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Paul Thompson & Guy Lewis

The Revolution Unfinished?

5. Modern Trotskyism

b) (iii) Unification of the Class

Composition of the class, autonomous organisation and party formation

The unification of the working class, the growth of the revolutionary party and ultimately the seizure of power are all Inseparable problems. Yet the revolutionary movement has tended to greatly oversimplify the process, particularly Trotskyism. An oft-repeated refrain is that – “The revolutionary party must make all progressive demands and movements of all oppressed social layers its own.” This is used to justify the necessity for a general political organisation in a situation where many militants see their activity in autonomous movements as opposed to membership of revolutionary organisations. The problem is that while the statement is true in a long-term sense, the formal existence of a general party or organisation in no way guarantees its capacity to be that factor of unity. This applies even where such an organisation brings together militants from every sector inside its own for formation. Instead it must seek to prove in practice that it understands the particular dynamic of each sector of the class (women, blacks etc.) It must understand their respective independent needs, while it attempts to find points of unification as the struggle develops. At the moment the tendency is to submerge particular needs in such “general” organisations and strategies, subordinating them to the models of organisation and politics of the stronger and more traditional sectors.

We have already seen that in the general sense and particular in the third world, Trotskyism tends to underestimate non-traditional sectors like the peasantry in the struggle for socialism. Similar errors are made in the advanced capitalist countries.

The working class is regarded as synonymous with industrial workers by many Trotskyists. They fail to recognise the real divisions on the basis of sex, race or other factors. The problem of unification of the working class is seen in terms of overcoming ideological divisions. In all the calls for blacks and whites, or men and women to “unite and fight” it is seldom recognised that there are solid material reasons for division (differences in access to wages, position in the job hierarchy etc.). Out of these arise substantial differences in power which cannot be eliminated by calls for unity. They require autonomous organisation by each specifically oppressed sector.

The strength of the autonomous movements, who often come into being ignored or opposed by the traditional left, has created a situation where all but the most backward Trotskyist groups now formally recognise the need for such organisation. Nevertheless, such support is still distorted by the fact that they are seen as marginal sectors. The schema is still the traditional one where peripheral sectors or the “middle class” are won over by the vanguard organisation to the industrial working class and its programme. Take, for instance, this statement, part of the founding document from the fusion conference of IMG/Spartacus League in 1972:

In periods before 1945 the social unrest in these “peripheral” groups would have found its natural leadership in the political struggles of the working class. However, due to the relative passivity of the working class, this has not occurred. Although the working class is the only class which is capable of resolving the contradictions of capitalism which affect these other groups, nevertheless it does not automatically gain the leadership of all the oppressed sectors of society. It only gains this leadership when it can show in practice that only the proletariat has the physical power, social cohesion, political leadership etc. to destroy the particular oppressions suffered by these other groups ... A clear example is the increasing struggle of women. These struggles are of extreme importance in that they continue by their efforts to disintegrate the hold of bourgeois ideology over society, enable other sections of these movements to be won directly to Marxism, and at least neutralise large sections of the petty bourgeoisie. It therefore is an elementary duty of revolutionaries to continue to support and attempt to lead such struggles by winning them to socialist positions. (Red Mole Special Supplement, p.2)

In this quote we can see why, despite formal recognition and “principled” positions on autonomy, activists in the various movements are suspicious of and hostile to the revolutionary left and vanguard organisation. The passage only recognises a one-way process of adaptation, that is, the integration of other groups into an already formed politics and way of organising. There is no concept of learning from their rich experience, still less of so-called peripheral movements redefining socialism to account of their needs. It is presented that it is still the industrial working class that “solves the oppression” of “other groups” because it has the muscle. The contradictions of sexual and racial oppression are reduced to their manifestations under capitalism and the ending of that system presumed to be the guarantee of the withering away of oppression.

In fact the IMG and the mainstream 4th International are probably the best current of Trotskyism on this question. At least their post-war concept of from periphery to centre enabled them to locate and respond to non-traditional sectors and struggles. But “the periphery to centre” concept (see Section 4) does not solve the question. It still puts forward a narrow definition of the working class in which a move to the centre involves an underlying assumption that there is a rigid hierarchy of importance. The concept helps to explain why so many activists in autonomous movements experience interventions by Trotskyist groups as “raiding parties” where they are taught where “the real struggle” is.

