Thursday, March 04, 2010

Revolution or Putsch ?

The insurrection that gave power to the Bolsheviks was strictly speaking the work of the Military-Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet. The Bolsheviks used this more subtle approach of disguising its seizure of power as an assumption of power by the Congress of Soviets and it was through the organ of the Military Revolutionary Council, NOT the Soviets. .The storming of the Winter Palace , was not done by a mass of politically aware workers, but by a few hundred pro-Bolshevik soldiers . Trotsky admitted that the insurrection was planned by the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet, of which he was the chair and which had a Bolshevik majority. Trotsky describes how this Committee took its orders directly from the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party. So, although the soviets had played a part in overthrowing Tsarism and opposing the Kerensky government, the events of 7 November were a Bolshevik take-over. Were the mass of the Petrograd workers conciously involved in deciding on the revolution? No. On the morning of 7 November the workers of Petrograd woke up to find that in the night the Bolshevik Party had assumed power, the Bolsheviks had carried out a revolution while they were asleep.

The MRC was set up by the Soviet on the basis of defending Petrograd because it was rumoured of another potential Kornilov plot or an imminent invading German army . It was not set up on the basis that it would overthrow the provisional government.But then, under the pretext of organising the military defence of Petrograd from this phantom invading German army, Trotsky at the head of the Petrograd Soviet's Military Revolutionary Committee, took over the garrison unit by unit, through a system of commissars, first securing vital points like the train stations and telegraph office, then finally taking the Winter Palace.
"even when the compromisers were in power, in the Petrograd Soviet, that the Soviet examined or amended decisions of the government. This was, as it were, part of the constitution under the regime named after Kerensky. When we Bolshevists got the upper hand in the Petrograd Soviet we only went on with the system of double power and widened its application. We took it on ourselves to revise the order sending the troops to the front, and so we disguised the actual fact of the insurrection of the Petrograd garrison under the tradition and precedents and technique of the constitutional duplication of authority” - Trotsky - Lessons of October

The explicit purpose was to present the 3rd Congress of Soviets opening the next morning with a fait accompli . Lenin was sure that only this way would the support of the Congress for immediate soviet power be assured.Once it had happened, workers and soldiers were enthusiastic. And they were part of making it happen, insofar as they obeyed the orders of the MRC. But it would be misleading to say that it was carried out by the proletariat organised in soviets as such. Were non-Bolshevik proletarians in District soviets aware this was coming? No. Were the Left-SR participants in the MRC ? No. Were even the moderate wing of leading Bolshviks supportive? No.This is not to say that Petrograd workers and soldiers didn't support the idea of a soviet government. They did. But that doesn't mean that they were conciously involved in the decision to go through with the October events in order to arrive at such a government.

The total lack of opposition to the Bolsheviks and the absence of support for the Provisional Government reflected the sympathies of the workers .The Provisional Government was utterly discredited, and Bolshevism's reactionary aspect had not been revealed. Support for the action came rushing in after the event from the Soviet of Petrograd Trade Unions and the All-Russian Soviet of Factory Committees amongst others. The factory committees rallied to the Bolsheviks because the latter appeared to support the workers' aspirations. The majority of the members of the Petrograd Soviet were in favour of the overthrow of the Kerensky government, but did this mean they were in favour of the installation of a Bolshevik government. What they were in favour of was a coalition government formed by all the "workers" parties, ie the Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, SRs and others. This was in fact favoured by many within the Bolshevik Party itself, but they were over-ruled by Lenin's determination to seize power for the Bolshevik party alone. In other words, it wasn't the overthrow as such of the Kerensky government but its replacement by a Bolshevik government under Lenin. There was no mandate from the soviets for this, which was why Lenin went to great pains to disguise his party's coup as the formation of a soviet government, which it wasn't. Once they got governmental power the Bolsheviks sidelined the soviets almost straightaway. The soviets were always considered as a cover to secure Bolshevik power.

