Discussion Article: Against a Labour Orientation

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25/02/2020 by socialistfight

By Gareth Martin

Amando Bordiga

I do not believe that the militant Left is served any longer by an orientation toward the Labour party, or organised labour such as exists within the trade unions.  This is not a principled rejection of either Labour or the Unions, and I am not averse to maintaining contact with them and working with them.  But I do not think that they can be the primary direction of travel.

After a long period of retreat and retrenchment, we are only now emerging into a new/old politics of mass movements and mass demonstrations.  With any luck this will be followed by mass strikes.  But I think we can do more good operating from outside this tent than within it.

I think an orientation to these two institutions is no longer pertinent to the broader class struggle.  This is not to say that either are completely useless, but I don’t think either of them are capable of leading the charge.

The Unions
The unions are crippled by a loss of support among the public and legislation that inhibits their scope of action.  The prohibition on secondary strike action means that it is very difficult for the unions to enter into political struggles; they are effectively limited to acting only on immediately relevant bread and butter issues affecting a single workplace. 

The way forward for the union movement as a whole is going to have to be to return to illegal strikes, and we have indeed seen some of these breaking out in the US, notably the teachers strike in Wisconsin in 2018.  But these are often carried out in the teeth of the union bureaucracy and at considerable risk of sacking and other forms of retaliation.  The union leadership is far too often an agent of pacification and maintenance of the status quo.

The argument will then be made that for precisely these reasons, we should stay in contact with the unions, attempt to influence their direction, and aid the more radical candidates for unions roles in winning their elections.  But I think this amounts to becoming bogged down in the minutiae of each union, each struggle, each workplace.

On top of this there are powerful counter-currents working from the top down, both in terms of legal pressure on the unions, and the union hierarchy’s own interest in not rocking the boat too much.  Operating with the unions therefore requires a huge and detailed effort which ultimately then still relies on the hope that they will be sufficiently roused to become important venues for active and class conscience struggle once more. 
The status of the radical left is not great among the unions either.  Many see revolutionary parties as no more than a scattering of lost idealists with no real political significance.  In this they are not entirely wrong, due to the general ebb of conscious class struggle.  We have little to offer the unions, we cannot mobilise public opinion in their support, or offer a political threat to coincide with their industrial one.  The unions have nothing to gain from working with us, and huge institutional motives for having as little contact with us as possible.

The Labour Party

Much of the above is true of the Labour Party too.  Engagement with Labour means involvement in a thousand miniature causes, expending time and energy on a thousand miniature candidates in favour of this marginally more radical politicians than that.  The institutional inhibitions here are even greater, and our voice is reedy in comparison to the hymn of the careerists.

The threat by a general to overthrow Corbyn is not insignificant even if only for the chilling effect that it must necessarily have.  Labour may have been founded as a party by and for the unions and the working class, but it has become more and more oriented to retail politics, with the proportion of working class members the lowest it has been in history.  A report by UCL from 2018 reads:

“The report finds that career MPs, categorised as politicians that come from a background in politics or a closely related profession, are more likely to adopt policies for strategic political reasons to win over swing voters and win elections. In contrast, working-class MPs, categorised as politicians that have a background in manual and unskilled labour, are more likely to support policies that benefit working class communities.
…When the Labour Party first achieved electoral success in the 1920s, more than 70% of its MPs were drawn from working-class backgrounds. This has declined drastically from the mid- 80s and today just 8% of Labour MPs are working-class.”

None of this is any surprise to the class conscious Left, but I think it is time we realised that Labour has been so thoroughly co-opted that it is no longer capable of leading the class struggle either.  The slogan of practical politics, that seeks electoral victory by abandoning its own demands, by appearing acceptable in the eyes of bourgeois society, has become the overriding theme of Labour activity.

There was certainly an opportunity for a LP renaissance under Corbyn, but that moment has passed.  The party seems set on falling back into the New Labour rut, even as centrist politics preside over an ever rightward slide.  Attempting to change the direction of the party, rather like attempting to reinvigorate the unions, would require a long term effort invested once again in the details of this and that candidate, this and that policy, even if a force as relatively weak as ours could aspire to achieving this goal.