IS/SWP are possibly the worst culprits, using united fronts and autonomous movements to cynically recruit, when they feel these forums have power and numbers. Their interventions in the National Abortion Campaign are a case in point, as is their work around racism. Excellent propaganda work was distorted by failing to recognise the legitimacy of autonomous black organisation. They consequently lost most of their key black cadre who left in disgust. Even in their work on unemployment, where they have discovered that it is actually the unemployed who are attracted to “right to work” organisation, rigid views of power and class are maintained. As in other instances “marginal” groups are used as entrances to the “real” working class. One of the “Rank and File” leaders, Carol Douras, opened a Right to Work Conference with the remark that:- "Unemployed workers lose their rights and their power.

Those of you with jobs have the power. You have to take up the fight. (IS Journal 94)

This also helps to explain the fetish of trade union delegation as the basis of campaigns, a theme we will return to in the next section. The narrow definition of power and class reflects yet again that much political theory was formed and has not been much altered since the early part of the century. A period when Leninist formulations were adequate as political strategy and when the industrial component of the working class was overwhelmingly dominant.

This is not the case today. The post-war changes in the structure of capitalism have created a very different composition of the working class. This includes:

The role of immigrant labour, creating important roles for the black and similar sections of the class.

The proletarianisation of sectors of white collar work and professional workers, reflecting itself in the changing class character of higher education and students.

The expansion of the state sector, creating a big layer of public service workers including many women.

The bringing closer to production of many aspects of social life, connected to the family and community; increasing the role and importance of housewives.

Changes in the actual composition of the industrial working class, with a movement from skilled to massified work.

The result is two-fold. Firstly, political strategy, including party formation and building towards taking power, must reflect the broadening of the working class. As Avanguardia Operaio said when criticising the traditional narrowness of their fraternal organisation, IS:

The grouping of social forces that can carry out this autonomous organisation and task of a general national movement towards socialism is wider and qualitatively different from the straightforward working class of the industrial workers. (IS Journal 84, p.16)

Without this broadening a narrow workerism and economism will result, tending to tail after the lowest common denominator of struggles. We also have to recognise that there is a greater variability of struggles and demands that cannot be unflexibly reduced to “central-strategical” projects, like a general strike to bring down the government (See The Situation in Britain and the Tasks of the IMGInternational, Vol.2, No.2)

Secondly, the question of class alliances is no longer characterised by a simple division into “centre” and “periphery”. While the industrial working class remains a key, probably the key sector, because of its economic location, the primary question is that of politically unifying the broader working class. This means recognising the particular nature of the struggles of each sector and its need for autonomy as the spring board for unification. It means seeing that power is also political and social, reflecting the capacity to struggle, as well as narrowly economic. These things do not justify separatism, merely a recognition that the process of unification is more uneven than currently recognised in the Trotskyist schema.

Social democracy

Given that the goal of working class unification is the seizure of power, we have to give consideration to the role of social democracy. Social democracy and how to combat it has always been one of the key differences between Trotskyism and other revolutionary tendencies. In the last couple of years we’ve seen a strong move by Trotskyist organisations towards an entrist strategy. This has involved their organisations joining Trotskyist groups aready in the Labour Party (Militant, Chartists etc.): the difference being that for IMG, ICL etc it is part of a dual strategy of having one foot in the Labour Party and one in extra-parliamentary struggles. We are totally opposed to entrism and regret this orientation by substantial parts of the revolutionary left. We think it derives from an analysis of reformism and social democracy that has static and institutionalised elements.

Entrism and the traditional Trotskyist orientation are based on the belief that the Labour Party is the mass party of the working class and that revolutionaries therefore have to be in or around it to break its hold. -his derives from two interrelated positions:

  1. That the Labour Party was a party built by the unions to defend their interests. It remains a party that the unions, which millions of workers belong to, have direct links with.
  2. Because the majority of the working class votes Labour, it shows that they are loyal to it and believe in its policies and in parliamentarianism etc. These “illusions” show that workers are loyal because the Labour Party represents the general political consciousness of the masses, that is reformism.