While they claimed that this was a spontaneous seizure of power by the workers, what can be seen is that it was timed to occur before the Soviet Congress could convene, and so guaranteeing Bolshevik supremacy in the soviets and little chance for a free democratic vote on the form any new government should take .It can be plausibly assumed that if the Soviet Congress had had a free vote, the Bolsheviks would have had to share power with their arch-rivals the Mensheviks. Martov called forward a resolution demanding that the Bolsheviks form a coalition government with other left-wing parties . The resolution was about to receive almost complete endorsement from the soviet representatives thus showing that the representatives in the soviet did NOT believe in all power to the Bolsheviks but then the majority of SR and Menshevik delegates unadvisedly left the congress in protest over the Bolshevik coup giving the Bolsheviks a majority of those who remained . ( We can also speculate it was possible that Lenin himself could have been kept out of office due to the mistrust that many of the Mensheviks and other anti-Tsarist revolutionaries justly held him in.)
On October 25th, the presidium was elected on the basis of 14 Bolsheviks, 7 Social-Revolutionaries, three Mensheviks and one Internationalist. The Bolsheviks then trooped out their worker-candidates Lenin, Trotsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev and so on. When it came to forming a government, Kamenev read out a Bolshevik Central Committee proposal for a Soviet of People's Commissars, whereby "control over the activities of the government is vested in the Congress of Soviets and its Central Executive Committee". Seven Bolsheviks from the party's central committee were nominated, and thus Lenin and Trotsky came to sit at the top. The "workers' government" was now composed of professional revolutionaries and members of the intelligensia ranging from the aristocratic, like Chicherin, to the bureaucratic, like Lenin and Kollontai, via the landed bourgeois (Smilga), the commercial bourgeois (Yoffe) and the higher industrial bourgeois (Pyatakov). These were the sort of people who were used to being a ruling class. The management of production by the workers was one of the goals of the struggle, proclaimed by the Military Revolutionary Committee on 25 October 1917. That same day, the Second Congress of the Soviets solemnly approved the decision to establish workers control while specifying, however, that this meant controlling the capitalists and not confiscating their factories.

The Bolsheviks effectively re-defined "proletarian power" to mean the power of the party whose ideology was believed a priori to represent workers interests. "Who is to seize the power? That is now of no importance. Let the Military Revolutionary Committee take it, or 'some other institution', which will declare that it will surrender the power only to the genuine representatives of the interests of the people.''

Not "the people", not the "representatives of the people", but "the genuine representatives of the interests of the people" and that would be , of course , the Bolshevik Party led by Lenin.

Substitution of the party for the class . A take-over not a revolution.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

All change for being human

Mailstrom recently wrote on human nature and human behaviour and we now read in the New York Times that for the last 20,000 years or so, people have inadvertently been shaping their own evolution. The force is human culture, broadly defined as any learned behavior, including technology.

Culture itself seems to be a powerful force of natural selection. People adapt genetically to sustained cultural changes, like new diets. And this interaction works more quickly than other selective forces, “leading some practitioners to argue that gene-culture co-evolution could be the dominant mode of human evolution,” Kevin N. Laland and colleagues wrote in the Nature Reviews Genetics. The idea that genes and culture co-evolve has been around for several decades but has started to win converts only recently.

The best evidence for culture being a selective force was the lactose tolerance found in many northern Europeans. Most people switch off the gene that digests the lactose in milk shortly after they are weaned, but in northern Europeans — the descendants of an ancient cattle-rearing culture that emerged in the region some 6,000 years ago — the gene is kept switched on in adulthood. Lactose tolerance is now well recognized as a case in which a cultural practice — drinking raw milk — has caused an evolutionary change in the human genome.Genetic changes that enable lactose tolerance have been detected not just in Europeans but also in three African pastoral societies. In each of the four cases, a different mutation is involved, but all have the same result — that of preventing the lactose-digesting gene from being switched off after weaning. Presumably the extra nutrition was of such great advantage that adults able to digest milk left more surviving offspring, and the genetic change swept through the population. This instance of gene-culture interaction turns out to be far from unique. In the last few years, biologists have been able to scan the whole human genome for the signatures of genes undergoing selection. Such a signature is formed when one version of a gene becomes more common than other versions because its owners are leaving more surviving offspring. From the evidence of the scans, up to 10 percent of the genome — some 2,000 genes — shows signs of being under selective pressure.

Many of the genes under selection seem to be responding to conventional pressures. Some are involved in the immune system, and presumably became more common because of the protection they provided against disease. Genes that cause paler skin in Europeans or Asians are probably a response to geography and climate.But other genes seem to have been favored because of cultural changes. These include many genes involved in diet and metabolism and presumably reflect the major shift in diet that occurred in the transition from foraging to agriculture that started about 10,000 years ago. Amylase is an enzyme in the saliva that breaks down starch. People who live in agrarian societies eat more starch and have extra copies of the amylase gene compared with people who live in societies that depend on hunting or fishing.

