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Workers Socialist Review

Magazine of the Workers Socialist League
Affiliated to the Trotskyist International Liaison Committee

Written: 1983.
First Published: May 1983.
Source: Published by the Workers Socialist League.
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Workers Socialist Review
No. 3, April / May 1983

An Open Letter to SWP supporters

We must organise the rank and file resistance!

The Socialist Workers’ Party has argued that the job of socialists is to rebuild at grass roots level: any more ambitious schemes are delusions. Chris Reynolds looks at the argument.

In an article in the May-June 1982 Socialist Review, and in articles in Socialist Worker, the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) leadership has announced that it has abandoned the project of building rank and file movements. The industrial downturn and the decay of working class organisation is so bad, they say, that this project is impossible. The task of the day is to rebuild working class solidarity brick by brick, starting off on the smallest scale and with the most modest objectives.

For many SWP members and others who have worked hard with them to build rank and file groups, this is a kick in the teeth.

And we believe that it is wrong. The need for organising the rank and file still exists – and that successful work can be done is shown by groups like Health Workers for the Full Claim, the Mobilising Committee for the Defence of Trade Union Rights (against the Tebbit law) and the Leyland Action Committee, initiated or led by the revolutionary left, as well as by work in Broad Lefts in unions like COHSE, the NUR, the CPSA, and the TGWU.

HWFC produced six issues of a bulletin during the NHS dispute. Each had a bigger print run than the previous one. It organised local groups of militants in several areas (some producing their own local HWFC bulletins), and held regular national meetings’ to coordinate plans and compare experiences.

It organised lobbies of the TUC Health Services Committee. At the NUPE conference, it played a part in getting the resolution for all-out action, and held the biggest fringe meeting ever.

The MCDTUR was launched from a trade union democracy conference on April 3 1982 jointly sponsored by Socialist Organiser and London Labour Briefing. It has produced thousands of leaflets and factsheets on the Tebbit law, most of which have been taken for distribution by trades councils, trade union branches, and shop stewards’ committees.

It has mobilised for all the anti-Tebbit demonstrations. For June 10 last year it produced a mass-circulation leaflet urging other workers to come out, alongside the dockers, and helped persuade workers at Cammell Lairds, Birkenhead to do just that. It has committed dozens of Labour councillors to defying the Tebbit law.

A militant minority

The Leyland Action Committee has a longer history. Last year, for example, it was active in the Leyland Vehicles strike in Lancashire, producing regular bulletins. LAC supporters won a commitment from the BL combine committee to call an all-Leyland stewards’ conference if only the LV stewards gave the word. Year after year the LAC has played a major part in the fight around the pay review and against speed-up in BL.

The examples could be continued. We have no illusions about these groups. They do not represent the whole rank and file, but only a militant minority. They are not mass organisations. They are limited. But they do an essential job.

The pressure of the slump, the experience of past defeats, and the barrage from the media, place difficulties enough in the way of militant working class action. Yet these are not the decisive difficulties.

The solidarity action for the health workers: the action of the health workers themselves; the water workers’ strike; the DHSS action over jobs in Oxford and Birmingham; the miners’ action spreading from South Wales; the rank and file response by ASLEF and NUR members in their disputes; and many other struggles, show that a will to fight exists. The trade union movement, for all its recent setbacks, has immense power. All evidence shows that a leadership willing to fight to win will get a response.

But, decisively, the existing leadership does not want to fight.

As with the TUC’s sabotage of ASLEF, it openly opposes struggle – or, in other cases, it conducts a struggle in such a half-hearted way that the members can feel-no confidence that the action they are called to is not a mere token with no serious intention of winning.

In boom times, the option of unofficial action disregarding the union leadership was often feasible. But in the slump that sort of short, sharp, easily victorious, local action is rarely possible. The official leadership becomes a decisive obstacle.

True, the leadership does not drop from the sky. The conservative, treacherous nature of the leadership reflects apathy, backwardness, and lack of confidence in the rank and file. But it is not just ‘the leadership we deserve’.

Again and again people are elected to trade union positions as militants, and become conservatives. For union bureaucrats live in a different world from the rank and file. Their conditions and daily activity tie them more closely to the state and the employers than to the membership.

And once a conservative leadership gets hold of a union, it is difficult to shift. By sabotaging struggles it can be an active force for demoralising the rank and file and thus recreating its own base. It is by definition the best-organised faction in the union. So long as the militant rank and file activists remain scattered in different workplaces and branches, without coordination and without a common understanding of the nature and techniques of the official leadership in heading off rank and file struggles, the conservative leadership will always have the upper hand.

