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Workers Socialist Review

Magazine of the Workers Socialist League

Written: 1984.
First Published: Autumn 1984.
Source: Published by the Workers Socialist League.
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Workers Socialist Review
No. 4, Autumn 1984

‘Worker leadership’ or Marxist politics

In the centre of much of the conflict we have had in the organisation for over two years has been the question of place of workers and industrial militants in the League, and particularly in its leadership.

One section of the organisation – Smith and Jones and their allies – claim to represent the working class in the organisation, and as industrial militants or recent ex-industrial militants to have a special place in the leadership. They denounce much of the organisation as petty bourgeois and not interested in the working class, etc.

Because we refuse to accept that the rest of the organisation’s membership and leading committees are obliged to defer to the self-proclaimed ‘worker leadership’ (Smith and Jones), they spread the ludicrous slander that we are hostile to the working class members in Oxford and elsewhere.

For a start, the facts tell a different tale. On the NC formed in July 1981 there were certainly more industrial workers and trade union militants from the I-CL than from the old WSL. WF and the I-CL had published a sizeable number of industrial newspapers (steel, hospitals, docks) in the early ’70s, and at the time of fusion was publishing a number of regular factory bulletins.

The issue cannot be resolved by an appeal to individuals’ ‘credentials’. It must be discussed honestly, politically, and without demagogy.

It is common ground that the working class is at the centre of our historical perspective and our conception of socialism. The industrial working class is at the heart of our everyday concerns. We see the direct-action industrial struggle as the lifeblood of socialist politics. Our central immediate project is the building of a revolutionary party of, in and by the working class.

But that does not exhaust the question.

It is also central to our conception of the struggle for socialism that the working class must be armed with Marxism and a Marxist party. The existing labour movement must be rearmed with Marxism. And it is a fact that the ideas of Marxism come from outside the working class and have for many decades now been divorced from the mass of the working class, the property of small, often middle-class groups.

So the question arises of how Marxism is brought to the working class, and how the existing mainly middle-class Marxist groups relate to the working class and integrate workers into membership and into leadership.

Many comrades bandy about Trotsky’s 1940 comments on the class composition of the US SWP as if Trotsky were a vulgar ‘workerist’ who advocated that the party downgrade itself, its aspirations, and its historic role.

Trotsky did write:

“The party has only a minority of genuine factory workers . . . The non-proletarian elements represent a very necessary yeast, and I believe that we can be proud of the good quality of these elements . . . But . . . our party can be inundated by non-proletarian elements and can even lose its revolutionary character. The task is naturally not to prevent the influx of intellectuals by artificial methods . . . but to orientate practically all the organisation towards the factories, the strikes, the unions. ”

“ . . . The unbreakable condition should be: not to command the workers but only to help them, to give them suggestions, to arm them with the facts, ideas, factory papers, special leaflets and so on. ”

“I continue to be of the opinion that you have too many petty-bourgeois boys and girls who are very good and devoted to the party but who do not fully realise that their duty is not to discuss among themselves, but to penetrate into the fresh milieu of workers. I repeat my proposition: Every petty bourgeois member of the party who, during a certain time, let us say three or six months, does not win a worker for the party, should he demoted to the rank of candidate and after another three months expelled from the party . . . ”
(“In Defence of Marxism”)

But he also wrote:

“The trade unions always create a culture medium for opportunist deviations. Inevitably we will run up against this question in one of the next stages . . . ”

And as a matter of historical fact, the layer of the SWP USA that Trotsky and Cannon based themselves on in 1940 was the layer which deserted Trotskyism for ‘PabIoism’ in 1953. To put the 1940 discussions into perspective you need also to read how that particular story ended. In 1952 Cannon made a speech – ‘Trade Unionists and Revolutionists’ – which is of immense value on this point.

The cardinal idea that the revolutionary organisation does not “command the workers but . . . help them” is central to the work of the League.

As we have seen, the I-CL / WF tried to follow Trotsky’s advice and put out factory papers and bulletins such as Trotsky suggested – starting with a series of duplicated pamphlets on the Manchester docks, during the historic fight against the reorganisation of the ports back in 1967. In practice and not just in words we have always seen it as central to the development of the organisation that it should give such ‘help’ to its proletarian members, and to its non-proletarian members, to work around the factory.

