Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Communist Workers’ Movement

Why Paul Foot Should Be A Socialist
The case against the Socialist Workers’ Party


III. THE TRADE UNIONS: Are trade union politics the same thing as socialist politics?

By failing constantly to raise the question of state power, PF loses sight of what a revolution is supposed to do; he fails to realise that the central issue in a revolution, its highest task, is to overthrow the capitalist state and build a workers’ state. Consequently he is oblivious of the fact that the central task of socialist politics is to lead the working class, step by step and through its own experience, towards confronting this task that lies before it. PF lacks this overall perspective; instead, he represents anything that mobilises workers as ’socialist’. He consequently fails to distinguish socialist politics (offensive politics directed towards seizure of state power) from trade union politics, which are in fact directed towards wholly different aims (defence of the working class from the economic ravages of the capitalist system while that system and its state power remain intact).

’Trade unionism’ is the ideology which seeks to prevent these two separate branches of activity from being disentangled; it is thus a very useful ideology for capitalism, for it prevents the working class from breaking out of the strait-jacket of defensive, economic, reformist struggles and entering the political arena with its own revolutionary party leading onward towards the seizure of state power. In contrast to those who, like the SWP, represent trade union struggles as in themselves ’socialist’, genuine socialists have always worked to expose the ideological fetters that trade unionism places upon the working class. Lenin, for instance, stated that “trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie”. Only by launching political struggles as the central task can all the struggles of the working class (which of course include trade union struggles as one important fighting front) be sustained and led onwards to their culmination – revolution and the establishment of a workers’ state. To quote Lenin again: “Politics takes precedence over economics: to deny this, or to argue otherwise, is to go against the ABC of communism.”

PF continually goes against the ABC of communism; throughout his pamphlet (and indeed throughout SWP activity) economics firmly takes precedence over politics. PF even invests the economic struggles of the working class with mystical properties, being apparently under the impression that the working class will somehow build its revolutionary party out of its ’day-to-day’ struggles. In thus falling for the ideology of trade unionism hook, line and sinker, and failing to differentiate trade union politics from socialist politics, PF has made the oldest mistake in the book.


There is a feature of SWP politics that is well-known to those who have had a brush with it, but which does not immediately come over from PF’s pamphlet. This is the fact that, for all the glitter and wide-ranging comment in such documents as PF’s pamphlet, what actually happens to the new member when he joins is far more mundane; he is thrust into the immediate business of trade union (or student union) chores. The rationale he is given for this is that this way he will be ’doing something’: a very slightly more sophisticated version is that ’at least he will actually be doing something and not just theorising’. This high-handed attitude towards the theoretical development of their members of course has its seductive attractions; it certainly proves very exhilarating for the novice SWP member to bury himself in immediate practical activity. Who hasn’t seen such recent converts gadding about as if they were the first people ever to discover trade unions? They ransack everything in the rule-book for a pretext for a bit of management-bashing, from tea-breaks to safety-regulations, with dedicated mindlessness. In some mystical, unexplained way, this humdrum everyday trade union activity is somehow expected to grow of itself into a political movement. For anyone who has the slightest nodding acquaintance with Leninist theory, this is of course a very old error. But unfortunately a spell in the SWP doesn’t give anyone even such an acquaintance, so our novice soon burns himself up, and the intensity of his exhilaration when he is on the rampage now becomes matched by the intensity of his disillusionment when his activity turns out to he futile. Muhammed Ali, in one of his poems, described his boxing style as: “Dance like a butterfly, sting like a bee”. Join the SWP and you’ll find yourself dancing about from issue to issue like a butterfly – but you’ll sting nobody!

Such is the end-result of the principle of ’doing something’. But it’s not only the end-result that is inadequate. The principle is in itself wrong from the beginning – indeed, it’s no principle at all. How much more unprincipled could one get than calling for ’doing something’ without also asking ’doing what?’ or ’doing something for whom?’ Is the NF to be applauded because it is ’doing something’? If that is unfair, then let us restrict ourselves to those who are not ill-intentioned towards the working class: what about, say, collecting milk-bottle tops for guide-dogs for the blind? Isn’t that ’doing something’? The fact is that all kinds of people do all kinds of good, or at any rate well-intentioned, things without socialists coming and telling them to. The specific contribution of socialism is not do-gooding, but acting according to a scientific analysis of society that can indicate the principal tasks needing solution. The specific contribution of socialists is precisely that they do not dissipate their efforts in a flurry of well-intentioned ’doings’, but that they separate out fewer, and more basic, tasks. In fact, the ideology of ’do-gooding’ can often be used as a ruling-class ploy for obscuring what is principal in society (class exploitation) by creating reformist diversions. The SWP should not be forgiven for trying to pass it off as ’socialism’.

Behind all the apparent concern for trade union affairs there of course lies the SWP’s well-known ulterior motive – to try and slip some politics in when the going is good. This ulterior motive is of course not meant to be obvious to the audience – at any rate, this may be said to be the theatrical convention, for in fact the audience find it so obvious that they normally feel that it does not call for comment. The SWP members are thus able to kid themselves that nobody is wise to their ulterior motive. So, in the middle of a lot of union business one day, there suddenly swoops down, out of the blue, the familiar SWP surprise motion: ker-pow! – abortion, homosexual rights, anything in fact, no matter how unrelated to the situation of the assembled ’voting fodder’. The latter, supposedly caught unawares, are usually unconcerned lo oppose the resolution in case that might cause a kerfuffle, and perhaps not least for fear of being left lo cope with all the union chores if the SWP goes off in a huff. So the resolution is passed and the SWP thus gets its pay-off for all its hard work (never mind that the revolutionary consciousness of the union members hasn’t been developed one bit!). One might be tempted to regard this system of ’revolutionary politics’ as quite convenient, for at least it means that some poor mug will be motivated to do the union donkey-work. Unfortunately, though, it must be rejected because it gives socialism a bad name. One of the principles of socialist politics was summed up by Mao Tse-tung in the words “Be open and above-board and don’t intrigue and conspire”. Socialists must not only follow this principle, but also repudiate the claims of those who violate it to be socialists. They must put forward their policies openly to the working class and not use this underhand tactic of ’surprise motions’. Many people who have had experience of the SWP and their ilk in unions arc, quite understandably, under the impression that to move to the left of the Labour Party means, by definition, precisely ’intrigue and conspiracy’. Such are the harmful results that follow from the SWP’s policy of shunting the union membership down the line and converting the unions into lobbying-arenas for their own pet resolutions.