That is why the rank and file militants must organise – both as broadly as possible in periods of mass struggle, and also (necessarily on a more limited scale) permanently. A permanent organisation is necessary – otherwise there is no permanent challenge to the leadership.

A national link-up

Groups like the SWP (or the WSL) do some of this work themselves, of course. But something broader is also needed in the unions.

In a workplace we may find one in a hundred (at present) who will accept the whole world-view of socialist revolution, and be willing to devote her or his life to working for it. That’s important – but not enough if we are going to be more than propagandists. There will be many, many more who will shy away from full political commitment, but will agree to work with us on most of the immediate issues like militant struggle for wages and conditions, union democracy, combating racism and sexism, etc. We need to organise these militants.

This is the familiar stuff of everyday local work for every socialist in the trade unions. But it needs to be more than local. Otherwise the national union leadership always has the advantage over the local groups of militants.

The national organisation we can build may be very limited at times. It’s important to be realistic about what we can do – not to exaggerate, but not, on the other hand, to give up in despair when exaggerated pretensions collapse.

One of the criticisms we have always made of the SWP is that it exaggerated the rank and file groups it sponsored. It spoke as if these small groups represented the whole rank and file. It had delusions about their power – shown by the call from the November 1977 rank and file conference for a one-day strike on December 7. No-one came out: not because the working class had collapsed, but because to come out on strike workers need the confidence given by a mass organisation (not by a one-off gathering of 500 trade unionists).

We can’t bypass the official movement. We can’t build our own new labour movement. We can organise the left to fight to transform and renew the existing movement.

Leon Trotsky once commented:

“Bolshevik intransigence is indissolubly bound to an understanding of the real process in the workers’ organisations, to the ability to influence this process, to a flexibility in manoeuvring with regard to groupings and even individuals. Contrariwise, each sectarian wants to have his own labour movement. By the repetition of magic formulas he thinks to force an entire class to group itself around him. But instead of bewitching the proletariat, he always ends up by demoralising and dispersing his own little sect”.

These words – sharp though they are – seem to us relevant to understand the experience of the SWP. Together with the pretence of the SWP-sponsored Rank and File movements representing the whole rank and file – a pretence now plainly in collapse – there was the pretence of the SWP being the alternative mass party of the British working class.

There has been the frequent use of the Rank and File groups as backyards for the SWP; and by a process of repeated self-proclamation the SWP declared itself the sole real representative of the rank and file of the British working class. The self-proclamation did not change reality: the result was neither a proper orientation to the broad movement, nor proper rank and file groups, nor a proper party.

Too often the SWP has watered down revolutionary politics with the argument that it was concerned with real rank and file action, not propaganda. But principled propaganda (of an intelligent, flexible, non-sectarian sort, not tub-thumping for the sake of our own satisfaction) is an essential task for socialists in preparing any mass action. Unfortunately the SWP often ended up with neither the propaganda nor the action.

As Tony Cliff (too late) puts it in Socialist Review:

“if you really represent the wide movement it is excellent, but if you represent nothing, but pretend you represent the wide movement, then it’s a catastrophe. What that means is that you simply cover up your politics”.

The same approach that led the SWP to exaggerate the Rank and File groups (and now to interpret the obvious collapse of their pretentions as a collapse of the whole working class) has also expressed itself in the SWP’s attitude to the Labour Party. (Also in the SWP’s attitude to autonomous women’s organisations – but that’s another story).

While thousands of activists have been concerning themselves with a fight to transform the Labour Party, the SWP has been desperately insisting that it is all of no significance. “You can’t change the Labour Party”, the SWP insists. But plainly the Labour Party has been changed. Not decisively, yet. Quite likely it will prove impossible to change it decisively: the right wing and soft left will manage to disperse or purge the serious left before that. But right now the fight is continuing and – whatever its immediate outcome – the forces of the left are being assembled and demarcated. Those forces of the left are decisive for the struggle for socialism in Britain.

For essentially the same sort of reasons that a rank and file movement is necessary in the trade unions, so also is it necessary in the Labour Party. And there is no Chinese Wall. Labour Party democracy (sometimes Labour Party affiliation) has been a major issue within unions recently. This has had a knock-on effect on the fight for trade union democracy (as Sid Weighell can ruefully confirm).

It is not unknown for local Labour Parties to have more trade union delegates than the corresponding Trades Council. By what sectarian quirk can we consider the Trades Council as suitable terrain for socialist work, but the Labour Parties as dens of corruption? By what logic does the fact that Labour Party branch meetings are frequently inward-looking and routine disqualify those branches as arenas for intervening to change things more than the equally frequent lack of life in trade union branches disqualifies the unions?

