Radical ferment and conservative inertia

Is it possible to ignore or avoid the established organisations of the working class in the British state, asks Andy Stowe?


Are movements like Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion or Kill the Bill able to put power in the hands of the working class, or do we have to confront the existing structures through which it organises and deal with them as they are?

As a new organisation with members drawn from a range of political backgrounds, A*CR does not yet have a common approach to this tension between spontaneous new movements and how they relate to the unions and their leaderships, or Labour Party branches and MPs. We are participating in a discussion that has been going on for over a century, both openly and in an unspoken way as new movements try to work in a world where the bureaucracy is real and unavoidable.

Let’s start with a relatively uncontroversial description of what the labour movement bureaucracy is.

All Labour MPs are part of the bureaucracy. That includes those committed to class struggle and independent working-class action, like Apsana Begum, John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn. You see them on picket lines and at anti-cuts protests and demonstrations. At the other end of the political spectrum … well, just pick any random member of the Shadow Cabinet or a full-time Labour Party staff member.

The bureaucracy problem is especially serious in unions. National unions do not spend most of their time organising strikes; they fill it with a whole range of other activities only tenuously connected to their core function of defending members’ jobs, salaries and working conditions. They offer insurance and mortgages and run large administrative offices.

Of course, any organisation which has a membership of tens or hundreds of thousands requires a professional staff to collect money and provide specialist support services. A huge task like that can’t just be done by voluntary workers in their spare time. But parallel with the administration, every union has a group of elected and appointed officials who mediate between workers, employers and government. These are the general secretaries, their deputies, treasurers, chairs, regional officials and many more besides. Together they make up the bureaucracy of a party or a union.

This separation between the bureaucracy and the workers these organisations represent mirrors the division of labour in capitalist society. Workers don’t have the free time to dedicate themselves to full-time union or political activity and must often rely on union or party staff to keep them up to date with developments. 

These officials have access to a lot more information than the average worker about wage negotiations or the political situation, and with this knowledge come both power and authority.

Bureaucrats can claim to have the full picture and to understand the real complications. They do so in a way that often makes it difficult for rank-and-file workers or party members to challenge those who are supposed to be the servants of the members. They accumulate a vast amount of autonomy inside the organisation. They know how to use the rule book to get what they want and do not think twice about using it to keep members in line. The members’ main duty is to do what the officials say and obediently strike, not strike, or suffer passively as instructed.

Keir Starmer’s leadership wants exactly this sort of passive, obedient membership too.

The claim to sovereign decision-making bodies in an organisation with a strong bureaucracy is transparently false to anyone who’s ever sat through a trade union or Labour Party conference. Deals are stitched up behind the scenes, and when conference makes a wrong decision it’s just ignored until the following year. This is replicated in every level of Labour Party life down to councillor selections and General Committee nominations.

Another consequence of the division of labour in capitalist society is that individuals end up seeing the thing that they are doing as the end in itself. For example, the union treasurer sees her job as solely that of keeping the union on a sound financial footing. The prospect of members taking industrial action which could result in a court stealing the union’s money is the last thing someone in that position wants. This caution is understandable. The union’s offices and bank accounts have been won as a result of previously successful struggles. However, these gains are both partial and reversible.

The working class is still exploited in its workplaces and the first instinct of the ruling class is to make the working class pay for capital’s troubles. But for the bureaucrat, the organisation is synonymous with the working class. What is good for the union or the party is good for working people, and for most bureaucrats there is no clear line between what benefits them as a group and what benefits the organisation.

Members’ passivity is the customary justification the bureaucrats offer when they are challenged about the dominating positions that they hold. But the quickest way to get the bureaucrat out of the office is when members start acting for themselves. An unofficial strike is a bureaucrat’s nightmare. It gives rank-and-file members a sense of their own power and at the same time denies the paid official their vital function of mediating between workers and management. As the Corbyn movement showed, an energised influx of new members is a problem rather than an opportunity for most MPs and party staff.