Class Struggle
Despite all these weaknesses in the formal labour movement, class struggle itself has returned in significant force.  These struggles are all happening outside the formal structure though, carried by those who likewise see no hope in attempting to overcome the existing institutional inertia.  Just like the wildcat teachers strikes in the US, or the Gilets Jaunes, or events currently occurring in South America.

Where the LP and the unions are bound by the infrastructure of the nation state, and limited in their ability to act without an official nod, the grassroots struggle is international and possessed of a global consciousness (even if not yet a full class consciousness).  It is largely young, made up of workers who have never seen the unions flex their strength, but who recognise the necessity of demands made from the bottom up.  Where the formal labour movement is timid, the informal is bold.

In the last few decades, all the major eruptions of class politics have come from outside the formal labour movement.  In fact, these outbursts have come with a sort of rhythmic regularity.  In the UK in the early 90’s there were environmental campaigns against road building, involving civil disobedience and able to garner a large public following.  This was reinforced by Reclaim The Streets, which was able to impose newsworthy disruptions.

Overlapping with these came the anti-globalisation protests that climaxed at the Battle in Seattle of ’99.  Activity declined a bit in the 00’s, and then was sharply redirected into opposition of the Iraq war (although still featuring some historically significant mass demonstrations).  That defeat was a setback, but nevertheless, new popular campaigns emerged in the form of Occupy Wall street, which changed the political dialogue by introducing the trope of the 1% vs. the 99%.  Suddenly, expressly stated class politics was back on the menu.  And worldwide class politics at that, not merely a local or sectional struggle, or concerned with immediate economic issues.

After OWS was violently suppressed, there was a brief period of relative calm, although many Occupy alumni are still around and active.  But the gap was soon filled by Extinction Rebellion, which is rather more diffuse in terms of class consciousness but absolutely committed to internationalism and autonomous mass action by the people, rather than waiting and hoping for orthodox politics or the unions to lead the way. This sequence of events has had some significant impacts on the formal labour movement.  The Corbyn project, although never fulfilled, certainly tapped into the frustration at a political system that seems hell bent on fiddling while Rome burns.  The now widely recognised decline in social mobility, wage stagnation, and even reduction in life expectancy in major Western states, has honed this informal class struggle into a sharp criticism of institutional politics in the mass movements on both left and right.

The Tea Party mobilisation in America, although shot through with racism and reaction, still carried a large component of class war criticism, framed as opposition to the “liberal elites”, and was itself an illustration of the contradictions of capitalism.  At one point two Tea Party groups demonstrated against each other, one calling for state bailouts of the motor industry to save jobs, the other opposed to any bailouts of corporations at all.  Since then, the elevation of Trump and the rise of outright Fascism, its vestigial class criticism included, have confirmed that the business-as-usual of the Washington Consensus is dead and buried.

What can we do?

Of the available actions that the radical left can take, I think looking towards the formal labour movement is the least effective.  The premise of the vanguard party is to preserve the techniques, methods and goals of class struggle, to impart this hard won knowledge to new generations of workers, and ultimately to provide the analytical clarity that can bring a real revolutionary moment to realisation.
    Is this really to be achieved within the corridors of Labour or union HQ’s?  I don’t think so.  In many ways these groups are the least in need of our assistance, being at least partially class conscious while not revolutionary.  This historical awareness even inoculates many of them against our arguments, equips them with criticisms and alternative strategies.  Making headway here is a laborious and time consuming slog, at odds with the urgency and opportunity of the moment.

By contrast, the public has demonstrated an appetite and propensity for open struggle in the streets, on a global scale.  In my personal experience, it is much easier to make the argument to interested citizens than it is to those embedded in the formal labour movement already.  The likes of OWS and XR have already rejected politics as usual and recognised the need for autonomous action.  To many, the broader historical understanding of the class struggle dawns like a light that illuminates the landscape clearly for the first time.  Our analysis clarifies and sharpens their own intuition, an intuition that is already powerful enough to bring them onto the streets risking injury and arrest.