Such is the blind alley the SWP gets into through ignoring wider perspectives and succumbing to the attractions of the mindless ’doing-something’ ideology. If one grasps this point, then it will come as less of a surprise to read the statements of great working-class leaders on the role of theory, which accord it a status which is it first sight startling. The SWP, who appear to regard themselves as Marxists, might for instance like to ponder the fact that Engels, co-founder of Marxism, placed theoretical struggle on a par with political and economic struggle! Let the SWP put that in their pipe and smoke it. Lenin even asserted that struggle on the theoretical front can at certain times be “more important than the practical movement”. Such times (among which he included the example of Tsarist Russia at the turn of the century) are those when the revolutionary movement is disunited, when its leadership is split among various different organisations, and when mass activity is still largely confined to day-to-day economic struggles. At such times, the scattered elements of the revolutionary movement can only be concentrated into a united organisation by intensive struggle of ideas, in which the contending lines of the various would-be organisational centres are openly thrashed out. No amount of organisational methods (federations, other ’umbrella’ organisations and so on) are in themselves adequate for this task. Still less does it help to call for more activity; this is, to use Lenin’s phrase, “like wishing mourners at a funeral ’Many happy returns of the day’”. Is not the present stage of the revolution in Britain just such a time when principled unity among revolutionary groups and individuals is lagging behind mass activity? For there is, intermittently at least, widespread mass activity on the one hand, but it is still at a defensive and largely trade-unionist level: on the other hand, the potential elements of a leading core that could help sustain these struggles and raise them to a higher level are scattered and disunited. So when PF makes statements such as that the party “can only be built out of the day-to-day struggles of working people” (p.88). Is not this just what Lenin meant by “wishing mourners at a funeral ’Many happy returns of the day’”?

PF gives no indication that he is aware of the vital role that ideological struggle has played in socialism’s history. Of course he only sets himself the task of producing a brief, readable treatment of socialism suitable for the SWP’s mass work, so that he cannot be blamed for not detailing the actual contents of the great debates that have swept the socialist movement (Marx versus Proudhon; Lassalle, Bakunin. etc.; Lenin versus Kautsky. etc.: Stalin versus Trotsky, Bukharin. etc.: Mao Tse-tung versus Khruschev, etc.). But what it is reasonable to expect even a brief propaganda document to indicate is the importance of the struggle of ideas in general in the formation of revolutionary organisations which have formulated correct policies which have led working class struggles forward. For it is vital to indicate that unity of workers has never developed by glossing over differences and sweeping them under the carpet: on the contrary, it has only been through rigorous struggle against erroneous ideas and policies that correct ideas and policies have won out in workers’ movements.

The only passage in PF’s pamphlet which apparently refers to ideological struggle sounds more like a piece of routine redbaiting from the Daily Express than a statement by a would-be Marxist: “Many workers,” he says (p.9l). “accept the socialist argument” (whatever that is supposed to mean in a situation where there must be fifty-odd would-be ’socialist arguments’) “but they have a healthy contempt for ’fringe groups’. They find it difficult to identify with small groups of fanatics who talk a language all of their own and seem more interested in bickering with one another than in winning the argument for socialism among real working people. It is true that the ideas of revolutionary socialism do attract groups of people who preach like the Dissenting religious sects of the last century,” and so on. Two things need to be said about this. First of all, it is of course true that ideological struggle is pointless and ludicrous if it takes place in isolation from workers’ struggles; but in that case the activity is pretty harmless anyway, because obviously no one is going to take any notice of it. It is taken for granted that there is no point entering into big debates regarding ideas that do not have a hold, or a potential hold, over the working class. Secondly, however, and in today’s context more importantly, there is the other side of the coin, namely, that practical involvement in working class struggles gropes in the dark if it is not undertaken in the light of socialist ideology. If the ideas of socialism are incorrectly applied, then workers’ struggles will fail to learn the lessons taught by historical experience, and will be led up a blind alley. Only by subjecting the ongoing practical movement to constant debate in the light of working-class experience as summed up in Marxist theory, can one ensure that socialism comes over loud and clear and not through some mixing or distorting device. The disdain for theory that is shown by PF and the SWP in general means that what one hears from them is ’socialism’ with the wow-wow button switched on.

PF’s high-handed use of the phrase “the socialist argument” reflects the harmful attitude often expressed in SWP circles that socialist ideas are something transparently obvious that could be immediately agreed upon if only the fifty-odd ’dissenting sects’ stopped bickering and made friends (or – even better – dissolved themselves and joined the SWP). This attitude reinforces the bourgeois prejudice that socialism is a doctrine which is ’easy’ to the point of mindlessness; it also devalues the importance of the rich, varied and hard-won experience the working class has gained in a century or more of struggle. And it ignores the crucial role that ideological struggle has played in uniting revolutionary organisations and in keeping them on the correct path.

How unattractive socialist ideology will be to PF when it starts to take shape in Britain! It won’t be a grand reconciliation where we all forget our differences, but the diametric opposite – a movement where the struggle of ideas prevails. Doubtless, though, it will provide a fillip for his journalistic career, for his fulminations against those who “preach like the Dissenting religious sects” will be more and more in demand by the bourgeois media in their desperate attempts to prevent socialist debates gaining a foothold among the masses. And how PF must detest the works of Lenin! Is there a single sizable item in the forty-odd volumes of Lenin’s collected works that is not aimed at some opportunist deviation in the ranks of would-be ’socialists’? ’Dissenting sects’ are nothing on it! PF’s journalistic mind has seized on a characteristic winch presents a superficial similarity (meticulous criticism of opponents) and ignored the fundamental distinction (whether this meticulousness is over questions of religious dogma or over vital questions concerning the path workers’ struggles are to take). Far from propagating the ideal of ideological struggle, PF actually reinforces prejudices against it, forgetting that socialist ideas have only ever emerged from a furnace of contending ideas, precisely in the form of a system of demarcations with other competing lines in the labour movement.