With archaic humans, culture changed very slowly. The style of stone tools called the Oldowan appeared 2.5 million years ago and stayed unchanged for more than a million years. The Acheulean stone tool kit that succeeded it lasted for 1.5 million years. But among behaviorally modern humans, those of the last 50,000 years, the tempo of cultural change has been far brisker. This raises the possibility that human evolution has been accelerating in the recent past under the impact of rapid shifts in culture.

A tgroup of selected genes affects brain function. The role of these genes is unknown, but they could have changed in response to the social transition as people moved from small hunter-gatherer groups a hundred strong to villages and towns inhabited by several thousand, Dr. Laland said. “It’s highly plausible that some of these changes are a response to aggregation, to living in larger communities,” he said.

Bolshy Bolsheviks

The SPGB view expressed repeatedly is socialism could not be established in backward isolated Russian conditions where the majority neither understood nor desired socialism . The takeover of political power by the Bolsheviks obliged them to adapt their programme to those undeveloped conditions and make continual concessions to the capitalist world around them. In the absence of world socialist revolution there was only one road forward for semi-feudal Russia , the capitalist road , and it was the role of the Bolsheviks to develop industry through state ownership and the forced accumulation of capital .The SPGB would classify the Russian Revolution as a bourgeoise revolution without the bourgeoisie .The Bolsheviks, finding Russia in a very backward condition, were obliged to do what had not been fully done previously, i.e. develop capitalism. The Bolsheviks performed the task of setting Russian capitalism on its feet .

"No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room within it have been developed; and new higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society" .

The Bolsheviks, however, thought it possible for an active minority, representing the aspirations of the workers, to gain political power before the capitalist revolution itself had been completed. But what would happen if such a minority gained a political victory over the capitalist classes? In those circumstances, the minority become merely the tools of the capitalist class, which has not been virile enough to gain or hold power. Such a minority finds itself in the position of having to develop and run capitalism for a class unable, at the time, to do it successfully itself. In running capitalism, the minority will be compelled to use its power to keep the working class in its wage-slave position. The SPGB argument is that the material conditions in Russia meant the development of capitialism , which the Bolsheviks were unable to avoid. In fact, they became its agents .

There have been two views of the Bolshevik revolution and regime offered in the SPGB. One is that Lenin and his party were genuine socialists who were inevitably bound to fail to introduce socialism because the conditions weren't there for this and that their method of minority dictatorship was wrong. The other is that they were elitists ( Jacobinists or Blanquists) from the start who were always going to establish the rule of a new elite even though they labelled themselves socialists. Rather than Bolshevik elitism was an inevitable product of the decision to build state capitalism in Russia in the aftermath of the October revolution, it was the other way round, the decision to build state capitalism was an inevitable product of the Bolsheviks' elitism. The SPGB also argued that Lenin despite his claims that he was the first to see the trend of conditions and adapt himself to these conditions , he was far from changing the course of history , it was, in fact , the course of history which changed him. Lenin made a great miscalculation. He believed that the working masses of the western world were so war weary that upon the call from one of the combatants they would rise and force their various governments to negotiate peace. Unfortunately these masses had neither the knowledge nor the organisation necessary for such a movement, and no response was given to the call.