These popular actions have already been the leading force for the shift in the Overton window (policies politically acceptable to the majority) over the last decade.  The occupation of Zuccotti Park (in lower Manhattan)  by a few hundred people did more to change the terms of debate in two weeks than years of conflicts over bureaucratic candidates or motion-haggling. And more than the last decade; in parallel, the global climate movement was given life by the mass protests that forced the Rio climate conference in ‘92 and the Kyoto Protocol in ’97.  The formal labour movement, while being among the sinews strained, has definitely been following, not leading. The formal labour movement, hampered by anti-union laws etc., has acquired the reputation of being nothing more than the sectional struggles of one group of workers against the rest.  Parliamentary politics is sullied by the blatant careerism and, often, class solidarity with the bourgeoisie.  Neither, in the public mind, is either capable of or interested in effecting a radical change of society.  Nor is this perception unfair.

The mass class struggles of the 19th century took place in the context of such patrician disdain from political institutions that the formation of an autonomous workers’ party was an obvious necessity.  I think that necessity exists again, now.  The strikes and protests that brought about the victories of the labour movement occurred spite, rather than because, of bureaucratic wrangling.  It was the demand of the masses, channelled through the vehicle of party and union, that was decisive.  In the present day I think it is that demand of the masses that needs to be stoked. I think we have to address the present moment much as we did in the 19th century, rather than the 20th century.  The formal labour movement is demoralised and despondent, while the informal is exuberant and brave.  The former is looking down at its feet, concerned with local and sectional struggles, while the latter is instinctively and correctly broad based and internationalist.

It would be far more useful for us to go out on a union drive than to spend our time trying to achieve minor gains in the union process.  Actually facilitating the organisation of the public would give the unions more strength, as well as demonstrating our bona fides.  Contact with the public merely to make the case for union membership would show that we too have the bigger picture in mind, and offers a priceless opportunity to generalise their politics toward class struggle.  That is only an example of the potential opportunities, but it illustrates the distinction that I think needs to be made.

The formal labour movement was effective when it had deep and wide roots in the working class itself.  It is perhaps still deep, but it is certainly no longer wide.  It is largely perceived as part of the apparatus of the status quo, rather than a challenge to it.  Our integration with it does not aid but tarnish us.  What we need to do is find opportunities to make the case for class struggle in general to the public, as we did when building the first unions and the first internationals.
The modern consumerist mindset has no room for class struggle at all.  The capitalist triumphalism of the 80s and 90s virtually eliminated the very concept from public discourse.  Its recent recovery is striking, and surely not many can be old enough to remember a time when it was possible for a leading US presidential candidate to say anything like “If there is going to be class warfare in this country, it’s about time the working class won that war.” as Sanders recently tweeted.

The current imperative is to reinvigorate the idea of class struggle among the working class proper, rather than to persuade the supposed organs of class leadership that are failing to lead.  The formal labour movement will either rise to the moment of a reinvigorated mass politics, or be swept aside.  The critical factor is the class consciousness of workers, which if encouraged can then fill the sails of the formal movement.

The modern uprisings like Occupy and XR are class struggle in embryo.  They are where the working class is discovering its power, inventing its own tools and methods, encountering the class solidarity of the bourgeoisie and thus recognising the need for their own.  The appetite for change finds no satisfaction in formal politics, but instead only in the self-directed self-organisation of their peers.  The existing labour movement is regarded as no more than yet another of the impedimenta of the Ancien Régime.  They are rightly sceptical of the bare utility of these seemingly archaic and thoroughly compromised venues.  They will not suffer to be led, they demand to lead.

But we can teach them, arm them with the clarity of the historical material analysis.  We can show them how much their movements are like those of the past, how the strategies they are pursuing or considering have performed in action.  We can confirm that their instinctive internationalism and insistence on autonomy are not only precedented, but vital.  We can show them the direct historical corollaries of what they are doing, and make the case for class war and revolution as a whole.  This is a fertile field, and we should cast as many seeds into it as we can.

In order to do this, we need to be inside their spaces, and we need to be talking to the public directly.  We do not need to be arguing about who leads the Labour Party.  Labour and the unions will either bend or they will break in the coming storm, while the role of the radical left is to conjure lightning.  In order to relate to the informal radical movement, we must be respectful.  We must speak to them as peers and recognise their sincerity, which will establish our own.  There is much that they can, and will, learn from us, but that can never happen until we demonstrate ourselves to be actual allies.
The iron is hot, right here and right now. ▲

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