For these reasons, Trotskyist groups argue that Lenin’s advice holds - to enter or work around the Labour Party. They tend to see any attempt to challenge such a strategy as simply an echo of old debates of Leninist versus ultra-leftist.

The discussion that echoed in radical circles around the 1970 election - and which is still with us today - was merely a belated repetition of that which had shaken the young Communist Party, or earlier still, the socialist movement around Hyndeman in the 1900s. (The Labour Party - Which Way? - League for Socialist Action, p.3)

The same pamphlet emphasises historical continuity to explain that the working class has always been ideologically subordinate and therefore loyal to the Labour Party. Hence:

Such a loyalty was not only able to overcome the disillusion of the Wilson experience but of every successive Labour government prior to that one. (p.4)

Such an historically static analysis is institutionalised in that it makes permanent the elements involved; the nature of the Labour Party, the consciousness of the working class, what reformism is and so on. In our view the hold of reformism over the working class has to be looked at in a more dynamic and historical way. We acknowledge, of course, the grip of certain ideas like the neutrality of the state and the law, action through official channels/parliamentarianism and others. Yet this grip is neither static nor unchanging in its nature. At high points in class struggle like the General Strike, but also in many daily situations, either the ideas or the institutions are seen to crumble. Yet the situation remains in flux because the power of the reformist organisations and the weight of tradition always tends to limit the situation unless a clear alternative is built.

As we have said previously, such obstacles cannot be overcome solely through the battle of ideas. Reformism is not an external stranglehold on struggle linked to permanently limited consciousness, it is a living relationship that is inside the experience of the-working class. It is this failure that leads Trotskyism to fail to grasp the changing historical relationships and bases of reformism and the class struggle. If we examine how reformism has changed since the war, it is obvious that the Labour Party and the trade union machines have been integrated into the running of the system.

The Labour Party was the overseer of the important post-1945 reforms aimed at extending the system and integrating class struggle. These, however, represented the historical turning point of reformism. After that, as a general strategy, it could go no further. Hence the growth and strength of revisionism’ inside social democracy. This does not lead to an ultra-left position which sees all reforms as impossible or reactionary. Although they have not had a real reforming strategy, their counter-strategy, that of competing solely as better mangers of capitalism permits particular reforms and directions that can still integrate the working class and its struggles.

The most important product is that the new position of Labour and union leaders as co-managers of the system necessarily alters the basis of reformism inside the working class. The process of integration has been clearly visible and felt materially by the working class which has had to rely more on its own struggles. Even during the 1950s, when a period of economic expansion gave little space for struggles, a new “home-made” reformism largely replaced working through official union channels. This new reformism was less rooted in adherence to reformist institutions or the traditional ideological basis of illusions in parliament and the Labour Party. It was more interior to everyday struggle and therefore more volatile and changeable. It was particularly rooted in the type of struggle characteristic of the period: based on sectionalism and delegation.

Sectionalism is the belief and mode of struggle that depends on seeing each sector of the working class having separate interests, for instance in “special case” wage claims. Trotskyism makes the mistake of seeing the struggle of one sector itself as reformist: revolutionary struggles being connected only to overtly “political” objects, connected to state power and united working class action. But the struggles of one sector can open up the way for the rest of the class, by passing generalisable demands, e.g. for across the board increases. Most struggles in themselves can be either revolutionary or reformist depending on the content, context and form. For instance, women fighting on an estate for nurseries is not reformist if it increases the anti-capitalist consciousness, organisation and unity of the women involved. Sectionalism in the first sense has been dominant in post-war class struggle and has held back opposition to wage controls, cuts and many other things. It extended its hold precisely because the working class had to rely on its own struggles in a period when sectional struggles could win. Delegating the battle to representatives also consolidated itself as part of the same process and has become a real handicap when the unions and shop stewards increasingly abdicate from the fight-back. In fact, we have to see the present retreat as a product of the class’s struggles and consciousness being trapped inside those of the period of expansion. This “interior” reformism ensures that social democracy can remain powerful even when the actual material possibility of reforms has diminished. This hold is consolidated by its power relative to the powerlessness of the working class movement trapped inside inadequate ways of fighting and thinking.