To return to the example of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, it was only through subjecting all the competing lines in the Russian labour movement to rigorous analysis and criticism, and through defining their own policies in terms of the lines of demarcation between themselves and the various other groups, that an organisation was built that could move with the unity of purpose that was required to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the events of 1917. PF ignores this, and attributes the Bolshevik success to a vague and unexplained “mixture of careful organisation and brilliant political judgement” (p.88). In this way he makes the Bolshevik success sound other-worldly and unattainable by the likes of us ordinary folk. The natural response to what PF says would be, ’Well, I don’t feel I’ve got “brilliant political judgement”, and as it doesn’t seem that Lenin is going to return from the grave, it looks like I’ll have to settle for a lot less than Leninism.’ Marxist-Leninists, by contrast, try to give people the confidence actively to argue for what they believe, to induct them into the struggle of ideas that is so crucial to unifying our scattered revolutionary forces in Britain today, They discourage the liberal attitude of patching up all differences so as to remain friends, instead encouraging people to deepen their grasp of socialist ideas so as to develop their own independent ability to differentiate genuine from sham socialism; only on that basis can true, principled unity be built.

For example, many of the criticisms we are making of the SWP are in fact often made by SWP members, who are frequently to be heard grumbling behind the backs of their Central Committee. We would encourage such members to stand openly for what they believe in and put theory and practice together, either by leaving the SWP or, if they for the moment cannot bring themselves to do that, by insisting that its leadership responds to these points. Just sweeping disagreements under the carpet does not serve the interests of the working class: on the contrary. it reinforces the middle class attitude of liberalism, which holds that one should not let political ideas impinge too heavily on one’s activities, that one should just plod on with the work in hand and try to remain on good terms with one’s associates, not risking all the knotty problems that might ensue from bringing underlying differences out into the open. Liberalism is typical of the errors that arise among the middle class, which likes to sec itself as ’above’ or ’outside of the struggle of the two main contending classes in society. Middle-class individuals consequently find it tricky, distasteful, or indeed painful, to come down decisively on one side or another on points that are at issue; ’liberalism’ provides a rationale tor this, as it condones individual idiosyncrasies of a divisive character. In such a situation we encourage those involved with the SWP who have at the same time misgivings about it to take up the cudgels against incorrect ideas; we encourage them to draw on the wealth of ideas summed up in Marxism, which will help them in this struggle; we encourage them not to be cowed by the jibes of ’nit-picking’, ’Dissenting sectarians’, etc., that will inevitably be flung at them; we encourage them to bear in mind the words of Engels and of Lenin on the importance of theory and see the crucial part they could help to play by extending socialist debates to ever-wider audiences.


Trade union activity does not lead the working class to confront the question of State power. A revolution means seizure of state power by the working class. A trade union is not a revolutionary organisation. Trade unions have at many times played an important role in working class struggles, and a revolutionary movement must place among its aims the task of leading the working class in wresting the trade unions out of the grasp of their reformist leadership and so converting them into fighting organisations of the working class – organizations which have a role to play in economic defence and in upholding democratic rights. However, the danger of ’trade unionism’ being elevated into an ideology must be ruthlessly combatted. The ideology of ’trade unionism’ places union activity on a par with, or even above, the central political task of leading the working class to confront the question of state power. It thus places activity within the context of capitalism on a par with or even above activity directed at the overthrow of capitalism. It thus constitutes an ideological obstacle to the working class taking the revolutionary road. This is what Lenin meant when he said that “trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie”.

The SWP are completely blind to this revolutionary core of Marxism; they substitute for it, as we have seen, their ’revolutionary’ subservience to trade unionism. This has serious practical consequences for their methods of organisation: they blithely continue to train their cadres in all the arts of trade union intrigue, while putting out of mind the uncomfortable fact that such training is utterly irrelevant for a revolutionary situation. A revolution is an insurrection, in which one class overthrows another and establishes its own state power. It just isn’t done by resolutions. The first step in extricating the working class from the chains of reformism is thus clearly to explain the essential difference between revolutionary and trade union struggles, between politics and economics, and to insist that, of the two, revolutionary politics takes precedence in the activities of socialists.

Some history of the trade unions and of the Marxist debates that have taken place on the subject of them will help to make these points clear and show where the SWP has gone wrong. In the early days, the ’combinations’, precursors of the trade unions, which operated for most of the time in conditions of illegality, were exceedingly rebellious; at the same time, they were often linked to ’dying’ trades (handloom weaving, etc.) so that they tended to be swept aside by the developing industrial revolution. By the time of the Victorian heyday, new up-and-coming skilled trades (engineering, locomen, etc.) were at the head of a well-organised and legal trade union movement that was fast becoming an established institution of ’respectable’ society. This movement gained significant economic advantages for the working class: its character contrasted strongly with the primitive anti-capitalist rebelliousness of its precursors. By the end of the century, ’general’ workers (labourers, dockers, etc.) started to unionise, and the character of trade unionism changed again, and once more began to cause worries to the capitalist class. (And as we shall see, there have been more such fundamental changes since.) From the wealth of experience available to him, Marx analysed the role of trade unions it) workers’ struggles. He welcomed the advances they made in defending workers’ interests, while at the same time pointing out that there were times when they could be used as a safety-valve by the capitalist class; for a union struggle is by definition linked to economic demands (which capitalism can often afford to concede) and can thus divert workers’ struggles from political attacks on state power (which capitalism cannot allow if it is to survive). Marx therefore drew his well-known conclusion that the unions are a ’school’ for the working class in its struggle to get organised. Of course one does not stay at school all one’s life, and Marx’s main effort was aimed at calling for something more. He saw the need for an organisation that would not just mobilise one section of workers in one or a few trades, but that would mobilise all workers: something that would, indeed, unite not just workers, but all other oppressed classes as well (poor peasants, etc.); something that would not be restricted to economic demands hut that would extend its leadership to the overall political front; something that would not be a mere appendage to the unions’ defensive actions, but an organisation to lead workers onto the offensive with the strategic aim of seizing state power. The socialist parties that began to be built in various countries towards the end of the last century embodied to various degrees this concept which Marx and Engels had propagated. Marx long ago made his classic statement that “instead of the conservative motto, ’A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!’” the working class “ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, ’Abolition of the wages system!’” Marx and Engels were enthusiastic supporters of the new socialist parties, and the new socialist parties were enthusiastic supporters of Marxism. For these parties signalled the beginning of a move by the working class to break free front the reformist ideology of trade unionism.