Besides the SPGB , there were a group of Marxist thinkers who came to regard Bolshevism , from the start, as a “bourgeois” ideology. These include Anton Pannekoek, in his Lenin As Philosopher and Helmut Wagner in The Bourgeois Role of Bolshevism and (under the name of Rudolf Sprenger) Bolshevism. Their argument , based on Marx’s materialist conception of history, is along these lines. Capitalism in Russia, which began to develop in the last quarter of the 19th century, had its own special features. The capitalists there were weak and dependent on both the Tsarist government and on foreign investors. As a result they were politically isolated and incapable of leading the revolution against Tsarism which was necessary for the full development of capitalism in Russia. The task of overthrowing the Tsar — Russia's bourgeois or capitalist revolution — thus fell into other hands, those of the intelligentsia, a social group peculiar to the Russia of that time made up of university-trained people employed in various professional capacities by the government. The anti-Tsarist struggle, and its theory, was started by sections of this intelligentsia. In view of the weakness and cowardice of Russia's capitalists (and, in the early stages, of the virtual absence of capitalism) it was not really surprising that these revolutionaries should be attracted by anti-capitalist ideas. The great bulk of them, even though they never claimed to be Marxists, always regarded themselves as socialists. Later some, including Lenin, did pick up a few of Marx's ideas but this still did not mean that their theories served the interest of the working class. Lenin's theory of the vanguard party , which says that the revolution can only be achieved by a party of professional revolutionaries leading the discontented masses was taken from the Russian revolutionary tradition. It can be traced back through Tkachev and Ogarev to Western European thinkers like Babeuf and Buonarroti whose idea of revolution was coloured by the French Bourgeois Revolution. Lenin never really advanced much beyond the idea of self-appointed liberators leading the mass of ignorant people to freedom. He remained, in his theory as well as his practice, essentially a bourgeois or capitalist revolutionary. In fact it was because Russia in the opening decades of this century was ripe for such a revolution that his ideas had any social or political significance. Stalin did twist Marxism into the conservative ideology of a state capitalist ruling class, but he was merely building on Lenin's previous distortion of Marxism into the ideology of that same class while it was struggling for power.

The soviets first appeared in Russia in 1905. These were councils that had arisen spontaneously out of the January-February 1905 strike. The 1905 soviets were independent of any external initiatives. The popularity of these soviets among the masses derived largely from the absence of political agitators and party representatives in their midst. They expressed the workers' political and economic demands in a situation where trade unions were non-existent and where the parties had little real influence over the masses. It was quite different in 1917. Although the February strikes were completely spontaneous the councils did not arise directly out of them as they had done twelve years earlier. The first Provisional Soviet contained no factory delegates! The 1917 soviets were neither an entirely spontaneous nor a completely original institution. What had changed from 1905 was the way the parties now assessed soviets , and seeing them as a springboard to power, they manipulated and engaged in all sort of chicanery which explains why the intellectuals acquired decisive influence in the Petrograd Soviet and why this Soviet so rapidly lost contact with the masses . They became the scene of factional and party in-fighting. Trotsky said “Could the Communist Party succeed, during the preparatory epoch, in pushing all other parties out of the ranks of the workers by uniting under its banner the overwhelming majority of workers, then there would be no need whatever for soviets..." The soviets proved to be the dispensable means to an end for the Bolsheviks .The SPGB recognised the unique role of the soviets in the absence of legitimate bourgeois parliamentary government but as a product of backward political conditions they were easily used by the Bolsheviks . The most consistent supporters of "All Power to the Soviets" were the Bolsheviks - but just as long as the Bolsheviks held the majority and were in control. Once Bolshevik power was established the soviets simply became an emasculated rubber stamp for party rule .

"The heart of the matter was that the Mensheviks and SRs were winning in the elections to the soviets in addition to regaining control of local trade unions and dumas. The process of the Menshevik-SR electoral victories threatened Bolshevik power . That is why in the course of Spring and Summer of 1918 , the soviet assemblies were disbanded in most cities and villages.To stay in power , the Bolsheviks had to destroy the soviets.Local power was handed over to ExComs , the Cheka , the military ,and special emissaries with "unlimited dictatorial power". These steps generated a far-reaching transformation in the soviet system , which remained "soviet" in name only " - Brovkin

