weary workers would need to be given incentives not to turn their discontent, or even their guns, on the government. The Tory Quintin Hogg summed up the prevailing mood in 1943 when he said “we must give them reform or they will give us revolution.” Following the war, a wave of squatting by homeless workers swept disused military bases and 'bombed out' residential areas. With the threat of revolution seeming to lurk behind these actions, the welfare state was a reform needed as much by the ruling class as the workers.

But even this self-interest was not enough. The second strand of the cross party consensus was that a welfare state served ‘the national interest’ of building profitable British industry by shifting the cost of maintaining the workforce from private businesses on to the state via national insurance payments deducted from workers’ wages.22 It is ironic that ‘Labour’s greatest achievement’ was supported by a cross party consensus which would have almost certainly seen the recommendations of the Beveridge report implemented regardless of who won the 1945 general election. Certainly, the fact it was political ‘representatives of the working class’ overseeing its introduction seems of little importance when they were implementing ruling class consensus. In any event, without the tangible threat of working class unrest, that consensus would never have been acted on. So let us fast forward to the 1970s to see how ‘working class political representation’ dealt with significant working class struggle.

The 1970s was a decade of major industrial unrest, as inflation hit double figures and wages failed to keep pace with the spiralling cost of living. Legislation limiting pay rises was proving unpopular and unenforceable in the face of widespread unofficial action outside of the control of the TUC unions and their Labour Party associates. Consequently, Labour turned to the TUC to implement ‘voluntary’ pay freezes, with partial success as unions policed their angry membership. The crisis deepened and by 1976 Britain went to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for emergency assistance. This came with the usual strings attached – austerity measures and public service cuts which the Labour government was only too keen to implement. The confrontation between the working class and their ‘political representatives’ came to a head in 1978-79 in the so called winter of discontent.23 As strike waves brought the country to a standstill Labour became unelectable. They wouldn’t taste power again until their ‘New Labour’ rebranding, having jettisoned any pretence of advancing working class interests (a claim by this point thoroughly discredited by their record in office and in opposition).

From its very beginnings the political representation of the working class has never served the working class. It cannot. As even Lenin recognised, the state serves capitalism and cannot be made to serve the interests of the proletariat. This does not only apply to the Labour Party, but all political parties. Consider the German Green Party, who once in government sent riot police against protesters trying to stop nuclear waste being transported through their communities – precisely the kind of green activism they had once supported. In 2001 they supported the invasion of Afghanistan as part of a coalition government. In Ireland too, the Green Party went from vocal supporters of the ‘Shell to Sea’ movement against the Corrib gas project to actually implementing it. Green minister Eamon Ryan was put in charge of the project, the Greens having dropped their election promises in order to enter a coalition government. On that note, the Liberal Democrat’s rapid u-turn on tuition fees in 2010, from a promise to abolish them to trebling them once in government, provides a recent illustration of this dynamic (and one which fuelled the student protests and riots across the country). In 2011 in Lewisham, one self-described ‘socialist’, the Labour Councillor Mike Harris even defended his making “democratic socialist cuts” (which are apparently better than nasty ‘Tory cuts’).

We are reminded of the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin’s sardonic remark, that “when the people are being beaten with a stick, they are not much happier if it is called ‘the People's Stick’.…” Party politics aims at capturing the state, but when you capture the state, the state also captures you.


We have seen that while trade unions have their roots in working class associations, they have become increasingly dominated by their representative functions. This has led to the development of powerful, paid bureaucracies who collaborate with bosses and the state, putting their own needs above those of the membership. The result is often an inability to even win basic defensive struggles, and frequent interference with rank and file initiative and militancy. But while the trade unions at least have their roots in working class associations, the so called ‘workers parties’ do not. Leninist parties, even at their most radical, remain fixed on the capture of state power for themselves in order to implement ‘socialism’ by diktat. The Labour Party meanwhile was founded by trade union bureaucrats and has always played an anti-working class role. This is because of the nature of political parties, which have to compete for state power. The prize means getting to manage capitalism, which pits the party against the working class. All these mainstream ideologies of the workers’ movement effect a separation of the economic and the political. ‘Politics’ is seen as the business of the party, its venue the state (normally through engagement in the parliamentary process). ‘Economic’ issues are seen as the domain of trade unions. This dual system of political and economic representation of the working class ends up acting against the working class. We need to look elsewhere for inspiration.

Further reading

Units 1-3 of the SelfEd history of anarcho-syndicalism cover the origins of capitalism and the early workers’ movement. Our critique of the trade unions stems mainly from our collective experiences with the trade unions within the Solidarity Federation and its predecessors the Direct Action Movement (DAM) and the Syndicalist Workers’ Federation (SWF). Consequently there is little to recommend by way of reading. We have drawn heavily on the 1991 DAM pamphlet ‘Winning the class war’, which remains a worthwhile read. The basic argument set out there has been updated and expanded here to feed into the discussions in the rest of this pamphlet. In terms of Marxism and Leninism, Maurice Brinton’s ‘The Bolsheviks and workers control’ remains a classic account of the counter revolutionary role played by Lenin's Bolsheviks in sidelining workers’ self-organisation in the factory committees and soviets, and ultimately replacing them with party dictatorship. Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s ‘Obsolete Communism – the left wing alternative’ also contains a critical account of mainstream Marxist theory and practice. The author, a prominent anarchist in the events of May 1968 in France (see Chapter 4) has, funnily enough, subsequently become a Green MEP. In terms of critical accounts of the Labour Party, the SolFed's predecessor the Syndicalist Workers Federation wrote a three part account of 'How Labour governed 1945-51'.24