Such was the legacy of thinking on the question of trade unions that Lenin inherited from Marx and Engels. In Tsarist Russia, unions were still largely illegal, and it was consequently more plausible to suggest (hat unions were in themselves ’revolutionary’ than it was in such countries as Britain. It was more understandable that an inexperienced novice might think the way ahead would be down the union road all the way. In such circumstances, Lenin was all the more insistent in refuting the ideology of ’trade unionism’, which argued that voicing economic demands was in itself sufficient to advance the workers politically. Socialists, he said, “must not ... in any way whatever create grounds for the belief.. . that we attach greater value to economic reforms, or that we regard them as being particularly important, etc.” He ridiculed those who called for “lending the economic struggle itself a political character” he pointed out that socialists are not needed for that task you can rely on the police to do that! The ’economists’, as he dubbed the Russian advocates of ’trade unionism’, also had a ’new’ theory: while conceding that economic demands were in themselves insufficient to advance the workers politically, they argued that trade union activity was “the most widely applicable means of drawing the masses into political activity”. Lenin called this theory “extremely harmful and reactionary”, as it attempted to give a new lease of life to the old error. Such were some of the sledgehammer blows with which Lenin annihilated the ideological influence of the PFs of his day, thus ensuring that the Bolsheviks decisively broke with the reformist ideology of ’trade unionism’ and concentrated on the key task of forging a revolutionary vanguard.

Lacking a grasp of the question of state power, PF consequently lacks a clear idea of the tasks socialism confronts, and thus ends up by skirting around the question of how trade union activity is supposed to grow, or be transformed, into socialist politics. He is blind to the first step in building a revolutionary party to wean the class-conscious vanguard of the working class away from trade union politics and win them over to the revolutionary politics of mobilising to seize state power. What amazing discovery is PF supposed to have made that Marx and Lenin failed to make, that he feels justified in inverting the relation between politics and economics and thus dispensing with the ’ABC they passed on to us? What has eluded the giant teachers of working class struggle that has been uncovered by the ’investigative’ yellow journalism of PF’s pamphlet? The answer is that this earth-shattering ’discovery’ is none other than ’he old mistake of believing that a socialist party “can only be built out of the day-to-day struggles of working people” (p.88).

So we have to just go on pulling PF back to square one, and point out that these “day-to-day struggles” are against the bitter hardships working people endure at the hands of capitalism. They are a constant, defensive struggle to mitigate capitalism’s worst effects. These struggles do not of themselves pose the revolutionary question – the question of state power: they arc consequently not revolutionary struggles. The organisations which embody these struggles (i.e. predominantly the trade unions) are not revolutionary organisations: they are not organs of struggle for state power. Unions are based on craft or other sectional interests (i.e. what differentiates, separates or divides workers) not on the basis of what is common to or unites, all workers: as PF himself says, “their challenges are made sporadically, section by section” (p.85). The compass for guiding all their disparate struggles is the overall political perspective. Implying, as PF does, that the “day-to-day struggles” of the working class provide all the ingredients for a revolutionary party is thus patently wrong; in doing this, PF excludes precisely those ingredients that socialists are called upon to introduce. PF provides a rationale for socialists to shirk their political responsibilities. It is patently obvious that “day-to-day struggles” may go up a blind alley, or even take a reactionary turn. For instance, what about reactionary trade union struggles against the recruitment or promotion of black workers? Have not such things occurred? Are they not trade union struggles? Trade union struggles of themselves provide no compass for the working class. There is no way they can provide the essential ingredients for revolutionary party-building, as PF’s obsolete view argues.

There is no easy way, no short cut, either by way of the trade unions or indeed by any other means, to educate the working class to confront the task of seizing state power. There is no way that union activity is going to ’generate’ the question of state power. The SWP plays a reactionary role in giving its acolytes the false hope that union work does represent such a short cut. It condones the neglect of political work and creates illusions about the scope and potential of economic work. What Lenin called the “ABC” goes unheeded by the SWP, who give economics precedence over politics. As we shall see in a future chapter, only the thinnest of lines separates the SWP’s ideology from the ideology of syndicalism, which argues that the working class can dispense with a party altogether and just rely on the unions to further the struggle, with the ’revolution’ eventually coming about as a result of a general strike. The thin separating line that prevents the SWP from coming out openly in its syndicalist colours seems to be merely that it would thereby cease to have a reason for its own existence – and it prefers to stay in business.

Trade union politics are, then, an institution of capitalist society. Far from being able to ’grow’ into socialist politics, their influence constantly leads in the reverse direction – towards an ideological degeneration into careerist manoeuvring. Though more susceptible to working-class pressure than the Labour Party, and though workers can control some branches (or even, in rare instances, whole unions) the upper reaches of the trade union hierarchy are continually being taken over by the bourgeoisie. Workers can organise with inexhaustible energy and initiative without their union hierarchy coming and ’telling them how to do it’. Trade union argey-bargey is precisely the kind of tiling that damps down and defuses mass struggles. It goes without saying that socialists should be concerned with the well-being of their fellow-workers and involved in their economic struggles. Our arguments are not to devalue such struggles, but on the contrary to sustain and raise them, and prevent them from being diverted onto the false road of ’trade union polities’.


The bogus solution which the SWP puts forward to the limitations of trade union activity is the creation of an all-union organisation, the Rank and File Movement. This is supposed to provide an answer to the sectional character of the trade unions. But in fact such an organisation can do no more than mitigate some of the most divisive effects of trade union politics; it can in no way bring about a metamorphosis of trade unionism into socialist politics. This is graphically illustrated by the experience of the Rank and File Movement, which is in effect just a lobby for the policies of SWP members in their attempts to achieve dominance in trade union organisations. “In the trade unions, its eyes are fixed exclusively on the offices which it has captured and hopes to capture, whether by election or by appointment and intrigue” (p.74). This is how PF describes the activities of the CPGB in the trade unions, and we agree with him. But what about the SWP? Doesn’t its attitude inevitably tend in this direction? Far from being a magic wand to convert trade union politics into socialist politics, the Rank and File Movement has turned out to be one more case of socialist politics being dragged down to the level of trade union manoeuvring.

