Always for a labour movement orientation


23/07/2020 by socialistfight

The Working Class, the Trade Unions and Labour

By Gerry Downing

We stand with Karl Marx: ‘The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves. The struggle for the emancipation of the working class means not a struggle for class privileges and monopolies but for equal rights and duties and the abolition of all class rule’ (The International Workingmen’s Association 1864, General Rules). The working class ‘cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all other sphere of society and thereby emancipating all other spheres of society’ (Marx, A Contribution to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843).

Our comrade begin his document Against a Labour Orientation with the following sentence: “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 profoundly mistaken. The first point of the Aims of the Socialist Fight above contradicts this.

The comrade opening sentence poses the questions; what is the working class and, indeed, what is the “militant left”? Following the collapse of the Corbyn project (September 2015 -12 December 2019) many are asking these questions, resigning from the Labour party and some are abandoning leftist politics or contemplating doing so. So, these are vital questions to answer.

Firstly, we must distinguish between the objective fact of the existence of the working class and its class consciousness. That is, in the traditional Marxist phrase, ‘the class in itself and the class for itself’. Objectively a worker is someone who must sell their labour power, by hand or by brain, to the capitalist owners of the means of production, to survive. The capitalist owns the means of production and employs the worker in order to extract surplus value, the source of profit.

Note that this Marxist division does not define a worker in terms of earnings, zero hours poverty or highly paid professionals, managers, or even top Premier Division football stars. If they are obliged to sell their labour power, they are workers. The social grades categories range from A, the higher managerial, administrative and professional to C1, supervisory, clerical and junior managerial, administrative and professional and then to C2, skilled manual workers and D, semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers and at the bottom E, state pensioners, casual and lowest grade workers, unemployed with state benefits only. This is a bogus sociological division; in fact, fully 99% of the population of Britain are working class because they do not own the means of production; they are not capitalists.

Britain, uniquely on the planet, has no peasanty since the enclosures of the common lands, from about 1600 to 1850. So, no ‘democratic revolution’ remains on that question and small businesses, professionals and shop keepers vacillate between both classes on the basis of the level of the class struggle.

But, of course, the majority do not view themselves in terms of a Marxist analysis. This raises the question of class consciousness, how do they see themselves, how does that 99% view their class interests; fighting the capitalist system, with reformist or revolutionary aims or collaboration with the capitalists in order to climb the ladder and accumulate enough wealth to start their own business or at least retire in luxury? And the higher your salary is the more likely you are to defend the system that is doing you such favours. But even the C2 and D above fluctuate in their class consciousness, depending on the rise and fall of the class struggles itself, either in wages militancy or in the political spheres, which tends to be separate in their consciousness in Britain more than most counties. So, the defeat of the Corbyn project (and Bernie Sanders in the US, though this is not a direct comparison) without any countervailing balance in increasing industrial militancy has a very demoralising effect on many leftists. Or it may spark in increase in ultra-leftism; away with all this political struggle stuff, take to the streets and begin the fightback there. But the ruling class rules ideologically in the first place; the police and the army are only there as a last resort to preserve their rule against revolution.

As we wrote in 1998 in In Defence of Trotskyism No. 3:

There are the four main theses we wish to defend:

l. Working class (and of course all social) consciousness develops out of the social relations of production in dialectical, mutual and many sided interactions between the revolutionary party, all working class political parties, the parties of the bourgeoisie, the non-party vanguard and the broad mass of the working class and oppressed.

2. The great historic experience of the Russian Revolution of 1905 was necessary before Marxists could develop the Leninist theory of the revolutionary party and its relationship to the working class. Only democratic centralism enables the revolutionary party to develop Marxism.

3. Class consciousness does not develop in the minds of individual workers divorced from their social relations. It is lodged in the organisations of the working class. That is the trade unions and reformist, Stalinist, centrist and revolutionary parties and groups vying for leadership of the class.

4. The Marxist method is dialectical materialism and the application of this method to the class struggle is the Transitional Method (TM). This can only operate effectively within the practice of the United Front (UF). That is we must learn how to defend strategic principles whilst utilising all the flexile tactics necessary to build the revolutionary party and advance the struggles of the class towards the goal of the socialist revaluation.

Those who claim Trotsky’s heritage are in a common crisis of method. They are two camps with much crossover between them.

On the opportunist right are those who capitulate to the left bureaucratic misleaders of the working class trade unions, left social democrats and left nationalist many of whom were Stalinists or Stalinist-influenced. On the sectarian left are those who were repelled by this opportunism and retreated from involvement in the real struggles of the working class by proclaiming their ‘revolutionary purity’ (‘one solution, revolution!’) and thus become – eventually – dogmatic sects. Between the two there has been those who recognised the crisis of method common to both sides and tried to re-establish the method of the Transitional Programme (TP). [1]

We have politicised elsewhere against the WSWS/SEP, the Left Communists and other who reject a labour movement orientation. These were the forces that Lenin polemicised against in 1920 in Left Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder. The notion that the organised working class, albeit under pro-capitalist corrupt bureaucrats, is not what prevents the super exploitation of the working class was exposed by Trotsky it his analysis of fascism. If it was really true that the trade unions had become simply an appendage of the capitalist state in oppressing the working class and that bourgeois workers parties internationally had become simply capitalist parties like the US Democrats.