The Bolsheviks said "All power to the Soviets" . Just four days after seizing power the Central Executive Committee which was meant to be the highest organ of soviet power was sidelined when the Bolshevik Council of People's Commissars ( or Sovnarkom) unilaterally arrogated to itself legislative power simply by promulgating a decree to this effect that made clear the government's pre-eminence over the soviets and their executive organ.Within a month of taking power they had dissolved one of those soviets, and dissolved another 17 days later. The Bolsheviks had no problem at all with their "worker's state" suppressing workers' expressions of power.When it was beneficial to the Bolsheviks, they said "All power to the Factory Committees" but 9 days after taking power, they subordinated the factory committees to the trades unions and congresses which were more under the control of the Bolsheviks, and to the state itself under the direct control of the Bolsheviks.When the Mensheviks and SRs won majorities in soviets the offending soviets were disbanded, that their papers were closed down, their members harrassed, exiled and shot .The Constituent Assembly to which all parties of the Russian revolutionary left worked toward even the Bolsheviks, and elected on the basis of the first free vote in that country , was abolished after only one day in session because the Bolsheviks were in the minority. Lenin helped not only impose such conditions but deliberately smeared left critics as counter-revolutionaries to tie them in with those who were in arms against the Bolshevik government. The Cheka, which was set up within a few weeks of October and the Commissar of Justice was Steinberg, a member of the Left SRs. but he could never get control of the Cheka because the Cheka only answered to the Bolshevik party central committee, in violation of the soviet principle.
Trotsky said in History of the Russian Revolution that "The party set the soviets in motion, the soviets set in motion the workers, soldiers, and to some extent the peasantry ." In other words , the soviets existed to allow the party to influence the workers. But what if the workers reject the decisions of the party? What happens when the workers refuse to be set in motion by the party but instead set themselves in motion and reject the Bolsheviks? What then for the soviets? The soviets were marginalised and undermined by the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution and neutered of any power simply because they often did reflect the wishes of the working class and not those of the Bolshevik Party.The soviets would have to be tamed by whatever means possible in favour of party power . From 1917 all vestiges of democratic self reliance by the working class was removed piece by piece. "Soviet power" became a sham, and Bolshevik party functionaries took total control. A Left S R said "The Bible tells us that God created the heavens and the earth from nothing . The Bolsheviks are capable of no lesser miracles, out of nothing, they create legitimate credentials."

For the SPGB the opportunism the Bolsheviks was demonstrated by the instructions to its followers in the more advanced capitalist countries to adopt the policy of "revolutionary parliamentarianism" aiming not to smash the state and transfer power to soviets , but to capture state power without recourse to the supposed more democratic universal form of the soviet .

Russia could not escape its destiny. The whole Russian anti-Tsarist revolutionary tradition, not just the Bolsheviks, was elitist, and in a direct line of succession from the Jacobin elitism of the French bourgeois revolutionaries via the detour of Kautskyism "trade union consciousness". In view of the weakness of the Russian bourgeoisie , the bourgeois task of clearing away the obstacle that Tsarism was to the further development of capitalism in Russia fell to another social group, the Intelligentsia Because most of the revolutionary intelligentsia despised bourgeois culture their anti-Tsarism revolution, when it came, took on a "socialist" cloak .The Capitalist revolution without the Capitalist .

Socialism can only be achieved by a politically conscious working class. It is the experience of workers under capitalism which drives them to understand the need for Socialism and this process is enhanced by the degree of democracy which they have won for themselves. Dictatorial power wielded by a vanguard minority, no matter how sincere its intentions, can never act as a substitute. That way the workers remain a subject class and the dictators, having acquired a taste for power, consolidate their own rule. Socialist society will reflect how things are struggled for, which methods were used . A democratic society of common ownership cannot be built other than through democratic movement, through education, knowledge and commitment to peaceful methods because doing otherwise only replicates bourgeois methods, replicates all that is wrong in the old society. That those forces aligned against the Bolsheviks maintained a brutality against workers and peasants does not excuse the same brutality against workers and peasants meted out by the Bolsheviks. Lenin condemned what he termed "bourgeois moralism" and concepts such as "democracy". His was a new moralism that meant anything could be done to preserve Bolshevik power and it found its final expression in the gulags of Stalin.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Trade Unions - Part Three

The time for the trade union movement to break out of this narrow defensive role is long overdue. An organisation like the TUC, with its research departments, is well placed to conduct discussions with socialists on how production and the work place could be democratically organised. For many years now the TUC and the trade unions in general have languished in a role which provides little scope for action beyond preparing for the next self-repeating battle with employers. They tend to be bogged down in bureaucracy and run by careerists and timeserving officials for whom the future means little more than their pensions. It has to be said that this does present itself as a sterile accommodation with the capitalist system. But in fact the unions could bring a great deal of experience to bear on the question of how a new society could be organised democratically in the interests of the whole community. Certainly in the developed countries they have organisation in the most important parts of production. They have rulebooks that allow them to be run locally and nationally in a generally democratic manner and they also enjoy fraternal links across the world. All this is already in place. By setting their sights beyond the next wage claim and by becoming part of the socialist movement, once a majority is achieved, they could so easily become part of the democratic administration of industry that would replace the corporate bosses and their managers who now organise production for profit.

