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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

When is a union not a union?

Trade union rights are basic necessities for the working class everywhere. But the British labour movement has a blind spot. Jackie Cleary argues for breaking links with Stalinist state ‘unions’.
“The struggle for the freedom of the trade unions and the factory committees, for the right of assembly and freedom of the press, will unfold in the struggle for the regeneration and development of Soviet democracy”.
Transitional Programme.

After he had created the rattlesnake, the cobra and ‘the slimy toad’, God scraped together the remains of the foul substances he had been using, and breathed life into the first scab. Or so the American writer Jack London said.

Scab, blackleg and strike-breaker are the nastiest epithets that can be thrown at the class-conscious worker or even the bread-and-butter trade-unionist. Class solidarity is the first value of even the most primitive of labour movements. Solidarity with trade unionists in other countries is understood to be a basic part of trade unionism – not of socialism, but even of trade unionism – by all but the most backward sections of the British trade union movement. Solidarity with struggling trade unionists in Chile, South Africa, or Argentina is reflex for the left.

Yet the British labour movement regularly and consistently betrays the most basic values of trade unionism and scabs on tens of millions of oppressed workers. This is not an episodic lapse but a permanent posture that has lasted over half a century. Almost all sections of the labour movement, from right to left, are guilty of it – but it is the special position of the left. Even ‘Trotskyist’ sections of the left, like the Socialist League (formerly IMG), are implicated.

We scab on the workers of the Stalinist states who are ground down, deprived of the most elementary civil rights – rights won by the workers of Britain up to two centuries ago – and forbidden to organise even trade unions to defend themselves.

The intensity of repression in the Stalinist states varies from the airless totalitarian state absolutism in the USSR to the ‘pluralism’ of Poland when state control was weakened there after 1956. Some of these states tolerate some small degree of intellectual licence and even ‘independence’ in the intelligentsia – Hungary for example. None of them, even the most ‘liberal’, tolerate any independence for the working class.

The working class is rightly seen as the main enemy by the bureaucrats. Any questioning of the bureaucrats’ rights and prerogatives in the factories would, they know, quickly lead on to a questioning of their entire role in society. If the workers were allowed to organise trade unions, these would quickly concern themselves with politics.

The mass strike has repeatedly been the manner in which the bureaucratic regimes have been challenged in Eastern Europe. It was a builders’ strike and demonstration that triggered the revolution in East Germany in 1953. Even after the military crushing of the Hungarian people in 1956, the national resistance to the Russian occupation took the form of a general strike and a struggle by the Russians and their satraps to win back control of the means of production.

In Poland in 1980 a wave of economic struggles led to a mass strikes which changed the face of Polish life for 18 months and put working-class power in Polish society immediately on the agenda.

In fact the uncontrollable explosion of Solidarnosc was triggered in mid-1980 when the regime accepted that adjustments to wages, within fixed limits, would be made by way of plant to plant bargaining. They thought they could thus be ‘flexible’, making concessions to the militant plants, and relied on their monopoly of the means of communication to keep control and to atomise the working class. It blew up in their face.

Trade unionism is their enemy because the working class is. They fear trade unionism because they fear the working class. They know they have no room for concessions. Thus Jaruzelski did the work in Poland that Pinochet did in Chile. It was less bloodily done, but it was the same work. That the Stalinist regimes are not capitalist makes no difference to this.

As a result of the fundamental antagonism between the working class and the bureaucracy, what exists in the Stalinist states are not trade unions but anti-unions. This should be plain to even the blind from the attitude of the real Polish labour movement to the pre-1980 official unions and to the attempt to recreate them since December 1981. These are labour front organisations for controlling the working class.

Yet our own trade unions maintain links with these state ‘unions’. The TUC maintained links with the Polish official ‘unions’ throughout the 1980 strikes! The attitude runs right through the TUC, from Bill Sirs on the right – who openly defended his ‘colleagues’, the strike-breaking official ‘union’ leaders, during the Polish strikes, to Arthur Scargill on the left – whose union has accepted the official Moscow line that Vladimir Klebanov, a miner and leader of an independent trade union group in the USSR, is ‘mentally ill’,

The duty of trade unionists in Britain is to aid the emergence of real workers’ organisations in the Stalinist states, and to help the workers’ struggle by doing everything we can to strike at their oppressors.

