Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Not so awkward now

(November 2004)

From Socialist Review, No.290, November 2004.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Why some union leaders have buckled over the occupation of Iraq

Watching the major trade union leaders at this year’s Labour Party conference, I was reminded of a Socialist Worker editorial discussion a few years ago. We were discussing the ‘awkward squad’ – the union leaders elected to office on policies critical of Blairism from the left. We all agreed that these leaders could not be crudely equated with the Blairite figures they had replaced. Their combative language reflected a wide feeling for more struggle among hundreds of thousands of union activists. But we were also all agreed that there were important lessons from the past about the behaviour of left-sounding union leaders that we should not forget.

The most notorious case was their behaviour during the General Strike of 1926. The left wing leaders agreed to the strike being called off when it was at its most powerful, and so brought about a defeat which set the movement back for a quarter of a century. Leon Trotsky’s writings on Britain contain brilliant analyses of their behaviour. Naturally we thought of printing extracts from them. But someone pointed out that Trotsky’s description of ‘the trade union bureaucracy’ as ‘the backbone of British imperialism’ would seem too strong when applied to the newly elected leaders. And so we paraphrased Trotsky rather than quoting him directly.

Trotsky’s words do not seem quite so out of place today, in the aftermath of the Labour Party conference. Major unions that have opposed the war failed to vote against it at the conference for the second year running, letting Blair off the hook. And they voted for a resolution supporting the occupation of Iraq for the next 20 months. This was just as US troops were preparing with British help for an all-out assault on Fallujah. The two imperialisms want to destroy the resistance so that the puppet government of former CIA agent Iyad Allawi can bully and bribe its way through elections in January. In this way they hope to rescue themselves from debacle in Iraq and even put the Project for the New American Century back on course.

Three of the ‘awkward squad’ unions are not affiliated to the Labour Party – Bob Crow’s RMT, Mark Serwotka’s PCS and Paul Mackney’s Natfhe – and did not support the position. Since the conference Billy Hayes of the CWU has said it was a mistake. But Mick Rix, the former general secretary of the rail union Aslef – who led the chanting of ‘Blair out’ at one of last year’s anti-war marches – resigned from the Stop the War Coalition in the very week that Blair ran into trouble over his decision to send British troops to Fallujah. Leaders of the public sector union Unison are threatening to do the same.

The unions excuse their behaviour by referring to the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) whose British representative Abdullah Muhsin circulated a special ‘open letter to trade union delegates’, claiming an early withdrawal of troops ‘would be bad for my country, and would play into the hands of extremists’.

As the exiled Iraqi academics Kamal Mahdi and Sami Ramadani have pointed out, the IFTU is a front for one remnant of the Iraqi Communist Party. This collaborated with the Ba’athists as they strengthened their dictatorship from 1968 to 1978, during which the government imprisoned and executed other Communists, waged war against the Kurds and launched a murderous attack on the Karbala rising of 1977. Today this party sits in the US puppet government in Baghdad. The IFTU is now claiming, in effect, that somehow workers in the Middle East can benefit if US imperialism succeeds in stabilising its occupation of Iraq and its domination of the world’s second biggest reserves of oil. It is this claim that major trade union leaders chose to accept.

Trotsky analysed the tendency for the left in the unions to capitulate to the right. He blamed this in part on the total ‘ideological formlessness’ of the ‘left faction’ of the TUC general council.

Only such ‘ideological formlessness’ could lead people into accepting that US imperialism is protecting people from ‘extremism’ at the very time it is preparing an onslaught on a town of 300,000 people. But ideological confusion is not by itself enough to explain what has happened. The social position of the trade union bureaucracy encourages and continually reproduces such confusion.

The bureaucracy as a whole is a hierarchical structure in which officials make careers out of bargaining with capital over the price paid for the labour power of workers. The bargaining involves trying to organise workers and giving expression to their pressure for better lives. But it also involves channelling that pressure into negotiations within the system. The bureaucracy prioritises preserving the stability of union organisations over the conditions of the members it represents. The pressure from below can lead to militants from the left winning positions within the structure. But once there, they are subject to massive conservative counterpressures to which they all too easily succumb.

Hence the tendency to look for any excuse to avoid leading struggles. And what better excuse than to claim that the ruling party is already ‘listening’ to you. In recent months this has meant a big section of the awkward squad dropping their complaints about how Blair has treated them so as to come to an agreement with him – the Warwick accord – which offers them the most meagre of concessions in return for not rocking the New Labour boat in the run-up to next year’s election.

Supporting the occupation of Iraq as it enters one of its bloodiest stages fits into this wider pattern for some leaders. It is up to the serious left to make the others take a stand based on principles, which means building the movement from below. Let Trotsky have the last word:

‘The tactic of the united front still retains all its power as the most important method of struggle for the masses. A basic principle of the tactic is this: “With the masses always; with the vacillating leaders sometimes, but only so long as they stand at the head of the masses.” It is necessary to make use of vacillating leaders while the masses are pushing them ahead, without for a moment abandoning criticism of these leaders. And it is necessary to break with them at the right time when they turn from vacillation to hostile action and betrayal.’

Last updated on 27 December 2009