As for the top-shots in today’s unions, PF does a cover-up job for them. He represents them as being, like Labour MPs, would-be socialists, distinct from the capitalist class. “The class with property,” he says (p.64), “fight an endless, furious class war and they use the Basnetts, the Jack Joneses, the Scanlons and the Labour governments to help them out.” In other words, the TUC leaders are not, in his view, an essential appendage of the capitalist class. He does not see that they are to be repudiated as decisively as any other capitalist grouping. His objections to them are merely on reformist issues: “Very few trade union officials are elected. Almost all of them are appointed by a small committee, itself often dominated by full-time officials.” “All full-time officials in Britain get paid more, often very much more than the people they represent,” and so on. Thus, although PF tends to be more severe in criticising trade union leaders than in criticising Labour MPs (presumably reflecting the fact that the SWP, which concentrates on union activities, tends to have more hostile encounters with the former), we nevertheless find that once again, hidden behind his obvious insight into the rottenness of the TUC bureaucracy and his criticism of it, there lies an inability actually to break with their reformist outlook. He sees the union leadership as something that could, like the Labour Party, be moved left by making some reforms. His altitude towards the ’Labour lieutenants of capital’ (as Lenin called reactionary union leaders) is one of vague dissatisfaction, not contempt and repudiation – an attitude also revealed in the SWP’s constant denunciations of opportunist trade union leaders ’selling out’ (how can someone “sell out” something he didn’t stand for in the first place?).

Ignoring the broader political perspective of leading an all-round assault on capitalist state power, the SWT end up by getting buried in the immediate detail of union organisation and actually making it harder to give leadership. For instance, this summer has of course seen the magnificent struggle put up by the Grunwick workers. Flabbergasted, the SWT promptly abdicated the responsibility or socialists to take a lead and instead just knelt in worship of actions the workers were taking anyway. The banale headlines in Socialist Worker (e.g. “Get to that picket line”) blandly tailed after the actions of these workers who were confronted so forcibly by the forces of the state. The SWP provided a model of how to waste an opportunity of raising the question of state power among the proletariat’s best fighters.

What lessons can the working class learn from the Grunwick struggle? First, it shows that workers united throw the capitalist class into disarray – even those, like women and black workers, who are most vulnerable to superexploitation and ’dirty tricks’ tactics. It can be taken for granted that this lesson comes over well to all class-conscious workers from the experience of Grunwick. Secondly, however, the task remains of using the opportunity to raise workers’ political consciousness of the class nature of the state, and the struggle of the Grunwick workers, which split the ruling class provides valuable teaching material on this question which the SWP is ideologically unequipped to make use of. The split caused in the bourgeois ranks was clear for all to see. On the one hand, the Tory backswoodsmen and all other devotees of ’private enterprise’ rallied to the side of the anti-union boss, Ward, whose standpoint is typical of the non-monopoly section of the bourgeoisie. On the other hand, the state monopoly capitalist machinery (notably the arbitration body ACAS) tried to get Ward to stand down. They realise that a cooperative trade union leadership, linked to the Labour Party, is too valuable an instrument of capitalist rule to be cast away lightly Even the Tory Party itself split over the issue of union-bashing raised so forcefully by the Grunwick events, with Prior representing state monopoly capitalism against the ’private enterprise’, or non-monopoly, section of the bourgeoisie, whose standpoint remains in general dominant among the Tories.

(One group of tycoons in the City actually tried to buy Grunwicks, so as to be able to recognise the union in an attempt to defuse this class struggle. One is reminded of the ’anonymous donor’ who suddenly cropped up during the dispute at the Con-Mech engineering firm in 1974. The AUEW had refused to accept the order by the ’Industrial Relations Court’ to call off the strike, and, when a ’fine’ was imposed, refused to pay it. The miraculous donation (rumoured to have been raised by some prominent businessmen) cleared the ’fine’ as well as the ’award’ ordered to be paid to the company and all related costs. It is clear that when it comes to union-bashing, the more far-sighted sections of the monopoly capitalist class want to prevent their more hot-headed colleagues from throwing out the baby with the bathwater.)

In such an advantageous situation, where militant struggle has caused disarray and a major split in the enemy camp, it is imperative to retain a sober understanding of the overall picture, and not to be carried away by a one-sided perspective. On the one hand, the desertion of much of the state machinery from Ward’s union-bashing must be fully taken advantage of, the Labour Party, ACAS, sections of the Tory Party all of these deserted Ward, rendering a morale-boosting victory possible. On the other hand, it should be remembered that state monopoly capitalism is a greater strategic danger than the Wards of this world. Labour Party strategy is to involve the unions with the state, through such bodies as ACAS, and thus introduce what the Mussolini fascists in Italy called a ’corporate state’ – a situation where the unions would ’police’ the working class for capitalism. A corporate state can be introduced with a lot of demagogic fanfare about greater power to the unions, workers’ control, hammering capitalist bogeymen like Ward, etc. The attitude of those who, like the SWP, merely tail after workers’ actions shouting ’hurrah’, fails to respond to the actual demands of the current situation, which are to bring an all-round understanding to the class-conscious vanguard of the working class. A victory over Ward is little use if it lets a more powerful enemy (the corporate state) in through the back door; it is only a lasting victory if in the course of the struggle some workers learn this overall perspective. The SWP’s line in the case of Grunwick has very clearly been one of urging more practical activity at a time when this grasp of theory is absent among the proletariat’s best fighters. By providing their empty-minded fanfares, therefore, and by going on about workers’ control in state capitalist industries, the SWP effectively helps the capitalist class to move towards a corporate state. Such are the dangers of plunging into ’revolutionary’ activity without grasping the class nature of the state.

(Incidentally, not only from this strategic point of view, but also on the level of tactical issues confronting the Grunwick struggle, the SWT harmed the struggle’s interests. They tried to frighten people into supporting the picket by building up the issue into a make-or-break struggle, in which defeat would be catastrophic, instead of showing it to be one of many important struggles of the working class. In the event of defeats, this sort of build-up can only demoralise those who lake notice of these sorts of statements, weaken working class self-confidence, and thus contribute to the defeat of future such struggles.)