Yet wide sections of the ‘Trotskyist’ left – of the USFI for example – rejected the Solidarnosc call for the working class to boycott Polish trade after the December 1981 coup, and called instead for ‘massive aid’ to the Polish state.

The IMG / SL, which in general favours self-governing trade unions in the Stalinist states, nevertheless supported the scabbing TUC on the planned visit of its delegation to Poland in 1980. Earlier it backed a controversial TUC invitation to the Russian political policeman who heads the Stalinist labour front in the USSR.

Why? It is not entirely clear, but it is probably connected to the fact that there was a bourgeois anti-USSR propaganda outcry in both cases. Yet something fundamental was involved, compared with which all that was unimportant: the attitude we try to get our own labour movement to take to the struggle of our class in the Stalinist states, and to their oppressors. To fudge that class issue, worse still to argue that our movement should have and maintain links with the anti-unions of the Stalinist states, with part of the apparatus that oppresses our people there, is to do the opposite of the work of Trotskyists – which is to fight for international working class solidarity with the real labour movements in the Stalinist states, or with their pioneers.

In relation to Cuba it is worse. The bureaucratic regime there is undoubtedly far less rigid than the USSR’s, and enjoys some popular consent rather than general hatred and fear. Nonetheless it leaves equally little room for independent working class organisation and politics. The SL rejects the programme of independent trade unions there.

For Nicaragua too – where the Sandinista unions now are real workers’ organisations, but will become ‘labour fronts’ if the regime consolidates, and especially if the prediction that the Sandinistas will replicate the Cuban road, on which the USFI stakes everything, proves correct – they advance no programme for winning and maintaining the independence of the trade unions.

Thus many who would consider themselves anti-Stalinist revolutionaries fudge the issue.

They would feel uncomfortable at having to say on this question something like what Margaret Thatcher and Frank Chapple say. This is understandable, but it is a really trivial consideration in a situation where the workers of the Stalinist states need our moral and practical support. We have a duty as basic as not crossing a picket line to give it to them.

To allow the noise made by the Chapples and Thatchers to force us into silence on the struggle of a big part of the world’s working class is to sink into a blinkered national narrow-mindedness.

As people who believe, with Marx and Engels, that the emancipation of the working class can only be achieved by the working class itself, we would be obliged to support any independent workers’ movement against the police states even if we considered its politics to be seriously mistaken and wrong.

In fact, any real or likely workers’ movements in the Stalinist states are on a radically different wavelength from the Thatchers and Chapples.

To recoil from calling the Stalinists what they are for fear of chiming in with the reactionaries is to adopt the stance of those ‘Friends of the Soviet Union’ who called Trotsky a reactionary for speaking out in the 1930s.

The programme for the independence of the trade unions against the state – even, as Lenin advocated in 1921, against a workers’ state led by uncorrupted revolutionaries – is basic to socialism. ‘Trotskyists’ who do not fight for workers’ political revolution in every existing Stalinist state are a disgrace to revolutionary socialism. Support for the right of the workers in the Stalinist states to organise is basic even according to the principles of trade unionism.

The British labour movement must break all ties with the Stalinist police state ‘unions’ and give every help to the real trade unionists in those states who are now being jailed and tortured by the regimes. We must stop substituting ‘solidarity’ with the regimes there for class solidarity with those oppressed by those regimes – and stop confusing defence of those states against imperialism with defence of their regimes.

Leon Trotsky would turn in his grave at the notion that attitudes such as those of the SL have anything to do with the politics he fought and died for. Trotsky argued that the USSR was a ‘degenerated workers’ state’ which should be defended against imperialism. So does the WSL. But Trotsky took sides – and tried to get the international labour movement, whatever its political coloration at that moment, to take sides – squarely with the workers of the USSR against the totalitarian regime.

He never allowed the need to distance himself from the imperialist and pro-imperialist critics of the USSR to determine what he said. The Russian reality and the duty to tell the truth to the labour movement did that.

He did not hesitate to classify things and name them according to what they were. For example, for the last three years of his life at least he insistently repeated his belief that “Stalin’s political apparatus does not differ [from that in fascist countries] save in more unbridled savagery” (The Transitional Programme).

Nor is it any different today, 40 years after an agent of that regime struck Trotsky down.

We must stop the British labour movement scabbing on the workers in the Stalinist states.

Workers Socialist Review Index (1981-84)

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