Workers' Liberty #50/51  


Taking the capital 'P' out of politics

In WL 49, Mark Sandell criticised the pamphlet What’s Happening? The Truth About Work... And the Myth of Partnership, edited by Sheila Cohen, for downgrading politics in industrial struggle.
Sheila Cohen replies.

What is the relationship between “political” perspectives and “industrial” struggles? Mark Sandell says that “the ‘independence’ Cohen claims to want is an ‘independence’ from politics that itself removes the key to building a class struggle perspective across the unions.” The best answer to this point is to start is the philosophy I adopted as editor of the rank-and-file paper Trade Union News: “show not tell”. TUN was a vehicle in which committed workplace activists could present ideas, exchange information and generally engage in a cross-class debate over where the movement, including their own struggles, was heading. No attempt was made to deliver a specific “line” or programme. The whole emphasis and focus was on independent class activity and organisation which could advance workers’ interests and demands while demonstrating that these were interests held in common across the class as a whole.

Reading about others’ struggles and fellow-activists’ suggestions, workers could see for themselves the class meaning of the issues and struggles they confronted on a daily basis. The same philosophy lies behind What’s Happening? I didn’t “censor” contributions even where I disagreed. For example, I agree with WL’s assessment of the misplaced optimism in New Labour in one article. This optimism was shared by many workers at the time when the article was written and I felt that the pamphlet should express such views. What’s Happening? was aimed at activists in general, not only at socialists. This kind of openness gives workers confidence that the discussion is within their frame of reference and reflects a reasonably wide spectrum of opinion, without any rigidly “correct” line outside which contributions and discussion are unacceptable. Having said that, there are of course crucial parameters within which any discussion of workplace trade union strategy has to take place. To me the most essential of these is a perspective of class independence. Through this principle workers’ gut-level impulsion to struggle for their own interests can be recognised and consolidated — a first step towards class consciousness as opposed to simple class activity. Such independence relates not so much to illusions or otherwise in Labour as to rejection of any notion that workers can have joint interests with their employers and capitalism as a whole — a notion which is of course central to the TUC’s and many union leaders’ conceptions of “social partnership”. An emphasis on the falsity of this perspective is one of the central purposes of the pamphlet.

Mark Sandell says that the pamphlet conveys a “dangerous confusion” in dismissing union leaders as, for example, “more concerned with... public policy than with what’s actually happening to their members.” In reply he argues: “The union leaders showing such an interest in the correct politics, or even basic gut working class solidarity, would be a good thing!” Well, it would — if they did. I am well aware of the ultra-left dangers of dismissing trade union leaders as only “treacherous sell-out merchants”. But the danger here is not in abandoning the hope that union leaders might occasionally support class struggles, or might conceivably be persuaded by socialists to “campaign for the Government to scrap the anti-union laws...etc...”. The danger lies in the failure of such “infantilism” to recognise the fact that union leaders share with their membership, however militant that membership, a certain ideology known as reformism: that is why union members on the whole have more faith in their leaders than in any stray revolutionary peddling a “betrayal” perspective.

We recognise that it is over-simplistic to reject union leaders as bureaucrats, not because they are likely to act in their members’ basic class interests — do we really need convincing that on the whole they don’t? — but because their own members fail as much as the leaders to consciously recognise and challenge the limits and structures of capitalism. This is why the challenge to existing union leaderships needs to be made from the bottom up in terms of challenging reformist ideology at the grass roots, rather than trying to elect left leaders or hoping that some of those now in office can be persuaded to adopt a socialist point of view.

To make this point a little clearer, let us look at how union bureaucrats grow. Despite the proliferation of TUC apparachniks with degrees, a great many union leaders (local and national) come from where union leaders have always come from — the ranks. In other words, from militant, oppositional stewards do complacent, treacherous bureaucrats grow. And how? Why? Because the basic philosophy of reformism goes, by definition, unchallenged — because there is no explicit focus on the issue of consciously creating a gap between these two dialectically fused aspects of the movement — its objectively class conflict-based roots and its subjectively unconscious, fatalistic or collaborative outlook.

It’s up to us — by which I mean socialists — to work at opening up this gap, as have the Labor Notes and TDU (Teamsters for a Democratic Union) initiatives in the US. The successful UPS strike last August was the result of a focussed perspective of challenging teamworking propaganda from the grass roots upwards and thus successfully organising an explicit class (rather than gut-level “militant”/reformist) response to the company’s proposals. TDU has followed this up with a consistent, pervasive campaign to educate stewards in the importance of maintaining links with the membership base — another point emphasised in the pamphlet and the only strategy possible for avoidance of the familiar path from principled militant to compromised official. Such perspectives are part of a politics of concrete class struggle aimed at beginning a process of transition to more coherent class consciousness.