For Marxist-Leninists, therefore, the present trade union leadership is part of the class enemy – a monopoly capitalist class trying to regroup in a new pose, as the “corporate state”. For PF, however, things are different. “The leaders of our great trade unions . . . ,” he says (p.62), “want to assist” the members whom they represent, and to “get more wages and benefits and social services for them out of the wealth which they produce.” In this, he says, they “find themselves in a very similar situation to that of Labour MPs.” The union leaders are also the object of a very ambivalent attitude on the part of PF. (In this respect also they “find themselves in a very similar situation to that of Labour MPs”!) On the one hand he refers to them as “doctors of capitalism” (p.64). “part of the profit system” (p.63) and so on. On the other hand he credits them with sincere motives, and centres his discussion of unions on the tragic psychodrama that takes place in their leaders’ minds. He thus forgets his own words: “The problem with all this is that the profit system and its supporters have no equivalent concern for the people they exploit” (p.64). By failing to keep in mind the class nature of the state, and to stress the involvements of the trade union bureaucracies with the capitalist state, PF has failed to expose their capitalist essence and has thus failed to take a clearcut class standpoint towards them. By thus helping to put the working class off its guard and helping to maintain the illusion that they, and indeed the Labour Party, could be moved left, PF once again assists the manoeuvres of state monopoly capitalism.

PF is similarly ideologically feeble on the services that have been rendered by the TUC to British imperialism in its colonies and dependent countries. Like the AFL/CIO of the United States, the British TUC has for decades faithfully served imperialism, helping to set up yellow unions around the world so as to implant opportunist ideology and thus hold back the colonial liberation movements. In countries such as Malaya, where Bntish imperialism faced liberation movements with communist leadership, the TUC and their local cronies took a solidly pro-imperialist stance. In 1973 a TUC delegation visited southern Africa and did such a good whitewash job for British imperialism that Vic Feather, its leader, was rewarded with a peerage on his return!


’How else do you do it then?’ is a question commonly flung at Marxist-Leninists by SWP members, who profess themselves dumbstruck at the suggestion that the working class will come to politics through any other means than trade union activity. This simple question speaks volumes about the SWP’s inability to relate its day-to-day practice to what is beyond its experience (war, insurrection, above all revolution). The crucial issues for socialism (seizure of state power, etc.) constitute precisely what is outside the “day-to-day struggles of working people”. The role of socialists is not just to append themselves to working class struggles that are already happening in any case, but to introduce into them a whole range of other issues, and thus help to sustain and raise the level of workers’ struggles. And how do you do this? By building a vanguard organisation: an organisation deeply rooted in workers’ struggles that can win over the most class-conscious and militant workers to the ideas of socialism. This may sound a bit disappointing to the SWP novice who thought there was nothing to socialism except immediate practical activity, but the fact must nevertheless be faced that no amount of working class struggle can overthrow capitalism unless it is led forward by a revolutionary leadership and confronts the question of state power. The SWP goes against this line, by suggesting that trade union activity revved up (through the Rank and File movement and so on) can generate a revolutionary party. This is the old error of giving economics precedence over politics, of ’doing something’ before facing up to the knotty problem of ’what is to be done’, of going against socialism’s ’ABC’.

The principles of Leninism were forged by the Bolsheviks. It is quite comical to see how PF feels obliged to pay lip-service to the Bolsheviks (“brilliant political judgement”, etc.) while at the same time going against their ’ABC’. In such circumstances, how does he make sense of the Bolshevik success in overthrowing Tsarism and building the first socialist state? The answer is that he makes no sense at all of it, and merely tries to make use of their prestige by suggesting that they shared his erroneous views. The key to their success was their ability to use every occasion of mass activity (whether this was a strike, a mutiny, or even a bourgeois election campaign) as an opportunity to educate ever-wider sections of the working class in the class nature of the state, and to lead them, step-by-step and through their own experience, to confront the task of seizing state power. The genius of PF, however, lies in the reverse direction, namely to reduce every form of mass activity down to immediate economic and trade union affairs. ”They fought every little battle eagerly.” says PF of the Bolsheviks, “as if it were the main one” (p.88). This is a very neat way of expressing the exact opposite of Bolshevik tactics; this is exactly the kind of trap they did not fall into. Their ability is summed up by inverting PF’s sentence: No little battle was regarded as won if it had not led more workers to organise to undertake the main one (i.e. seizure of state power). PF and the SWP continually take this central task off the agenda, and try to divert struggles into reformist channels. Lenin used to come down on the PFs of his day like a ton of bricks.

PF and the SWP have not found the philosophers’ stone that turns economics into politics. Their claim to have done so is merely the latest in a long series of such fraudulent claims. Marxism holds that for a revolution to come about, there must be a ’change of consciousness’ in the working class. In capitalist society bourgeois ideology prevails among all sections of the population. The principal expressions of bourgeois ideology among the working class arc reformism, trade unionism and so on. The revolutionary vanguard must bring about a ’change of consciousness’ in which the working class comes to discard this bourgeois consciousness, and develop revolutionary proletarian consciousness, so as to rise to grapple with the task of seizing state power. PF ignores this fundamental change, and, instead of it. elevates to prime importance tire change from apathy in union affairs to militancy in union affairs. He grovels before the militancy of the miners, nurses and lorry-drivers in the early 1970s: “The miners changed . . . The nurses changed . . . The lorry-drivers changed . . ..” he intones (p.83). (As though the miners hadn’t always had a fine fighting tradition in union affairs!) Now surely if the ’change’ which socialists aim to bring about (the change to revolutionary consciousness) had occurred among such key sections of the proletariat as the miners as long ago as 1972, then would British capitalism still be getting away with blue murder in I978? If these people ’changed’, then where are they now? The whole point is that the great workers” struggles of the early 1970s were not sustained, because, being still at a low ideological level (within the sphere of union politics, i.e. under ideological domination by the bourgeoisie) they did not lead to a fundamental change in the workers.

PF just trails along behind the masses, applauding and flattering. He shirks the responsibility of socialists to keep ahead, so as to continually point out the next step and so lead workers step-by-step and through their own experience in struggle towards their highest task – seizure of state power. Lenin used to call the standpoint of people like PF ’tailism’, because instead of leading the masses forward they attach themselves to their rear. Any mass movement, even sometimes a misguided one. generates great enthusiasm and spontaneous organisation. By encouraging the illusion that this in itself constitutes the crucial change in consciousness necessary for socialism, PF once again by-passes the need for proletarian revolution and tries to restrict the masses to reformist paths. Such is the end-result of confusing trade union militancy with socialist politics.