The idea that ‘don’t command the workers, help them’ means: don’t vote down Smith and Jones on the leading committees, defer to them, is self-evidently ridiculous. But that’s the message you are supposed to accept when Smith and Jones refer to “what Trotsky said in 1940”.

Smith and Jones are not raw workers, and, for the internal affairs of the League, the fact that they are an ex-worker and a worker has no weight or importance whatsoever. James P. Cannon put it well when the ‘Pabloite’ trade unionists in the SWP USA demanded a special status in the SWP in 1952-3:

“Still less did I expect to see a grouping strutting around in the party demanding special consideration because they are ‘trade unionists’ . . . What’s exceptional about that? There are fifteen million trade unionists in this country, but not quite so many revolutionists. But the revolutionists are the ones who count with us.”

Cannon was referring to the central core of the SWP’s industrial workers – the self-same people whom he together with Trotsky had championed and praised in 1940 against people like Burnham.

When he wrote about how to approach new workers, Trotsky was not talking about Smith and Jones! They are political militants of many years standing (Smith joined the SLL / WRP in 1966, Jones in 1963). The idea that such party members have privileges inside the party has essentially nothing to do with the relationship of the party to the working class, nor even with the idea that special provisions should be made for the education of workers recruited to an organisation composed mainly of petty bourgeois or white collar workers.

If after all these years Smith and Jones have not learnt enough to be able freely to function in the organisation, what reason is there to think that they ever will? No, their demand here, if you think about it, is for themselves to be the measure of all things for the organisation – permanently.

Their demand, supposedly grounded in what Trotsky wrote in 1940, translates in the world of real political relationships into the demand that the League be organised around themselves. That’s what it all comes down to.

As a matter of fact and of Smith’s and Jones’s own experience over the last nine years, this is not the way to recruit and organise workers into a revolutionary organisation. What is most remarkable about Smith’s and Jones’s record over that time is their failure to recruit workers. Think of the publicity, the central part the comrades played in the big struggles and in the union, and the failure to recruit workers is pretty remarkable.

Smith will never understand it, but the sort of workerism he stands for appeals primarily to petty bourgeois leftists and romantics. It has a limited attraction for workers. More, it will repel most self-respecting workers.

The serious militants who come over to us will know – unless they are stupid, or disoriented by the flattery of petty bourgeois workerists – that they need to develop. The notion of stewing in their own ‘workerist’ narcissism will repel such workers. For them it will contradict the whole point of giving their time and energy to the party – to transcend the limitations, and outgrow the intellectual mutilation, which capitalist society imposes on workers.

That is done through the organisation, which is the bearer of working class Marxist politics and culture.

Workers will, of course, rightly expect and demand that the organisation does not waste their time in endless inconclusive talk; that in the course of educating them it conducts its affairs so as not to make things more difficult for the not-yet-educated; that no effort is spared to involve them in the affairs of the party; and so on.

Smith’s notion of how the worker relates to the party will for most serious working class militants contradict the very point of being in the party both from the collective class point of view (building a revolutionary Marxist party) and from their immediate personal interest in learning and developing.

When you have ideas like Smith’s and Jones’s dominant in the organisation on this question, it is those workers who do come into the organisation who pay for it. The Cowley group is the proof of it. Many times over the last 2½ years various of us have tried to get these comrades involved in writing for the paper, speaking at meetings, and each time Smith has blocked it: no, he says, that is too difficult for them.

The comrades are left living in the shadow of the superstars. They do not, on the whole, relate directly to the organisation which could educate them and integrate them. They relate to Smith and Jones – who can do neither. Whose conception of what it’s all about cuts against them. Who flatter the Cowley workers, poison them against ‘the full-timers, intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals’ and at the same time stand squarely across these comrades’ paths of development, blotting out the light of Marxist politics from them.

Smith’s and Jones’s ‘workerism’ is for the petty bourgeois. It repels most serious workers, and it has stunted and will stunt the development of those it does not repel.

Privilege and arrogance at the top are inevitably accompanied by subservience and submission at the bottom – as the other side of the regime they demand in which the rest of us should have to defer to the ‘worker leadership’.

The notion that someone who spends her or his life working for the organisation at sub-poverty wages, is so morally inferior to the proletarians Smith and Jones that s/he (together with all League petty bourgeois, and with working class professional revolutionaries, like myself) has to defer to them on political questions about which s/he may know more than they do – that is a grotesque, anti-Marxist notion.

