The Lessons that the ‘awkward squad’ must learn

Imperialism is not a policy which capitalism can pick up or put down as it chooses. It is not a policy practised by modern capitalism; rather, it IS modern capitalism. By the same token, opportunism is not a policy which the Labour party and TUC bureaucracy can pick up or put down depending on the weather. Opportunism is a key feature of the politics of imperialism, just as monopoly is a key feature of the economics of imperialism. In recording the way in which a labour aristocratic layer of the working class is drawn into class treachery by means of systematic bribery, a corruption of the labour movement only made possible by diversion of a fraction of imperialist super-profits sweated and looted from the world’s toilers, Lenin was at pains to identify this bourgeois ideological contagion as a fundamental tendency within imperialism itself, eradicable only with the overthrow of bourgeois power. In Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, he wrote:

“Imperialism has the tendency to create privileged sections also amongst the workers, and to detach them from the broad masses of the proletariat…the tendency to split the workers, to strengthen opportunism among them and to cause temporary decay in the working-class movement.”

It follows that the fight to resist opportunism, to resist this “temporary decay” in the working-class movement, which is part and parcel of the general decay of imperialist society, is inseparable from the fight against imperialism itself. It would be as fruitless to try to reason the Labour party and the TUC out of acting against the interests of workers as it would be to try to reason modern capitalism out of its addiction to monopoly.

These facts should be kept in mind now that a clamour starts to grow on the “left” flank of social democracy in promotion of conferences for reviving the shop stewards movement, conferences for building “fighting unions”, conferences with the avowed purpose of raising grass roots militancy etc.

Inviting trade unionists to help make a success of a recent national shop stewards’ conference, the RMT called for the “active and vocal participation of trade unionists from the broadest possible range of backgrounds”, adding that “the depth and breadth of grass-roots organisation of workplace reps has always been a crucial barometer of the general health of the trade-union movement”. But why do workers need a healthy trade-union movement, if not to advance the workers’ cause against capitalism? Seen in this light, the only real barometer by which the health of the labour movement can be measured is the amount of progress made in the direction of the working class freeing itself from the system of wage slavery. In the absence of this perspective, all the necessary daily struggles to defend wages and conditions – the terms of sale of the worker’s labour power within the exploiting confines of capitalist commodity production – cannot advance the proletariat even one step towards its own emancipation.

This was well understood by the National Minority Movement in the 1920s. In its 1924 Manifesto, the NMM set out the tasks of proletarian leadership in words whose contemporary relevance is startling. The question of the Labour party and the policies it was pursuing in the first ever Labour government are not, said the NMM, “outside trade unionism but the central question for the trade union movement”. The Manifesto went on to say that “trade union questions are inseparably bound up with politics. Economic and political questions far beyond the control of any individual union govern the living conditions of the workers and compel them if they are to go forward at all, to handle these forces… The combined power of trade unionism has been organised into the Labour Party to win the power of the Government”. But what had that same Labour government been doing? “It threatened to operate the Emergency Powers Act during the tramway strike, ordered naval men to unload mail during the dockers’ strike, threatened to use naval men in the power stations during the rail shopmen’s strike. On no single occasion has it used its power to help the workers to fight the capitalists… It is supporting the capitalists against the working class. At home and abroad it has declared itself the servant of the capitalist state and of all the commercial and financial interests. It has failed to take one single step towards the only object of working-class organisation – the conquest of power, in order to break the power of capitalism and establish working-class control of economic and social conditions” (pp. 43,4).

This insistence that the only purpose in having a “healthy trade union movement”, the only object in having working class organisation, is to assist the working class in making progress towards the conquest of power, in no way underestimates the importance of struggles to defend the wages and conditions of workers. The reverse is in fact the case. The most militant struggles the British proletariat have waged against wage cuts, lock outs and unemployment have precisely been fought under the influence of a political leadership which set its sights on the overturn of the whole wages system, not contenting itself with improving the terms of slavery.

At the conclusion of World War One, the grass roots militancy which pitted itself against the capitalist policy of wage cut and lock out was fired by the Bolshevik example. The lead given by the October Revolution, forcing a conclusion to the first imperialist world war and proving how the proletariat could free itself from capitalist bondage, galvanised the British labour movement. The Hands Off Russia campaign which swept through the British working class came in direct response to the class appeal for solidarity sent out by the Russian toilers.

Dockers in British ports and British troops waiting to see if they would be sent to fight against their own class brothers in Russia had thrust into their hands a direct appeal, signed by Lenin and Chicherin, headed: “Are you a trade unionist?” This appeal concluded as follows:

“We, the workers of Russia…in October last swept the capitalists out of power, and declared that Russia belongs to the whole of the Russian people. We are not going to grow food for the rich to eat, or weave cloth for the rich to wear. The people will enjoy the product of their labour. Can you wonder that the capitalists of all countries should hate us? We have shattered their dreams of the vast fortunes to be made out of the great stores of natural wealth contained in our country… They have decided therefore to crush us before we have time to consolidate the position. And you, English trade unionists will be used for this purpose. The Russian capitalists do not stand an earthly chance against us by themselves. But your capitalists know that their interests are the same as those of the Russian capitalists, and they have come to their assistance. Why do you not recognise your class interest in the same way? You as trade unionists are fighting your capitalists; we have settled our account with ours. What are you going to do? Are you going to undo the work we have commenced? Are you going to do the dirty work of your enemies, the capitalist class? Or will you remain loyal to your own class – the working class – and support our efforts to secure the world for labour? … Fellow workers, on whose side are you – the workers’ or the masters’?” (Quoted in Harry Pollitt: a biography, by John Mahon, pp 76,7)

In direct response to this appeal, the London Workers’ Committee called a national conference to call for “Hands off Russia”, which went on to call on the labour movement to prepare for a general strike unless British military support for the counter-revolution ceased. Significantly, no Parliamentary Labour Party leaders showed up for this militant grass roots conference. In fact the problem for these leaders of Social Democracy was not merely the grass-roots character of the developing movement, but the key role played in the campaign by the Communist Party of Great Britain, which made a clear link between solidarity with the Bolsheviks and struggle against the opportunists of the Labour party and the TUC.