Demoralisation, scepticism and lack of worker confidence are a bureaucrat’s best friends in parties and unions. A decline in militancy allows them to tighten their grip on the organisation which sets in motion a cycle of enhanced bureaucratic control. Effectively the bureaucracy is policing its members on behalf of the courts and the employers.

Even the earliest socialist organisations were alive to the risk of bureaucratisation. Marx and Engels were able to learn some valuable lessons from the experience of the Paris Commune. They identified what steps a workers’ state or organisation needs to take to avoid the problem, even in a society where the working class hold power.

In The Civil War in France (1871), Marx proposed that all proceedings of government be completely transparent. This can apply with equal force to any working-class organisation. Decisions should not be made in secret and contending points of view should be freely argued. To prevent officials becoming autonomous, Marx argued that they should be subject to the right of recall at any time by the people who elected them. This proposal is always vigorously opposed by union officials who enjoy both the sense of prestige that goes with their position as well as the more intellectually rewarding work that they do.

As if the intellectual stimulation were not reward enough, there is usually a significant difference in salary between trade union officials and their members. Labour MPs do not give their salaries to the party and that too creates a gulf between them and other less affluent members. The revolutionary Marxist solution to this is that the officials of workers’ organisations should receive wages equivalent to those of a skilled worker. Enforcing this rule on trade union officials would make them a lot less willing to accept below-inflation pay deals.

In a capitalist society the bureaucracy in working class organisations is an inevitable fact of life. The problem is a real one based on social conditions and material interests as much as the bad intentions of some individual union leaders or officials – real as these often are.

The trade union bureaucracy is a strongly conservative tendency and the struggle against it is essentially a fight around democracy. Through this struggle it is possible to create some protection against the bureaucracy’s influence. The struggle must be based on an analysis which considers the needs of the union’s members and the working class as a whole.

Providing an alternative analysis is a prerequisite for building class struggle currents which are willing to challenge the bureaucracy’s arguments and strategic decisions. Networks of activists who are self-confident and willing to provide a fighting leadership are the nucleus of a real opposition to neoliberalism.

The British bureaucracy

You can count on one hand the times a British union has supported a party other than Labour. The fitful endorsement by the RMT (National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers) of the TUSC (Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition) is the only significant example, and it is not clear how much support this choice commands among its members.

Many supporters of A*CR have been involved in attempts to create left alternatives to Labour: the Socialist Alliance, Respect and Left Unity. We were willing to be tactically flexible without compromising on questions of principle. None of these worked out. Equally, cuddling up to the right-wing bureaucracy only means that you end up working for them – or, worse still, agreeing with them.

One response to the bureaucracy is a strand of opinion which says that everything will work out if you rely on spontaneous upsurges, strikes or movements. This approach is sometimes called “the united front from below”. It’s superficially attractive as it allows its adherents to ignore what actually exists.

It doesn’t take into account the political culture of Labourism that is so influential in the British working class. Like the weather, this doesn’t go away even if you opt to ignore it. Spontaneous movements free of the constraints of a reformist bureaucracy are not sufficient to challenge capitalism. This was demonstrated even in the big post-1968 waves of class struggle which threw up an infinite number of spontaneous working-class, feminist, anti-racist and LGBT struggles.

Revolutionary fervour – even when combined with high levels of consciousness and militancy with a perspective of taking a detour around the bureaucracy – are insufficient if you want to destroy capitalism’s grip , or, more ambitiously, aim for state power. You may be able to win small numbers to Marxism with this approach, but without some concept of a united front to create a class struggle labour movement, you will never break out of being much more than a bigger or smaller propaganda group.

Unity in struggle

A different approach is to seek to create unity in struggle between, on one side, the movements, workers and communities taking action, and, on the other side, the left official leaderships at all levels.

To a certain extent, people like Jeremy Corbyn get this. What they tragically didn’t understand was the need to break the deadening grip of the established bureaucrats in the Labour Party, an error for which we are all paying a heavy price.

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