Trade Unions and the Middle Class
(National Secretary of the Socialist Labour League)
Workers press May 8, 1972
Trade unions in Britain are the form through which the working class, as a class, has emerged in its struggle with capitalism.
Past relations between the employers and the unions have been regulated by a voluntary negotiating procedure. This is now replaced by the compulsory legal powers of the Industrial Relations Act. A Tory high court has powers to enforce its will on the trade unions whenever it thinks this is necessary. Every important wages dispute it thereby transformed into a political issue.
Under circumstances like these, unity on the basis of a common wages policy, such as we saw between the three railway unions, is totally inadequate. Once the government invokes the Court, such unity, no matter how effective it might have been in the past, was unable to challenge the political implications of the government’s action.
The working class derives its knowledge from the different class-struggle experiences which throughout its history reflect the actual relations between the employers and their trade unions. During the reformist era of voluntary negotiations, the workers relied on the unions to act on their behalf and the consciousness of the militant vanguard within them rarely rose above a spontaneous leftist trade union level.
Although the advent of the National Industrial Relations Court has drastically changed this relationship, the working class cannot immediately break from its old form of thinking. Their consciousness lags behind objective developments. While it is true that within the present crisis there is a left-wood movement of hostility to the government and to those trade union leaders who have capitulated to it – by itself this is not enough.
What we see is a centrist type of development which as Trotsky said, ‘reflects the progress of evolution of the working class, its political growth as well as its revolutionary setback.’ Since all consciousness develops from practice the working class can only be broken from the old forms of trade union practice by a new form of practice. The essence of this new practice is outlined by the Transitional Programme of the Fourth International on pages 14, 15, and 16, New Park Publications edition.*
The Socialist Labour League refuses to tail-end even the most left expressions of trade union consciousness. This would be nothing more than a capitulation to the present spontaneous centrist evolution of the working class.
The struggle for minimum wage demands is inseparable from the struggle to make the Tory government resign. This will greatly strengthen the working class and open the door to the election of a Labour government, in which the right-wing leadership would be more and more exposed. This would be undertaken through the struggle to force them to apply a programme of transitional demands which would lead towards the conquest of power and the emergence of the mass revolutionary party.
The Socialist Labour League campaigns continuously along these lines to provide the leadership which will enable the working class, through its practical experiences, to break from the old forms of trade union consciousness.
Now let us look at the role of our middle class political opponents, such as the group which says that there is state capitalism in the USSR. They confine themselves to purely left forms of trade union militancy and solidarity actions. The one-day strike is a favourite here. Each group deliberately avoids like the plague campaigning for the working class to utilise its strength to force the government to resign.
One of the best examples of the middle class tail-ending of the working class is contained in a programme printed in Socialist Worker, weekly paper of the I.S. group, [International Socialists, now re-named the Socialist Workers’ Party – Ed], on April 15th. Titled “A Policy to Win”, it says:
“The USE of the courts to defeat the dockers can be beaten by:
1. Maintenance of the blacking and continued boycott of the Industrial Relations Court. Keep blacking Heatons in reprisal for its use of the law.
2. Non-payment of the fine. The T&GWU should call official strikes if its funds are seized.
3. Solidarity action from the TUC. Break off talks with the Tory government.
4. Continues total non-co-operation with the Act by the TUC.
5. Massive official support for a one-day strike on May 1st.
Every demand here is deliberately tailored to fit within the framework of trade union consciousness. They are designed to keep trade unionists confined to industrial issues and side-track them into mobilizing their forces from the political struggle against the Tory government.
The IS talks about a revolutionary party, but in effect it has something else in mind. In Socialist Worker, April 22nd. it explains what that something is:
“We are living in a highly unstable situation. Unless, in the not too distant future, the employers offensive is decisively beaten, the British working class faces a whole series of defeats. And the offensive will not be beaten unless a powerful grass roots organisation of militants can be built.”
So there it is. We need a left reformist trade union programme and an organisation of “grass roots militants” to carry it out. Here we see the professional centrism of these middle class revisionists. Sensing that the workers are moving from reformism to the left, they step in to wall off their development from the revolutionary road.
Although they verbally criticise the right-wing, they in fact have no confidence in the possibility of the working class establishing its political independence from the right wing and reformist politics. They just provide a left centrist cover to keep it where it is.
The cynical contempt with which they treat the working class knows no bounds. Elsewhere in these two issues they advertise a meeting at which Tony Cliff and Paul Foot are to speak under the title “Bring Down the Tory Government”. But this is on May Day when presumably it is the “in” thing for centrists to let their hair down in a spate of left speechmaking.
Just as the IS use the slogan of “bring down the Tory government” for holiday occasions, they use the term “revolutionary party” in the same way. That is why it becomes so easily inter-changeable in their press with syndicalist terminology such as “grass roots organisation”. One does not have to adhere to Marxist principles to join such an organisation; it is sufficient to support whatever group protest and trade union demands which are in vogue at the moment.
*The Minimum Programme and the Transitional Programme.
The strategic task of the next period – a pre-revolutionary period of agitation, propaganda and organisation – consists in overcoming the contradiction between the maturity of the objective revolutionary conditions and the immaturity of the proletariat and its vanguard (the confusion and disappointment of the older generation, the inexperience of the younger generation). It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between the present demands and the socialist programme of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.
Classical social democracy, functioning in an epoch of progressive capitalism, divided its programme into two parts independent of each other: the minimum programme which limited itself to reforms within the framework of bourgeois society, and the maximum programme which promised substitution of socialism for capitalism in the indefinite future. Between the minimum and the maximum programme no bridge existed. And indeed Social Democracy has no need of such a bridge, since the word socialism is used only for holiday speechifying. The Comintern, (Stalinist international), has set out to follow the path of Social Democracy in an epoch of decaying capitalism, when, in general, there can be no discussion of systematic social reforms and the raising of the masses’ living standards, and when every serious demand of the petty bourgeoisie inevitably reaches beyond the limits of capitalist property relations and of the bourgeois state.
The strategic task of the Fourth International lies not in reforming capitalism but in its overthrow. Its political aim is the conquest of power by the proletariat for the purpose of expropriating the bourgeoisie. However, the achievement of this strategic task is unthinkable without the most considered attention to all, even small and partial, questions of tactics. All sections of the proletariat, all its layers, occupations and groups, should be drawn into the revolutionary movement. The present epoch is distinguished not for the fact that it frees the revolutionary party from the day-to-day work but because it permits this work to be carried on indissolubly with the actual tasks of the revolution.
The Fourth International does not discard the programme of the old ”minimal” demands to the degree to which these have preserved at least part of their vital forcefulness. Indefatigably, it defends the democratic rights and social conquests of the workers. But it carries on this day-to-day work within the framework of the correct actual, that is, revolutionary perspective. Insofar as the old, partial, “minimal” demands of the masses clash with the destructive and degrading tendencies of decadent capitalism – the Fourth International advances a system of transitional demands, the essence of which is contained in the fact that ever more openly and decisively they will be directed against the very bases of the bourgeois regime. The old “minimal programme” is superseded by the transitional programme, the task of which lies in systematic mobilisation of the masses for the proletarian revolution.