Italian steel workers refused to allow the owners to close steel factories during 1949 and 1950, and instead continued at their work without wages and without professional management, electing temporary managers from their own ranks. While the workers ran the factories themselves, they built ships, aeroplanes, furnaces; they improved efficiently; and by introducing new processes, they economised considerably on production costs-for example, at the Ilva-Bolzaneto works at Genoa, they reduced the price of a kilogram of metal, and in order to economise on oil, they invented a process which saved 500 kilograms of oil in every eight hours of work.This episode in Italy proved that workers can run the factories by themselves; and that they can not only maintain but improve efficiency.So many other cases and examples can be cited .

The essence of the trade union is workers uniting to protect their interests in the workplace, and ultimately the union and the workers are one and the same thing. If these workers have reformist outlook on life, i.e. believe that capitalism can be made to run in the interests of all, the unions must therefore have the same outlook; on the other hand if there were more revolutionary workers in the unions—and in society generally—then the unions would have a more revolutionary outlook, no longer harbouring any illusions about 'common national interests' or other such rubbish. That would not in any way alter the essential nature and role of the trade unions as the defensive organisations of the working class; but it would make them far more effective fulfilling that role.

Our advice to workers is threefold:-
1 ) Try to push wages and salaries as high as they are allowed to go by the owners and management
2 ) Organise democratically to achieve your aims, without reliance on leaders, who will sell you down the river
3 ) Recognise that any union struggle is necessarily a defensive one as there can be no real and lasting victory within the profit system.

We endorse the statement of fellow socialists :-
"In countries like India workers have the legal right to form trade unions. But there, too, unlike Europe and America, most of the big trade unions have been organised from above as fund-raising, vote-catching political subsidiaries of self-seeking "leaders" than as spontaneous, grass-root, independent and autonomous organisations of the working class to defend their economic interests. Moreover in the absence of factory-wide free election of trade union functionaries, there are as many unions as there are political parties, most of them operating with their hired gangsters and peculiar flags having very little regard to class-unity. Actually these trade unions are not genuine trade unions.Still workers' organised resistance against exploitation is a must; and for that matter, their resistance struggles must have to be freed from the infamy of remaining divided and subservient to various capitalist political parties. This they can achieve by organising themselves in fully integrated and independent trade unions of their own, by throwing away all kinds of blind faith and submissiveness regarding the wretched hierarchy of subscription-squeezer and flag-hoister "leaders". The working class movement is a movement of equals-organised by the workers and in the interest of the workers. No "leader", supposedly having some unknown "god"-given or "intrinsic" trick-finding qualities given is necessary to lead the working-class movement. For a "trick" cannot throw profit overboard. Simply because private property lives to levy its tribute on labour. All workers are able, rather abler than the "leaders", to understand their own class-interests only if they are fully informed of their circumstances from local to global. And to be informed of what is happening around, and what has happened earlier, what they require is to meet in regular general assemblies, discuss and debate all that matters keeping ears and minds open and decide to take such steps as deemed useful. In case a strike is to be declared, they would need a strike committee to be formed of recallable delegates elected and mandated in the general assembly-thus retaining the ultimate control in their own hands.Where there are many rival trade union shops in a single factory or workplace operated by many capitalist political parties, a socialist worker can neither keep on supporting the one he is in, nor go on seeking membership of one after another or all at the same time, nor can he open his own "socialist" trade union instead. What he can, and should, do as an immediate perspective, is to try to form a "political group" with like-minded fellow workers and campaign for a class-wide democratic unity as stated above. Whenever an opportunity arrives the group must use the assemblies as a forum for political propaganda to expose the uselessness of "leaders" and show that the trade union movement is unable to solve the problems of crises, insecurity, poverty, unemployment, hunger and wars" Manifesto of the World Socialist Party (India), March 1995

Trade unions are essentially fighting over the crumbs. Socialists long ago raised our sights beyond the crumbs (necessary though that fight is within the system) to fight not for control of the whole bakery but the wheat-fields , too. That way we will not be perpetually doomed to repeat the battles of the past.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Trades Unions - Part Two

As the trade union movement stands to-day it is still craft and sectarian in outlook, still mainly pro-capitalist. The struggle on the economic held under capitalism has to be, and is, carried on by socialists and non-socialists alike. The small number of workers who really understand the meaning of socialism is such that any attempt to form a separate socialist economic organisation at present would be futile, for the very nature of the workers' economic struggle under capitalism would compel such an organisation to associate in a common cause with the non-socialist unions during strikes and all the other activities on the economic side of the class struggle . The SPGB position on trade unions has been generally vindicated .The Socialist Party, therefore, urges that the existing unions provide the medium through which the workers should continue their efforts to obtain the best conditions they can get from the master class in the sale of their labour-power.