In fact, however, the SWP has also been playing down the internal fight in the unions. The new Broad Lefts have been mentioned only to dismiss them (sometimes quite inaccurately, as when the NUR Broad Left was made responsible for the actions of the Left on the NUR Executive even though there is almost no overlap). The argument is that nothing much but workplace propaganda can be done, and those with more grandiose ideas are merely deluding themselves . . .

Socialist Worker on January 29 reported on the SWP National Committee’s perspectives. The situation is one of setbacks and defeats:

“But these recent defeats have led a small number of individuals to question what has gone wrong. Not all are demoralised . . . ”
“In the workplaces we need to argue with these individuals about all our ideas – and we need to involve them in the slow process of rebuilding strong workplace organisation”.

In the meantime there is no point bothering much about the leadership. When right-winger Eric Hammond won the election for general secretary of the EETPU Socialist Worker (January 8) commented by quoting an EETPU member:

“The union won’t be changed by the election of individuals anyway. [If only Frank Chapple had been equally fatalistic . . . ] The emphasis has to be on rebuilding organisation at a shopfloor level – and that needs to be done whoever is in office”.

Then on the miners’ ballot over Lewis Merthyr, SW argued:

“The overall picture emerging from the ballot is that of a growing chasm between left wing executive members, and even branch officials, and the rank and file . . . Socialists in the pits have to accept that we’ve got to start organising from scratch. Electing a good official’s no good if there’s no base” (March 19).
And, astoundingly, after a dispute in which thousands of pickets campaigned for support:

“The mistake of the left . . . was to rely on officials, instead of organising pickets from South Wales to take the issues straight to the rank and file” (March 12).

A similar argument is put on the Labour Party. The lesson of Bermondsey, SW argued (March 5), was that:

“the left cannot deliver the goods electorally in the present period. And the Labour Party is an electoral party . . . ”
“Five years of sustained effort enabled Peter Tatchell and the people around him to build up the individual membership of the Labour Party. But when the election came these socialists found themselves a small minority in the constituency. ”
“In electoral terms they counted for next to nothing”.


“The same minority of socialists who showed how ineffectual they are electorally in Bermondsey can be very effective indeed if they relate to struggle . . . Many of the water workers, for instance, share the same prejudices as the electors of Bermondsey. But when socialists went to their picket lines . . . there was a warm welcome for us”.

For all the show of stern realism, there is mysticism at the core of this perspective. How will the working class be mobilised for socialism? A small minority (much smaller than the minority who voted for Peter Tatchell in Bermondsey!) will work away at “organising from scratch” and basic economic struggles, plus propagandising for “all our ideas”. Somehow, some day, a new socialist movement will emerge out of this. In the meantime activists are urged (sometimes almost desperately, in SW’s front-page leads) not to concern themselves too much with present-day politics and the internal struggle in the labour movement.

This is the same approach as the ‘Economist’ current in the Russian Marxist movement around 1900. The ‘Economists’ argued that while of course propaganda must be made for socialism, agitation should focus on economic struggles, out of which socialist consciousness would grow – and issues like general democratic rights could be left to the bourgeois liberals.

Lenin argued against the Economists that economic struggle does not spontaneously lead to socialist consciousness, but only to trade union consciousness. (The exception is when economic struggle, reaching the proportions of mass strikes as in Russia in 1905, breaks the limits of normal trade-union-type sectional action, and becomes both economic and directly political). All experience since – and especially the experience of the big militant economic struggles in Britain in the 1970s indicates that Lenin was right. We need to develop the struggle on all fronts; we need a strategy to bridge the gap which the SWP bridges only by faith and hope, between day-to-day routine working-class demands within capitalism, and general propaganda for socialism; we need to fight, around transitional demands, to reorient the existing workers’ movement towards socialism.

There is a grain of truth in the SWP’s argument. Many labour movement activists do get caught up in committee meetings, resolution-passing, and electioneering, to the extent that they lose sight of the basic importance of point-of-production organising, agitation, and struggle. But there are also many thousands of workers who put tremendous energy into point-of-production struggles, but fail to broaden their activity out to an ongoing fight within the labour movement against the existing leadership – and so find their point-of-production efforts again and again stymied or sabotaged by that very leadership. To tell these workers – or for that matter to tell the Bermondsey activists, who run an outgoing, campaigning local Labour Party – to get involved in basic grass-roots organising and relating to struggles, is to tell them nothing that they don’t already know.

The answer, surely, is to reject both sorts of one-sidedness.

Workers Socialist Review Index (1981-84)

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