Trotsky writes in January 27 1932 that:

“Fascism cannot intrench itself in power without annihilating the workers’ organizations. The parliament is the main arena of the social democracy. The system of Fascism is based upon the destruction of parliamentarism.” [2]

And Trotsky elaborates:

“At the moment that the “normal” police and military resources of the bourgeois dictatorship, together with their parliamentary screens, no longer suffice to hold society in a state of equilibrium – the turn of the Fascist regime arrives. Through the Fascist agency, capitalism sets in motion the masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie, and bands of the de-classed and demoralized lumpen proletariat; all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy. From Fascism the bourgeoisie demands a thorough job; once it has resorted to methods of civil war, it insists on having peace for a period of years. And the Fascist agency by utilizing the petty bourgeoisie as a battering ram, by overwhelming all obstacles in its path, does a thorough job. After Fascism is victorious, finance capital gathers into its hands, as in a vice of steel, directly and immediately, all the organs and institutions of sovereignty, the executive, administrative and educational powers of the state: the entire state apparatus together with the army, the municipalities, the universities, the schools, the press, the trade unions, and the co-operatives.” [3]


“the gist of Fascism and its task consist in a complete suppression of all workers’ organizations and in the prevention of their revival. In a developed capitalist society this goal cannot be achieved by police methods alone. There is only one method for it and that is by directly opposing the pressure of the proletariat – the moment it weakens – by the pressure of the desperate masses of the petty bourgeoisie. It is this particular system of capitalist reaction that has entered history under the name of Fascism.” [4]

Against a Labour Orientation

By Gareth Martin

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 whole 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 innoculates 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 over the last decade.  The occupation of Zuccotti Park 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 C19th 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 C19th, rather than the C20th.  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 80’s and 90’s 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.


[1] In Defence of Trotskyism, Number 3. Winter 2011-2012, Class Consciousness and

the Revolutionary Party,

[2] Leon Trotsky: Democracy And Fascism, 27, January 1932, (…/trotsky/1932/01/whatnext2.htm)

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

2 thoughts on “Always for a labour movement orientation

  1. Viriato says:

    Well, that’s the diference between marxism and ultraleftism.

    Ultraleftist don’t understand the dynamics of the class struggle. This is understandable because, often, you must live those moments when the working class awakens and with their fight pushes the whole spectrum of the society to the left.
    Then, even the most mild reformist “speak” the most radical words. Very dificult to guide onself and the party in that kind of atmosphere, because every one seemes “very revolutionary” and they are not.
    Politics, is not easy matters, working class politics are even more dificult. You need to be thoughtfully active and patient at the same time and switch quickly to very active when conditions change.

    Gerry is totally correct. There are no short cuts, no easy ways and now it is even more dificult but there is no alternative other, stick to the principles, be very, very flexible in tactics. Keep the cap, because everything depends on the working class, on the dynamics of the class struggle.

    And today this is changing and with the aggravation of the capitalist crisis could go further.

    What is lacking is the party but if there is a correct line, perhaps it would be found by the revolt that has pointed its nose with recently large class mouvements that could/should developped in the months coming.

    Here in France ,and I suppose everywhere, it would be a tsunami of redundancies, “reduction of wages’ as it has been “proposed” by the bosses and the government, and yet now the working class has begin to move.


  2. Leninism has to be for talking to workers anywhere – even in reactionary trade unions. But the point is to help them become revolutionaries by fighting their anti-communist prejudices. If they haven’t already broken from Labour and social democracy through total contempt for bourgeois “parliamentary democracy” they are probably rather backward. So still talk to them, but there is nothing to be gained by “supporting” Chris Williamson or RLB or any other opportunist Labour “left” – that is just peddling illusions. Surely the 2019 Election and Corbyn’s manifesto promises of heaps of lolly being disdained even by typical Labour voters should be telling even the dimmest that the parliamentary fraud is all but up??
    Leninists will take part in elections in the future (if they happen and when expedient) but ONLY to denounce the whole stinking racket and urge on Revolution.
    Conversely, there is plenty of evidence (the notorious Labour internal report and Corbyn’s capitulation to the Zionists’ “left-wing anti-semitism” fraudulent campaign) to show that the Labour “left” doesn’t even want to “win” a general election.
    I am writing this quickly now as a Comment and will read the whole thread when I have time.


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