The ideal trade-union, from a socialist point of view, would be one that recognised the irreconcilable conflict of interest between workers and employers, that had no leaders but was organised democratically and controlled by its members, that sought to organise all workers irrespective of nationality, colour, religious or political views, first by industry then into One Big Union ( as was advocated by our companion party in Canada ) , and which struggled not just for higher wages but also for the abolition of the wages system.The trouble is that this cannot become a full reality till large numbers of workers are socialists. In other words, you can’t have a union organised on entirely socialist principles without a socialist membership. This was recognised in the big discussions on “the trade union question” that took place in the SPGB shortly after we were founded in 1904. The idea of forming a separate socialist union was rejected in favour of working within the existing unions and trying to get them to act on as sound lines as the consciousness of their membership permitted. The logic behind this position was that, to be effective, a union has to organise as many workers as possible employed by the same employer or in the same industry, but a socialist union would not have many more members than there were members of a socialist party. In a non-revolutionary situation most union members would inevitably not be socialists but would not need to be.A union can be effective even without a socialist membership if it adheres to some at least of the features of the ideal socialist union already outlined , and will be the more effective the more of those principles it applies.

The idea of forming a separate socialist union, as the SLP in America tried to organise, was rejected in favour of working within the existing unions and trying to get them to act on as sound lines as the consciousness of their membership permitted. The logic behind this position was that, to be effective, a union has to organise as many workers as possible employed by the same employer or in the same industry, but a socialist union would not have many more members than there were members of a socialist party. In a non-revolutionary situation most union members would inevitably not be socialists but would not need to be. A union can be effective even without a socialist membership if it adheres to some at least of the features of the ideal socialist union outlined above, and will be the more effective the more of those principles it applies. This is why Socialist Party members in the existing unions have always insisted on recognition of the class struggle, democratic control by the membership and no affiliation to the Labour Party.

The working class get the unions, and the leadership, it deserves. Just as a king is only a king because he is obeyed, so too are union leaders only union leaders because they are followed. To imagine they lead is to imbue them with mystical powers within themselves, and set up a phantasm of leadership that exactly mirror images the same phantasm as our masters believe. So long as the workers themselves are content to deal with such a union system, and its leaders, then such a union system and its leaders will remain, and will have to react to the expectations of the members. The way to industrial unions, or socialist unions, or whatever, is not through the leadership of the unions. The unions will always reflect the nature of their memberships, and until their membership change, they will not change. Unions are neither inherently reactionary, nor inherently revolutionary. The only way to change unions is not through seizing or pressurising the leadership, but through making sure that they have a committed membership, a socialist membership.

The SPGB avoided the mistake of the American SLP - and of the CPGB during the "Third Period" after 1929 - of "dual unionism", i.e. of trying to form "revolutionary" unions to rival the existing "reformist" unions, though some SPGB members were involved, on an individual basis, in breakaway unions .

We countered the syndicalist case “The Mines to the Miners!” or “The Railways to the Railwaymen!” by pointing out the socialists want to abolish the sectional ownership of the means of life, no matter who compose the sections , and not reinforce it . Instead of the socialist idea of the ownership by the whole people in common of the land, railways, factories and so on, the syndicalists wish to strengthen the property-foundation of society. Syndicalists were merely projecting into socialism the industrial and professional divisions of workers which exist under capitalism. Since socialism is based on the social ownership (ie ownership by society) of the means of production, the trade union ownership proposed by the syndicalists was not socialism at all but a modified form of sectional ownership.

With syndicalism , in general , the SPGB has always insisted that the structures and tactics of organisations that the working class create to combat the class war will be there own decision and will necessarily be dependent on particular situations . What we have stated is that :
"The particular form of economic organisation through which the struggle is conducted is one which the circumstances of the struggle must mainly determine. The chief thing is to maintain the struggle whilst capitalism lasts.The spirit of the craft form of Trade Union is generally one which tends to cramp the activity and outlook of the workers, each craft thinking itself something apart from all others, particularly from the non-skilled workers. But capitalist society itself tends to break down the barriers artificially set up between sections of the working class, as many of the so-called "aristocrats of labour" have been made painfully aware. The industrial form of union should tend to bring the various sections of workers in an industry together, and thus help level the identity of interests between all workers so organised."