This takes us back to the point quoted above about the pamphlet’s perspective seeming to indicate the wish for an “‘independence’” from politics. Presumably what is meant here is a different kind of politics — the kind which I would subliminally spell with a capital P. I don’t know how many times I’ve read in the left press statements like your statement in the review that “Only a combined political and ‘industrial’ movement to rebuild the welfare state — combining strikes with demonstrations, workplace organisation with community campaigns, national union action and a political battle inside and outside the Labour Party’s structures - can win.” True, no doubt, in theory — but the left has been making this kind of pitch for decades. While postal workers on the streets manage to reverse the purpose of a huge billion pound corporation (though not, of course, to halt its ongoing offensive), all the invocations and “campaigns” of the left have failed to have even this much impact on the balance of forces between capital and labour. However correct the campaign programme, however principled its demands, it remains an abstraction if not connected in some way to workers’ own interests and concerns.

The demand for a shorter working week, prominent in both the review and the pamphlet, is an example of this. The left prides itself on its principled defence of what is of course a crucial transitional demand. But the very desirability of the shorter working week as a “political” demand has blinded many on the left to the concrete dynamic of its implementation - which, in a context of open class warfare, frequently means some semblance of shorter hours being exchanged for increased flexibility and intensification of labour. The article on London Underground, where a shorter working week is being introduced in stages, makes this crystal clear: “So far the time off has been achieved by reducing meal breaks, reducing spare duty (time on call) length, and taking minutes off the end of duties... The concept of simply reducing the working week itself doesn’t bear fruit because there are so many ways of manipulating work times to take time off here and there. The working time is reduced in the mathematical sense, but not in reality” (p28).

Another of our contributors, a respected shop steward in a major car plant, argues that “...what has happened in a lot of places is that companies have used [“Shorter Working Week” deals] to further maximise profit through changes such as more ‘flexible’ working practices...This is not an argument against reducing the working week, but against viewing all such meaningless ‘bargaining counters’ which in effect allow management to get their own way” (p68).

A perfect example of this - or what might have been one - was the postal workers’ dispute, in which the left’s enthusiasm for the shorter working week principle almost led them to use it precisely as a “bargaining counter” which would have allowed Royal Mail to introduce teamworking: “Some activists were so keen to get a formal reduction in the working week they would have given up opposition to the Employee Agenda on the basis of Royal Mail’s offer on this issue alone...” (p16).

To this fetishisation of an undoubtedly worthy principle the author counterposes a more complex position in which “we have to make demands like the shorter working week work for us in terms of all our other goals of union control over jobs, better pay and security of employment” (p16). While Dave Ward’s argument that “...we should be looking at a process that locks [management] into continuous moves towards the shorter working week in return for those increases in productivity they secure” is perhaps over-compressed, its meaning is more or less that of the review’s statement that Royal Mail’s profits are “not our problem”. Indeed, they are not; our “problem” is to defend basic working class interests in the context of whatever strategy management threatens to adopt.

Still, going back to the WL’s argument, it certainly would be nice to have “a combined political and ‘industrial’ movement” to fight the offensives of capital, from damage to the welfare state to outsourcing and labour intensification at work. But how? How do we do it?

The key word in what I would see as the answer is “transition”. We have to get from here to there. We don’t get to there by telling people who aren’t there yet that this is where they should be. We do it by demonstrating that the objective meaning of what they are already doing is for them to be there rather than here. You won’t stop workers struggling. No number of complacent comments in the capitalist press about “old-fashioned industrial action” will do that. But struggle in itself, as we all know, doesn’t take us forward. The job of socialists is to build transitional organisations and strategies — “ramparts”, as Marx once described early trade union organisation1 — which can as it were “capture” the consciousness and meaning latent in everyday working class struggle and bring out its own politics, rather than an artificial socialist “Politics” imposed from above.

Contrary to Mark Sandell’s assumption, in no way do I want “‘independence’ from politics”. But the politics to which initiatives like What’s Happening? is devoted is a politics rooted in what workers are already doing — because their class position gives them no choice — rather than the Politics of even the most impeccable socialist programme of incisive analysis and rounded political demands.

So, given the difficulties of politicising workers who have been trained by capitalism precisely not to share the coherent world view of educated revolutionary socialists, the aims of What’s Happening? and similar rank-and-file initiatives are indeed modest: firstly, to convince activists already committed and militant in their separate spheres to see the logic of cross-class action; secondly, to emphasise the crucial need for stewards and other reps to remain close to their base; and thirdly, to spell out the need for a explicit, not just gut-level, rejection of class-collaborationist notions of partnership, teamworking, jointness, etc.

An earlier issue of Workers’ Liberty contained these words in its editorial (though the article as a whole did not elaborate on the theme): “A powerful rank-and-file movement for free trade unions is long overdue”. Do readers of WL not agree what an enormous advantage it would be if we could just establish some stepping stones towards such a movement? “Low aspirations”, perhaps, compared to those of “a combined political and industrial movement to rebuild the welfare state” — but achievable, transitional, meaningful and ultimately far more subversive in terms of building an ongoing and explicit class opposition to the offensive of capital.

  1. Marx: The Poverty of Philosophy, Progress Publishers 1973 p149. Back to the text
What’s Happening? is available by mail order from Trade Union Forum, PO Box 21013, London N1 1WR. £3 per copy + 50p p&p - orders over 10, £2.50. For further information on TU Forum, write to the same address.

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