With such ideas it is impossible to build a revolutionary party. Trotsky’s and Cannon’s attacks on intellectuals like James Burnham give no encouragement to such notions. Quite the opposite; Burnham was attacked for his lack of seriousness and his dilettantism towards the organisation. Cannon reproaches Burnham with not committing himself sufficiently to the organisation – not with putting too much into it, or for daring to defend his own opinions against the proletarian professional revolutionary Cannon.

The truth of the matter is that Smith is the nearest thing to James Burnham in the leadership of the organisation. He is not a university teacher, but that does not alter the essence.

Forget the tags and names, and think of the psychology and the actual political and personal relations. Smith relates to the organisation and its leadership as a dilettante. He has been out of the factory nearly 18 months and instead of party work he chooses instead to write his memoirs of Cowley. The organisation was not even consulted. Smith demands deference and has an arrogant attitude towards the organisation.

The general educational value of the material reprinted in this bulletin is self-evident. Its relevance to the WSL will also be obvious to the reader. You will see that it upholds the ideas on this question summarised in the document ‘Building the WSL’ (IB 50) – namely:

* The League focuses on the working class and on its industrial and political organisations. It tries to regulate itself and all its members by the needs of the working class and the rhythms of working class life, insofar as these are compatible with its central revolutionary objective.

* The League immerses itself in and aspires to lead the direct action struggles of the class.

* The strategic goal of the League is to build a mass working class revolutionary party.

* The League aims to recruit workers but not to pander to working class backwardness.

* The League aims to recruit workers and to educate them as all-round Marxist cadres who play a full role in the political deliberations of the organisation. It tries to structure its internal life and its education methods to facilitate this.

* The League is a party in which militants from all class backgrounds are trained as revolutionary cadres.

* The League is based on an ideological / political selection of its members, and has a minimum level of commitment and active involvement as a condition of membership.

* Inside the League every member is equal to every other member, and there are no privileges within the League or within its leadership, though the organisation may well make special provisions to facilitate the involvement of workers and though it may well demand the sort of orientation that Trotsky talked of in 1940 for its middle class members – the party that takes these decisions is a party of equals.

Like everything else in the organisation, the question of workers and middle class people, full-timers and intellectuals, has been badly snarled up and muddied over.

There are, I think, genuine political differences. As well as that, Smith and Jones have pretentions to personal status which they try to justify by general ideas about the role of workers in the revolutionary party.

Their pretentions to personal status lead them not only to glorify themselves but also to denounce their ‘enemies’. But instead of honestly stating their own ideas, and honestly and openly defending their pretentions and claims for themselves, they cover over the issue and express it in terms of a) denunciations of intellectuals, and b) lying misrepresentations of our attitude, position and record.

On the basis of the facts of our quite long independent history, it would seem that there is little room for doubt about the attitude of ex-WF-I-CL people to the working class and to the working class movement, or about our orientation to it, our willingness to build trade union fractions, our keenness to recruit industrial workers into the League (or for that matter to send colonists into industry).

None of it is very spectacular and nobody claims that it is (or was). But it is proof, for anybody who cares to bother with the facts, that we are no less interested in the working class than comrades Smith and Jones.

So where are the differences and what are they? The real difference is about the party and its relation to the working class.

If you read the works of Cannon and Lenin it is perfectly plain that all the measures they advocated at various times to orient to workers have as their goal to win workers to the revolutionary organisation on its own terms. It is not to adapt the party’s ideas, or its basic structure, so as to accommodate one or many workers who lack the commitment, the political understanding, or for whatever reason the practical possibility, to play a role within it.

None of this is to downgrade the working class or to be hostile to workers in or around the organisation. Quite the opposite. The revolutionary party is the bearer, for now and until the working class itself comes decisively on the scene as a conscious revolutionary class, of the historic mission of the working class. We are the bearer of a conception of the working class which is in such contrast to the everyday reality of the working class under capitalism (and even, frequently, of a working class in trade union struggles) that cynics and sceptics say that we are just romantics.

To defer to Smith and Jones now when they demand a following for muddled, ill-developed politics on the basis of a claim to represent ‘worker leadership’, would be to compromise that historic task.

Workers Socialist Review Index (1981-84)

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