In regards to the Industrial Workers of the World the SPGB has revised its attitudes as a result of changes within the IWW . Previously , during the formative years of both organisations , the IWW was seen as more of an anti-political ie an anarchist organisation , promoting Industrial Unionism , which the SPGB disavowed as sectional and undemocratic , since it was about industries controlling the means of production and distribution and not society as a whole ie also those outside the work-place . But the SPGB now accepts that in recent years the IWW can be more accurately described as an a-political organisation , if you get the difference of emphasis , since it itself has changed its approach to the class struggle and for all practical purposes now acts as a democratic and progressive , inspirational and educational union that is to be recommended for membership when it is to the workers advantage , which is the majority of the time and situations . No longer being divisive with outright opposition to the pure and simple reformist trade unions by its adoption of the dual -card policy has been another change which differentiates the present from the early IWW that the SPGB criticised . It has also accepted the principles of agreed contracts of employment and even state recognition and registration . For all practical purposes it now operates as a union and an umbrella for workers of many political persuasions and not just the one . So it is not a formal position to the IWW that has been taken by the SPGB but an informal one ( and a practical one ), which can change if the IWW decide that certain ideas should take precedence over others or again become dominated by one particular strand of political thought , rather than an open and inclusive workers' organisation which exists now .We also have to be minded that even within syndicalist unions the more effective the union is in achieving victories against capitalism , the more the non-radical workers will join it for the trade union benefits and this could just as like water down its revolutionary aspects as to militantise those new recruits . It is just as likely that they will desert the union if the revolutionary aspirations of the union hinder the practicalities of the daily bread and butter fight .

Unlike the early SLP or supporters of Anarcho-syndicalism , the SPGB have always insisted ( in agreement with the IWW constitution that "the IWW refuses all alliances, direct and indirect, with existing political parties or anti-political sects" ) that there should be a separation and that no political party or should , or can successfully use , unions as an economic wing , until a time very much closer to the Revolution when there are substantial and sufficient numbers of socialist conscious workers and considerable over-lap of memberships . And for the foreseeable thats far off in the future .

The SPGB attitude is one recognising that: -
" The Socialist Party, in aiming for the control of the State, is a political party in the immediate sense, but we have an economic purpose in view, namely, the conversion of the means of living into the common property of society. Therefore, the question necessarily arises whether an economic organisation acting in conjunction with the political is vital to our task. We have on more than one occasion pronounced ourselves in agreement with the need for such an organisation, and in so doing have flatly denied the charge that the Socialist Party of Great Britain is "nothing but a pure and simple political party of Socialism ".

Socialists are not in the business of creating myths but about facing realities , whether the truths are palatable or not. There is no easier road to Socialism than the education of the workers in Socialism and their organisation to establish it by democratic methods. Shortcuts have proved to be cul de sacs .

No-one denies the courage of the working class , thats been proved countless times , but we do question their foolhardiness and counsel the working class to:-
"understand the position they occupy in modern society; as they begin to take a hand in settling affairs of social importance, they will make many blunders and mistakes. In the main, however, these will be easily recognised and corrected. But the biggest danger that confronts them – the biggest mistake they can make – is to place power in the hands of “leaders” under any pretext whatever. It is at once putting those “leaders” in a position to bargain with the master class for the purpose of selling out the workers. It allows the master class to retain control of the political machinery which is the essential instrument for governing Society. All the other blunders and mistakes the workers may make will be as dust in the balance compared with this one, and not until they realise this fact will they be on the road to Socialism."

And as we also cautioned in 1926 General Strike:-
"The outlook before the workers is black, indeed, but not hopeless, if they will but learn the lessons of this greatest of all disasters. "Trust your leaders!" we were adjured in the Press and from the platforms of the Labour Party, and the folly of such sheeplike trust is now glaring. The workers must learn to trust only in themselves. They must themselves realise their position and decide the line of action to be taken. They must elect their officials to take orders, not to give them!...Socialism won't come about through SPGB propaganda (as if revolutionary minorities can outcompete the bourgeois media in times of social peace today), nor will it come about if the real struggles aren't consolidated until a majority of SPGB "delegates" take parliament."