PF, then, would have us dissipate our attention in all directions, applauding whatever the masses happen to be doing. The philosophy behind the Marxist-Leninist principles of party-building, however, takes the opposite standpoint: Bourgeoisie and proletariat are locked in irreconcilable contradiction. There is only one proletariat, and its strength depends on unity of organisation and unity of action. Hence, there can only be one proletarian party. Only with a single leading core can policies be forged which unite the proletariat to strike like an iron fist where the enemy is weakest. This is of course totally alien to the fastidious, middle-class outlook of PF. As we have seen, he even projects a multi-party system, much the same as the present one, only more ’leftish’, into a hypothetical socialist future; he implies this is a sign of socialist strength, and fails to realise that the continued existence of various parties is, on the contrary, an indication that the divisive influences of bourgeois society are still at work. Why does it look to him like a good thing? Because he sees democracy in bourgeois terms of ’talking-shops’, etc., and fails to take the decisive step to proletarian democracy, which is, in Lenin’s phrase, “a thousand times more democratic than bourgeois democracy”. For instance, PF gives an amusing explanation of’ the increasing prestige of the Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution (p.69) in terms of . . . bourgeois parliamentarism! He clearly implies that the continued existence of non-Bolshevik parties was the greatest proof of proletarian democracy’s vitality. And how did these parties lose out? “Not because of repression,” he says, “but because the Bolsheviks were winning the argument.” In this way, PF succumbs to the ideology of bourgeois democracy. He ignores the crucial question, Which class was served by the various parties? Instead he elevates an abstract ability in “winning the argument”. This is just the kind of attitude that helps to make the SWP dominated by the middle class, for slick argumentation and other characteristics of the intellectual stratum of society are more prized than actual dedication to the workers’ cause. Thus, the SWP’s leading spokesmen are precisely those who, like PF, have all the debating skill and gift of the gab, but who are by origin and outlook firmly rooted in the middle class. By contrast, the Bolshevik Party rallied to itself as itss leading core tried and tested workers’ leaders, who may not have started by being particularly articulate at all, but who learnt such things through struggle.

Bourgeois political parties claim to be based on matters of principle. In fact, it is easy to see that what really makes them hang together is organisational manoeuvrings and intrigue, factionalism, careerism, gimmickry, etc. This reflects the overall degeneracy of the bourgeois class, and the self-seeking, opportunist nature of all its alliances. Marxist-Leninists, by contrast, represent the proletariat, a class that can unite in a principled and selfless way. The principle on which Marxist-Leninist parties are organised is termed ’democratic centralism*. This principle resolves the contradiction between the need for disciplined unity of the proletariat in its struggle and the need for the fullest freedom of play for all individual abilities and potentialities. ’Democratic centralism* is never mentioned by PF. His remarks on the Labour Party show that what he counterposes as an alternative to its unprincipled unity is ultra-democracy. The standpoint of ultra-democracy is anarchist and individualist, and is rooted in petty-bourgeois outlook. It holds that anyone can adopt any policy they please without having to take into account the overall need of uniting the working class as a whole. Although ultra-democracy sounds very nice and free-and-easy, its effect in practice is that as there is no recognised organisational centre, there inevitably develops an unrecognised centre, a clique, basing its influence on de facto predominance. Thus, far from being ’freer’ than democratic centralism, it is in fact a fertile soil for cliquishness, intrigue and underhand manoeuvring of the membership. The ’leadership’ that results is not leadership in the sense that its policies are those that have won out in ideological struggle among the membership, but only in the sense that it is organisationally dominant (have been members longest, are ’in’ with the right set, etc.). The absence of democratic centralism in the SWP is thus one more factor resulting in the predominance of middle-class clever-guys in leading positions, a fact which shows how hollow are their claims to be the true heirs of the Bolsheviks. (The ultra-democracy that exists in the SWP does not, of course, prevent it from sometimes swerving into ultra-centralism as well – many SWP members can testify that when they were involved in one struggle or another, someone came from the Central Committee to ’give them the line’.)

As one illustration of how the SWP ignores the principle of democratic centralism let us take the question of their membership policy. The question of rules for party membership was the central issue in one of the formative debates of Marxism-Leninism, namely, the debate which led to the Bolshevik-Menshevik split in 1903. In this debate, Lenin held that only those who were active in a party organisation should be eligible for party membership. He refuted the arguments of the Mensheviks (supported by Trotsky) who wanted the party to open wide its doors to anyone who wanted to join. He showed how such a policy would destroy the party’s leading role, and reduce it to an amorphous association of like-minded individuals, who could enroll themselves at will. Such a state of affairs, as we have seen, can only end by giving the party a bourgeois character. For striking proof of how far the SWP has gone down this road, one has only to turn to the end of PF’s pamphlet. Here one will find that, as in the case of children’s comics, there is a tear-out form which is effectively a membership application form (the caption reads, “Will you help us grow”, and the table of contents says. “Where and how do you join?”, p.7). The natural result of trying to persuade as many people as possible to ’join’ is of course that the small number of worker members is swamped by a sea of students and other members from the middle strata of society. Marxist-Leninist organisations, by contrast, have restrictive membership policies that discriminate in favour of the working class, and at the present stage in this country do not in general admit anyone who is not engaged in a working class occupation (or at any rate anyone who does not have a firm working class orientation and serve the working class in their work). Elevating membership statistics into a fetish, the way the SWP does, is one more error that increases the dominance of the middle class in the organisation. The IS once made the boast that when they had 5,000 members, that would make them a party. (If they succeeded in scraping this number together, it was only by accepting a lot of inactive ’paper’ members the way the CPGB does.) Judged by Leninist principles of party organisation, that statement makes the SWP one of the biggest frauds that ever walked on 10.000 legs.