The fruits of this painstaking political struggle within the Labour movement appeared in May 1920, when the Polish seizure of Kiev on behalf of international reaction was answered by the coal-heavers and dockers of the East India Docks. Acting on information that the Jolly George was due to set sail with a cargo of munitions bound for Poland, these workers refused to let it set sail again until it had dumped its load to rust on the wharf side. This great moment of working class history, so often forgotten, or misremembered as simply a lucky spark of spontaneous solidarity, was in fact the result of a consistent struggle against opportunism in the labour movement. And this action in its turn served to further electrify the labour movement, with the formation of 350 local Councils of Action, dedicated to the preparation of a general strike if Britain’s anti-Soviet war effort continued. There can be no doubt that this potentially revolutionary threat of independent class action helped the Lloyd George government to reach the decision to desist from further overt military aggression against Russia.

It was thus at a moment of incipient revolutionary upsurge that British trade union militants met up with their Soviet and Italian counterparts in June 1920 to promote the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU). Their purpose was to counter the class-collaborationist influence of the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), an instrument in the hands of the disgraced Second International.

The pernicious consequences of such opportunist influence were on full display in April 1921, when the hoped-for Triple Alliance defence of the miners against wage cut and lock out was deserted by the rail and transport leaders, on what became known as Black Friday. Similar setbacks internationally marked the onset of a period of temporary and partial capitalist stabilization, with millions “rationalized” out of employment or kept in work on starvation wages. But British communism was tempered in these hard times, with the CPGB taking a leading role in the unemployed workers’ movement, the national minority movement and the RILU.

Those in the contemporary labour movement who hope to see a rejuvenation of the trade unions by organising a new shop stewards’ movement should cast an eye over previous working class history. Among the first to affiliate to the RILU was the shop stewards’ movement. Indeed, it was the National Committee of the shop stewards which set up the British Bureau of the RILU, based in Manchester, whose work complemented that of Harry Pollitt’s London Committee. The London Committee sent speakers to address 85 trade union branches in two months, and in May 354 delegates from 217 trade union branches elected Tom Mann to speak for them at the coming World Congress. The Manchester Bureau included militants from the docks, from the engineering industry, and from the unemployed movement. Pollitt was clear, both about the crucial role of developing grass roots working class initiative and about the need for the highest level of political leadership. He insisted that “the main work must be done by the advanced section of the rank and file in the trade union branches”, who must “show the inseparable connection of national and international affairs” (ibid p.99).

The twin slogans of the RILU at this period of reaction were “Stop the retreat” and “Back to the unions”. In the struggles which ensued in the course of this temporary stabilisation of capitalism at the expense of the working class, culminating in the heroism of the 1926 General Strike and the opportunist sabotage of that great class offensive, the CPGB and the RILU together acted throughout as the rallying point for trade union militants. We are told (Mahon pp.112,3) that “The activity of the British Bureau of the RILU greatly stimulated workers’ resistance to the capitalist attacks on wages and conditions. In the strikes and lock-outs, among the unemployed, and on the trades councils, thousands of trade unionists rallied to the slogans launched by the Bureau. Among miners and engineers organised militant minorities had taken shape. The widespread frustration caused by official defeatism was being replaced by a growing and well-informed understanding that changes were needed in trade union policy and leadership”. Out of this development sprang the National Minority Movement (NMM) in the summer of 1924. Communists played a leading role in this movement, owing its name to the TUC’s habitual dismissal of trade union militants as a “rebellious minority”.

If today’s generation of “awkward squad” union leaders hope to emulate the example set by that earlier “rebellious minority”, they will need to do more than denounce “new” Labour whilst keeping the back door open for “old” Labour or some other “left” vehicle for social democracy. The Minority Movement understood very well the crucial role of work in the grass roots of the trade union movement, but this work was always informed by the struggle against social democracy. The task today is to raise the political level, from posturing around a Trade Union Freedom Bill and calling for the departure of Blair and “new” Labour, to a root and branch struggle against social democracy, made concrete in the demand that the unions must “Break the Link” with Labour. And key to this struggle are the efforts to break down the wall dividing the proletariat in Britain from those fighting imperialism around the world, as in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Instead of the phoney “trade union internationalism” preached by those who take a sudden and selective interest in the trade union rights of some sections of the Iranian working class, the better to distract workers’ attention from the most urgent threat to the human rights of the Iranian masses posed by “our own” Anglo-American imperialism, we take our cue from Tom Mann in 1927. Attending the Pan-Pacific Trade Union Conference in China on a Red International of Labour Unions delegation, he cabled back from Hankow to tell Harry Pollitt, “Mobilisation of warships at Hankow includes ten British vessels ready for bombardment. This shameful assault can only be stopped by direct action on the part of the workers in Britain…Chinese trade unionists ask help”. In the same spirit, we urge organised labour to break with Labour imperialism, do all within its power to place obstacles in the path of the warmongers, and embrace the slogan of “Victory to the Iraqi and Afghan resistance”.