These changes tend to be underestimated by Trotskyism:

Workers vote Labour in their millions, not because of this or that leader or policy, nor because Labour is the only electoral alternative to the Tories, but because they see Labour in class terms as their party. (What We Stand For - IS Trotskyist Opposition, 1973, p.48)

The relationship between the working class and reformism is still seen in traditional terms. Entrism is defended by reference to who built the Labour Party and what it meant in the period of its growth. We recognise that what the Labour Party represented in the minds of the masses was a positive thing. Reformism had not been seen in experience of parliamentary government. But things are different now. There can .be no doubt that the working class struggle and the Labour Party have grown more distinct in most areas in political and organisational terms. Pointing to voting figures that continue despite the betrayals is a misleading exercise. It confuses two separate political processes - parliamentary and extra-parliamentary struggle. In a bourgeois democracy, where “politics” is presented in parliamentary terms and where such institutions continue to have a relationship to ongoing social forces, then of course working class people will vote, usually for the party which is closest to them. But few working class people today vote Labour because they have illusions that it will advance socialism or even their daily interests. They do so because the basic class instinct makes them choose the lesser evil. An unconditional “vote Labour” position can actually reinforce residual illusions. Large numbers of Labour voters have and will abstain or vote for a socialist alternative.

Voting Labour is a tactical question dependent on the particular balance of forces. Meanwhile, we must build a political and organisational alternative to Labour as a reference for vanguard sectors.

As for the equation of membership of the unions with identification with Labour, this leads to the illusion that when entering into debate with reformist leaders, you are addressing the whole of the working class. Many industrial workers cannot be reached within the union structures or even the “Labour Movement”. This applies even more to non-industrial sectors like housewives. Concentration on the Labour Movement, an inevitable aspect of the entrist orientation, so often leads to “resolutionary socialism” divorced from the mass of the working class.

The growth of entrism has happened in the wake of working class retreat. It is not even a genuine combination of activity. In general it tends to push struggles to go inside the Labour Party and Movement, thus running the risk of reducing their energy and effectiveness gained from having a mass orientation, usually by-passing the traditional institutions and channels. This underestimates the potential of independent working class action. IMG says:

For the majority of the most militant workers who are already and will be engaged in struggles, what is posed as yet is not the question of whether they should or should not politically break with the Labour Party, but what policy, programmes and leadership shall be fought for inside the Labour Party and Labour Movement. (4th International Theses on Britain)

This institutionalised concept of the working class is extended even more dangerous[ly] by an IMG split-off, the LSA:

It means pioneering the struggles outside the party - those of the womens liberation movement, the black community or the unions -inside the party and ensuring it is not headed off by “right” or “left” wings. (Which Way for Labour?, p.26)

Such an orientation not only diverts struggles but also mystifies the real potential for change and usefulness inside the Labour institutions. The history of the working class movement is littered with paper bodies, based on so-called delegates, which actually substitute building organisations based on activists prepared to fight. None of this means we are against work in the Labour Movement or “delegated bodies”. On the contrary, we are for a genuine combination of mass work and more “institutional” activity. But we want to clearly prioritise building mass independent working class activity. The danger of entrism is that whatever the intentions it prioritises the opposite. This is also true of our attitude to events inside the Labour Party. While we are not entrists we would support, tactically, activities of the left inside it, if it helped the mass movement outside. This helps an orientation to the comrades who work in the Labour Party for essentially local reasons. Even here, however, we should recognise that entrism is often seen as conspiratorial. It can involve a lot of distant manoeuvring that can put power in the hands of “left-wingers” who are as frightened of the power of working class people as the people they replaced. In the end we think that by pushing people back towards an identification with Labour, the entrist-exposure strategy increases the dependence of the working class on those politics which constitute the power of Labour over the class. In today’s conditions it is increasingly power and not simply ideology that constitute the hold of reformism. It is a difficult task to build an alternative working class and popular power. Entrism is safer, but the road in the end will be longer because of it.

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Last updated on 13.11.2002