“The central argument for a strong socialist party is founded on the strength and coordination of capitalism . . .. the ’state machine’, the centralised power of the capitalist corporations, whose armies and newspapers and law courts are carefully marshalled in their class interest ... If the workers are to break that machine, they too need centralised and disciplined organisation . . .” Where are these words, with their weighty and generally correct message, taken from? From quite a good Marxist document perhaps? No, from PF’s pamphlet (pp. 90-91). Now what on earth accounts for PF’s inclusion of some reasonable Marxism in his book? What strange brainstorm has he had that, after 90 pages in which Marxist principles are either ignored or undermined, he suddenly lurches into some reasonable Marxist thinking? The answer is that this is no coincidence: the explanation for these remarks is precisely that they begin on page 90, i.e. right at the end of the pamphlet when we are supposedly being finally worked up into a frenzy so that we will send in the tear-out form. PF has by this stage become a whirling dervish, and is using any argument that comes to hand if he reckons it might persuade someone to join the SWP, even if, as is this case, that argument should in itself be quite a good one that contradicts the whole import of his pamphlet so far (for we know just how well he actually grasps the class nature of the state, the question of part) discipline, etc.!). Me is not introducing these remarks for serious consideration, but merely because they happen to sound scarifying, and. as anyone with experience of SWP recruitment tactics will confirm, anything will be tried to scare, wheedle or chivvy people to ’join’.

Once again, then, PF’s failure to keep the overall perspective of seizure of state power constantly uppermost in his mind has vitiated his approach to an area of vital concern to the working class - this time, the key question of party-building. The errors made by the SWP in this respect are such an exact replay of some of the errors criticised by Lenin in his work What is to be done? that at this point the temptation to quote some Marxist-Leninist theory proves too much for us to resist, and we will make an exception to our general practice which has been, as promised in our Preface, to avoid such quotations. So if any SWP member has an actual allergy to theory, he had better skip the next few paragraphs.

In What is to be done?, written in 1902, Lenin waged a polemic against an erroneous tendency in the Russian labour movement which he termed ’economism’, and which he showed to have caused great harm to the workers’ cause. The fundamental error of the ’economists’ was to leave the workers to carry on the economic (i.e. trade unionist) struggle while the political struggle was handled by the Marxist intelligentsia, without integrating the two tasks. Economic demands were regarded by ’economism’ as “the most widely applicable means of drawing the masses into political struggle”, a standpoint which Lenin described as “extremely harmful and reactionary”. Lenin showed how this standpoint lagged behind that of the advanced workers, who were themselves demanding that the revolutionary leadership should leave them to take care of trade union tasks themselves, and devote their attention to developing the movement in an all-round way.

Lenin showed how the ’economists’ were “revising” proletarian dictatorship and class struggle out of socialism, as were their revisionist counterparts in the German and other labour movements of the time. They scorned what they called “ideologists’ and displayed a high-handed disdain for revolutionary theory. Lenin, on the other hand, insisted that the revolutionary ideas of Marxism be protected from any attempt to “revise” them into a relatively harmless reformism. He demanded “vigilant” and “ruthless” theoretical struggle, and warned that “without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement”. Far from being stung by the jibes of the ’economists’ he turned the tables on them and ridiculed them for putting practice (what they called “palpable results”) above theory in all circumstances: as we have seen, he said that to adopt such a standpoint “in a period of theoretical chaos is like wishing mourners at a funeral ’many happy returns of the day’.” He drew attention to the high status accorded to theoretical struggle by Engels, who, as we saw, placed it on a par with the political and economic struggles. Lenin held that in a period of theoretical confusion, theoretical struggle could be “more important than the practical movement”.

“Economism” raised the slogan of “freedom of criticism” of socialist theory, accusing Lenin and others of holding to “obsolete dogmatic” Marxism. Lenin demonstrated that this slogan originated not from the proletariat but from an “academic” stratum which had entered the socialist movement and which sought to dilute Marxism with its own bourgeois outlook. (He gave this as an example of how the wider spread of Marxist ideas can actually lead to a lowering of the movement’s theoretical level.) His answer to this threat to the revolutionary essence of Marxism was to counter this form of liberalism by calling for intensified ideological struggle: “before we can unite, and in order that we may unite, we must first draw turn and definite lines of demarcation”. This principle was later expressed by Mao Tse-tung in the words “We stand for active ideological struggle as the weapon for ensuring unity in our ranks.” Ideological struggle is not carried out for its own sake, but for unity in order to do revolutionary work more effectively.

Lenin showed how the “economists” were reducing political work down to the level of economic work. He was ruthless in refuting this ideology of trade unionism which argued that voicing economic demands was in itself sufficient to advance the workers politically; he showed how, in fact, this bound the working class with the trammels of reformism, and thus meant its “ideological enslavement ... by the bourgeoisie” ’Trade unionism’ meant shirking the responsibility to introduce the broader perspective of revolutionary consciousness; it meant worshipping the spontaneous actions of the workers (i.e. what they would have done themselves anyway) – what Lenin called “slavish cringing before spontaneity”, “gazing with awe upon the “posteriors of the . . . proletariat”, “tailism”, etc. Lenin showed that the only way to break out of this strait-jacket of trade unionism was to propagate an all-round class consciousness and political knowledge, taking account not only of the proletariat but of all the other classes and social strata in their inter-relationship with each other and with the state. Only thus could the economic struggles of the working class be elevated to the point of training the working class in revolutionary activity for the overthrow of the capitalist state.

Lenin never took a patronising attitude to the workers for whom he wrote, he never tried to manoeuvre, scare or bamboozle them into support for the Bolsheviks. On the contrary, he breathed into the bleak atmosphere of Tsarist oppression and terror a new note of confidence and determination that played a crucial role in countering the confusion and doubts that prevailed in the Russian labour movement.

It has been difficult for us to pick out the principal arguments in What is to be done? that are relevant to the errors of the SWP today, because Lenin’s whole book fits them so neatly. Fit together the various elements of Lenin’s refutation of the ’economists’ and you will find yourself with an Identikit picture of the SWP of today We hope we may have shown how reading a Marxist classic such as What is to be done? if it is done in the context of what we are faced with in real life today, can provide us with the touchstone we need to distinguish genuine from sham socialism. We believe that anyone who considers our arguments carefully and preferably also goes on to check them against What is to be done? itself, will begin to develop their own independent ability to use Marxist-Leninist theory in this way, and no one who has developed this ability to even the slightest degree can ever possibly be taken in again by such an obvious sham as the SWP.